The following interview took place on April 3, 2000 at Jackie McLean’s home in Hartford, CT. I’ve idolized J-Mac since I was about twelve-years old, and his concept of music continues to be an incredibly important point of definition for my own work. I began studying with Jackie in 1997 (auditing classes at the Hartt School of Music), and I also taught saxophone lessons to young children at the Artists Collective (cultural center he co-founded with his wife, Dollie, in 1970) from 1998-1999.
As I recall, my original “plan” for this interview was to try and focus on aspects of J-Mac’s career that had been somewhat overlooked in his previous interviews with people like Ken Burns, Terry Gross, Gil Noble, Ben Sidran, A.B. Spellman, and Valerie Wilmer, especially his work as a composer and his ability to keep his playing in a constant state of evolution. As a twenty-one-year-old “kid” studying at Wesleyan University and writing a senior thesis about my idol, I wasn’t particularly well-equipped to steer the conversation. But, in typical fashion, J-Mac was very generous during this somewhat sprawling interview. Needless to say, this is a precious memento from the years I spent studying with Jackie, and I’m so pleased to have it hosted here and to share it with everyone for the first time.
Steve Lehman: If I asked you who some of your influences were as a composer, would some stuff come to mind at all?
Jackie McLean: OK. Alright. It would be like, I guess…it’s a funny combination of people whose music I can get a feel for. Thelonious would be one of them. Thelonious, Tadd Dameron, kind of, and then a little later on, Gil Evans, his interpretations of some of that harmony and stuff.
But all of them come from Duke, I learned that later on, you know, that they all come from Duke. But I had never thought of Duke as my inspiration for writing. I mean, I always loved his stuff. The more I learn about music the more amazed I am at what he was doing so early.
SL: His concept.
JM: Yeah, you know. But for the time that I came along, it was Thelonious, and then Bud and Bird together, kind of their compositional style.
SL: Stuff like “Quadrangle,” the opening where it’s two horns and just a drummer, or maybe just drums and bass, it made me think a little bit of like the beginning to “Ko-Ko.”
JM: “Ko-Ko.” Right. Yeah, those kind of things. And then of course, there’s some harmony that I draw from, like for instance, on that piece that I did….I think it was (on the chord changes to) “Star Eyes” on “Capuchin Swing,” on the bridge, I stole that right out from Bach: a direct line from him.
SL: Wow. Another thing that made me think of possible Classical influences…the chord, the voicing for “A Fickle Sonance”, that stacked harmony. Or is that something you just heard?
JM: No, I think I just heard that. But I did steal from Poulenc on “A Ballad for Doll.”
SL: On Jackie’s Bag.
JM: Yeah, the second to last section, that harmony at the end of the melody, those chords coming down I took from Francis Poulenc, a French composer that I liked a lot.
I can’t explain what it is about him that I like. He’s got a little sense of humor or something in his classical concept.
SL: He’s hard to categorize.
JM: Yeah [laughs].
SL: Because, there’s definitely some, like you said, humor. And he also, I feel like if you look at when the piece was written, and then you hear the thing, it makes you feel like it would have been much later.
JM: Yeah. He’s quite an incredible guy. A lot of people don’t like him.
SL: That’s true.
JM: You know. And I can’t help but feel…I can’t understand it. It’s something about his writing that really gets me, you know?
SL: Yeah. Yeah. I haven’t heard that much of it.
JM: And then of course there’s all the other beautiful things. The whole idea of the word beauty as it fits in music, of something that’s beautiful to your ear, without having to put them in a category of Jazz or Classical. Take “Romeo & Juliet” by Tchaikovsky. Miles, I always admired something in Miles’s playing because Miles heard all these things, you know. He quoted a lot of beautiful melodies.
SL: From Western Classical music?
JM: Yeah. Oh yeah.
SL: OK. I didn’t know that.
JM: Oh yeah, man. All of those influences, you know?
SL: And what about, I know you mentioned Stravinsky?
JM: Oh, well of course. Yeah.
SL: That goes without saying.
JM: Yeah, and Bartok, you know, those guys. And there’s another guy that I liked a lot, Alec Wilder. This guy really touches me, man.
SL: The tunes you wrote in the early 50s, they all have such a modern feel to them.
