He was ranked among the top players in jazz history as an alto saxophonist. His unique sound had a mesmerizing, raw, urgent edge to it. One bar and you knew it was Jackie McLean. And no matter how varied or bold his compositions might get, his music always had a vital emotional core, a bright mix of soul and intellect, an upbeat feeling and total lack of pretension that reflected his own personality.

— Owen McNally

His molten-metal sound has been, however, a more significant influence on the evolution of postbop and free-jazz than is often credited, and he redeployed the inspirational and liberating qualities of the music selflessly as a counsellor and teacher.

— John Fordham

Jackie McLean was born in Harlem, New York on May 17th 1932. He died in Hartford, Connecticut on March 31st, 2006.


  • Superb bebop, post-bop, neo-bop, soul jazz and free jazz interpreter, innovator and educator.
  • Lifelong protegé of Charlie "Bird" Parker.
  • Recorded first with Miles Davis at age 19.
  • Played and recorded with Charles Mingus in the late '50s.
  • Was a member of Art Blakey's "Jazz Messengers" during the late '50s.
  • Toured Japan successfully in 1965; over his lifetime would become more famous there than in the U.S.
  • Beat heroin addiction and embraced "do art, not drugs" philosophy, educating and working to prevent drug addiction.
  • Founded The Artists Collective in Hartford, Connecticut, USA in 1970.
  • Longtime jazz educator at Hartt School of Music in West Hartford, Connecticut, and elsewhere. Mclean founded African-American Music and Jazz Studies degree programs there.
  • 2001 N.E.A. Jazz Master Award.

John Lenwood McLean Jr. was born into a musical family in Harlem in the early 1930s. He began playing the alto saxophone at age 15. By 19, he'd appeared on his first recording, playing with trumpeter Miles Davis and his ensemble. By the time of his death he'd achieved worldwide fame. McLean was a trendsetter in the jazz genres of bebop, hard bop and soul jazz.

McLean's father, John McLean, was a guitarist who played with Tiny Bradshaw. John McLean died when Jackie was only seven years old, however, Jackie continued his musical studies with his Harlem neighbors Charlie Parker and Theolonius Monk, among others.

Jackie McLean and Charlie Parker forged a strong, multifaceted relationship that would endure until the end of Parker's life. Parker was McLean's mentor and teacher. McLean provided Parker with friendship and more; even loaning his precious saxophone to Parker when the often down-and-out jazzman had pawned his own, for money to support his addiction to heroin.

In addition to Parker, Jackie worked extensively with jazz greats Sonny Rollins (in the late '40s), Paul Bley, George Wallington and Charles Mingus (in the late '50s).

He'd worked from time to time as a leader, and finally in 1958 formed a Quintet that he recorded with extensively and took on tour. McLean's arrival in Japan was very well-received. He would revisit Japan often during his lifetime, and is actually more famous there than in the U.S. Years after his first appearance in in Japan, he was walking down a Yokohama street when he spotted a small nightclub called "The Jackie McLean Coffeehouse." The walls were lined with the album covers from virtually all his recordings. He actually jammed with a band there later on.

Like Parker, heroin addiction found McLean. Many bebop musicians fell prey to hard drugs. Jackie, however, struggled with and eventually beat his addiction. It was (by his admission) his wife of nearly fifty years, Dollie, who helped him kick the habit.

His career was interrupted when his addiction led to the revocation of his police cabaret card at the end of the 1950s. The 1960s, however, brought extensive work, for the Blue Note record label, making dozens of recordings as both leader and sideman and appearing with hard-bop stars including trumpeters Donald Byrd and Lee Morgan, and saxophonists Hank Mobley and Tina Brooks. By the time he made the classic Blue Note album Let Freedom Ring (1962), McLean was already revealing an Ornette Coleman influence on both his sound and his expanding harmonic horizons, and emerging as an eloquent writer of originals too, in themes such as Melody for Melonae, and Rene.

McLean appeared in the off-Broadway production of "The Connection," a play about jazz and drug abuse, which ran from 1959 to 1960, and was adapted for the cinema in 1961. It was the beginning of a lifetime effort to educate people, particularly minorities and the underprivileged, about the dangers of drug abuse.

