May 18, 2006
By JOANN KLIMKIEWICZ, Courant Staff Writer
It was the 1970s. Jackie McLean was walking the streets of Hartford, knocking on front doors and offering this to bewildered parents: Let me take your children and teach them about music. I'll get them home safely and on time.
McLean, the jazz great and social activist who died March 31, lamented that he needed to do this because folks didn't know about Duke Ellington, didn't know Miles Davis or Lady Day. "That's got to change, man," his friend, Tony Keller, recalled McLean saying.
Keller recounted the story Wednesday to about 450 people who came to honor McLean's legacy at the Artists Collective, the nationally recognized arts center in Hartford's North End that McLean's vision and passion gave rise to.
"Jackie's living memorial is right here in this place and our best tribute to him would be to keep it going in the coming years," said Keller, former director of the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, McLean's alto saxophone perched under a spotlight on the stage behind him.
"In 50 years, someone's going to walk into this building and hear ... a little boy or a little girl playing the alto saxophone," Keller said. "We know, you know, that will be Jackie's horn."
Wednesday's service was a chance - especially for people who couldn't attend last month's funeral in McLean's native New York City - to bid the composer and educator a final farewell. McLean died in his Hartford home after a long illness.
On the day he would have turned 75, musicians, community leaders, family and former students celebrated McLean's life through music and prayer. Speakers remembered him not just for his musical genius, but for the profound impact he had on thousands of youngsters who came through the Collective's front doors.
"I don't know where I'd be if it weren't for Jackie McLean," said Jimmy Greene, a longtime student, before playing Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight" on his saxophone.
Before the service, Greene recalled walking into the Collective - then in the old Clark Street school - at 15 and hearing the sound of McLean's sax.
"It was the most amazing thing I heard in my life and I knew that's what I wanted to do," said Greene, 31, who went on to study with McLean at the Hartt School. "He sent me on a path from that moment. I'm still on it today."
Founded with his wife, Dollie, in the early 1970s, the Collective grew from humble beginnings into a nationally acclaimed program that, through the arts, taught thousands of youth self-esteem and the importance of education. Now on Albany Avenue, the Collective is a beacon of the community and a national model for youth-centered community nonprofits.
A New York native, McLean grew up in Harlem's Sugar Hill neighborhood. By the 1950s he was working with Miles Davis, making his first recording with the jazz great when he was just a teenager. He would go on to work with legends like Charles Mingus and Art Blakey, and was considered a protege of Charles "Bird" Parker. McLean went on to distinguish himself as an alto saxophonist, his unique sound positioned him alongside top names in jazz history.
He came to Hartford in the 1970s, where he emerged as a social activist and educator, nurturing talent in young musicians. McLean established the jazz studies program at the University of Hartford's Hartt School and founded the music school's Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz.
Among those in attendance Wednesday's were Mayor Eddie Perez; jazz piano great Randy Weston from New York; and McLean's wife, Dollie, and children Melonae and Vernone. His son, Rene, was overseas and not able to attend.
And of course, there were students such as Greene.
"This place has taught me so much, not only about music, but about my culture and my community," Greene said. "Valuable lessons I don't know I would have gotten anywhere else."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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