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Jackie McLean

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

Monday, April 10, 2006

New York Daily News - Ideas & Opinions - Stanley Crouch: Saying goodbye to a jazzman - and a good man

New York Daily News - Ideas & Opinions - Stanley Crouch: Saying goodbye to a jazzman - and a good man

The funeral at Abyssinian Baptist Church for saxophone great, educator and community leader Jackie McLean reminded one of how much has been lost uptown since McLean was born there in 1931. At the same time that Harlem is being renovated and may eventually become one of the places where the middle and upper middle class choose to live, it is also much of an esthetic graveyard. Though there is plenty of soul uptown, as always, one hears or sees little of the vitality for which Harlem was once legendary.

John Lenwood McLean, a member of the Abyssinian Baptist Church during his early years, was one of the most impressive talents to come off of 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 childrens'. 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.

In 1970, he moved to Hartford, Conn., where he began teaching jazz in the department that is now the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the Hartt School of Music. 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. With his wife, Dolly, McLean began a fund-raising campaign and eventually saw a sizable community built, which is called the Artists Collective.

McLean developed a reputation in 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. He always read and kept his mind alive because he sought to be something more than a dope addict who played saxophone.

"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 and full of the same sincere warmth one felt from him as a man.

He is now a symbol of what can be done in an individual life and with individual effort. 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.

Originally published on April 10, 2006

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