One Solo Till Doomsday - The Art of Jackie McLean

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1: Offspring

Every now and then you hear about certain coincidences of birth dates that lead you to think that maybe astrology has something in it after all. Try this for size: Christopher Lee and Vincent Price, those two giants of the modern horror movie, both saw the light of day for the first time on the 27th May. And Peter Cushing, the third name in a great horror triumvirate, celebrated his birthday on the 26th day of that month. Or how about this: Britain’s most successful Olympian, Steve Redgrave, blows out the candles on his birthday cake on the very same day as Britain’s second most successful Olympian, Chris Hoy: 23rd March. Still not convinced? Then consider this: the jazz alto saxophonist Jackie McLean was born on the 17th May, just like the celebrated French composer Erik Satie…

Bang goes that theory, I hear you cry. For you surely couldn’t find two more dissimilar musicians than that pair. Almost every article written about M0cLean is certain to draw attention to the “emotional” nature of his playing, emphasising its “fiery” and/or “passionate” qualities; whereas Satie was a “hermetic composer who avoided emotional commitment like the plague.” (Robert Orledge, Satie the Composer). Aloof, detached, as deadpan as the surrealist artist Magritte (who greatly admired him), not for nothing did he call one of his piano suites ‘Cold Pieces’.

And yet… and yet… the stars don’t lie. (That sounds like the title of a science fiction yarn. I must write it some day.) Digging beneath the merely superficial, we notice strong correspondences and affinities. These correspondences begin early, with their respective educations, the student years. “The laziest student in the Conservatoire,” was Émile Descombes’ scathing assessment of the young Eric (yes, he spelt it that way then) after a performance of Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Concerto. “Gifted but indolent” was another teacher’s verdict. “Three months just to learn the piece,” complained a third, this time referring to a Mendelssohn prelude.

More fortunate than the Frenchman, McLean was educated at the ‘University of Miles Davis’, who remembered him many years later in his autobiography as naturally talented but “lazy as a motherfucker”. What had particularly riled Miles was Jackie’s persistent failure to learn the tune ‘Yesterdays’. No doubt McLean regarded it as something rather old and creaky – the pop music equivalent of Mendelssohn. And the title of that song is surely significant; both Satie and McLean were ardent modernists, on a mission to create the music of all our tomorrows.

Davis is an important link in the chain that connects the altoist with the Bon Maître of Arcueil, a major stepping-stone in the journey from one to the other. What all three musicians have in common is that they were able to build on their youthful shortcomings to forge distinctive musical personalities. Satie’s failure to pay adequate attention at the Paris Conservatoire left him “in the position of a man who knows only thirteen letters of the alphabet,” according to his friend J.P. Contamine De Latour. He did what he could, creating a necessarily stripped down form of music, sparsely textured. The self-confessedly lazy McLean would hit the bandstand with no practice under his belt, he told Valerie Wilmer (Jazz People). “A lot of my past performances have been very emotional because I wasn’t putting any work into it… I’d be fighting with myself, trying to make things that wouldn’t come out and really not doing it the right way.” So this was the origin of his famous emotionalism! As for Davis, his lack of technical fluency in comparison with Gillespie forced him to seek a different approach, playing only the beautiful notes.

Davis’ minimalist philosophy was to have a decisive influence on McLean as he matured as a musician, replacing the influence of sax players such as Parker, Young, Gordon and Rollins. He elaborated on the liner notes to New Soil, the 1959 Blue Note album that he regarded as something of a breakthrough: “I try to pattern my style after Miles. To play a few notes that mean something, instead of just a lot of notes.” This is interesting – a trumpeter becoming the chief influence on a sax player. The opposite situation is perhaps more familiar; one thinks of Parker’s transformative effect on all kinds of instrumentalists.

But McLean stressed that he was unable to copy directly from Miles (which he had certainly done with Bird). Mood-wise also, the two were poles apart. On Kind Of Blue, the apex of Miles’ late 1950s style, the mood is evocative of Tennyson’s ‘The Lotos-Eaters’, in which the gods recline at “dreamful ease,” a preternaturally slowed-down existence, languid and tranquil. The very titles of the pieces – ‘Freddie Freeloader’, ‘So What’ – imply a kind of divine apathy. A whole philosophy is suggested (one that has sometimes come to my aid when the pressures of life have seemed too burdensome).

