Jackie McLean: One Step Beyond Mars

Mar 1, 2018

Jackie McLean, jazz legend and patron saint of the Hartford jazz community, was the subject of the 1979 documentary, "Jackie McLean on Mars." I attended its Hartford premier in 1980, and have watched it many times since, but thanks to a Jazz Wax post this week, I gave it another look this morning.  Jackie's charisma and patter alone make it worthwhile, but there's some great footage of the master playing "What's New," and discussing the challenges of maintaining his chops and keeping (or not) to a practice schedule.

Jackie testifies to the personal integrity he feels in being deemed a jazz artist whether in Paris or New York or on Mars, by which he means the Connecticut capitol, the city he moved his family to in 1970 in order to begin teaching at the University of Hartford. In Ken Levis's film, he gives a powerful endorsement to Sun Ra; pans Donald Byrd, his former colleague in the George Wallington Quintet who was then making disco records; in the company of his wife Dolly, he recalls the ominous "vibe" in the air on the night of the JFK assassination; and he's seen teaching and challenging students to think one step beyond. In this time when "jazz police" is hurled at some of us as a pejorative, J Mac, bless him, comes across as a veritable commissioner.

Before Jackie gained renown as a teacher, he was already a de facto talent scout. As a Harlem-nurtured prodigy who'd begun playing with Bud Powell when he was 17 and made his recording debut with Miles Davis as a 19-year-old in 1951, he was poised to recognize a precocious new innovator when he met Tony Williams in 1962. As A. B. Spellman wrote in his profile of the alto saxophonist for Four Lives in Jazz, "Jackie must have seen a piece of his own life mirrored in the young drummer." Williams was 17 at the time and was working in the house rhythm section that backed Jackie at Connolly's Stardust Room, the former jazz club on Tremont Street in Boston's South End. Shortly after the engagement Jackie recorded One Step Beyond with Tony and another young protege, Bobby Hutcherson, then recommended Tony to Miles, who was in a much better position at the time to help bring him to prominence. 

When Jackie died in 2006, I proposed that the City of Hartford honor him in the way it promotes its 19th Century legends Harriett Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain. Since then, the University has named its jazz major the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz, and the McLean family continues to guide the Artists Collective, the community-based educational center that Jackie and his wife Dolly established in 1971. But I'd still like to see the city do something in honor of John Lenwood McLean, Jr. that spells civic pride in capital letters.