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Jazz Saxophonist Jackie Mclean

The legendary alto sax player began playing saxophone at the age of 15 in native New York City. Schooled in bebop at the start of his career, McLean names Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Charlie Parker as influences. He's played with jazz greats pianist Bud Powell, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus. He continues to play and record today. He also teaches music at the University of Hartford.

43:58

Other segments from the episode on February 22, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 26, 2001: Interview with Jackie McLean; Review of the Vermeer exhibit at the Met.

Transcript

DATE March 26, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Jackie McLean discusses his career in music
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, the alto saxophonist and composer Jackie McLean has been one of the
stars of jazz since the '50s. He started off as a Charlie Parker disciple,
soon found his own voice and emerged as one of the leaders of hard bop. In
the late '50s, McLean played with the band most associated with hard bop, Art
Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. In '59, McLean signed with Blue Note Records
and over the next eight years made 21 recordings for the label, many of which
have been reissued. His mentors, along with Parker and Blakey, were Bud
Powell, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus. McLean became a mentor to many
young players. In 1970, he founded the African-American music department at
the University of Hartford and has taught there ever since. Jazz critic
Francis Davis has said about McLean, `His best solos can pin back your ears
with their crying intensity.' McLean's latest CD, "Nature Boy," is
uncharacteristic in that it's an album of ballads. Let's start with the title
track. Cedar Walton is at the piano.

(Soundbite of "Nature Boy")

GROSS: That's Jackie McLean from his latest CD, "Nature Boy." Jackie McLean,
welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. JACKIE McLEAN: Well, thank you. I'm very happy to be here.

GROSS: You got your first alto saxophone at the age of 15. How did you get
it?

Mr. McLEAN: I got it on my 15th birthday. But I had been playing a year. My
godfather, Norman Cobbs, played the saxophone and he gave me a soprano
saxophone for my 14th--when I was 14. And then my mom and my stepfather
bought me an alto when I was 15.

GROSS: Why did they get you the alto? Did you want it? Had you asked for
it?

Mr. McLEAN: Oh, yeah. You know, the soprano saxophone didn't excite me at
all. It was straight. It was silver. It wasn't curved. It wasn't gold,
and all the things that I used to like to look at when I saw someone playing
the saxophone. So it was like an odd duck. I couldn't wait to get what I
called a real saxophone.

GROSS: You said that you really preferred the sound of a tenor saxophone and
you tried to make the alto sound like a tenor. How come you didn't get a
tenor?

Mr. McLEAN: Well, I didn't know that much about the instruments at that
particular time. All I wanted was a saxophone. My mother went out and I
guess bought the cheapest one. A tenor costs more than an alto. So she
bought me an alto. And that was good in a way because I took the alto and,
even though I loved Lester Young and the tenor players, Dexter Gordon, I
just tried to do the best I could on my alto to make it sound that way, until
I heard Charlie Parker. And when I heard Charlie Parker play the alto
saxophone, that kind of settled it for me.

GROSS: Where there things that other guys your age were doing that you shut
out of your life so that you'd have more time to practice?

Mr. McLEAN: Oh, yeah. My friends were running behind Zorro and Batman and
Superman, all those people. And I was running behind Charlie Parker,
Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. They were my heroes.

GROSS: Jackie McLean is my guest.

Bud Powell was one of your friends when you were still a teen-ager and you
learned a lot from him. How did you meet the pianist?

Mr. McLEAN: Well, his brother came to my dad's record shop and I was playing
a record with Bud playing piano on one of Charlie Parker's recordings. And he
just happened to be listening to it and I happened to tell the person that was
buying the record that this was Bud Powell on the piano. And when the guy
bought the record and left, he came to me and said, `That's my brother, Bud
Powell.' And I said, `Really?' I said, `What do you play? Do you play
music?' He said, `No.' And I took a good look at him and I said, `Sure,
right. I don't believe Bud Powell's your brother.' So he said he'll prove it
to me. He came back that Sunday and took me around to his house, where I met
Bud, and it frightened me to death when Bud came into that room and sat down
at the piano and started playing. I almost passed out. I mean, I was sitting
in the room with this great master, that I didn't believe was his brother.
And from that moment on, Bud and I became friends. Of course there was a
great deal of difference in our ages. Bud, I guess, was about seven or eight
years older than me, but he used to let me come down to the house and bring my
saxophone and play. He would play with me and it was very helpful. It really
helped me a whole lot to get myself together musically. And he did that for
Sonny Rollins, too. In fact, Sonny made a recording with Bud, I think when he
was very young, maybe around 18.

