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Jackie McLean

John H. Armwood Jazz History Lecture Nashville's Cheekwood Arts Center 1989

Monday, April 17, 2006

Opinion - Stanley Crouch: Lasting gifts from McLean -

Opinion - Stanley Crouch: Lasting gifts from McLean - sacbee.comStanley Crouch: Lasting gifts from McLean
By Stanley Crouch
Published 2:15 am PDT Saturday, April 15, 2006
The recent death of saxophonist Jackie McLean brought to mind an exceptional life that spanned the worlds of performance, education and community uplift.

Born in Harlem, N.Y., in 1931, McLean died in Hartford, Conn., where he had lived since 1970. McLean's story was unusual because the man himself was such an original combination of artistry, commitment and a willingness to battle so many of the limitations of the music world and the hard urban streets of America, where kids are swallowed up by drugs and gang activity, as addicts or dealers, as murderers or the murdered.

John Lenwood McLean, a member of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church during his early years, was one of the most impressive talents to come off Sugar Hill. That was where the Harlem entertainers and classy types who worked hard and wanted their children to make something of themselves often lived. Few wanted their children to become musicians, who could be seen everywhere on the streets, from Duke Ellington on down.

As usual, parents' dreams were different from their children's.

McLean grew up with Sonny Rollins and others who began working on jazz as high-school students and were doing professional jobs by the 1950s. Like many of them, McLean became a heroin addict and struggled with the problem until near the end of the 1960s. He recalled pushers on corner after corner of his neighborhood by his middle teens.

In 1970, he moved to Hartford, where he began teaching jazz in the department that is now the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz. While there, he decided that the young people needed a community center that would teach them the arts as a retort to the troubles of the streets.

In conjunction with his wife, Dollie, McLean began a fundraising campaign and eventually saw a sizable community built, which is called the Artists Collective.

McLean developed a reputation during the 1950s in the bands of Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Charles Mingus. He also led fine bands and made many superb recordings under his own name. But McLean was more than a superior musician; he was extremely intelligent, witty and insightful.

"We thought that shooting dope was a way of being cool and showing you were aware when I was coming up," McLean once said. "For a long time it seemed that our suffering added up to nothing but death and wasted lives. We were wrong: Our suffering became a symbol of what drugs can really cost you. Now young musicians think you are corny or a fool if you get messed up with drugs. We didn't know it, but that was our gift to them."

McLean's final gift to younger musicians was his work as a teacher and as a builder of community alternatives to knuckleheaded behavior.

His sound was special, full of the same sincere warmth one felt from him as a man. He was a marvelous storyteller, on and off his horn, a fine composer, a good mimic, and one whose stories could turn surreal corners and move from the tragic to hilarious in no more than one or two beats.

He is now a symbol of what can be done in an individual life and with individual effort. McLean always read and kept his mind alive because he loved learning and sought to be something more than a dope addict who played saxophone.

That he developed an entire department and went on to work with his wife and supporters until the Artists Collective was built expressed his determination to leave something solid after he died. As long as people like jazz, there will be an audience for Jackie McLean's recordings. As long as community centers are built to offer something of value to those at the bottom, the spirit of Jackie McLean will remain in action. He will always be with us.