Jackie McLean 1931–2006


In that same way the skinny young Sinatra was his own Hirschfeld caricature, Jackie McLean’s sound on alto saxophone was so distinct it made the critic’s work easy. It was lean and penetrating, broad and technically always a little flat—qualities that might seem contradictory until you hear him on “Love and Hate,” from Destination Out (1963), or “Strange as It Seems,” from New and Old Gospel (1968). Funny I should pick two ballads to represent such a slasher, but slow tempos were where McLean, who died March 31 following a long illness, really let it rip. The obits hit all the right biographical notes—his early dependence on heroin after caddying for Charlie Parker; his sideman dues with Mingus and Blakey; his part in Jack Gelber’s The Connection; his role in bringing Tony Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, and Grachan Moncur III to Blue Note (loosening the reins on hard bop in the process); his many years as a teacher at Hartt College in Connecticut; that fierce attack of his, seemingly impervious to age. But what I remembered was a friend of mine, an alto saxophonist whom McLean took under his wing in the early ’70s, telling me it was like gaining an endorsement from “the mayor of New York”—the one active figure lionized by that era’s hard boppers and avant-gardists alike. Christmas just wasn’t the same last year minus his annual homecoming gig fronting Cedar Walton’s trio at the Village Vanguard.