John Lenwood “Jackie” McLean (May 17, 1931 – March 31, 2006) was an American jazz alto saxophonist, composer, bandleader, and educator, and is one of the few musicians to be elected to the DownBeat Hall of Fame in the year of their death.
McLean was born in New York City. His father, John Sr., played guitar in Tiny Bradshaw‘s orchestra. After his father’s death in 1939, Jackie’s musical education was continued by his godfather, his record-store-owning stepfather, and several noted teachers. He also received informal tutoring from neighbors Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker. During high school he played in a band with Kenny Drew, Sonny Rollins, and Andy Kirk Jr. (the tenor saxophonist son of Andy Kirk).
Along with Rollins, he played on Miles Davis‘ Dig album, when he was 20 years old. As a young man McLean also recorded with Gene Ammons, Charles Mingus (for Pithecanthropus Erectus), George Wallington, and as a member of Art Blakey‘s Jazz Messengers. McLean joined Blakey after reportedly being punched by Mingus. Fearing for his life, McLean pulled out a knife and contemplated using it against Mingus in self-defense. He later stated that he was grateful that he had not stabbed the bassist.
His early recordings as leader were in the hard bop school. He later became an exponent of modal jazz without abandoning his foundation in hard bop. Throughout his career he was known for a distinctive tone, akin to the tenor saxophone and often described with such adjectives as “bitter-sweet”, “piercing”, or “searing”, a slightly sharp pitch, and a strong foundation in the blues.
McLean was a heroin addict throughout his early career, and the resulting loss of his New York City cabaret card forced him to undertake a large number of recording dates to earn income in the absence of nightclub performance opportunities. Consequently, he produced an extensive body of recorded work in the 1950s and 1960s. He was under contract with Blue Note Recordsfrom 1959 to 1967, having previously recorded for Prestige. Blue Note offered better pay and more artistic control than other labels, and his work for this organization is highly regarded and includes leadership and sideman dates with a wide range of musicians, including Donald Byrd, Sonny Clark, Lee Morgan, Ornette Coleman, Dexter Gordon, Freddie Redd, Billy Higgins, Freddie Hubbard, Grachan Moncur III, Bobby Hutcherson, Mal Waldron, Tina Brooks and many others.