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One Step Beyond:
Reflections of Jackie McLean


by Chuck Obuchowski
             photos by Maurice D. Robertson

 


 
Jazz saxophone giant Jackie McLean died on March 31, 2006, a little over a month shy of his 75th birthday.


  For the past 35 years, "J Mac," as he was known to his friends & colleagues, graced Hartford with his presence.

   Jackie McLean began commuting from his native New York to Connecticut's capital city in 1968 to teach a jazz course at the University of Hartford. Although music had always been his primary passion, McLean quickly realized that he also possessed a gift for sharing that passion with young people.
  Discussions with local arts leaders convinced him that there was a dire need for more cultural education in the Hartford public school system. He and his family moved to Hartford two years later, and the alto man embarked on a mission to improve the lives of inner city youth through exposure to the arts and African American culture. That mission saw its fulfillment in the Artists Collective, now a thriving arts center which serves children and adults year round at 1200 Albany Avenue in Hartford.
  McLean also became a fulltime professor at the University of Hartford's Hartt School and ultimately the first director of its African American Music program. His visibility on the international jazz scene may have suffered somewhat during the intervening years, but the legacy he has left behind is sure to last.
  WWUH Radio began broadcasting at roughly the same time J Mac joined the Connecticut jazz community. This station has long championed his music. In fact, former WWUH Program Director Sue Terry was the first degree recipient of the Hartt School's jazz program in 1982. Terry has been a vibrant, original reed player on the New York jazz scene for over two decades.
  Ms. Terry fondly recalls McLean's kindness, his encouragement and his expansive knowledge of jazz history. She notes that he taught his students to understand the links between music and the social and political developments of its time.
  Terry also sees parallels between WWUH and the Artists Collective, referring to them as "cultural constants in an ever-changing landscape." Jackie and his wife Dollie saw to it that Collective students and concert goers were exposed to musical styles usually neglected by American pop culture; similarly, WWUH has always shared a wide spectrum of music and culture with its listeners.
  I'd been a fan of McLean's music since hearing it on 91.3 FM during my high school years. But it wasn't until I'd returned to Connecticut after college that I had my first close encounter with J Mac's mighty alto sax. My memory of the 1982 gig is sketchy, yet I can still hear the bright, bold sound of his horn penetrating my ears as if it were yesterday. The gig, sponsored by the Artists Collective, reunited McLean with one of his old Blue Note buddies, trumpeter Donald Byrd. Nat Reeves, who still teaches at Hartt, was on bass; Don DePalma played piano, and Mike DuQuette was the drummer.
  I can't recall a single tune they played in that crowded nightclub, but I have a vivid image of "Dr. Jackle" leaning into the microphone, eyes closed, his face contorted as he silenced an otherwise noisy crowd with his horn's raging beauty.
  McLean joined me in the WWUH studios for a live interview on June 19, 2001, a few days before he gave one of his last live Hartford performances, a concert with the Cedar Walton Trio at the Artists Collective.
  It had been a very eventful year for him. The new Artists Collective facility was up and running. In November 2000, the University of Hartford had officially changed its jazz department's name to "The Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz." The National Endowment for the Arts had bestowed its annual Jazz Master Award upon him in January.
  Yet, Jackie remained humble and gracious, preferring to speak about the accomplishments of some of the young musicians whose lives he'd touched through his teaching.
  He also spoke about the realities of aging: losing dear musical colleagues (Billy Higgins in particular) and learning to slow down: "I want to pace myself, to try to stay around as long as I possibly can."

  Time finally caught up with him on March 31, but - thanks to 35 years of imparting jazz wisdom to students - Jackie McLean's spirit lives on in the hearts and minds of musicians and music lovers all over the world. WWUH will continue to send his soul-stirring sounds over the airwaves and across the web for all to hear...

 

WWUH: Program Guide 2006 ©

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