McLean’s music, by contrast, is a wake-up call. I have tried to imagine him participating in the Kind Of Blue session, standing in for Cannonball Adderley, but it’s just not feasible. And yet at the start of the decade, on albums such as Dig, Miles and McLean were playing together harmoniously. This just goes to show that a common aesthetic philosophy, in this case economy of expression, can lead to radically different results.

Continuing with that stepping stone image, the next one along must be Bill Evans. We reach Satie’s own instrument, the piano. Evans was classically trained and had made a study of the French Impressionist composers, who regarded Satie as a significant precursor. The exact extent of Evans’ compositional contribution to Kind Of Blue has occasioned much scholarly wrangling, but it’s fair to say that he did much to shape Miles’ creative thinking.

It was, in fact, a Bill Evans album that introduced me to the name of Erik Satie. The time was the late 1970s, I was perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old, and the album in question was Nirvana, a collaboration with flautist Herbie Mann. They played one of Satie’s ‘Gymnopédies’ – No. 2, as I was to learn many years later. The introduction to this piece instantly reminded me of the much more famous ‘Gymnopédie No. 1’, which I was already familiar with due to its frequent use by advertisers and programme-makers.

Nirvana had been recorded in 1961/62 and reissued by Atlantic as part of its “That’s Jazz” series. The albums in this series all had distinctive silver gatefold sleeves, with a square shaped aperture cut in the “gate”, revealing a photographic portrait of the artist or artists beneath. My Dad, a lifelong jazz fan, had many of these albums, which is how I came to hear them. I remember Stitt Plays Bird, Charles Lloyd’s Dream Weaver, a Paul Desmond album with Jim Hall, and several others.

By an odd coincidence – or maybe it’s those stars again – it was another album in this series that introduced me to the playing of Jackie McLean. Charles MingusBlues and Roots was a Christmas present c. 1978, one that I’ve managed to retain to the present day. McLean’s playing really impressed me – that amazing sound, which seemed to leap off the turntable, those bold, jagged phrases.

I found McLean listed in several jazz reference books but he seemed a relatively minor figure in jazz history, overshadowed by some of his illustrious forerunners and contemporaries. Throughout my teens I spent many happy hours investigating some of those illustrious figures. Then, approaching my twentieth year, I listened to Blues and Roots again. Now McLean’s alto impressed me even more forcefully than before; he seemed to speak to me on a more personal level than the other musicians I had been listening to. I loved the fact that he played in a deep register, a hangover from his adolescence, when he wanted a tenor sax but had to make do with an alto. All his heroes played tenor (this was before he heard Bird!). High frequency deafness, which I have suffered with since childhood, obliges me to whistle in a lower key than other people, so I’m wondering if this might have led to a certain small-scale identification with my jazz idol!

From my twentieth year onwards, I became a fervent collector of McLean’s recorded oeuvre. I began to acquire a sense of his development over the decades. In the 1950s he was inconsistent – reflecting on this period in the sleeve notes to Destination Out!, he revealed that he was often depressed in the middle years of the decade, feeling that he was stuck in a rut, musically. The Prestige dates under his own name were usually quite rough-hewn; he often sounded uninspired. Much better were the albums he made as part of Mingus’ band and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. It’s a pity there were so few of the former but they certainly made up in quality what they lacked in quantity. As for the latter, they included some scintillating discs, such as Vik’s A Night in Tunisia, on which McLean, under contract to Prestige, adopted the somewhat bizarre nom-de-circumstance of Ferris Benda, which fooled no one.

The saxophonist learnt much from these two great leaders. In a radio interview, he credited Mingus with helping him to forge a more distinctive phraseology (to go with his already distinctive sound), guiding him towards a certain “bubbly” quality; while from Blakey he learnt “how to play on the bandstand, how to build a solo, reach the climax, finish and get out of there – instead of trying to reach one climax after another and taking the audience along on a never-ending, boring trip.” (Dynasty liner notes.) The art of the short story writer, in other words, as opposed to that of the novelist.

