Thursday, August 7, 2014

"Jackie McLean on Mars" Transcript

Jackie McLean on Mars

A documentary by Ken Levis


Jackie McLean: [Practicing] “My hands, you know. The muscles there just don’t respond. It’s slow building up. One of the things that I should be doing, even when I’m not practicing, from here – there are facial exercises that I’ve just been turned on to. I think, I read an article, Dewey Redman was talking about facial exercises that he does to keep his muscles in shape. And keeping a rubber ball, squeezing that. Because I don’t get it in this hand, my left hand. It’s my right hand that tends to give me some problems. And I notice this, it never bothered me – I laid off for a year and didn’t touch my horn in ’50-something, it didn’t bother me. But now in ’70-something, you know. And I’m approaching my 45th year. And a 4 and a 5 is a 9, and a 9 is supposed to be everything, so. [Flexing and stretching right hand] This is [inaudible], this is something.”

Interlocutor: “Now there you have Jackie McLean. And Jackie McLean is here and my first thought, you know, I’m sitting here and I’m saying to myself, now, I wonder how Jackie feels about being a legend. I don’t know if you feel like a legend, man. How does it happen that you become a legend?”

JM: “I feel like an exploited, poor musician in 1976, if you want to know how I feel. And I also feel like a professor of history at the University of Hartford. If anything, if I feel good about anything, it’s about being able to turn down jobs that are offered to me for scale and below, which I was forced to take at other times. That’s what I feel good about.”

JM: [Lecturing] “John Coltrane, in different periods of his playing, he sounded like different people. For instance, in his early, early days when I first heard John, he sounded like a combination of Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt, Sonny Stitt playing the tenor saxophone. Then, the next time I heard him he sounded more like, he had a much lighter quality in his sound, and he sounded like he was getting his own thing together. But he sounded like he had listened to Sonny Rollins and appreciated him. But to let Sonny tell you who influenced him, he put an album out once, and on the back of the album Sonny said, ‘I would like to dedicate this album to all the people who influenced me,’ man, and the names filled up the whole back sheet. And my name was on there. And I thought, oh, man, this cat’s being an ambassador, you know.”

JM: [With students] “I know how he plays, I’m just getting to – I know how Lee plays, because I’ve been listening to Lee play for a few years. I know how David plays. I’m beginning to learn how some of you other guys play better. But, learn them changes. Take this opportunity [to let] Paul [Jeffrey] help you build that repertoire so you can learn how to do that.”

JM: “John [Coltrane] wore that out, man. Played it all kinds of ways, inverted.”

Jaki Byard: “That’s right, yeah.”

JM: “Because when you look at his solo, like if you look at ‘Giant Steps’ or ‘Countdown’ and you see just the simple, simple academic thing that he made sound so great.”

JM: [Teaching a lesson] “Bee da bi da boo, bee da bi da boo, ba ba. The wrong way –” 

Student: “Isn’t that what I played?”

JM: “No, in the beginning you played it right. Then the last two times you played, ‘Bee da bi da boo, bee da bi da boo, bip bip.’”

JM: “Do you know what a half step is? OK, would you explain to me, what is a half step?”

Interlocutor: “When do you get a chance to practice, man?”

JM: “I don’t get a chance to practice.”

I: “That’s a serious sacrifice.”

JM: “It is a serious sacrifice. But at this point, man, you know, I don’t get a chance to practice. I don’t have the energy to practice after I get up and do all the things that I have to do in the course of a day. And that’s a problem that I’m constantly fighting. And every time I get through playing and get back to a certain place playing, I always say, ‘Well, man, I’m not going to let this go. When I get back to Hartford I’m going to get up every day, at least practice an hour so that I can keep myself in shape. But I always get back and always let a day go by, and a couple of days, and then it’s a week, and, then I don’t play.”

JM: [To students] “If you can play ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘Countdown’ and begin to play them slowly – I play it slow, man, it took me six months to learn ‘Giant Steps’ and I was in jail. And no place to go, I studied all day. But I should have taken care of that when I was 16, 17 years old. Here I was 24, 25, playing scales that I wasn’t really tight with, and learning how to move from one chord change to the other.”

JM: “The student in the university will avail himself to many other facets of music that I didn’t even consider when I was playing. For instance, playing different instruments. Learning how to read, and read in a manner that would enable him to play in a classical situation, Western classical situation, and an Afro-American classical situation. We have to get into these terms now. You notice I’m using these terms because these were the terms that were thrown at me when I arrived on the academic scene. ‘Legitimate’ music, ‘serious’ music. Making an inference that music that wasn’t Western classical music wasn’t serious or wasn’t legitimate. So I have used that term, what they call jazz, I call that a classical music. It’s an American classical music.”