JM: Uh huh.
SL: You know, “Dr. Jackle”, “Little Melonae,” even this tune on that album with George Wallington…”Snakes”.
JM: “Snakes,” yeah. Well, that was after I had listened to Stravinsky and them cats. Yeah man. Oh, here it is [finds Alec Wilder recording]. Listen to this guy’s writing, man. It’s just beautiful, man [plays unknown Alec Wilder orchestral piece for approximately 3 minutes].
SL: Yeah, that’s beautiful.
JM: Yeah, so I just wanted to let you hear that.
SL: Cool. Wow, I don’t even know this guy.
JM: Yeah, Alec Wilder. I’ve been liking his music since I was about 18. I’m pretty sure he’s one of those guys like Gershwin or somebody. He’d be up in his 90s if he was alive now. So that tells you how bad he is, man. If he was born in 1907 and…he’s writing some pretty stuff.
But as far as my writing is concerned: a lot of the melodies, even now man, I scratch my head on them! Because if you try to sing them without the chords being under them, they don’t connect. It’s funny [laughs].
SL: Yeah, I know what you mean. That’s what made it hard, in some ways, to write about it. In one way, you’re dealing with your influences, but also some of that stuff is just good musical instincts, intuition and stuff. I mean, when you said Monk, it made sense. His melodies are so beautiful and personal. Also he deals with chromaticism a lot, which I know is in some of your pieces…
SL: Like “Verne’s Tune (The Three Minors)”, and…
JM: Oh, a lot of them.
SL: And “Tippin’ the Scales”…“Mr. E”…
JM: Yeah, “Mr. E”, right.
SL: Yeah, to bring it up to date to a recent composition. I don’t mean to keep bringing it back to your oldest music.
JM: I understand.
SL: It’s just what’s at the top of my head. But, yeah, a ton of stuff.
I did a gig with Eddie Henderson a while ago in October. And we played “Khalil the Prophet” before the gig.
SL: Yeah, and Eddie said, excitedly, “What is that? What is that?” And I said, “Oh, this is one of J-Mac’s tunes.” And he goes, “I knew it sounded like that!…it sounds like him!”
JM: Oh! [laughs]
SL: I mean, you really have established a real identity. There’s something that’s really unique. But you can’t like bottle it up and say, “Well, this is it.”
JM: The first person to make me feel as though I could write something and it would be worth something, was Miles. “Dig” was the second thing that I ever wrote.
The first thing I wrote I’m ashamed to say was so corny, on “What Is This Thing Called Love?” when I was about 15. I’d been playing for about a year. And I’d started to learn about the tunes from going to Bud’s house all the time. Like that “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and “Hot House” were the same tune.
“Oh, yeah, Tadd Dameron took ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’, which is like a standard, and wrote this other melody. So, I’m gonna write another melody on this.” You know. So, I wrote this little sad melody.
And then I wrote “Dig” when I was about 17 and a half or 18. That’s when I went down to the Birdland and sat in with Miles, and then went to his house the next day. And he had asked me if I had any tunes and I told him yes, and I played “Dig” for him.
And right away he said, “Oh, show me that.” You know? And I played it for him, and we played it together. And then I started working with him, and I started learning his repertoire. Of course then Sonny Rollins was in the band too, and Sonny had his tunes that he wrote. We used to do “Wee Dot” and “Conception.”
One night Miles told me to come down when he was working with Coleman Hawkins in Birdland. Miles said, “Come on down tonight, I want you to check out something.” I went down. And I looked up. And when Miles saw me come in and sit at a table he whispered something to Coleman Hawkins and he counted off. And I saw Coleman Hawkins play “Dig” with Miles.
SL: Oh, shit!
JM: [Sings melody of “Dig” with heavy Hawkins-like vibrato for comedic effect]
JM: [Laughing] It knocked me out, man. It was like so incredible to see this guy play it.
SL: And you were what, 18?
JM: Yeah, I was 18 and a half, something like that.
And then, whatever I wrote, after that, Miles liked it. Because he recorded almost everything I wrote. Like, things like, “Minor March”, “Little Melonae” …and all of those things. And then, later on, when I did “Dr. Jackle”…he liked that a lot, you know?
SL: He did it real fast.