Jackie McLean knows first hand that the world of art can make a world of difference. For young men like McLean in Harlem and other Black communities in the 1940's, the abundance of heroin and hard drugs which flowed into this country in the period immediately following World War II became a stumbling block to achievements of many dreams especially for Black males not only in poor communities. Through his art, he achieved his dreams, and music also allowed him to see that he must use his great, God-given talent to help others in similar circumstances. 

— Website, The Artists' Collective

In 1968 McLean joined the faculty of the prestigious Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut. His contributions to the school were myriad, including the founding of the school's African-American Music program and Jazz Studies degree program. Both programs were subsequently named after McLean.

Two years after Jackie joined Hartt, his wife Dollie, a dancer, and he founded Hartford's The Artists Collective. It was their objective to combat drugs by exposing underprivileged youth to the arts as an alternative to "street life." By 1999, the Collective moved out of the old schoolhouse it occupied in one of Hartford's most impoverished neighborhoods, and into its brand new space, an architectural gem designed by Tai Soo Kim on Hartford's Albany Avenue.

The Artists Collective was founded in 1970 as an interdisciplinary arts and cultural institution serving the Greater Hartford area. It is the only multi-arts and cultural organization of its kind in Connecticut emphasizing the cultural and artistic contributions of the African Diaspora. Artists Collective programs expose students and the community at large to great and too often overlooked artists of the past and present. The Collective continues to offer the highest quality training in the performing arts-dance, theatre, music and visual arts.

— Website, The Artists' Collective

Some of the Awards Garnered by The Artists Collective:

  • Cited by Harvard University’s Project Co-Arts as one of six exemplary community art centers in the nation included in the Safe Haven Report published by Harvard University.
  • Selected as one of twenty national jazz network sites to receive a special grant through the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund for the support of “Jazz” programs.
  • Selected as one of 12 organizations nationwide to participate in JazzNet, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts and administered by the Non-Profit Finance Fund to support jazz programming.
  • Essence Magazine – for excellence in serving the youth of Hartford.
  • Visited by President Clinton, who on November 4, 1999, addressed local business and community leaders about private/public cooperation in economic development and highlighted the Artists Collective’s new facility as a prime example of urban development.
  • 2003 Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Sojourner Truth Social Activism Award: Founding Executive Director - Dollie McLean
  • 2004 Bank of America Neighborhood Excellence - Neighborhood Builder Award
  • 2004 Neighborhood Legends Award - Blue Hills Neighborhood Organizations Jackie McLean & Dollie McLean
  • 2005 Boy Scouts of America - Whitney M. Young Award Jackie McLean & Dollie McLean

Often accompanied by son Rene, also a saxophone player, McLean took to teaching and touring in Europe during the 1970s, recording hard-hitting albums including Live at Montmartre with his old friend Kenny Drew, and working in esteemed post-bop groups with musicians of the caliber of Gary Bartz and Dexter Gordon.

He appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1994 in a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Verve Records, and played a concert with Sonny Rollins and worked on the PBS television show Jazz the same year. McLean took a band of his former students into New York's Village Vanguard club in 1995.

British jazz critic John Fordham claims his later recordings suggested the edge of his playing was softening, and the repertoire becoming more uneven. Not true. Those who knew McLean knew he was a perfectionist who was demanding of others but much more so of himself. He often spoke of the importance of playing well, "as if it were your last solo."

Jackie left us very quietly and very peacefully at home, surrounded by his wife and children. He gave so much in his life that he's still very much in our spirits and always will be.

— Dollie McLean

"I'm so happy you brought him home."

— Rev. Calvin O. Butts, III; to the McLean Family

McLean was eulogized by Rev. Butts at the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem's Sugar Hill neighborhood, the neighborhood Jackie first called home. When McLean was fourteen years old, his godfather, Chief Norman Cobbs, gave him his first instrument, a soprano saxophone. Cobbs played saxophone at the Abyssinian Church, during the period the famous Adam Clayton Powell was pastor.

Over a thousand people attended the ninety-minute funeral service for McLean. Attendees included educator and pianist Billy Taylor, trumpeter Freddy Hubbard, saxman Gene Ghee, pianist Larry Willis, drummer Warren Smith, bassist Nat Reeves, and trombonist Steve Davis.