GROSS: So when this guy told you that he was Bud Powell's brother, but that
he didn't play, was that Richie Powell, because Richard Powell eventually did
play.

Mr. McLEAN: Yeah. It was Richie. Yeah, he did. I'm the one who started him
playing, because Bud didn't want him to play music. And he did everything he
could to keep Richard from learning how to play.

GROSS: But why? Why was he opposed to it?

Mr. McLEAN: I have no idea. I think it was kind of to be protective of
Richard, because during those days, there was a lot of things going on in
clubs amongst musicians and I guess it was kind of a protection. But at any
rate, I encouraged Richard to study with somebody else, a piano player named
Bob Bunyan that I knew. And Richard was another genius. I mean, he learned
how to play immediately, as soon as he sat at the piano. Everything that Bob
Bunyan taught him, he absorbed immediately. And so he and I began to hang out
and play together, play the blues and "I Got Rhythm," some very basic things
that he was beginning to learn as he started to learn how to play the piano.

GROSS: Good. OK.

Mr. McLEAN: The day that Richard came to the record shop, he was dressed in
paint clothes. He had paint all over him. He had a painter's hat, coveralls,
paint all over his hands, you know. And so when he said he was Bud's brother
and he didn't play music, I just did not believe him. I mean, it's
just--young kids, that's how we are.

GROSS: When Bud Powell walked into the room, did you recognize him and
realize, `OK, it really is Bud Powell,' or was it not until he started playing
that you were sure?

Mr. McLEAN: It wasn't until he started playing because I had never seen him
in my life. He walked in and said, `You don't believe that I'm Bud Powell,'
and that--I couldn't answer. I just looked. And he stepped over to the piano
and sat down and started to play and, oh, boy, I knew it was him the minute he
touched the piano.

GROSS: Were you embarrassed or apologetic?

Mr. McLEAN: I was flabbergasted. I was happy and all kind--I was all mixed
up. I mean, it was an incredible moment for me in my life, you know. I mean,
that time that I spent with Bud was--I guess I was just 15 at the time. For
the next two years, I was down at his house every week. I'd go down and spend
the weekends and sometimes he would play and sometimes he wouldn't. But I
also got a chance to--his mom used to let me take him to his jobs, go with
him and accompany him to the different jobs that he had, so I was able to go
with him to clubs like the Royal Roost, when they used to have afternoon
sessions, and take Bud down and watch him play, bring him back home. Because
he was--he had just come out of the hospital. He had a lot of shock therapy
and he needed someone as a chaperone with him all the time during these years,
so I was very fortunate that fate chose me to be the person to accompany this
great genius. It was like going into a place with Bach or Beethoven, some
real great master of music. I was very fortunate.

GROSS: What kind of mental illness was he diagnosed with, schizophrenia?

Mr. McLEAN: Well, he got beat up in Philly. The police beat him up when he
was with Cootie Williams' band and they hit him in the head with a blackjack
and he was sick from that. And I don't know how his--what his diagnosis was,
but I do know that they did electronic therapy on him.

GROSS: Shock therapy.

Mr. McLEAN: And shock treatment, yeah. And when he came home--I didn't know
him before he had this shock therapy, so when he would ask me who was Sonny
Stitt or make a record with Charlie Parker, I mean, it was because he was
trying to get his mind together. It was an incredible period in his life.

GROSS: Was it difficult to communicate with him or to be friends with him
because of that problem?