JM: Yeah, he does, and then he changed the ending of it. But he’s somebody that liked my writing. I think one of my biggest honors was when he had the band with Ball, Trane, Red Garland, Philly Joe, and Paul. Miles called me and said, “Come down, man, to Birdland, and rehearse the band on your tunes, man. Bring some stuff down and do it. I’ll give you $100.”
So, I said “OK.” And I came out that afternoon and I rehearsed Trane and them on “Little Melonae” and ”Dr. Jackle.”
This was before he recorded them at Columbia. This was when he first put that band together with Cannonball. And he gave me a lot of respect, cause I remember that they were playing the Apollo. And, you know, I had already been with Miles and wasn’t working with him any more, but he and I were still real close. So, I walk into the Apollo Theater and he was there with his sextet. And we were coming down the aisle and Miles was finishing up a tune. And soon as he saw me sit down, in like the second row, right there in the front, he turned around and called “Dr. Jackle”. Because I hadn’t heard the band play it. And, aw, man, it was such a thrill for me. He called it and looked down at me and Dollie: that was a thrill.
SL: I see what you’re saying: To have someone like Miles let you know that you’re a composer meant a lot.
JM: Yeah. But then when I went to work with Miles at Birdland…we worked there quite a bit, when he had Sonny in the band…Sonny and Art Blakey and Percy, and I think it was Kenny Drew or somebody in the band. And then Sonny went to jail, got arrested, and he was gone. So, the band dropped down to a quintet and remained working Birdland. So, Miles called a rehearsal…we had been playing, we had the book, so I don’t know why he called this rehearsal, you know. I go down there and I thought “Oh shit, man, what is this cat gonna drop on me now.” Because I was just getting comfortable playing what we were doing.
SL: Yeah. Yeah.
JM: Because a lot of the tunes, you know…to tell you the truth, man. I just, until today, I kind of marvel at…when I went with Miles, I was only playing 4 years, you know. And to me, that’s a short amount of time
SL: Really short.
JM: You know? A short amount of time. And that includes the time that I first touched the saxophone with soprano, and then got the alto a year later. So, it was incredible, man, when I got up there, because Sonny had been playing several years longer than me.
Somebody once told me he got his saxophone when he was 9. But now, somebody else told me that Sonny said that he got his saxophone when he was 14. So, I’m confused.
SL: He’s not that much older than you.
JM: No. He’s a year and half, two years.
SL: I’ve read some stuff where you remember meeting him — or had been in school together — he had already been playing.
JM: Oh yeah, he was already been playing. Yeah. When Sonny recorded “Wail” and “Dance of the Infidels” with Bud, I don’t think he was more than 17 or 18.
But that’s how great he was then. I mean, he caused some guys to, you know, crash. Like, Andy Kirk Jr., a good tenor player. Sonny caused him to quit. If you didn’t have whatever it takes to keep going or forging ahead: Sonny was so great man that it was frightening. To all of his peers. Even Bird would talk about Sonny like he was one of the cats from his era in terms of his ability.
SL: In my paper I talk about how important the environment that you come up in was. Maybe, if you had grown up in Connecticut, or something, and not had high, high standards to live up to, you might not…
JM: Develop like that…
SL: Yeah, as quickly as you did.
JM: That’s true.
SL: But I guess there’s the other side, that it becomes a little too much for some. I had always wondered about Andy Kirk Jr.
JM: Oh man, he was such a great, man. Bird used to come sit in with his band and practice. Andy was really incredibly great. Even Sonny Stitt kind of backed away, you know, and kind of gave him room, because he was so bad, man. Little light feathery tone, you know. But, oh God, what he played was so much. And, at that time, Sonny sounded dated. Sonny sounded like Coleman Hawkins during this period.
SL: And is this when he was still playing alto?
JM: No. He had just turned to tenor. And his alto playing was like Coleman Hawkins. So, even though he could play good, you know. I was suspect of that style, for me. Even though I knew it was stupid on my part. Because I know Coleman Hawkins is a great, great influence on all the saxophone players…on everybody.
JM: But for some reason, I was so involved with Prez, that when I heard anybody that wasn’t coming from that point of view, I was not interested.
