April 5, 2006

GET BACK OUT THERE (via Glen Dryfoos & Pepys):

Jackie McLean, 73; Saxophone Great Played With Jazz Legends (Jon Thurber, April 2, 2006, LA Times)

Jackie McLean's introduction as a player to Birdland in New York City would become a legendary story in jazz. A protege of both pianist Bud Powell and saxophonist Charlie Parker, McLean was building a solid reputation in small bands in Harlem as an emerging force on saxophone.

He was not yet 21, however, and was plenty nervous when he showed up at Birdland one night, not to listen to the great musicians that came through town — as he often had over the years — but to play.

He walked into the club, found the band's leader, trumpeter Miles Davis, and introduced himself. And then McLean discovered that the rest of the group that night consisted of Art Blakey on drums, Percy Heath on bass, Horace Silver on piano and Gene Ammons on tenor saxophone. All of them would become legends of jazz.

"Miles pushed me out to play the first solo," McLean recalled in an interview with the Hartford Courant some years ago. About eight bars into the solo, McLean had an overwhelming feeling, and it wasn't good. He put down his horn and dashed backstage, where he found a convenient garbage can, leaned his face into it and let go. As he pulled his head out, the owner of the club, who was looking on in amazement, threw McLean a towel and said, "Get the hell back out there!"

"So I wiped my mouth," McLean said, and headed back on stage.

A Bittersweet Melodic Imagination: Remembering the saxophonist Jackie McLean. (Stanley Crouch, April 4, 2006, Slate)
With few exceptions, most of the bebop generations had drug problems because so many of the men they admired, like Charlie Parker, were addicts. For McLean, Parker was an early hero, influence, and model. "Bird was always an extremely aware person, and no matter what he did in order to handle his addiction and his appetites, he had great dignity. His discipline was shown in the way he played his horn."

McLean came up fast. He studied chords with Bud Powell, the major influence on bebop piano, played jobs with his buddies, and, when he had the nerve, sat in with Charlie Parker. "When I sat in with Bird, it was not so much to play but to be up there on the bandstand where I could listen to him as closely as possible. Every time he played was a lesson. You could learn how to develop a melody, how to negotiate some harmony, and how to phrase. Bird was an academy of excellence. Just listening, you could hear the artistry of the horn and that artistry could make you aware of something beyond everything you knew. Not just music. Whatever creation means on the deepest level is what Charlie Parker had to offer."

During the early '50s, McLean went to North Carolina, where he lived with relatives for a year and was able to clean up his drug habit. While living the country life, he got a deep, down-home soaking on jobs where the saxophonist literally walked the bar and played the blues all night. That Southern sound of blues is one of the most distinctive aspects of McLean's style and remained in place throughout all his artistic evolutions.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 5, 2006 12:00 AM


Personal Jackie McClean story: In my earliest days of jazz appreciation I didn't know squat. I knew some of the big names but that's about it. Listening to a a recording I couldn't tell you which sax was alto and which was tenor.

Initially I taught myself about the music by buying recordings by artists I had heard of -- like Miles Davis. So, one day in the Record Exchange in Charlotte, N.C. I bought a used Miles Davis LP, "Miles Davis quartet / quintet". I can't remember who the bass & drum players were, but the quartet featured Milt Jackson on vibes & the quintet added Jackie McClean. I had no idea who McClean was, and I'm not sure I even looked at the lineup before I played the album. All I knew was that Miles Davis was on it.

One of the McClean tracks came on, and -- I really really loved that saxophone sound. He had a particularly tart, sharp tone. I loved it. I had to go pick up the album to figure out who it was. (Good thing there wasn't another sax player on the record or I might not have been able to figure it out!!) That's the first time I remember consciously looking at a jazz album's liner notes to figure out who somebody was on account of their playing.

So I got the ambition to get a saxophone. Some years later I was living in New York City & had a sax-playing friend who helped me find a decent one. We located solid used student alto (a 1950's "Noblet", built like a tank) at a place called Roberto's Woodwinds, which then was right off Times Square. You climbed some stairs off the street to the shop, one floor up. Next the shop were a bunch of small rehearsal rooms & studios you could rent out.

We checked out the horn, I bought it, & then we rented out a rehearsal room for an hour. He had brought his horn (and a sack of beers). He taught me the basic fingerings, got me where I could produce a proper note, and basically gave me my first lesson.

We played and drank the beer. Eventually there was a knock at the door, which had a small window in it. There was an older man outside looking in -- and my friend noticed that our hour was pretty much up. He stuck his head out & said we would be just a minute. While we packed up, my friend said "Do you know who that is? That's Jackie McClean!!"

When we exited McClean & a couple of other folks were waiting to get in. I shook McClean's hand, introduced myself, and said "Thanks". I didn't have time to explain what I thanked him for, and I'm sure he never knew.

Posted by: Twn at April 5, 2006 11:18 AM

I had a similar experience when I bought my tenor at Art Shell's (a walk-up woodwind store on 48th Street), except the musicians who checked out my horn were Dexter Gordon and David Sanborn.

When Benny Carter passed away, I wrote on this site that Sonny Rollins was now the World's Greatest Living Jazz Musician, and that the choice for #2 was between Jackie McLean and Wayne Shorter. With Jackie's passing, do we have any other nominations?

Posted by: Foos at April 5, 2006 12:49 PM

Don't know. Time's definately whittling down the roster.

Lee Konitz is still knocking around, and I really admire his work. He got pigeonholed early as an ice-cold "west coast" type, but he never stopped moving forward (and he was an east coaster, anyway). I've seen him a couple of times and both some of the best live jazz I've heard.

There are plenty of avant-types that people could name. Fr' instance there are folks who would throw Cecil Taylor up for the slot. If that's your cup of keyboard scatterwauling.

Probably a lot of folks would suggest Ornette Coleman, too. If that's your cup of outtatune rambling.

(I am not knocking those guys. Just commenting.)

Posted by: Twn at April 5, 2006 7:12 PM

If your taste in jazz runs to the traditional, then I think Oscar Peterson is a strong candidate; in terms of technique he may be the greatest this side of Art Tatum. Also along those lines you could consider Keith Jarrett - some might think him too young for the Greatest Living title, but I think he's at least in the Top Ten.

Also don't forget Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, Jimmy Heath (I think he's still alive) and Herbie Hancock. The greats are still out there, although jazz probably rivals rock for the number of promising voices who died young. Think about this: both Clifford Brown and John Coltrane would have been 80 this year. You think about how their sound could have developed - and how the direction of jazz as a whole could have changed - if we had had a decade or two more of their music. The mind boggles, to put it mildly.

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at April 6, 2006 1:32 AM

Jackie McCleans passing was a reality check on all the great jazz musicians slowly leaving the scene. It caused me to listen again to some CD's I have of him that I hadn't played in a long time and that biting, instantly recognizable tone he had, rushed me back to the 50's, 60's and 70's when the music flourished with a plethora of young giants who had not reached their peak. Today, although I'm sure some are out there, I don't know of any jazz musicians I really like.

Posted by: Leon at April 11, 2006 4:30 AM

There are plenty of younger guys (40ish and under)who can play and take your breath away. I heard James Carter last week and would also recommend Joshua Redman and Branford Marsalis.

Posted by: Foos at April 16, 2006 9:52 PM