Mr. McLEAN: Not really. He was like--he was childlike sometimes. He was in
a state of grace, you know. He was just music. I mean, he would sit down at
the piano and play and it was just incredible. And then he would ask me, did
he sound good, and I'd say yes. Or when he was getting dressed to go to a
job, he'd ask me, `Do I look OK?' And I'd say, `Oh, yeah, Bud, you look
great. Come on. Let's go.' I mean, it was like being with my little brother
then in a way, you know.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a composition of Bud Powell's that you recorded in
1962 on your album, "Let Freedom Ring." And this is "I'll Keep Loving You."
Do you want to say anything about this before we hear it?

Mr. McLEAN: Oh, it's a beautiful ballad. Not very many people play it and I
love it and so I was very fortunate to be one of the few musicians from my
period that recorded this piece.

GROSS: Here it is, Jackie McLean in 1962.

(Soundbite of "I'll Keep Loving You")

GROSS: That's the Bud Powell composition "I'll Keep Loving You," from Jackie
McLean's 1962 recording "Let Freedom Ring." Jackie McLean, what are some of
the things you learned from Bud Powell? What was his approach to teaching
you?

Mr. McLEAN: Well, you know, in a way he kind of spoiled me because I would
ask him about chord progressions and things like that and he would say, `Don't
worry about that. Just use your ears.' And he'd play chords on the piano and
teach me melodies and I'd play them with him. And I did as he said. I used
my ears and so I was very late in really learning the theory of music. By the
time I started playing with musicians like Miles Davis, I had to really turn
around and start to do a serious study on chord progressions and such because
I was a little behind just playing by ear.

GROSS: My guest is alto saxophonist and composer Jackie McLean. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is alto saxophonist and composer Jackie McLean. He's been
one of the stars of jazz since the late '50s.

Your first record date, when you were 19, was with Miles Davis and I'm
wondering how you got the date.

Mr. McLEAN: Well, you know, you don't get a date. You earn it. Bud called
me to the house one day and told me--he said, `Listen, Miles needs an alto
player. I want you to go down and sit in with him in Birdland,' the club.
So I'll never forget it. It was a Monday night. So I came in from school
that afternoon and practiced and headed down to Birdland, where Miles had left
my name on the door. And I went in and sat in with his band and I guessed he
liked the way I played. And he said, `Come out to my house tomorrow.' And he
gave me his address. I went to his house. We practiced the next day, then I
started getting a few jobs with him. And Sonny Rollins was also working in
Miles' band, so we were together again in Miles' band.

GROSS: What was the advice or instructions that Miles gave you for this
session?

Mr. McLEAN: Well, one of the things that he told me--he said, `You've got to
learn something about the piano. You know nothing about the piano. You need
to learn how to construct chords and you've got to learn how to play by
chord progressions as well as by ear.' And so that was very helpful to me.
Miles was very encouraging to me during those years.

GROSS: Do you want to choose a track from this session with Miles Davis, the
"Dig" session that you'd like to play?

Mr. McLEAN: Well, maybe the title track.

GROSS: Sounds good.

Mr. McLEAN: "Dig."

GROSS: Let's hear it.

Mr. McLEAN: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of "Dig")

GROSS: That's "Dig" from the Miles Davis CD of the same name. It was the
first recording session that my guest, Jackie McLean, was featured on back
when McLean was 19 years old.

Did this date change your life?

Mr. McLEAN: It certainly did. It frightened me to death because the day that
I went into the studio to make the recording, Charlie Parker was there. He
was sitting in the room with the engineers and when I walked in and saw him
sitting in there, I almost passed out because he was my idol, and I just felt
like I couldn't play with him there. But he came out of the booth. He saw I
was nervous and he came over and talked to me and calmed me down and I was
able to do it.

GROSS: Did he say anything about what he thought of your playing?

Mr. McLEAN: Oh, yeah. He always encouraged me to play and always told me he
thought I played well. You know, a guy like Charlie Parker could destroy a
young player by just saying, `You don't sound good at all. You need to go
home and practice,' or something like that. And it could really crush
somebody who looked up and admired him as much as I did. So I imagine he
could see that and he really encouraged me a lot. He did a lot for me in my
early days.