Anyway, Sonny was strung out on heroin, and so was I. So was Kirk, they both were using heroin. I remember when I wasn’t doing it and they were. I was like an outsider from the clique. At this point, I wasn’t musically together enough to get up on the stage with them. Secondly, they were using heroin and I wasn’t. I was like a goody goody little boy that can’t play that well…[using high-pitched voice] “Hey fellas. How you doing?” And they would [shaking his head] “Aw, man…” [laughs] And it was a terrible period for me, you know. But the minute that I did use heroin, then it was like the club was waiting for me.
SL: You felt like that automatically?
JM: Oh, I was one of them, man. You know, I had fangs like this…
JM: You know what I mean? It was like a club of Draculas.
SL: You were up at night with them!
JM: Yeah! [laughs] Exactly.
SL: I hear you.
JM: So, it was incredible…that period. But Kirk, when he heard…see, he was the baddest cat around – everybody knew it. Even Sonny knew it, you know. Sonny’s playing like Coleman Hawkins. And this is around the time when Bird and Miles recorded “Sippin’ at Bells”… and all of that stuff…”Milestones.” And here comes Bird playing tenor.
SL: Oh, on that Collector’s Items album?
JM: Well, back in those days, it was just a new release…Miles Davis with Charlie Parker on tenor and the tunes that they played, you know. And for us…for everybody, it was hearing Bird play tenor for the first time. And when I say us, it means, everybody…Sonny Rollins, Kirk…everybody. But Kirk was already playing a lot like Charlie Parker and Prez…he was already there. Sonny was playing like Coleman Hawkins. There wasn’t much of this other style in Sonny’s playing. So, this is what the scene is…they were using and what not. And then here comes this record release. And then Sonny disappears. Nobody sees him for about 9 or 10 months.
SL: Wow. Man.
JM: And then it was like, “Oh, man, Sonny’s in Chicago.”….“No, man, Sonny’s in…” name some other place in upstate NY. “Sonny’s not around.” So everybody forgot about him, especially me.
Andy Kirk was my idol. I used to hang out with him all the time and try to learn as much as I could from him. He helped me a lot. Then one day I was home and he came by my house. And I open the door and he’s standing there looking shocked, you know. So, I said, “What’s the matter, man? Come on in.”
He came in the house.
And he said “Oh, man. Sonny’s back.”
And I said “Sonny who?” I remember this, Because that’s how much I loved Kirk. I said, “Sonny who, man?”
He said, “Sonny Rollins. Newk.”
And I said “Oh, is he back? Oh yeah? Well, so what, man?”
JM: You know? And then he says “Man, I went and heard him last night, he’s playing with Miles.” I said “Miles Davis?” You know, I mean that was just shocking to me. And he says, “Yes, man. And they’re working in Brooklyn. You gotta go hear this guy and check it out.”
And I was like, “Aw, man”….because Kirk was playing so much, you know. So, later that evening I went out and ran to one of my boys, and said, “Come on with me over to Brooklyn, man.” So, we got on the subway and went over to this club. It was a hot August night, I’ll never forget…burning up…humid…hot, you know, coming out of the subway, walking down the street towards the club. And the door of the club was open. And I listened.
I said “Oh, man, Bird is sittin’ in with them!” Just listening, you know…“Come on, man. Let’s hurry up.” And what I heard was so incredible, man. It was happening. And I didn’t even think of Sonny, because the last time I had heard Sonny he sounded [sings Coleman Hawkins impression], you know, very much like Coleman Hawkins, you know.
JM: And I got to the door and there Sonny was, man, standing out there in front of the mic, playing. I was just standing on the side looking at him. I said “Oh, God.” It just turned everybody around.
That was 1948 or sometime, that’s when he just disappeared from our neighborhood. But I heard he went to Chicago and was playing…just blowing people away out in Chicago. But first he went to upstate NY for a long period. When the record of “Milestones” and “Sippin’ at Bells” came out, it’s like he took those records and went away. And stayed away in one place for maybe…he went to a little town up there where J.R. Montrose lives. He probably went and lived with J.R. or something like that. Because J.R. idolized him, you know. And so he woodshedded, man, he changed his sound. Oh, man.