2: Midway

By the time the 1960s came along, he was a fully matured musician. His earlier compositions had hinted at an experimental side to his nature, and he gradually became more ambitious and adventurous. Doubtless also, the new breed of musicians inspired him. On his 1967 meeting with Ornette Coleman, New And Old Gospel, McLean unveiled a multi-sectional piece that took up one whole side of the disc. ‘Lifeline’ was probably influenced in its overall concept by Mingus’ ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus’, to which McLean had so memorably contributed. Instead of portraying the rise and fall of a pre-homo sapiens hominid race, McLean gave us his portrait of a single human life, from birth to death. (The sub-headings he gave to the various sections of his composition have been appropriated by me for this very article.)

A more successful multi-sectional piece, to my mind, was ‘Melody For Melonae’, recorded in 1962 for the album Let Freedom Ring (and also for Kenny Dorham’s Matador). This tripartite composition begins in a stately, grave and ceremonial fashion. “It sounds like classical music,” commented my brother when I played it to him. Indeed it does; in fact, this theme is perhaps McLean’s most ‘Satiean’ inspiration, evoking memories of the ‘Gnossiennes’, those haunting, hypnotic dances in which “nearly every melodic idea is immediately repeated” (Steve Moore Whiting, Satie the Bohemian). But Part II is pure McLean, as his solo erupts in a manner that will be familiar to all his listeners – completely unclassical.

What, then, are the fundamentals of his artistic approach? The sound is what we first notice. This was his preoccupation right at the start, when he tried to make his alto sound like a tenor. And it remained his preoccupation throughout his career, as his various interviews have testified. He told A.B. Spellman (Four Lives in the Bebop Business) that sound was the basis of jazz. “It’s not about notation, really.”

In the classical music world, an interest in tonal colour is sometimes regarded as the mark of an inferior composer, evidence of shallowness. Certain commentators would like music to be a branch of mathematics; they baulk at any suggestion that it might have a sensory dimension. Fortunately the jazz world is free of this attitude.

One thing I found intriguing when listening to McLean’s records was how his sound would vary from disc to disc, even when the time elapsed between recordings was quite short. The variations were marginal but significant. I wasn’t quite sure what to attribute them to. In Jazz People, he spoke of changing his mouthpiece around; on the liner notes of New Soil he revealed that he had used his stepson René’s saxophone on that date. Added to this I suppose one must take into account the varying acoustics of recording studios. I was also intrigued by his statement that for a brief period around 1964 his sound had become, to his own ears, a little syrupy. I couldn’t hear any evidence of this myself but I suppose this illustrates the essential subjectivity of these matters.

One thing that remained pretty much a constant throughout his career was the sheer power of his sound. It was as if, when not trying to make his alto sound like a tenor, he was trying to make it sound like a church organ. Certainly the phrase “pulling out all the stops” could have been coined with McLean in mind. At other times his horn sounds almost like a percussion instrument. But such was his gift for rhythmic phrasing, for creating lines in which the stress falls at unexpected places, a kind of sure-footed wrong-footedness, that this is no loss!

This percussive quality, this “melodic austerity” (as a reviewer in Jazz Journal put it), is all part of McLean’s drive towards using fewer notes. And because he plays them in that intense, unmodulated tone, when a particular note recurs it seems less like a repetition of that note than a resumption, the continuation of a note that had previously been interrupted. For an analogy, think of an intense beam of light, in front of which one plays one’s hand, now blocking off the illumination, now revealing it. Alternatively, one could talk about certain notes being threaded through a phrase or solo. Either way, this is economy to the utmost power.

As well as collecting McLean’s discs, I also investigated other media. I acquired a video cassette of Ken Levis’ marvellous documentary Jackie McLean on Mars; and, some time after that, a DVD of The Connection, the equally marvellous film version of Jack Gelber’s stage play. I always find it amusing that, when McLean’s cabaret card had been confiscated, he was able to get round the restrictions a little by portraying a musician in a theatrical presentation! Needless to say, the musician was remarkably similar to himself, even down to having the same name (no need to resurrect the short-lived career of Ferris Benda).

Incidentally, ‘The Connection’ deserves the attention of cineastes as well as music fans, as it utilises the technique previously employed by Hitchcock in Rope (also based on a stage play), of filming continuously, without cutting, despite the assertion by Hitch biographer Donald Spoto that this technique for shooting an entire motion picture was “unprecedented and unrepeated”.

In addition to these visual records, I also made cassette recordings of McLean’s numerous radio interviews. He was a most eloquent speaker, with the ability to conjure up vivid scenes from his youth: Sonny Rollins’ metamorphosis from promising Coleman Hawkins acolyte to fully-fledged musical genius – “a very beautiful butterfly”; the sad decline of the no less gifted, almost legendary, Andy Kirk, Jr.