GROSS: Was this the first time you met Parker?

Mr. McLEAN: No. Oh, my goodness. I used to run around behind him like a
puppy dog. We used to go downtown and wait to see him come out of the subway
when he was going to work at the Three Deuces of 52nd Street and we'd be
standing out there from 8:30 at night waiting for him to show up. Sometimes
he didn't show up until 9, 9:15. And when he'd come out of the subway, we'd
fall right in step with him and talk to him all the way around to the club.
And then he'd go inside--just to be close to him, just so that he would know
us--me and one of my buddies.

GROSS: Was he flattered? Did he mind?

Mr. McLEAN: Yeah. He was--I think it knocked him out, especially--he asked
my friend and I if we lived in that neighborhood and we told him no, we came
down from Harlem to see him. So he said, `You guys live all the way uptown?'
We said yeah. `You come all the way to see me?' We said yeah. I said, `I've
got to get going to get home now. My mother's gonna kill me,' because I used
to have to be home before 10:30 at night. And so we'd go downtown at 8:30,
see Charlie Parker, walk him to the club, stand outside the club until about
quarter of 10 and make a mad dash for the subway so we could go home.

GROSS: What happened if you didn't get home by 10:30?

Mr. McLEAN: Well, my mom would be very upset with me. You know, she would be
very angry with me and say, `Listen, when I tell you to be in at 10:30, I
don't mean quarter to 11 or 11. I want you in here at 10:30 or you can't go
out next weekend.' So she was very strict on me that way.

GROSS: And would she actually have prevented you from getting out or would
have you like walked out the window?

Mr. McLEAN: Oh, no. My mom--I was an only child. I knew how to hug and kiss
her and get her to let me go. Yeah.

GROSS: Now there were times when Charlie Parker had to hock his saxophone in
order to get money to buy heroin. And he would sometimes borrow your horn for
dates. And I think there were one or two times where he actually hocked your
horn as well. How did you feel about giving it to him, knowing that that
could happen?

Mr. McLEAN: Well, it wasn't quite that simple. Charlie and I used to rent
horns from off of 48th Street and 46th Street and when he had the horn,
sometimes I needed to use it, he would loan it to me. And one time he came to
me and he asked me to go rent the horn from the store and I went and did that
and then he came and borrowed the horn from me and pawned it. And so I had to
go back to the store and say, `The horn is gone.' And the man was very upset
with me and, you know, was angry at me for a number of years and--but
eventually Charlie straightened it out.

GROSS: What did he do?

Mr. McLEAN: I think he went by the store and paid him the $300 or whatever it
cost.

GROSS: Would you get angry at Parker for that or just kind of accept it as
part of who he was?

Mr. McLEAN: I couldn't get angry with him for anything. I mean, he
had--those problems that he had, I didn't understand at that particular time.
I never got really angry at him about anything.

GROSS: Now how did knowing him and loving his playing as much as you did
change your idea of what to do on alto saxophone?

Mr. McLEAN: Well, it's like somebody teaching you the next step and showing
you the next direction to go in. I think that's what he did for all of us. I
mean, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane--practically all of us. I would say
all of the saxophone players that came during that period, Charlie Parker was
a person that pointed in the direction and then everybody tried to develop
their playing style according to what he had done prior to 1945, '46. Because
early on he sounded very much like Lester Young. And it was much easier to
copy some of his ideas that he played when he was working with Jamie Chan(ph).
But from around 1945 on, his playing became so intricate and technical that
very few young saxophone players could copy his stuff.

GROSS: Jackie McLean will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: Coming up, Jackie McLean talks about Charles Mingus, the civil rights
movement and teaching. And our classical music critic, Roy Schwartz(ph), goes
to the Vermeer show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with alto saxophonist and
composer Jackie McLean.

After playing with Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Art Blakey, McLean became
one of the leaders of the kind of jazz known as hard bop. In addition to
performing and recording, he's been teaching at the University of Hartford for
over 20 years. Before we talk with him about playing with Mingus, let's hear
McLean's solo on Mingus' composition "My Jelly Roll Soul," from the 1959
Mingus recording "Blues and Roots."