And it drove Andy nuts. Andy just stopped playing and started getting real…like a derelict, you know, not taking care of himself. And his mother and father, and everybody was looking at him…raggedy going down the street. But me, I just kept going, I just said, “So, I gotta get into Sonny’s band.” Because Sonny had just started a band with Gilly Coggins, and…
SL: Cats from your neighborhood, Sugar Hill.
JM: Yeah, all the cats…Kenny Drew…one of them was playing…and then Percy Heath, and then he had Arthur Taylor, you know, and Lowell Lewis on trumpet.
SL: I must have read you mentioning him before.
JM: His name is known just from being around us, he never recorded.
I was starting to use a lot of drugs and Sonny was using. And one day Sonny said, “Why don’t you come by to the West Indian club tonight. Put on a suit, man. You can come over here and play with us.”
So, I said “Oh, man. You want me to play with you tonight?”
He said “Yeah.”
I was like, in heaven, man. I went and played that hit. Then I started playing with him on a regular basis in his band, you know?
I don’t think I could have done whatever I did if I wasn’t in Bud’s company a lot when I first started playing. Because I only had my horn about a year, a year and a half when I met Bud. And I already could play “Buzzy,” you know [sings beginning of “Buzzy”]. And played it like, with gusto, you know?
When Bud first heard me play that, he was like “Hey, man. How old are you?” I looked much younger than I was, you know. When I was 14 I looked like I was about 13 or 12.
SL: You’ve still got that: You know, you and Rene…“Oh, your brother!”
JM: Yeah, right. But anyway, man.
SL: I have another thing in there, I remember one time in class you were telling us, somewhere in here you have a tape of you and Richie Powell playing “Groovin’ High,” playing the [sings opening to “Groovin’ High without main portion of the melody]
JM: Yeah, right. I’ll let you hear that.
SL: Cool. Yeah. I’d be real interested to hear that. Let me see…this has been so incredible…so much information. Two more things I wanted to ask you about real quickly. One, you mentioned for a second in the interview you did with Ben Sidran an alto player named Rudy Williams as being like a stepping stone, like he had some of Bird’s stuff.
JM: Right. Well, he was a legend. Before Bird came to New York, he was the baddest alto player walking in New York. He was playing a band called the Savoy Sultans. It was like a little 9-piece band that just kicked ass. They played at the Savoy all the time. And when like a guest band would come in, they would open for them, and then present whoever the band was. And then, if they didn’t act right, then the Savoy Sultans would challenge them. And, so there would be a battle of the bands on the weekend and the Savoy Sultans could kick everybody’s ass…it was 9 pieces. And one of the reasons was they had little young Rudy Williams on alto, who could play his ass off. His style was like, Willie Smith, that’s the style he played in. But he had a lot of technique and a nice sound.
But then Bird came to New York and Rudy Williams heard Charlie Parker, because they had a battle of the bands at the Savoy Ballroom when Bird showed up at the Savoy with Jay McShann’s band. And I think when Jay McShann went on and Bird stood up and played, I think that Rudy Williams had been given a light. Because he was young. He was much younger than Willie Smith and them. He was ready to move forward beyond what he was doing.
SL: He wasn’t like set in his ways.
JM: Well, I don’t guess so, cause soon as he heard Bird, man, his style changed, you know? And so he made his recordings with the Savoy Sultans. And the next time you come, call me. And let’s get together again, and I’d like to play for you, some of this stuff, man. I have Rudy Williams with the Savoy Sultans and I have him with Babs Gonzales. And there’s a world of difference in his sound.
So, when I tried to play like Bird, when I first heard Bird play “Ko-Ko” and all those things, I couldn’t pick out anything too much. I could play some of the melodies, like “Buzzy” and “Now’s The Time.” But when it came to playing what he played on his instrument, the solos, man, it was too hard.
But then when Rudy Willams came out with Babs’s group, he was trying to play like Bird and…well, now, I shouldn’t say that, man. He just was influenced by Bird.
SL: He was taking some of the elements.
JM: Yeah, just changed his phrasing and added these other notes into his playing that weren’t so prevalent before. Flatted fifths and things, you know, that was fresh at that time.
So, yeah, he was an influence on me. I liked him a lot on alto. I liked his tone, you know…pretty tone.
SL: Of course part of what’s so amazing about Bird’s playing is how it sounds so fresh and modern today, you know? Live recordings, especially.
