Jackie McLean on Musical Influences

A 2000 interview conducted by Steve Lehman
Jackie McLean (left) pictured with John Coltrane (right) in 1957. Photograph: Esmond Edwards
From Steve Lehman (Do the Math):
The following interview took place on April 3, 2000 at Jackie McLean’s home in Hartford, CT. I’ve idolized J-Mac since I was about twelve-years old, and his concept of music continues to be an incredibly important point of definition for my own work. I began studying with Jackie in 1997 (auditing classes at the Hartt School of Music), and I also taught saxophone lessons to young children at the Artists Collective (cultural center he co-founded with his wife, Dollie, in 1970) from 1998-1999.

As I recall, my original “plan” for this interview was to try and focus on aspects of J-Mac’s career that had been somewhat overlooked in his previous interviews with people like Ken Burns, Terry Gross, Gil Noble, Ben Sidran, A.B. Spellman, and Valerie Wilmer, especially his work as a composer and his ability to keep his playing in a constant state of evolution. As a twenty-one-year-old “kid” studying at Wesleyan University and writing a senior thesis about my idol, I wasn’t particularly well-equipped to steer the conversation. But, in typical fashion, J-Mac was very generous during this somewhat sprawling interview. Needless to say, this is a precious memento from the years I spent studying with Jackie, and I’m so pleased to have it hosted here and to share it with everyone for the first time.


Steve Lehman: If I asked you who some of your influences were as a composer, would some stuff come to mind at all?

Jackie McLean: OK. Alright. It would be like, I guess…it’s a funny combination of people whose music I can get a feel for. Thelonious would be one of them. Thelonious, Tadd Dameron, kind of, and then a little later on, Gil Evans, his interpretations of some of that harmony and stuff. But all of them come from Duke, I learned that later on, you know, that they all come from Duke. But I had never thought of Duke as my inspiration for writing. I mean, I always loved his stuff. The more I learn about music the more amazed I am at what he was doing so early.

SL: His concept.

JM: Yeah, you know. But for the time that I came along, it was Thelonious, and then Bud and Bird together, kind of their compositional style.

SL: Stuff like “Quadrangle,” the opening where it’s two horns and just a drummer, or maybe just drums and bass, it made me think a little bit of like the beginning to “Ko-Ko.”

JM: “Ko-Ko.” Right. Yeah, those kind of things. And then of course, there’s some harmony that I draw from, like for instance, on that piece that I did….I think it was (on the chord changes to) “Star Eyes” on “Capuchin Swing,” on the bridge, I stole that right out from Bach: a direct line from him.

SL: Wow. Another thing that made me think of possible Classical influences...the chord, the voicing for “A Fickle Sonance”, that stacked harmony. Or is that something you just heard?

JM: No, I think I just heard that. But I did steal from Poulenc on “A Ballad for Doll.”

SL: On Jackie’s Bag.

JM: Yeah, the second to last section, that harmony at the end of the melody, those chords coming down I took from Francis Poulenc, a French composer that I liked a lot.

I can’t explain what it is about him that I like. He’s got a little sense of humor or something in his classical concept.

SL: He’s hard to categorize.

JM: Yeah [laughs]. [Read More]

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