(Soundbite of "My Jelly Roll Soul")

GROSS: Jackie McLean with the Charles Mingus' Band in 1959. I asked McLean
what he learned from playing with Mingus.

Mr. McLEAN: He was determined for me to have my own voice. He used to really
get upset if I quoted any of Charlie Parker's ideas in my solos. He would
come to me after I maybe would have played a line that Charlie Parker played
on a record and he would come to me and say, `Jackie, when are you gonna stop
doing that? You've got your own sound. Play your own ideas, please.' You
know, he used to say that to me all the time and it helped me a great deal. I
mean, I still quote Charlie Parker sometimes when I'm performing in a club or
somewhere in a concert because it's like part of the language. But I
understood where Charlie was coming from. He was really determined for me to
get my own sound and my own style.

GROSS: Did he say that in a nice way or was he belligerent?

Mr. McLEAN: That was a good question. Sometimes he would be mad, he would be
angry. Other times he would be sweet. But Charlie was a very complicated
man, very difficult person sometimes to perform with. But a great genius of
the music.

GROSS: And how did you take the criticism? Did you think, `Oh it was nice to
be criticized, it will help me grow?' Or were you initially pretty upset or
mad that you would be criticized?

Mr. McLEAN: No, I never got mad at Charlie for that because I knew at the
time that he had had the experience. He'd worked with all the great musicians
and he was a great genius himself. And his compositions were great, I enjoyed
playing them and so, you know, I listened to him like a big brother and took
his counsel to heart.

GROSS: Do you think part of the reason why his records are so great and why
musicians tend to sound so terrific when they played with him was because he
would push them, push them hard?

Mr. McLEAN: Yeah, he was always looking for the new ground and always looking
for new feeling, new sound. At the same time, he always liked to maintain the
blues and the roots of the music. And so you got all of that with Charlie.
You got the roots of the music from gospel and the blues and you got the
freedom to go out and experiment with new a fresher sounds playing with
Charlie. I also learned a great deal from Art Blakey, the years that I spent
in the Jazz Messengers. That was some of my happiest years in a band. And
Art Blakey was a great leader and I learned so much from him.

GROSS: Now temperment-wise, he strikes me as the opposite of the really
mercurial and sometimes violent-tempered Charles Mingus. Blakey just seemed
like he was just such a nice guy.

Mr. McLEAN: Yeah, he was a rough guy too, though.

GROSS: Was he?

Mr. McLEAN: Yeah, he was tough, Art Blakey, but he was the big brother. He
was like my big brother. That's the best way I can say. And I learned so
much from him about how to lead a band and how to keep a band and how to deal
with other musicians in this business.

GROSS: But like what?

Mr. McLEAN: Well, I learned how to keep a band rehearsed. I learned how to
talk to an audience from the stage because I had never opened my mouth on a
microphone before I went with Art Blakey's band. And all of these things that
weren't important to me early on, suddenly became important. You know, he
used to say, `Look, man, one of these days you're going to have your own band
and you've got to go to the microphone and say something to your audience. So
I want you to tonight, when we finish our first set, I want you to go to the
microphone and,' used to say, `Turn us off.' And so I'd go to the mike and
announce everybody's name and have the audience applaud for Art Blakey and
leave the stage.

GROSS: Were you mike shy?

Mr. McLEAN: Yeah, of course. I think most musicians that never talk into a
microphone, that only play instruments into a mike, are mike shy at the
beginning. I know I was. I didn't think that I would have--you know, I was
nervous. I didn't want to go to a mike and talk to an audience. But Art
forced us to, you know. Every night, he'd send a different person to the
mike.

GROSS: Now when you say that he was tough, what do you mean?

Mr. McLEAN: Well, because, I mean, he conducted his band almost like a unit,
an army. You know, we had uniforms and he had rehearsals set for a particular
time and we traveled in two cars on the road. I rode with Art and the other
guys rode in the other car. And we traveled from city to city and he was a
great leader, strong leader and somebody that I really admired and loved all
my life.