JM: Aw, man. It’s incredible, man.
SL: I have a lot of stuff…especially like him playing, of course, on “Rhythm” changes…
JM: Aw, all that. And you know, like, probably some of the best examples are the recordings that he made at the Royal Roost.
SL: Yeah, exactly.
JM: Those live hits, you know. I’ll show you something else that was strange about those days. There were so many musicians in Harlem and on the Hill where I lived…and in Brooklyn and the Bronx. In the four boroughs there was like…not like today, man. Today, there’s like 50,000 more musicians than when I was coming up.
JM: But there was some good musicians in those four boroughs. And everybody was waiting for Bird’s next record or the next record to come out…it was like documents, at that particular time, on this whole style, you know.
So, if you could get your hands on something that nobody else had, you had something incredible. It was almost like military intelligence, you know?
SL: Yeah, I know.
JM: So this night that Bird played live over the radio from Birdland, the guy that lives across the street from me had a wire recorder. And he recorded that whole broadcast. Some of it is on these records now, where you hear Symphony Sid [imitates Symphony Sid], you know.
SL: Yeah, it’s corny…
JM: Yeah, but it was great in those days. So, like, the guy made these wire recordings and you could go to his house and buy them from him for $2 each. So, the night that Bird made “Be-Bop” and “Big Foot” and “Groovin’ High” and so much of this stuff, I went over and bought that stuff, man…took it back to my house and listened to it man…I said “Oh, shit, man.” So, I started transcribing this stuff, man, and working on it. Then I’d go to sessions outside my neighborhood and I would be playing this stuff, man…they’d be listening, thinking that it was my stuff. Sonny had it, all of us on the Hill had those recordings. So, that helped us a lot, man. It’s like we had a secret weapon.
All of us that lived in our group, you know, Kenny Drew, Arthur Taylor, Sonny Rollins, and like Lowell Lewis…Andy Kirk, Jr. We all had those recordings from Birdland and the Royal Roost. It was incredible. We used to go from borough to borough playing this new stuff.
In those days Max Roach was like the Godfather of Brooklyn. He had a place called the Chess Club and we would go over there every Friday night and there’d be a jam session…Max would be there and all these great musicians from Brooklyn. Randy Weston, you know, because he was a Brooklyn guy. And Ernie Henry.
SL: He was from Brooklyn?
JM: Yeah. Ernie Henry. Cecil Payne…Duke Jordan…all these cats, you know, plus Willie Jones. A whole lot of younger musicians from Brooklyn. Sonny would come with us, and everybody would be really excited, because wherever he played he dominated. It was incredible.
SL: Sonny still dominates!
I wanted to quickly address things you did in the 60s, 70s, 80s, right now…
JM: Uh huh.
SL: Could you talk about saxophonists who were coming up in that period, the mid-60s, who influenced you…other than Trane, obviously?
JM: Well, you know, I liked John Jenkins a lot.
JM: The alto player from Chicago. And it was Sonny that told me about him. And then when I went to Chicago with Mingus I heard him…he came and sat in. And that was very inspiring to me, because I liked the way he played, you know. Even though he was like, using me as a model…me and Bird.
SL: I was gonna say, he’s traditionally thought of as being under your influence.
JM: Yeah, he was, in a sense. But he also had some…I can’t explain it. But he has very fine taste in terms of his notes and different stuff.
SL: Yeah. I know in the liner notes to the Mosaic box set of your work they talk about Trane being an influence on your playing. Is that fair to say?
JM: Oh, yeah, man. And I remember when it happened. I mean, I have to always let people know that like, when I heard Trane, Trane was working with Dizzy’s band and he was playing alto. And every show that I went to I think it was always Little Bird that took the solos.
SL: Uh huh.
JM: Trane was just kind of playing parts. He wasn’t playing any solos. I never heard him play alto in that band. Always…Little Bird…Jimmy Heath…
SL: Right. Right.
JM: And so then, when I heard him in New York, playing tenor, it was when Miles brought him to sit in at the Audubon Ballroom, with he and Sonny together, you know.
JM: And I was real impressed with Trane. To me, Sonny sounded greater, because Sonny was more original. Trane, at that time, sounded like very much like Sonny Stitt and Dexter. Playing great, but, you know, it was just that I enjoyed Sonny a little more.
