Blues for Jackie Mac: A Remembrance

A basically bad red bone boy!


 Some Reflections on a Jazz Revivalist

  The late anthropologist and long time student of transformative social movements, Dr. Luther P. Gerhlach, a friend and mentor, demonstrated that those movements among human beings which change people’s lives and compel them to action in behalf of a vision or ideal have several things in common which hold true across time, geography, or the specific ideology of the movement.  Whether the activists are feminist, communist, fascist, or Catholic, all of them are propelled along and given a sense of esprit de corps through the actions of charismatic revivalists, those gifted voices who speak truth to power and personify the ideals of the movement.

Hence through some inexplicable alchemy these chosen people manage to embody the ideals of the movement, which is synonymous with the aspirations of the people, in their personalities.  And that personality finds its highest expression in the work of the Charismatic revivalist, whose role is first and foremost to preach the good news with fervor and conviction; thus inspiring the true believers to action while converting others.  That’s what Jackie McClean was to all who love and play the great American art of Jazz.

            We often see this in the religious context where the preacher preaches a message of personal salvation through religious conversion, but it also happens in the secular realm.  In the latter years of his life Jackie McClean was not only a seminal artist on the saxophone, he was also a jazz preacher, a charismatic Revivalists with a horn who was a leader in the movement to keep jazz alive and  miles ahead of any other musical art born since the twentieth century.  A professor of music in the fullest sense of the term, he taught inside and outside the academy. He tutored the students who were fortunate to attend the University of Hartford, and for those who were not so fortunate, whether through age or financial circumstance, he built a cultural center in the community along with the very able assistance of his wife Dolly, without whom, I frankly can’t imagine it happening on the scale that it did.  

            Like the master craftsman in a mediaeval guild, he taught by example. It was always on-the-job training when you were around Jackie Mac.  I learned something of importance about the music every time I was lucky enough to be in his presence.  His natural generosity of spirit and his total dedication to the task of preserving and perpetuating Jazz music was such he became a compulsive pedagogue dropping science 24/7 on all who had the intellectual curiosity and stamina to dig it.   

Fortunately for me, Jackie liked my writings about the music so he presented me in lectures up in Hartford many times. In fact, he once commissioned me to deliver a paper on “Bird” at the prestigious Anatheum Art Museum in Hartford and I damn near got me and him run out of town!   Titled, “Blues and the Abstract Truth: Notes on the art of Charles Yardbird Parker,” this ambitious essay sought to answer the question: “Where do Original Ideas come from?” 

In an attempt to answer this perplexing question I interrogated the nature of innovation – after all I was trying to understand Charlie Parker’s art, the man who did for music what Albert Einstein did for theoretical physics: Change the way his most gifted colleagues conceived of the relationship between time and space forever.  But to make a short story shorter let’s just say I ended up making some unfavorable comparisons between Jazz and Abstract Expressionist art that the staid museum subscribers found unpalatable and they became vocal and demonstrative about it.


            But I’ve gotten too far ahead in the story of my association with the musical seer Jackie Mac.   I’d like to say a word or two about how I first came to know of Jackie McClean, because only then can you understand what a continuous thrill it was for me to get to know him and work with him.   I grew up in a time and place where musicians were heroes.  The racial caste system that ranked the value of human beings on the color of their skins, rather than the content of their character, produced some unexpected consequences. 

One of these was that great black musicians who were denied access to concert stages and recording studios wound up as band masters and music appreciation teachers in the all black public schools and colleges in the American south.  While the formal curriculum in these music programs was heavily weighted toward European classical music, and the great body of Afro-American sacred music Dr. Dubois called “The sorrow songs,” mother to both gospel and the blues, that the learned DuBois declared “the most beautiful expression of human life born this side of seas.”   

            Jazz as such, was largely ignored in our formal musical instruction.  But it was not ever thus.  The pool of talented and well trained Afro-American musicians was so deep and rich – thanks to the musical curriculums developed by the Johnson brothers, James Weldon and J. Rosamond, authors of “Lift Every Voice and Sing, which was called “The Negro National Anthem when me and Jackie were coming up – that there were young, hip, music teachers on the scene who were a lot like Wynton Marsalis, masters of the European classical and Afro-American art music idioms.   It was one such hip young music teacher, Mr. Chuck McClendon, alto-saxophonist par excellence, who introduced me to the versatile and sensuous beauty of the saxophone.   