A large contingent from Hartford, Connecticut, McLean's home since 1970, came by bus and car to attend. Hartford's City Treasurer thanked McLean for the "thousands of children whose lives he saved," presenting a proclamation from Hartford mayor Eddie Perez.

Rev. Butts included in his eloquent eulogy, "There was something deep in Jackie that caused him to spread his love through his music... There is evidence of stewardship. A legacy we can look at, study and learn."

Saxophonist Jimmy Heath played Theolonius Monk's signature song, "'Round Midnight." "Amazing Grace" was performed by vocalist Eunice Newkirk. Recordings of McLean's music were also played during the service.

McLean was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Jackie McLean - Selected Leaders and Side-Men:

  • Ammons, Gene
  • Blakey, Art
  • Bowler, Phil
  • Brooks, Tina
  • Burrell, Kenny
  • Byrd, Donald
  • Chambers, Paul
  • Cranshaw, Bob
  • Davis, Miles
  • Davis, Steve
  • Farmer, Art
  • Galeta, Hotep Idris
  • Garland, Red
  • Getz, Stan
  • Gordon, Dexter
  • Haden, Charlie
  • Hancock, Herbie
  • Hargrove, Roy
  • Hubbard, Freddie
  • Jarvis, Clifford
  • Jones, Willie
  • Kenny Clarke
  • Konitz, Lee
  • Lewis, Herbie
  • Lincoln, Abbey
  • Mabern, Harold
  • McFerrin, Bobby
  • McPherson, Eric
  • Mingus, Charles
  • Mobley, Hank
  • Morgan, Lee
  • Onishi, Junko
  • Parker, Charlie
  • Redd, Freddie
  • Reeves, Nat
  • Roach, Max
  • Rollins, Sunny
  • Smith, Jimmy
  • Suzuki, Isao
  • Taylor, Art
  • Terry, Clark
  • Turrentine, Tommy
  • Waldron, Mal
  • Wallington, George
  • Walton, Cedar
  • Warren, Butch
  • Washington, Kenny

Selected Discography:

(The entire Jackie McLean discography may be found at www.jazzdisco.org)

1951: Miles Davis Conception (Prestige) The Miles Davis Sextet

1955: Jackie McLean The New Tradition (Adlib) The Jackie McLean Quintet

1956: Jackie McLean Lights Out! (Prestige) The Jackie McLean Quintet

1956: Charles Mingus Pithecantropus Erectus (Atlantic) The Charles Mingus Quartet

1956: Art Blakey Hard Bop and Drum Suite (Columbia) Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

1956: Jackie McLean McLean's Scene (New Jazz) Jackie McLean Quintet

1957: Art Blakey Once Upon a Groove (Blue Note) Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

1959: Charles Mingus Blues and Roots (Atlantic) Charles Mingus Nonet

1961: Jackie McLean Bluesnik (Blue Note) Jackie McLean Quartet

1962: Jackie McLean Let Freedom Ring (Blue Note) Jackie McLean Quartet

1962: Jackie McLean Tippin' the Scales (Blue Note) Jackie McLean Quartet

1965: Jackie McLean Right Now! (Blue Note) Jackie McLean Quartet

1972: Jackie McLean Quartet Live at Montmartre (SteepleChase) Jackie Mclean Quartet

1973: Jackie McLean Featuring Dexter Gordon, Vol. 1 'The Meeting' and Vol. 2 'The Source' (SteepleChase) Jackie Mclean - Dexter Gordon Quintet

1990: Abbey Lincoln The World is Falling Down (Verve) Abbey Lincoln

1997: Jackie McLean Fire and Love (Somethin'else - Japan) The Jackie McLean Septet


  • http://www.culturekiosque.com/jazz/miles/rhemile24.htm
  • http://www.courant.com/hc-mcleanobit0401.artapr01,0,1097955.story
  • http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,1745370,00.html
  • http://www.bluenote.com/artistpage.asp?ArtistID=3378
  • http://www.jazzdisco.org/mclean/dis/c/
  • http://www.iaje.org/bio.asp?ArtistID=2
  • http://www.ascap.com/ace/
  • "Blues For Jackie" McNally, Owen et. al. The Hartford Courant, April 1, 2006.
  • The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988, 1995

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