GROSS: Why did you get to be in the car with him?

Mr. McLEAN: I just guess because I was perhaps maybe the oldest one after Art
in that band. The other guys were younger than me. So the three guys, Spanky
DeBrest, Sam Dockery and Bill Hardman rode in a big Fleetwood Cadillac. And I
rode in the sedan DeVille with Art. We had two Cadillacs we were driving
with.

GROSS: My guest is alto saxophonist and composer Jackie McLean. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is alto saxophonist and composer Jackie McLean. He's been
one of the stars of jazz since the late '50s. When you called your 1962 album
"Let Freedom Ring," I figure you had two meanings there. One might have had
to do with free jazz and the freedom in the music, and the other having to do
with the civil rights movement.

Mr. McLEAN: That's exactly right because I was performing in Washington when
Martin Luther King did his speech there at the Lincoln Memorial. And I was
leaving town that day to go back to New York after a week in Washington and I
recorded that album a few days later and I was still very moved by what Martin
Luther King had to say that day and what I thought it would bring to America.

GROSS: How involved did you get with the civil rights movement? And I'm also
wondering how that affected your sense of yourself as a composer and musician.

Mr. McLEAN: I was very involved in it. I did a lot of raising money for the
Black Panthers and for SNCC. And when they had the riots in Jersey, I took
my band over there and performed all day to raise money to get the people that
were locked up in jail for rioting out on bail. So I was very close to the
movement. I raised a lot of money for the Panthers all over the East Coast.

GROSS: Do you feel like your music took on a political tinge to it during
that period?

Mr. McLEAN: Yeah, most musicians always have some kind of hidden agenda for
things to be better. When Charlie Parker recorded "Now is the Time," he meant
that now is time for things to change for people. That's just what that
meant. And there is a lot of history in that music and a lot of politics in
that music that was performed during those years.

GROSS: Jackie McLean is my guest. Let's hear a track from "Let Freedom
Ring." And this is your composition "Melody for Melonae." You want to say
anything about it?

Mr. McLEAN: Oh, that's my daughter, Melonae. We were supposed to be a
quintet that day, but the trumpet player got sick and couldn't make the
recording, so we recorded as a quartet. And it just happened, you know. I
had that piece that I had worked on, "Melody for Melonae," and we just
stretched it out and played it twice as long because we lost one of our
members.

GROSS: Well, it's 13 minutes and 20 seconds.

Mr. McLEAN: Yeah, it's very long. Yeah.

GROSS: Well, let's hear an excerpt of it.

Mr. McLEAN: OK.

GROSS: And this is Jackie McLean recorded in 1962.

(Soundbite of "Melody for Melonae")

GROSS: Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean from his 1962 recording "Let Freedom
Ring." The drummer on this recording is Billy Higgins. I understand Billy
Higgins has been very sick.

Mr. McLEAN: Yeah, there goes my heart. That's a guy who's one of my favorite
drummers of all time. He's an incredibly talented musician and, yeah, Billy
has been sick. But he's doing better these days. He's recuperating out in
Los Angeles as we speak and still playing very well. We just played together,
oh, a year ago in the Vanguard. And he was as strong and as beautiful as
ever. So I pray every day for him to get better and to get strong again.

GROSS: Did he have a kidney transplant?

Mr. McLEAN: Yeah, liver.

GROSS: Liver transplant.

Mr. McLEAN: Yeah. Liver tran--yeah, that was a rough one.

GROSS: Now what makes his drumming so special for you?

Mr. McLEAN: His concept of time and his talent for listening. I mean, he's a
marvelous accompanist. He hears everything a musician plays and responds to
it quietly, without being overbearing or getting in the way. And he's got a
beat that is just the happiest thing on Earth. You know, his beat is just
incredibly marvelous. I mean, I can be depressed and feel like the weight of
the world is on my shoulders. And once I step up on the stage with Billy
Higgins and look back there and see him playing, I'm in good shape because
he's got such a marvelous feel.

