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McLean's Scene: How Jackie McLean made Hartford a destination for jazz

Portrait of American jazz musician, composer and band leader Jackie McLean, Hartford, Conn., 1979.
Deborah Feingold
Corbis via Getty Images
Portrait of American jazz musician, composer and band leader Jackie McLean, Hartford, Conn., 1979.

Hartford, Conn., falls under the radar by most standards. A relatively small city smack dab between New York and Boston, it's been dubbed the "Insurance Capital of the World" and was, at one point, home of the Whalers, a beloved hockey franchise.

When it comes to jazz, though, the Greater Hartford area stands out as one of the hippest creative communities. It boasts the longest-running free jazz concert series (Paul Brown Monday Night Jazz); has produced countless musicians who are recording and touring all over the world (from pianist Brad Mehldau to drummer Cindy Blackman); and has become a destination for jazz education through community arts organizations, Essentially Ellington-winning public high school music programs and world-class universities. The city wouldn't be where it is without the arrival of alto saxophonist Jackie McLean over 50 years ago.

The Harlem-born and raised musician made a name for himself as a ubiquitous fixture on the hard bop scene during the 1950s and 1960s with his unmistakable tone. After tenures in Miles Davis' early groups and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, McLean embarked on a prolific run of albums as a leader on the Blue Note Records label. The loss of his Cabaret Card however, sent McLean on a path of teaching and mentorship — with the University of Hartford as an eventual destination for McLean and his family.

At a time when jazz was not widely seen in higher education, McLean brought the wisdom learned on the bandstand to the classroom; he transformed the school into a destination for aspiring musicians to learn from one of the masters. His commitment to Hartford extended beyond the campus of the university with the founding of The Artists Collective, an arts nonprofit for youth in the area that provides an educational springboard for young musicians. The list of alumni from the University of Hartford and The Artists Collective reads like a who's who of top jazz talent on the scene — and is one of the defining examples of McLean's impact on the city and beyond.

This episode, we'll hear stories from family, friends, and some of those students — who are playing and teaching the music themselves — carrying on the legacy of Jackie McLean.

Set List:

  • "Minor March" (Jackie McLean) from the album The Jackie Mac Attack (Live)
  • "116th & Lenox" (McLean) from the album Swing, Swang, Swingin'
  • "A Ballad for Doll" (McLean) from the album Jackie's Bag
  • "Big Guy" (Jimmy Greene) from the album Flowers: Beautiful Live, Volume 2
  • "Mr. McLean" (Greene) from the album Brand New World
  • "Son of Hartford" (Jonathan Barber) from the album Legacy Holder
  • "McLean's Scene" (McLean) from the album McLean's Scene

Credits: Trevor Smith, writer and producer; Ken Levis, field recordings and archival audio; Christian McBride, host; Ron Scalzo, episode mix; Suraya Mohamed, executive producer of NPR Music; Keith Jenkins, vice president of visuals and strategy at NPR Music.

Special thanks to Melonae McLean, Rene McLean, Yunie Mojica, Katie Simon, Alex Ariff, Glenn Smith and Alda Smith.

Copyright 2024 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

Trevor Smith
Trevor joined the WBGO Development Department in April of 2017 and currently handles grant writing and institutional giving initiatives as the Coordinator of Corporate and Foundation Relations.Since graduating from Berklee College of Music in 2011, Trevor has worked extensively in the jazz community in fundraising, events, and artist management capacities.