But when I heard him at the Bohemia in ’57 to Miles’s band: It was at a time when John stopped using heroin and was just like coming to work every night like while he was going through withdrawal. And that’s something that I couldn’t imagine that anyone could do.
SL: Yeah, I remember you telling that people didn’t know. They were saying, “Why didn’t Miles get Hank Mobley in the band?”
JM: Right. Exactly. Here’s Trane coming in every night sick and drinking booze, as much as he can drink to get through this thing. And then when he gets on the stage, his clothes were all wrinkled up because he was sleeping in his same clothes. And this is about the 4th night now. They opened on like a Tuesday. Friday night, when the club is packed with people man, here comes Trane with the same clothes smelling like, you know…and Miles is looking at him…and I’m listening to him play and his pain and his physical discomfort in addition to whatever else…it was almost like Jesus….it was almost religious in the sense that it was like….the stone rolling away from the cave where Jesus’s body was…he was gonna rise up…I mean he was delirious. And they would play them tunes of Miles, you know the band. And he was sloppy, playing the melodies with Miles, it wasn’t smooth.
But when he got to his solo, and they had one tune where they corral him up in a mode for about 32 bars. [sings rhythm] “Dang—Dang–Dang…Dang—Dang–Dang…” Like that, you know. And he was…he was playing so much saxophone, man, it was like…and he couldn’t…what he couldn’t make he just kept going and it sounded like he made it anyway. I mean even when he hit bad notes…everything sounded like….there was nothing that he could do that was wrong…it was all out of tune….all…had nothing to do with changes and everything…but swinging!…and then every now and then he’d get it back together and come back in on the changes, you know…and right back at it…oh man. I was sitting out there with my mouth hanging open. And people were coming up to me saying “Man, why don’t Miles get Hank Mobley?”
And I was saying “What are you crazy? Don’t you see what’s going on here?”
“Aw man he’s up there all drunk.”
But I said “Man, are you listening to him?”
“Aw man he ain’t shit…he sounds…”
You know. I was like “Man, what is wrong with these cats?”
That was the time that John had me.
SL: He kind of turned your head.
JM: He had me. He got me. Because, I mean, he was playing what I was looking for. You know it’s like when I heard Bird the first time. Bird was playing what I wanted to hear. I didn’t like any altos…I didn’t like the alto.
Then we were off Monday – the club was closed. We came back Tuesday and John had taken a shower, changed his clothes, and looked like he, you know…was starting slowing down. And instead of drinking all that hard whiskey he was just having a little beer. But his playing now came from that delirium back into focus. You know, he was playing the melodies just so with Miles.
JM: And playing, but not out there in that the other place. I don’t know what happened…he was delirious. And in that delirium, I think I heard him play everything he was going to play in the next 25 years.
And then he stopped doing it and just went back to, you know, just gradually got there over a period of 25 years.
SL: I mean, I can only imagine, you know, what he must have been going through, trying to just do it cold turkey like that.
JM: And then he had to play in front of an audience!
JM: Because he was playing a whole lot. I have to get the other recordings of Trane and Monk from that club. Have you got that?
SL: I have the one that his wife made at the Five Spot. I think I have that somewhere – real bad sound quality, but it’s there. And I think that’s it. And then just the studio album. The live album is on Blue Note now.
JM: It’s on Blue Note?
SL: Yeah, you can order it from them.
JM: Oh, OK.
JM: It’s weird, man. It’s a very strange time right now, man. There’s a lot of talented cats out here that can play. But they’re not using them on new recordings. I’m getting ready to talk to Bruce Lundvall this week about this. You know, I’m gonna tell him, man. “I’m getting depressed at the shit y’all are putting out.”
[Steve Lehman editoral note: McLean may be referring here to recordings by then Blue Note artists Erik Truffaz, Us3, Richard Elliot, and/or St. Germain.]
JM: I mean there’s some good players and good people out here.
SL: Jimmy Greene is doing so great and so is Abraham Burton: I just heard Abe on tenor on this Louis Hayes album. It’s great.
JM: Oh yeah, man. He’s playing his ass off. And so is Antoine Roney.
SL: I haven’t heard him in a little while.
JM: Ooh…shit. There’s a record out called The Village with Wallace. It’s really good.
