Telegraph | News | Jackie McLeanackie McLean
Jackie McLean, who died on Friday aged 74, was a jazz saxophonist with a style that was a distinctive mixture of the bebop of Charlie Parker and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman.
His passionate and impetuous playing first made its impact in the recorded work of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, but his reputation rests on recordings under his own name, especially those made for the Blue Note label. McLean was also much valued as a teacher and for his work on artistic projects for inner-city youth.
John Lenwood McLean Jnr, always known as Jackie, was born in New York City on May 17 1931. His father, John McLean, was the guitarist with Tiny Bradshaw's orchestra. Many of Jackie's friends during his childhood in Harlem, including Sonny Rollins, Kenny Drew and Art Taylor, also grew up to become well-known jazz musicians and, like them, he began early. He was playing the alto saxophone at the age of 15, and at 17 was practising with the great pianist Bud Powell.
The late 1940s saw the first wave of heroin addiction among young black men and, like most of his friends, McLean succumbed. It was several years before he was able to rid himself finally of his dependence. He made his recording debut with Miles Davis in 1952, contributing his own composition, Dig, to the session, but for the next few years his addiction prevented him from making any real headway. His career began in earnest in 1956. He recorded as a sideman with Charles Mingus and was contracted to record as a leader by the Prestige label.
His playing at this time, like that of most young alto saxophonists, was very much in the Charlie Parker mould; but, with the encouragement of Mingus, McLean soon began to develop a freer, more urgent style. His tone, too, took on a characteristically incisive edge.
Intermittently throughout 1957-58 McLean was a member of the Jazz Messengers, as well as working as a soloist with his own bands. In 1958 he signed with Blue Note records and joined what amounted to a repertory company of New York's hard-bop giants, taking part in each other's sessions as well as leading their own. During this period he recorded with Lee Morgan, Jimmy Smith, Hank Mobley and many more, while his own work blossomed. His 1962 album Let Freedom Ring is particularly fine, catching perfectly the balance between form and freedom for which he had now become celebrated.
Meanwhile, in 1959, McLean had taken an acting and playing role in a play, The Connection, about a group of drug addicts. It ran in New York until 1961, when it transferred to London and a film version was released. The record of the music, composed by Freddie Redd and featuring McLean, proved to be one of Blue Note's best sellers.
After the London run, McLean stayed on in Europe for several months, working mainly in Paris. In 1968, with the end of his Blue Note contract, McLean took up a post at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, Connecticut, where he then settled and founded the Hartford Artists' Collective, offering tuition and encouragement to inner-city children. According to his university colleagues, many of McLean's former students kept in touch with him.
He continued to tour, regularly visiting Europe during the long summer vacations and recording for the Danish label Steeplechase. The recordings vary in style from fairly straightforward hard-bop to completely open improvisation.
Jackie McLean was awarded an American Jazz Masters' Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001.
He is survived by his wife, the actress Dollie McLean, and his son, the saxophonist René McLean.
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