GROSS: What happens when you're playing with a drummer who isn't very good?

Mr. McLEAN: I don't play with them too often.

GROSS: I guess that's true.

Mr. McLEAN: That only happens--yeah. I mean, I've been very fortunate. I
have played with some of the greatest drummers that have picked up sticks.
You know, from Art Blakey and Tony Williams, Max Roach, Jack Dejohnette, all
of them marvelous. Billy Higgins, of course. And I've been very fortunate to
have performed with great, great drummers. Michael Carvin, one of my
favorites.

GROSS: Now I think was in 1970 that you started teaching and you founded the
department of African-American Music at the University of Hartford. Why did
you start teaching?

Mr. McLEAN: Well, it just happened. Some students came to a club that I was
working in New York, a club called Slugs on the Lower East Side and asked me
to come up to the school to look at their program and that they wanted someone
to teach some courses in African-American music and history. So I went up and
met with the students and it just happened. I started commuting to Hartford
in 1968, one day a week. And one day led to two days a week. And it just
slowly developed. Max Roach and Archie Shepp were some of the first guys who
went in the schools to start to develop programs and I followed in 1970 and
built my department from scratch and had Jackie Biat(ph) up there with me and
Paul Jeffrie(ph). And I had many, many master classes there with Dexter
Gordon, Duke Jordan, some of the finest musicians in the business. And so
it's a wonderful program at the Hart School of Music. And just recently, last
November, they changed the name of the department. Now it's called the Jackie
McLean Institute of Jazz.

GROSS: Oh, no, really.

Mr. McLEAN: And it's running very well.

GROSS: When you were 19, your idea of being tested was to see if Charlie
Parker thought that your playing on a Mile Davis session was decent. What
kind of testing did you do for your students? You know, what did you think of
testing and grading in music?

Mr. McLEAN: Well, I don't approach it that way. What I do is when I hear a
young musician in my program playing really great, I pull him aside and say
bring your instrument down to the Village Vanguard next week and play with me.
And that is a plus and an A for him. He comes down, gets a chance to get up
on the bandstand with me and my group and perform, and it's a very positive
move for most students. So I've use my bandstand as a means of rewarding very
talented young musicians.

GROSS: Do you feel like your playing is still changing?

Mr. McLEAN: Well, I hope so. I practice every day and that's my whole
purpose, to practice to work on things that I'm not doing musically and work
on things that I'm trying to accomplish musically. So, sure. I spend some
time at the piano practicing compositions written by great musicians. This
morning I was playing some Thelonius Monk things on the piano, some Al
Audrin(ph) things, beautiful songs that these people have written. And before
I came to the studio today, I practiced for an hour on the saxophone. So I
still work at it every day.

GROSS: So when did you learn to play piano? You mentioned that when you were
19, Miles Davis suggested that you needed to understand the piano and
understand chords on the piano but you didn't own one so you couldn't really
do that.

Mr. McLEAN: Yeah, it really started in 1967. Almost nine years after Miles
told me to get started, I finally got a piano and started to work out chord
progressions and to learn to play. And so I'm very happy that I did that
because it's very enjoyable.

GROSS: In what way is that helpful?

Mr. McLEAN: Well, because you can see how a musician like Thelonius Monk
constructs a melody or how he puts his chords together to get particular
colors that he gets out of the instrument. And his palate is broad. You
know, I mean, some of the colors that he gets out of the--the sounds that he
get out of the chords are dark. And some of them are old as ragtime and have
a beautiful tinge to them. And, yet, and still some of the other things that
Thelonius plays are like somebody throwing water on you. You know, it
splashes off of you. So it's interesting to sit down and analyze musicians,
what they've written and to try to play it on the piano yourself. You learn a
lot.

GROSS: And I imagine it's good to be able to actually see how chords are laid
out on the piano, which is something you can't do on a saxophone.

Mr. McLEAN: That's right. That is correct.

GROSS: You actually wrote a book of, I think, practice exercises for
saxophonists. What kind of warm-up or daily practice do you do?

