Remembering Jackie McLean

Jackie McLean died March 31, 2006. He was 74.

I met Jackie in 1982 when I was 16 years old. I was seriously into being a jazz saxophonist by that time and it was a friend of mine from high school who brought me to a concert of Jackie’s students at the Hartt School.

I still remember that concert which featured Sue Terry and a bunch of Jackie’s other students but mostly I remember Sue; and Jackie shepherding his flock. I knew immediately that this was where I wanted to be.

I started listening to Jackie’s music around that time. One of the first albums was Swing, Swang, Swingin’ and his solo on “I Remember You”. The other one was Demon’s Dance with Woody Shaw and Jackie’s burning solo on “Floogeh”. The music touched my soul. There began my obsession with Jackie McLean.

I wrote him a letter that was half fan mail and half inquiry about his jazz degree program and he wrote me back. I still have that letter in a scrap book. He had this really off beat way he folded the letter into the envelope – I remember folding my letters exactly the same way for many years to come. I know that’s weird – but you see Jackie was THAT cool. All his students wanted to do almost everything just like him.

On his invitation I went up to Hartt and met with him, several albums in hand (New Wine In Old Bottles was one) for him to autograph, which he did graciously. One album he signed “To Charley – I’m Betting On Him Being One of the Best One Day” Imagine me – a 16 year old boy in the presence of one of the LEGENDS – a man who KNEW Bird and had recorded with Miles, Monk, Mingus and Art Blakey and he said that to me, in writing! Few people I’ve met in life have shown more grace than that.

After talking with him for a while that day he invited me to his home for a lesson. I began going to his house in Hartford for lessons about twice a month. I’d call Dollie (Jackie’s Wife) on the phone and ask for “Mr. McLean” (I must’ve sounded like a telemarketer). If he wasn’t busy with the Collective or practicing he’d come to the phone and we’d schedule another lesson. I’d go to Jackie’s house on Saturday mornings. He’d show me scales, patterns, ways to play long tones, and turn me on to recordings of Bird and Trane. We’d trade choruses to Jamey Abersold play-a-long recordings. He showed me how to play Giant Steps. A famous quote from Jackie, “It took me six MONTHS to learn Giant Steps… and I was in jail!”. When the lesson was over, he’d tell me to go home and memorize everything he had shown me and then call him back. I always did and within a week or two or three I was calling on the phone to make a date for more.

I remember the Saturday Penelope died – A lovely sweet dog whom Jackie adored. I remember Jackie placing a flower with her when they came to take her little body away.

I’ll never forget the day a student in one of Jackie’s history classes made a rather insulting and very disrespectful remark that I can’t or won’t remember. What I will NEVER forget is the look on Jackie’s face. His entire ESSENCE changed, like a master actor his posture changed, he cocked his head and he leaned on the podium pulling his lips back so you could see his teeth. His eyes shot pure penetrating rays of death in this kid’s direction. It was FRIGHTENING. A bitter chill filled the room. I don’t think he actually needed to say anything – The kid left without any additional drama. Jackie Mclean, for all his grace and patience, was not one to be messed with.

I remember the time Jackie took me out to lunch at a restaurant in Hartford’s North End. His intention was to introduce me to the whitefish sandwich. It was the best meal I ever had. I remember the first time I went with him to the Artists Collective in Hartford. We pulled up and parked along Clark Street where the old home of the Collective used to be. I got out of the car and it was the first time I’d heard West African style drumming. The entire building shook with energy. The sound filled the entire block. It was amazing.

IÂ remember Jackie’s little red Honda car. I remember when he bought the buff colored Caddy. Jackie told me how he and Rene had driven up to Cape Cod and taken the new car through it’s paces on the way.

I remember one time Jackie went to Japan for Blue Note and brought me back a Sake cup (because my name is spelled Socci). “Its a Sake cup for Charley Sock-ee”. Despite the creative pronunciation of my name I cherish my sake cup.

