Jackie McLean

Saxophonist, Composer, Educator
Portrait of Jackie McLean

Photo by Tom Pich/tompich.com


"I am proud to be recognized as an American Jazz Master. This is one of the great moments of my life."

Known in the jazz community as "Jackie Mac," Jackie McLean was a stalwart, enduring force in jazz since the early 1950s, and a distinguished educator since 1968. Long the possessor of one of the most recognizable alto saxophone sounds and styles, he explored the cutting edge of jazz creativity.

McLean grew up in a musical family: his father was a guitarist for bandleader Tiny Bradshaw and his stepfather owned a record store. By age 15, he chose the alto saxophone as his instrument. Jackie's earliest studies came through the tutelage of Foots Thomas, Cecil Scott, Joe Napoleon, and Andy Brown in his native New York. Another of his informal teachers was piano master Bud Powell. McLean's most significant early band affiliation came during the years 1948-49, when he joined a Harlem neighborhood band led by tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and including pianist Kenny Drew. McLean's stints with the Miles Davis band, between 1949-53, yielded his first recording sessions as a sideman and marked the beginning of what became known as hard bop, an advanced progression on bebop.

During McLean's busiest period as a sideman in the 1950s, he worked with pianist George Wallington, drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and bassist Charles Mingus. McLean's first recording as a leader came in 1955, when he cut a quintet date for the Ad Lib label. His intense playing has fit in well with both hard bop and the avant-garde, two schools of jazz in which McLean has experimented.

Throughout the 1960s, McLean continued to work with his own bands and occasional all-star aggregations, but also became more interested in social issues. In 1959-60 he acted in the off-Broadway play The Connection, a cautionary tale dealing with jazz and the perils of drug abuse, which evolved into a 1961 film. In 1967 he took his music into prisons, working as a music instructor and counselor. Then in 1968, he moved to Hartford, Connecticut, to take a teaching position at Hartt College of Music of the University of Hartford. It was in Hartford that McLean and his wife Dollie founded the Artists Collective, a widely hailed combination community center/fine arts school, primarily aimed at troubled youth. The Artists Collective opened a beautiful new building in 1999 following years of residence in a former schoolhouse in one of Hartford's most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

At the University of Hartford, McLean established the school's African American Music Department and subsequent Jazz Studies degree program, which was renamed the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz on November 17, 2000. The program has instructed a number of exceptional young jazz musicians, including saxophonist Antoine Roney, drummer Eric MacPherson, trombonist Steve Davis, and pianist Alan Palmer.

Selected Discography

4, 5 and 6, Original Jazz Classics, 1956
New Soil, Blue Note, 1959
Let Freedom Ring, Blue Note, 1962
The Jackie Mac Attack Live, Verve, 1991
Nature Boy, Blue Note, 2000