JM: “Even though the atmosphere is different, it’s not a bar, and there are not hustlers on the scene, and it isn’t the nightlife, the music is there. And the kids have to learn it in more of a sterile environment. And I guess it might have some influence on their concept of improvisation. But that’s getting into it a little too heavy, man. I find that that’s what the Western society does, man, they dissect and get into everything so much so as to explain the why of everything. And I’ve heard musicians that came out of a university setting that sound good, and play well. And the rest of what they weren’t exposed to in college they will be exposed to when they go into the big cities to play. Because certainly the clubs are still there, and the hustlers are still there. And they’re going to be there as long as this government continues to be a hustling government.”

JM: [Lecturing] “Learn to, to – to see. Ants come crawling out on the ground, and they’re not just there to be stepped on.”

JM: “You see, if I was a young, young cat – when I say ‘young, young’ I mean a guy not as old as I am – I would think that it would not be a good place for me to be because I would want to get out there and make a name for myself in the music business and whatnot.”

JM: “But I have been through several levels of the music business. I came out and went through the ’50s and made whatever name I have, and in the ’60s. And it’s just the same thing out there now, man, you’re just either playing or you’re not playing. And when you’re not playing, then you’ve got to worry about how you’re going to pay your bills and a lot of things. And I don’t want to go through that anymore, man. Personally, I see a little security at the university.

Because I was interested in getting out of just playing every night. I wanted to go somewhere where I could perpetuate some concepts from another vantage point, and not always just on the bandstand.

I won’t put myself out there to be exploited. Not anymore.”

JM: [Playing pool] “I hope the Afro-American music department keeps flowing up here because I’d hate to go back to this for a living, man.

I think that instead of being on the bandstand it’s more important for me to be somewhere where I can rub shoulders with somebody like [pointing] Carl Clay or rub shoulders with somebody like Tommy or Keith or Lance. Because, man, or any of the students that I come in contact [with] here that are trying to get their thing together. And I don’t think that everybody here, I mean, you know, why are we still in this country? You know, why don’t we leave the United States then? If, because the environment is a reflection of the place that we live in. So, I mean, why, I’m still here on this campus because y’all are still here in the United States. And when you all go, I’ll have to [‘moving’ gesture]. I mean, [inaudible] I’m not going to be left with the dregs.”

JM: “Like I told my class at the University of Hartford, we started, one night I made the subject matter the death of John F. Kennedy. And one of my bright students raised his hand, he wanted to talk about Earth, Wind & Fire or the Weather Report or John Coltrane or somebody, and he said, well, he can’t see where this was relevant to my subject matter. And I explained to him that the government and what it perpetuates is a reflection of what the art form is. And surely when, in Nazi Germany they didn’t have any John Coltranes, because they outlawed certain art forms and burned certain books and that was it. You know, and I saw the death of John F. Kennedy as being very relevant, man, to where the art was going in this country.”

Dollie McLean: “As a matter of fact, on the night that he was assassinated, he [Jackie] had a concert.”

JM: “I didn’t, we didn’t play. The curtain came back and we looked out in the audience, and there was such a feeling that we just, we started a tune and then we decided that we would ask them to give the people their money back. We weren’t going to play. It had nothing to do with our allegiance to the government or our love for John F. Kennedy. It was a vibration that was very strong, and nobody knew what it was. So we didn’t hit.”

DM: “Probably of bad things to come.”

JM: “Yeah, it was a bad omen that night.”

JM: “There were drugs on the scene surely since the ’20s. But the government, and its cooperation with the underworld, allowed, there was an alliance that came together there that allowed them to bring drugs into the country, and that’s where I feel that people like myself and Fats Navarro and other people that used drugs became the people that were plagued with this sickness. Because the drugs came in and immediately went into the urban areas, man, where black people were. And it didn’t go into the outskirts. I mean, it would look like a definite plan when you could have drugs on 116th Street and 8th Avenue, and straight up and down all of the Harlem streets, and you didn’t have it out in Long Island, and you didn’t have it in the areas where they wanted to more or less protect those communities. And it was rampant, man. I could walk out of my house when I was – because I lived a very sheltered life coming up in Harlem, but, I guess I was as sheltered as anybody. But, when drugs came on the scene it made me become devious. It made me begin to lie and scheme to get away from my family’s protection so that I could get out there to do what I needed to do because I was already sick. You know, I couldn’t tell my mother, ‘Look, I’ve got to go cop because I’m sick.’ She didn’t even know what it was, you know. But it was there, and it was cheap enough for everybody to afford. It was a dollar, man, for a cap.”

JM: “I really got busted in ’57 and that was when I lost my [cabaret] card. And I couldn’t work anywhere. And then The Connection, I think Freddie Redd called me and asked me would I be interested in playing with him in a play. And even though I was burning up a lot of money because of my habit, still it was a big, significant boost for us, for that period.”

JM: “When I lost my cabaret card it was very difficult for me. I couldn’t work because I couldn’t play in any clubs under my name. There were a few times that I used an alias, when I worked with Mingus and a couple of other jobs. I used the name John Lenwood. But this sort of put me on another course.