I remember when Sonny Rollins came and did a concert in Hartford at the Lincoln Theater, and Jackie took me and a handful of other students back stage. Jackie introduced me (at that point speechless) to Sonny. Sonny said (in his inimitable Marvin the Martian-like speaking voice) – “CHARLIE – that’s a very special name [as in Charlie Parker], do you know that?”. I still have the program Sonny autographed, writing “1968” instead of “1986” for the date. I always wondered if there were any kind of odd significance to the error.

Jackie was much more than a teacher or jazz legend to me. He had a profoundly powerful influence on me as a human being during my late teens and my years at Hartt. He was someone I am more than proud to have known. I will never forget Jackie McLean.

2 thoughts on “Remembering Jackie McLean

  1. I am 14 years old, as of now. My obsession with the tenor saxophone began when I was in 7th grade (12 years old). My instructor, Mr. Keith Kyle, initiated my urge to play saxophone because, before I had started his class, I did not even know what the little signs in the church books were!
    I asked my teacher for help, and he taught me everything I needed to know for a solid sax-playing foundation. Finally, when I started my random playing for up to 2 hours a day, I knew I that I wanted to have a career in music. I started getting advanced lessons, from Keith, on playing classical pieces like Minuets, Gavotte, and Airs. This however did not appetize me as much as the honkety and emotional jazz-blues sounds of professional saxophone players.
    I am no stranger to conceit either, because we had an event in our school known as the Principal’s Breakfast in which some teachers picked their favorite student to receive a framed acknowledgement of the student. I got upset because Mr. Kyle picked a clarinetist of whose identity I will keep secret by calling her simply Hannah. Hannah who knew only what she learned in class about the clarinet. However, I had mixed emotions about this because I had liked Hannah since 7th grade. I got over this trauma a week later when my mother told me that this award was only for kids that did not receive much public recognition and I was very popular for my talent.
    I then started my urge for composing music, of which I failed at miserably until I got on the internet and learned composition structure as well as chord/triad structure. I wanted to learn to compose because recently graduated senior named Michael, a trombonist, set a huge precedent for me to meet because he was pro at everything he did: playing trombone, playing piano, and composing/ arranging music. Because of Michael, nobody thought of me as truly talented, so I knew that I had to learn to compose and play piano but while I was at it, I was going to play jazz-style piano music and compose blues-jazz music to suffice my professional thirst.
    I have only a student YTS-23 tenor and a hard rubber Vito mouthpiece so I must raise myself economically so that I can reach my goal of getting a YTS-875 and a Jody Jazz sterling silver mouthpiece. I use strength 3 reeds and I hope to raise my strength to 3.5 so I can get better tone quality.
    If you have any suggestions, please e-mail me!

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    Hi Joseph,

    Thanks for your note.

    It sounds like you are off to a very good start. My best advice is probably something you’ve heard before – but that is to stick with it. Jackie McLean used to say, “This is a cross country race…” – and I took that to mean that the most important thing is that you stay in it. It can get very discouraging sometimes but you have to stay in the game. Many of the people I knew years ago coming up, some very talented and some only modestly talented, have achieved success in music because they stayed with it. So don’t ever give up. Its a very special thing to be a musician.

    Keep your eyes set on upgrading your horn and mouthpiece – but don’t let your progress be delayed for want of a better horn. Wayne Shorter made a recording using a Bundy (a lot worse than a Yamaha) with Miles Davis once when his own horn got messed up on the airplane. Bird used all kinds of horns because he often had his in hock.

    That stiffer reed might be just what you need right now on that mouthpiece. I suggest you go ahead and start using them. Play long tones. Lots of long tones until they soften up a bit. Practice with the harder reed and then go back to the soft one for playing if you aren’t quite ready.

    You seem to write (language write) very well – an important skill. Keep writing (music and language). Music and language are both about communication – and the ability to communicate well brings great power.

    Best of luck,

    Charley

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