But yeah, it’s a lot of good music out here. I keep adding on to what I’m trying to play. And being open to be influenced by anything that’s musical and appealing to me.
It’s not like copying, because my concept of playing already includes a lot of things that I can’t even do! And every now and then, you imagine things, and you say, “Aw, man”…you don’t know how you can get to certain things. And then you hear somebody get to it. You say, “Oh, there it is!” That’s it.
SL: It’s like a road map to where you want to get to.
JM: Yeah, that’s all it is.
SL: But that’s how some of us still feel about you. You guys have been playing the Vanguard in December pretty much every year. We all come out to hear you guys, and we leave right on the borderline between being real excited and kind of depressed. Like, “Aw, man, I really gotta shed now.”
JM: [Laughs]. Well that’s the way it is with everybody. It’s great and it just lifts you up. And then you get back and say, “Aw, man. How am I gonna do this?”
SL: For me it’s definitely been a cycle of being excited by the possibilities of what you can get into.
JM: I would like very much to go on a tour with Sonny. You know. Play with him, man, for so many concerts. And have it like a quintet. Because we both came from the same thing. You know, we did play together at the Beacon Theater. I mean it felt like a tour was something that could have happened…Were you there?
SL: I wasn’t there but I heard a tape of it and I heard about it from Jimmy Greene.
JM: It was the first time that Sonny and I had played together in…oh God…so long. And it was so natural. It was just natural, man, you know. And it was love. I could feel that he was felt good that I could be a foil for him, you. And really talk to him on the instrument. It was fun. But we can’t…you know, nobody does anything like this, man…
SL: I wonder if you guys in the summer time could do like some festivals that were happening close enough to each other.
JM: No. It’s a mixture of a lot of things. First of all, Sonny is strange. Sonny likes certain things a certain way. It might be something he wouldn’t want to do. And I can’t imagine why not, you know. But Sonny is strange, man. You know, like, the thing he did….I understand him going away in ’49 or whenever that was. And he went away with Bird’s records and came back. It was like a butterfly, you know. He went through a metamorphoses and came back a beautiful…that’s just what it was.
SL: The last thing I wanted to ask you about…because I mentioned the session in 1968 with Tyrone Washington and Norman Connors. And how it was free but you were conducting things, and this never got released.
JM: Yes. Right.
SL: This idea of conducting, and groove and giving cues and stuff, you did it actually in class a few times.
JM: Yeah, uh huh.
SL: And it was really like a wake up call for me. Because, playing in Anthony Braxton’s group…not to simplify it, but, in some ways, his music is really based on a pretty intricate set of cues that we all can give each other and that he can give us, so that anything can happen. We can all be playing a piece together, if he wants. Or there can be three different pieces going on at once. He always talked about the Coltrane Ascension date of being the root of that, of John kind of directing…
JM: Directing, yeah…
SL: So, when you said that you had done it too, it was kind of like, “Oh, ok, so there’s an evolution.”
SL: So, if you could just talk about what was going on, because I don’t want to misquote or anything.
JM: Well, it’s funny, that’s where I’m going, like in a direction like that. I want to get my rhythm section rehearsed well enough now so that they can follow me somewhere and do some things with me under direction. So, in other words, like some signals, preset signals to go into a particular thing, you know. Or where it would be to have it so that the drums set-up a rhythm and go from there. Or whatever.
But, that day, when we did that record date with Tyrone, Tyrone wrote one or two charts, and Woody Shaw wrote one or two, and then Bobby Hutcherson. And then I wrote some sketches that would be done and some notes that would be done by direction. And then we had some ideas set that we would do tempo here. And then I’d direct them to drop out and let the melody hang, like one horn at a time. And then I’d point to somebody to come in, whether it would be the bass, you know. It was great, man.
JM: It was like I was improvising using them as an instrument like, you know. And it was great. It was fun.
And I have never heard that session.
SL: Oh really?
JM: Never heard it.
SL: I hope it sees the light of day someday. Mr. McLean, this has been a real thrill.
JM: Aw man, well man, listen, man, it’s my pleasure.
Further reading: Steve Lehman’s 2007 article, “McLean’s Scene: Jackie McLean as Improviser, Educator, and Activist.”