JJ 07/61: Jackie McLean talks to Valerie Wilmer

Sixty years years ago, Val Wilmer interviewed the altoist backstage at the West End run of The Connection. First published in Jazz Journal July 1961


Today, years after his death, the shadow of Charlie Parker still hovers relentlessly above the head of almost every aspiring altoist. One who has escaped the influence to some extent is Jackie McLean, a “hard-swinging” musi­cian with a new and somewhat different conception of jazz.

Jackie related his story to me back­stage at the Duke of York’s Theatre . . .

“My father was a guitarist, who played with Teddy Hill and Tiny Bradshaw. but since he died when I was around nine, I don’t think he had any influence on me. My god-father used to play soprano sax, though, and that was in the Abyssinian Church Band. This was a Baptist church – my church – and I used to sit up there and listen to him. He had an old soprano and when I was fourteen he let me have it to fool around with. I wasn’t really serious; it was just a toy to me because I used to go and see Charlie Barnet and he had what I called a real saxophone – so the soprano didn’t seem much.

“My mother bought me a real saxo­phone on my fifteenth birthday and I started lessons. I started studying with “‘Foots’ Thomas – that lasted about six months, and then I went to Cecil Scott for another three months. And then I met Andy Kirk Jr. and stopped taking lessons. Andy is the son of the great band-leader and I was taught a great deal by him. He doesn’t play any more, but deserves some mention.

“He actually sat down and showed me the things on the saxophone that I never could learn from saxophone teachers. Seems what he taught me and what I got together myself was what really made it. These teachers wouldn’t let me play like I wanted to play. Like, I’d play my little riffs, but they’d say play the scales, and I used to look, like a kid does, and say anybody could play a scale. Little riffs then were very dear to me. but now I can see the value of those scales.”

After these attempts at learning, Jackie was to be heard with a group led by Sonny Rollins: “I worked with Sonny’s band for a year and a half around 1948. This was a neighbourhood band, a sex­tet with Art Taylor on drums, Kenny Drew, piano, Lowell Lewis, trumpet, and Percy Heath on bass. Percy had just come to New York and sometimes we had Connie Henry on bass, changing around a bit. I learnt a lot from Sonny, he’s just like he sounds, a beautiful, big, warm man, really a warm individual.

“After Rollins, I went with Monk and I learnt so much from him, too; in fact I can still learn a lot more from him. Like, I’m really ready to go now to Monk with my little musical problems and he has actually asked me to come round. He doesn’t offer his time to everybody, but having known him so many years and having played with him at the tender age of seventeen, I guess he still holds a soft spot for me.

“And Bud Powell. I mustn’t forget him … In fact it was through him that I met Monk. He told me to go down to Monk’s house and I played for him and he accepted me for his band and I worked with him every Sunday afternoon for a while at a club in the Bronx called the A45. I saw Bud in Paris last week, baby, and he was so beautiful! He’s still playing as good; we really had a ball. Bud is a beautiful person, really.

Of Miles Davis: ‘His two or three notes were as effective as any other trumpet player’s run of, say, fifty notes. He still possesses that quality with a few chosen notes – my favourite trumpet player’

“Around 1950 I was with Miles and made my first records. Miles sort of moulded my conception, I guess. Playing with him every night was a beautiful experience, and I learnt to use what I had to express myself. He didn’t have nearly the range then that he has now, and to listen to him use what he had so effectively, each night was really something. He wasn’t as fast as, say, Fats, who was alive then, but every night I learned something, to see him using these things in a different way. His two or three notes were as effective as any other trumpet player’s run of, say, fifty notes. He still possesses that quality with a few chosen notes – my favourite trumpet player.

“Miles’s is the moving band, they’re moving with the times beautifully. He’s not jumping too far ahead or standing still like 1951 be-bop or riff jazz. Direc­tion is so important these davs. Some musicians have jumped out into this thing trying for free expression, but I don’t think you should try to pump it into your head, this abstract thing. It should come naturally.

“I think Joe Harriott is the only Lon­don band making a move in that direc­tion, and incidentally I’m heading in the same direction myself. I’m not jumping out too far, severing my connection with the melodic type of jazz: I just want to advance slowly, weaving the two streams together till they eventually become one, like Miles is doing.

“These so-called ‘abstract’ composi­tions I’ve been writing myself, as far back as 1955. In fact I have a new album called The Quadrangle coming out soon which was written two years ago, but if you heard it, you’d swear I’d written it six months ago after listening to Ornette!

