Alto saxophonist and noted jazz educator Jackie McLean, one of the few bebop practitioners who would pave the way for free jazz in the 1960s, died Fridaty at his home in Hartford, Conn. He was 74.
Son of a guitarist, McLean performed as a teenager with his neighbors in Harlem, among them Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. He made his recording debut with Miles Davis in 1951; during the ’50s he was a regular in the bands of George Wallington, Charles Mingus and Art Blakey. He appeared in the 1959 Off Broadway production of “The Connection,” Jack Gelber’s play about drug addiction that featured jazz composed by Freddie Redd, and in the 1961 film version.
During his formative years, the tenor saxophone was in vogue, with John Coltrane and Rollins leading the way. In many ways, McLean was the first distinctive voice on the alto since Charlie Parker shook up the music world in the 1940s with bebop.
McLean made 21 albums for Blue Note between 1959 and 1967 — with a six-month gap in 1964 when he was in jail on a drug charge — that established him as one of jazz’s most significant contributors. His early 1959-61 recordings were the bread and butter of the hard bop movement. But starting with 1962’s “Let Freedom Ring,” McLean combined his own emotional playing style with modern composition techniques that established road signs for a new, improv-based jazz style. He would record several classics of the genre, “One Step Beyond” and “Destination Out!,” both released in 1963, and “New and Old Gospel” in 1967.
McLean made studio recordings only sporadically in the 1970s, though beginning in 1974 he started recording with his son, Rene McLean. The two would lead a band on Jackie’s only album released in the ’80s, “Dynasty.” He rejuvenated his performing career in 1991 and released seven albums by 2000 for labels including Blue Note and Antilles.
McLean became an instructor at the U. of Hartford in 1968 and created the jazz program at its Hartt School of Music in 1971. In the early 1970s, McLean and his wife also created a cultural center in Hartford, the Artists Collective, which exists to this day.
McLean was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2001.
He is survived by his wife; two sons, Rene and Vernone; a daughter, Melonae; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held Friday at 10 a.m. at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.