John Lenwood McLean was born on May 17, 1931 in New York City and musically supported early on as his father played guitar in Tiny Bradshaw’s orchestra. Jackie’s father passed away in 1939 but his mother continued supporting him musically by buying him his first saxophone and his mother also remarried to a man that owned a record store. Growing up in Harlem provided McLean with a musical education one couldn’t buy if they wanted as he was tutored by local Jazz legend Bud Powell and hung around Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk as much as he could. When Jackie was in high school he played in a band of his peers which included Sonny Rollins, Kenny Drew and Andy Kirk Jr.
McLean got to record at nineteen years old with Miles Davis on his album ‘Dig’ in 1951. Jackie also recorded early on with Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Gene Ammons and George Wallington. McLean signed with Blue Note Records in 1959 because they offered artists more control of their music and worked with Dexter Gordon, Donald Byrd, Ornette Coleman, Lee Morgan, Mal Waldron, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins and many others. In 1962 Jackie recorded the album ‘Let Freedom Ring’ in which he combined elements from various movements in Jazz including Bebop, Hard Bop, Modal and Free to create a very unique sound of his own. McLean also began mentoring and bringing up the young lions of the time as had been done for him working with Tina Brooks, Charles Tolliver, Larry Willis, Bill Hardman, Ray Draper, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Lenny White, Carl Allen and many others.
Jackie loved teaching Jazz so much that in 1967 he brought music to prison inmates as a teacher and counselor and in1968 he began teaching at The Hartt School at the University of Hartford and began an African-American Music Department that is now known as the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz. In 1970 McLean founded the Artists Collective, Inc. with his wife with the goal of preserving and teaching the arts of the African Diaspora. Many of his band mates from this point forward were students of his including Steve Davis, Alan Palmer, Eric MacPherson, Antoine Roney, Jimmy Greene and his son Rene. Jackie received the American Jazz Master fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001. Jackie McLean passed away in 2006 leaving a legacy as one of the greatest alto saxophone players in Jazz history and did as much or more than any musician to keep Jazz alive for generations to come through education.
"Certainly Charlie Parker kept all the roots there, I mean, he was definitely a blues player and a lot of the music that he composed was structured on the blues form, and yet there was another kind of gospel feeling, a funk kind of feeling if I can use that term, that came into the music in the mid-fifties with Horace Silver and some of the guys that were thinking along these lines. I certainly, myself, thought along heavy blues lines, blues feeling, and my concept of it, so I just think it had more of a gospel feeling to it, a sanctified feeling to it mixed with all the other ingredients that Bird, Bud, Thelonious gave us." – Jackie McLean.