This week on Night Lights we offer a special tribute to the late alto saxophonist, Jackie McLean, who passed away on Friday, March 31, 2006. McLean came up in the Harlem jazz scene as a teenager in the late 1940s, befriending and playing with bebop progenitors Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. In the 1950s he worked and recorded with Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and Art Blakey, in addition to making his own records as a leader for Prestige. A struggle with drug addiction slowed his development, but it also aided his convincing portrait of an addicted musician in the play and movie The Connection. His recordings for the Blue Note label in the 1960s are considered to be some of the finest examples of the era’s hardbop and avant-garde jazz. McLean was also one of the pioneers of the jazz-education movement, developing a jazz-studies program for the University of Hartford in Connecticut.
I have always told people that Jackie McLean is one of the “patron saints” of Night Lights; his sharp, bittersweet sound had an intensity that seemed to reflect a passionate apprehension of life in all of its aspects. As one jazz fan said to me regarding his death, “Jackie has always been what this music is all about, to me. He was a man that always put his guts on the line when he played.”