By Armand Lewis
There was a time when jazz musicians learned their instruments and developed their styles relatively informally. Family members and neighbors, private teachers, grade school and high school music classes would most likely be the only sources of instruction that a budding musician could hope for.
Decades of artists would learn their craft this way before the advent of college level courses starting in the 1970s and 1980s. Soon, it became common for recognized jazz musicians to teach at college level. Most major universities and conservatories now have major jazz artists teaching part or full time. One of the earliest such musicians — possibly the first — to establish a jazz curriculum at the university level was John Lenwood McLean — aka Jackie McLean.
With a hard, biting sound to his alto saxophone, Jackie McLean was one of the major jazz stylists in the 1950s and 1960s. On his many recordings for Prestige, Blue Note and other labels, McLean’s unmistakable edgy tone became the soundtrack for the inner city of that era. McLean said he wanted to have a “sugar free” sound: a statement he actually never explained, but likely meant he wanted to be different from the “sweet” sound of many well known alto players of the 1940s and ‘50s such as Johnny Hodges or Benny Carter.
Not surprisingly, it is also the title of the first full-length book about McLean’s life. Sugar Free Saxophone — The Life and Music of Jackie McLean by Derek Ansell (Northway Publications ISBN 978-0-9557888-6-4) fol-lows McLean from his youth in the Sugar Hill area of Harlem through his Prestige and Blue Note years, then to his establishing the jazz department at the University of Hartford, CT.
It’s a lot of ground to cover and, admittedly, author Ansell does not offer much depth in discussing McLean’s early years. Apparently, his research was hampered somewhat by the McLean family, who hope to someday publish an unfinished autobiography that McLean was working on at the time of his death in 2006.
McLean’s youth would be rich territory as McLean grew up in a neighborhood that was also home to future jazz giants Sonny Rollins, Kenny Drew and others — all of whom learned and played together during their formative years. The book does include a few great stories, including McLean’s early experiences playing with and substituting for Charlie Parker in local clubs while McLean himself was still a teenager, but one gets the feeling that there is a lot more information that Ansell didn’t get access to.
As such, the bulk of the book is comprised of in-depth analysis of many of McLean’s records from the 1950s and 1960s, supplemented with information from historical writings, album liner notes and radio and TV interviews.
Ansell’s musical analysis is thorough, detailed and scholarly. As a guide to McLean’s best recordings, readers will not find a better source. Entire chapters are devoted to McLean’s best albums including Bluesnik and One Step Beyond (highly recommended), though most of McLean’s 1970s European recordings are barely mentioned. While they may not be as innovative as his earlier work, they are every bit as good as the ones McLean made toward the end of his life.
Several chapters are devoted to McLean’s increasing involvement in teaching, which began in the early 1960s when he acted as bandmaster in New York penitentiaries. This lead to drug counseling work and by 1970, to a faculty position with the University of Hartford, where he established the first university level department of African-American music. Further educa-tional opportunities came when McLean founded the Artist’s Collective, which — to this day — teaches music, dance and visual arts to over 1,200 local Hartford area kids each year.
Jackie McLean always main-tained that jazz has limited public appeal because people know and like what they see and hear. They know rock musicians be-cause they see and hear them frequently in the media, but they don’t know most jazz musicians because jazz gets relatively little such exposure. Sugar Free Saxophone attempts to remedy a bit of that oversight.
Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org