McLean’s anecdotal gifts were also on display in transcribed form in A.B. Spellman’s book, Four Lives in the Bebop Business. He spoke nostalgically of wandering along New York’s 52nd Street as a teenager, too young to enter any of the clubs, able only to listen to snatches of music from within – Bird, Dizzy, Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Tadd Dameron, Fats Navarro – before he was chased away by the doorman.

Over the years many writers have attempted to capture the essence of McLean’s music in words but, music being what it is, none has quite succeeded. It is a source of nationalistic pride to me that the first magazine article written about Jackie’s music was by the British writer Michael James, in the December 1959 issue of Jazz Monthly. I haven’t managed to track down a copy of this article but from excerpts I have read it appears to have been quite a poetic portrait, praising McLean for the heroic quality “that carries with it all the hurt and humiliation the sensitive spirit is prey to in a hostile society…”

Miles Davis spoke out against sleeve notes, banishing them from his album Some Day My Prince Will Come (further evidence of his paring down obsession?) but, as an omnivorous reader, I generally welcome them. In this format the quest to encapsulate McLeans’s music verbally continued. “A skirling piper who cries defiance, raw compassion and human frailty in one breath,” wrote Jack Maher (McLean’s Scene), with something of the poetic touch of Michael James. “No other alto saxophone timbre is so definitive of jazz” was the surprisingly bold claim of Terry Martin (Tippin’ the Scales). Bold yet justified, I believe. He thought that the vitality of McLean’s sound reflected the excitement that had attended the musician’s youthful discovery of the jazz world.

For Bob Blumenthal (Contour), McLean was “one of jazz’s great dramatists”; I think this judgement is spot on. Certainly, no one “leapt in” better than Jackie (not even Lester!), by which I mean those dramatic entrances to a solo. And this explains why some of his best saxophone statements came when he eschewed the lead solo – a sense of tension built up which he was able to exploit. (Listen, for example, to ‘Condition Blue’ on Capuchin Swing, or ‘Fidel’ on Jackie’s Bag.)

There have always been those who have decried the element of theatricalism in art; the Tristano school disdained it, and Friedrich Nietzsche gave his old pal Wagner merry hell on this score! But so long as it does not mean a kind of glib exhibitionism – and with McLean this was never the case – I can’t see what’s wrong with it myself. It’s no coincidence that he was such an effective performer in The Connection, and he clearly had an instinctive understanding of catharsis, as Aristotle used the term in his Poetics.

3: The Inevitable End

Of all the various judgements passed on McLean’s playing, the most memorable for my money came from Nat Hentoff. He achieved this, not with a string of adjectives gleaned from the pages of Roget’s Thesaurus, but an old-fashioned simile. “McLean’s approach to a solo,” he wrote (Makin’ the Changes), “has always been that of someone who has only this one solo left before Armageddon.” Yes – hence the urgency, the avoidance of all frippery, as if he were trying to condense many experiences into a single definitive musical statement. Hence the great cohesion and conviction of his best solos.

Intensity of this kind will never be music to everyone’s ears. There will always be those who would sooner listen to musicians who sound like they have just this one solo left before lunchtime. In Richard Cook’s Blue Note Records, the author makes clear his personal antipathy to McLean’s playing. He accuses the saxist of failing to blend in with his sidemen, of projecting a cynical attitude, and of generally being a troublemaker. In essence, Cook’s complaint can be summarised thus: “Why doesn’t McLean play just like everyone else? Then he would be worth listening to.”

This stance is surprisingly common in both art and life. I’m reminded of the game of indoor bowls – if the jack is delivered a little to the left, the umpire immediately moves it to the centre line. Ditto if it comes to a stop a little to the right. Everything must always be centralised.

But the world needs its eccentrics. Men like Jackie McLean and Erik Satie, who, as I hope I have demonstrated in this article, had much more in common than just their birthdays. But if you are still not convinced I offer one more piece of evidence. When Satie was on his deathbed, he made a rare boast. “I have never written a note which did not mean something.”

It is the very same phrase that McLean used to express his newfound artistic creed on the sleeve of New Soil: notes that mean something.

It would be difficult to think of a more economical definition of music itself.

– Nigel Taylor