Book Review: Derek Ansell - Sugar Free Saxophone: The Life and Music of Jackie McLean


Derek Ansell - Sugar Free Saxophone: The Life and Music of Jackie McLean
(Northway Publications. 218pp., £18; Book Review by Chris Parker)


‘Acerbic’, ‘acidic’, ‘tart’, ‘searing’, ‘piercing’, ‘sharp’: the adjectives used by Derek Ansell to describe the tone of his subject’s alto saxophone in this, the first full-length biography devoted to him, could apply to only one figure: Jackie McLean.

Ansell is an expert on post-bop American jazz, having already produced a book on Hank Mobley for Northway and having another, on the music of John Coltrane, in the pipeline, and this study of McLean is – like Workout, the Mobley book – packed with a keen and enthusiastic listener’s insights into the recorded work; unlike the Mobley book, however (which, as its subtitle ‘The music of Hank Mobley’ implied, focused chiefly on the tenor player’s recordings), it also provides a wealth of detail on McLean’s life and beliefs.

As Ansell points out early on, McLean’s career reversed the ‘usual jazz icon story: learn to play, play brilliantly, become famous, become addicted and die ridiculously young’. McLean ‘got into the addiction very early in his life, began to play brilliantly, then became famous and multi-talented and turned into a respected educator’. A junkie in his teens, McLean recorded with Miles Davis at 20, played and recorded with both Charles Mingus and Art Blakey shortly thereafter and was a signed Blue Note artist by the age of 28, producing a series of classic albums for the company, including Jackie’s Bag, Bluesnik and the seminal Let Freedom Ring. The music on all these albums is carefully and sensitively examined by Ansell, and the crucial influences on McLean’s sound and approach skilfully delineated: Mingus, for instance, ‘separated him from Parker and showed him that he had his own sound’; Blakey provided him with a ‘churning, fresh sound of modern jazz that rang out the changes … to announce that a new, direct, emotion-charged style had been born’; Let Freedom Ring featured an ‘even harder, gritty tone … adventurous improvising, the use of modes and frequent changes of tempo’, resulting in a ‘new, probing and exploratory Jackie McLean … pushing at the boundaries and seeking for new directions for modern jazz to travel’.

Alongside this valuable musical analysis, Ansell also sketches out McLean’s life, from his successful struggle to kick his heroin habit, through his work with the youth project HARYOU-ACT (Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited-Associated Community Teams), to his highly influential work as an educator, producing in the process a fully rounded portrait of a remarkable man, thoughtful, passionate, committed, dedicated.

As Ansell himself concludes: ‘McLean posed many questions about how jazz is perceived, presented and treated. His own response in terms of his playing and teaching was priceless but the answers to most of his searching questions are yet to be provided.’ McLean never completed his autobiography, but this respectful, perceptive study goes some way towards compensating his many admirers for this loss.

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