“I did a lot of ‘free-form’ experiments with Donald Byrd and we recorded one with George Wallington and his quintet, featuring myself and Donald, called A Night At the Bohemia.

“But when I really went into that ‘free-form’ thing was with Charlie Mingus, which was my first introduction to it and a great musical experience. His compositions were the most difficult ones that I had come upon, and he taught me all his things from memory; he never wrote any music down. Every­thing had to be learned direct from the piano and applied to the different in­struments in the band. I spent two years with him off-and-on, and he was the first one to really push me into my own thing.

“Since then I’ve developed a sound which is all my own, and I’ve actually been called the first new thing since Bird – and that’s an honour. I feel that being in this play is another one of my firsts, too, since it’s the first time jazz and drama have been put together on stage and the first time a musician has been given a dramatic role to play. I really feel honoured and it’s been an invigorating experience. Also I think that Freddie Redd has really come upon jazz with the show-tune feeling, some­thing that’s never been done before. Since then all his tunes have a certain quality that begins to sound just like the theatre to me, and I think it’s wonder­ful. He’s just reaching new horizons, and he’s slowly getting towards that free thing himself.

“As far as the play is concerned, drugs is drugs and jazz is jazz and they don’t have anything at all to do with each other. A musician may think he’s doing O.K., but he’s not going to be able to really let himself go if he uses anything.

“But getting back to my career to date – I went with Art Blakey, the Daddy, when I left Mingus. I worked with Art for nearly three years and travelled all over the States. He is the greatest band­leader I’ve ever worked with, as a leader, you know. He’s strong, tender­hearted, firm and quite intelligent. He sets a pace as far as swinging goes, and very few can keep up with him night after night. He honoured me by telling me that I was the only alto player he would hire, and he’s always used tenor players since.

“I went back with Mingus off-and-on, but then I formed my own band, more or less just to fill a club date in New York, and that’s when I introduced quite a few young musicians onto the scene. These were Ray Draper, the tuba player, who was sixteen at the time, Pete La Roca. the drummer, Johnny Mayer, the piano player, and cornet player Webster Young. I also introduced several pianists to the jazz scene – Mal Waldron, Richie Powell, and Gilly Coggins, who was one of my first teachers. I learnt a lot from him and first intro­duced him to Miles. Donald Byrd’s first job in N.Y. was with George Wallington and I’d had to audition several trumpet plavers to join George’s quartet, and I chose Donald, which I think was one of my best choices. Donald would have made it anyway, but I helped him to make his first big step.

“In September last year I got the job in the play. They needed a sax player who could say the lines, and an actor friend of mine suggested me, and so did Freddie, and I went and tried for the part. What I’m able to play now and what I have in my head are two differ­ent things. In the show I have to keep the jazz in a certain category to keep the audience interested. I can’t experi­ment and I know the only place to ex­periment is on the bandstand. I know I watched John Coltrane many nights, trying different things with his own group, and I feel that’s where you really do the best part of your practising.

“I have an offer now to form my own group and at present I’m working on a complete repertoire of my tunes. Per­haps I’ll use some things by Sonny Rollins and Monk, and Freddie Redd, but otherwise I want it to be all my writing.

“I’ll have a whole lot of playing to do, so I will form a trio at first which will put more blowing pressure on me. This is better from a financial point of view, too, and then I hope to build up finally to a quartet and then to a quin­tet. I know I have quite a few oppor­tunities for the future because I turned down an extensive concert tour as a single when I came over here. But I de­cided that I’d been across the States and this would be an opportunity for me to see the rest of the world!”

I thought it was time to go, but be­fore I left, Jackie said with sincerity: “I’d just like to add that the greatest influence still remains for me – Charlie Parker. I met him when I was sixteen . . . used to go down to the clubs on 52nd Street and peep through the win­dows at him. They wouldn’t let me in because I was so young, but he used to come out and talk to me. But I finally got to play with him when I was nine­teen.

“I became very close to him and it was like I actually grew up round him. I played everything I knew through his concept. Many nights in Birdland I play­ed with him and we became good friends. At one time he even called me to make a couple of gigs for him and in 1954 we shared the same horn. He didn’t have one and I didn’t have one. so we borrowed one and shared it.”

Today, Jackie McLean has a photograph of Charlie Parker on his bedroom wall. Maybe one of these days another up-and-coming altoist will have a pic­ture of Jackie on his wall.