Mr. McLEAN: Just what's in that book. First I start out by playing long
tones to try to develop my muscles in my mouth, the ambuture(ph). And then I
play through a series of scales and chords just to get my fingers limbered up.
And I put it all in that book. It's called "The Jackie McLean Warm-up." And
it's really what I've trained all my saxophone players with. You know,
playing with scales and chords chromatically so that you're covering every key
of the 12 keys.

GROSS: Do you have a good memory?

Mr. McLEAN: Yeah, I do.

GROSS: But I think it's really important when you're playing in a lot of
different keys, no?

Mr. McLEAN: Oh, you know, it's very important. You know, one of the things
that I think is most important is, oh, I forgot. Yeah, I have a good memory.
I just had to say that.

GROSS: Well, thank you for being so corny.

Mr. McLEAN: Thank you for accepting that.

GROSS: Jackie McLean, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very
much.

Mr. McLEAN: Thank you, Terry. It's been great. I had a wonderful time
talking to you.

GROSS: Let's hear a track from Jackie McLean's latest CD "Nature Boy." This
is "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

(Soundbite of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes")

GROSS: Coming up, our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz goes to an
exhibit of paintings by Vermeer. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Vermeer exhibit at the Met
TERRY GROSS, host:

Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz is a passionate admirer of the 17th
century Dutch painter Vermeer, who died at 43 and left a small output of
understated masterpieces. Lloyd went to the Vermeer exhibit at New York's
Metropolitan Museum of Art and has these thoughts.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:

Five years ago, I went to the National Gallery in Washington to cover the very
first art exhibit devoted entirely to Vermeer. `Fat chance,' I said an
exhibit like that would ever happen again. But now the Met has a show that
includes nearly half of Vermeer's 34 known paintings and nearly 150 other
paintings and objects created in the city of Delft where Vermeer lived and
died.

Vermeer is one of the quietest painters in Western art. Most of his paintings
are small. But even the large ones often depict the very act of
contemplation: A woman opening a window; a woman holding up a scale in front
of a huge painting of "The Last Judgment" on the wall behind her; Martha and
Mary contemplating the visitor to their house--Jesus; an artist concentrating
on his model as he begins to paint her; the model contemplating here own role
in this enterprise.

If you love Vermeer, though, you're in a bind. No reproduction has ever
captured the uncanny quality of his light. But you could travel far and wide
and still not see all the paintings you care about. I've tried. So you have
to be grateful for the blockbuster shows that gather numerous works in one
location. But how can you contemplate the contemplative while you're elbowing
your way through a crowd, jockeying to get into the first row of viewers? Or
hearing dozens of rented audio guides chirping around you like so many
crickets? There's no satisfactory answer. Is it better, at least, to try to
see the paintings and then think about them later?

I guess that's what I did some 15 years ago when I wrote a series of poems
about some of my favorite Vermeers. To celebrate the new exhibit, I'd like to
read a poem about one of the Vermeers in the show. The woman holding a
balance, who seems to be weighing her soul against the value of life in this
world. `Woman holding a balance. What is she weighing? Gold in burnished
piles? Scattered pearls against the resurrection and the life? Or is this,
as the legend says, only a test to divine the sex of her unborn child? Light
edges in from behind the curtains, over her face, her fingers from which the
delicate scales depend. On the wall behind her, "The Last Judgment" looms,
the hysterical world of the spirit. She balances herself, touching the edge
of the table before her. The shadowy things of this world reach toward her
hand. Next to the covered window, a sliver of mirror. If she looked up, she
could see what there is to see: her face, the gold, the pearls, the light,
the resurrection and the life.'

Vermeer himself seems more aware than most artists about the paradoxical way
the spirit inhabits the everyday world. Would he be astonished at the crowds
gathering around his modest but dazzling images? Would he sympathize with the
viewer who is trying to connect with the spirit within these paintings, while
it's practically the intention of the world around to make that union as
difficult as possible?

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz directs the creative writing program at the University
of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the exhibition "Vermeer and the Delft
School" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through May 27th. I'm
Terry Gross.

(Credits)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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