Born on May 17, 1932, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean has long been a recognizable talent since his early days with Charles Mingus and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the late ‘50s and Lee Morgan in the ‘60s, having made his debut on record at 19 years old with Miles Davis. McLean was always known for his bright, slightly sharp tone (possibly because of an affinity for his first instrument, the soprano sax) and his explorations in freer jazz forms though he was for the most part based in bebop and hard bop traditions. His discography could certainly be considered a bridge between those two worlds, an idea that was reflected in his performance and in his career overall.
McLean actually joined the Jazz Messengers in a somewhat clandestine way because he was still with Mingus when Blakey approached him. Mingus had always encouraged the young saxophonist to have his own sound in an age when all altoists were copping Bird’s licks (“Man, why do you keep playing those Bird things? Isn’t Jackie McLean in there somewhere?”). McLean started finding his own voice and sensibilities and knew his bassist bandleader would be far from keen on letting him go at this point. While the band was in Cleveland, McLean gave Mingus his two weeks’ notice and Mingus punched him in the mouth, knocking out two of his teeth, fired him and left him stranded in Ohio. McLean had to pawn his horn to get back to New York. After a reconciliation, McLean rejoined Mingus’s band (Mingus bought him another alto). One night, Art Blakey approached him, offering him a place in his band, a new horn (so he could leave behind the one Mingus bought for him) and, presumably, a less hostile working environment. McLean left town for Pittsburgh with the Messengers soon after without telling Mingus who apparently sent him a fairly nasty telegram later on.
McLean began teaching at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, Connecticut and credits Archie Shepp with his entry into academia. McLean will always be known as an innovator, pushing the music forward in his own startling fashion, but he was also deeply indebted to the tradition of jazz, which was the focus of his curriculum at Hartt, where he founded the Jackie McLean Institute fo Jazz and serving as the Artistic Director. Some of his students on the scene today include tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene and altoists Julius Tolentino and Mike DiRubbo (both seem to have absorbed the sharp-toned brilliance of their mentor). McLean passed away Friday, March 31st at 73 years old. He has about five dozen albums to his name as a leader, almost two dozen under Blue Note and several for Prestige and Steeplechase.
Read the AP obituary.