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McLean's Scene: Jackie McLean as Improviser, Educator and Activist

Stephen H. Lehman

Published: 2007-12-03

In a musical career spanning nearly sixty years, the alto saxophonist and composer Jackie McLean (1931-2006) developed a model of collaborative and socially engaged pedagogy that was to prove enormously fruitful both for his own career and that of the younger musicians who came into his sphere of activities. Based on a rigorous musicianship essential to Afrological forms of improvisation, an uncommon depth and breadth of experience, professional ties to seminal artists like Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Ornette Coleman, and a personal self-confidence which allowed for a radical openness, McLean was able to integrate performance, pedagogy and social and cultural advocacy into a uniquely coherent whole which was much greater than the sum of its parts. His process was opportunistic in the best sense of that word, and it was improvisational. In identifying and exploring some of the main themes or “scenes” of McLean’s musical practice, encompassing improvisation, education, and activism, I hope to contribute to a deeper understanding of the powerful cultural space delineated by this musician.

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Listening itself, an improvisative act engaged in by everyone, announces a practice of active engagement with the world, where we sift, interpret, store and forget, in parallel with action and fundamentally articulated with it ("Mobilitas Animi" 113).

– George E. Lewis