            Aside from the consummate artistry of Mr. McClendon, the first alto-voice I heard was the funky down home blues lyricism and flawless virtuosity of the Memphis Magician Hank Crawford.  After suffering through the sonic nightmare of the late night practice sessions of my neighbor Maurice Singleton on the alto-sax; with his inept fingering, horrid out of control vibrato and frog like intonation, I was simply astonished that Hank and Mr. Mcclendon were playing the same instrument.

Then Mr. McClendon – who was so sweet on the alto and tenor that Ray Charles came to town to play a dance and stole him from us just before our concert band was to perform at the baccalaureate ceremonies – told us that “Bennie Crawford” as he was known at Tennessee State College, where they had played in the band together – was a musical genius who can play all of of the reeds, even the double reeds like the Oboe and basson.”   He also turned us on to David “Fat head” Newman, whom most think of as a tenor player but is very sweet on the alto too – as he demonstrated on “Hard Times” from the album “Ray Charles Live at Newport.”   


 The Great Hank Crawford


From these two cats I started listening to Cannonball Adderly, whom I heard of because I had five next door neighborhoods who were musicians and all went to Florida A&M University – which had a world famous music department – on music scholarships and three of them played with Julian Adderly in school.  And I heard endless tales about his great ear – he had perfect pitch – and technical facility on his instrument.   

Cannonball!  Miles said “he thought he knew everything about music”

With The Great Tenor ManYusef Lateef


Hence I was listing to a string of lazy lyrical southern blues voices on the alto when I first heard Jackie Mac.   His sound was different; it had a hard edge swagger and raw energy about it that had been fashioned in the fast paced, ultra modern, Darwinian milieu of New York City.   The art that inspired Jackie Mac was born and raised in Minton’s Playhouse, a place where my man Tabby once pointed out to me and said “That’s where Minton’ Playhouse was, real gangstas used to hang out in there, I mean cats would pull their guns on each other!”  

            Since my man Tab was a bonefide gangster – an ex-US Marine, world class pugilist  and former enforcer for Sonny franchesi  before he heard the black power message and took a numbers district from them – I didn’t question his description of the milieu where be-bop was born.  Tab was the kind of cat that Bennie Golson is portraying in “Killer Joe.”  The bass line is a perfect sound portrait of the old school black hipster’s stroll.  

In spite of the gangster vibe Minton’s was an incubator of great art, a neighborhood bar that holds the same importance in the creation of the complex instrumental African American art music popular know as “Be-bop,” as the Café Voltaire was for the creation of Da Da, an irreverent and iconoclastic art movement that expressed the pessimisim and even nihilism European artist felt in the aftermath of the barbarism and mass murder of World War I.    

            The art that developed in Minton’s however, was neither nihilistic nor pessimistic, and it cetainly was not random art of chance; rather it expressed the heroic optimism that is the mother of all invention, an optimism that fueled Jackie’s inventiveness on and off the bandstand til his dying day.   Jackie came of age in the glow of the be-bop revolution and witnessed the music performed at its apotheosis.  He even dwelled in the shadows of the icons, sat at their feet and stood beside them on the bandstand during his apprenticeship.  And yet he emerged a new and better musical self: A virtuoso with an original voice.   

Strangely, all the alto players I liked best were originals, Crawford, Newman and Adderly, but they had all been nurtured on down home blues.  That Jackie Mac, who literally grew up at the feet of Bird, found his own splendid voice on the same instrument shows a strong personality who insisted on being himself; to speak to the world unapologetically in his own voice. 

It may not seem so now, in the fog of history that has dimmed Bird’s radiance, but this was an act of singular determination and self confidence.   But that was Jackie Mac: an American original, great artist, generous spirit, exemplary father, loyal husband, and my main man! 

 A Young Lion












* – To see Jackie Perform click this link:



Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New york

July, 2010


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