There was a program on the lower east side that was one of the programs to come out of the Kennedy administration, and in fact I think it was Robert’s baby, it was called ‘Mobilization for Youth.’ This was the first job that I had in town that I liked a little bit. You know, I worked with kids two or three afternoons a week and I got a salary for it.

It was really the cabaret card that gave me the time to get involved with this, with young people.”

JM: [To a group of kids] “You see what I mean? You could go to art. You could go to music, which, you’ve already gone to music. You could go to dance –”

JM: “So I think that what I’m, what I’m doing up there is important, [or] I wouldn’t be there.”

JM: [To kids] “– you can take all of them if you want to. Plus –”

JM: “But then again you lose, again, you lose on the artistic side.”

JM: [Playing with student saxophonists] “Very good. As I had you two playing and I joined you, I found out that my intonation, mine, after 30 years of playing the saxophone, is off, for only two reasons. One, that I haven’t been playing the saxophone. So like lifting weights or anything else that keeps a muscle in shape, these muscles [touching face] have relaxed now. And they’re waiting to be worked with, and the only way you can work with them is to play the horn every day. So now, if I played these exercises like I gave you, if I play them, this is what I’m going to have to play today, tomorrow, and every day now until I open in the club, these muscles will tighten up, and so that the notes will then begin to sound in tune.”

JM: “What I’ll be doing now, for the next week or two, is being very critical of everything I do. And getting my mouth, as soon as my mouth can handle notes and play, then I’ll start thinking about what I’m going to play. Then I’ll start working on that.”

JM: [In rehearsal] “We don’t have the same thing. Oh yeah? OK, let’s 

JM: “So that by the time I open in the club, I’ll be ready to just play what I have in front of me, and try and just do that.”

JM: [In rehearsal] “Hold up, hold up. Now, I’ve got an F-sharp. Hold it. Victor, is my note supposed to be in unison with them? I’ve got an F-sharp, and it looks like a G-sharp too.”

Victor: “Yeah it should be unison.”

JM: “OK, so it’s a different – let me mark my – OK, I know what it is. It looks like F-sharp here. [Plays] That’s the note? OK.”

JM: “And as the nights go on, and I work every day, then it’ll start to loosen up, and I’ll start to move out a little further. So you keep going like that, until, when two weeks are up, you know, you’ll be like, do anything, play anything. Because you’ve been working for two weeks and you’re back into it. And just when that happens, that’s when I come back up here, go back to school, put my saxophone in the closet, you know.”

JM: [In rehearsal] “Let’s run it down, then we’ll work the chords out, on the bandstand.”

JM: “So, this turned out to be the very last night of the Five Spot. The owner there said that it was just becoming possible for him to keep up with the trend. See, it all gets back to the media. Until the media begins to kind of scatter its blows a little bit and play some other kinds of music. I think if the media begins to play more of the musicians that play acoustical instruments I think they’ll get an audience, you know. People relate to what they hear and see.”

JM: “Let me get into this, man. Why don’t they give the art form the recognition? Because it’s a black art form. I saw a kiddie show, Captain Kangaroo, one morning, we were eating breakfast. And they had a show on ragtime. And Max Morath is a friend of mine, and I like Max very much. But Captain Kangaroo said, ‘Mr. Morath, will you please play some of your music?’ And he started playing ‘The Entertainer.’ Then he played ‘Maple Leaf Rag.’ And not once did they mention Scott Joplin’s name, not in the first twenty minutes of the show. Or even show a picture of that man. And that’s a program for young children to educate them about something. So those children will come away from that program, and every time they hear ‘The Entertainer’ or any ragtime, they’re going to associate it with Max Morath. You see? And it’s racist, man, that’s all it is. That’s why you know who Gregg Allman is and Alice Cooper, and you don’t know who Thelonious Monk is. And the kids don’t know who he is in the north end of Hartford, and they don’t know who he is across this country.”

JM: [Lecturing] “So jazz flourishes in with all the other music in Europe, and Japan. This is the country where it doesn’t flourish. Because they’ve got no audience for it, because everybody is a Big Mac mentally. I mean that, man. And you don’t believe me. And they shot that man’s head off, and you don’t even believe me.”

Melvin, a student: “Don’t, wait a minute now, wait, wait, wait, wait.”

JM: “OK then, you do believe me. And if you do believe me that means that you’re going to be one of the people to do something about it. Don’t wait until they tell you, ‘Hey Melvin, go ahead and play some of Sun Ra’s music, Jim, because that’s going to be it.’ And you jump out there because you’re getting a lot of play from, Hollywood’s talking about it, television’s talking about it, K & D’s talking about it, got to be happening. And you can’t wait for that, man. You can’t wait for them to tune you into it. You’ve got to listen to what I’m telling you, man. And go ahead on, since you’re going to be on the radio, and deal with the music. And don’t stop playing Lou Donaldson Hot Dog, but tell them something else about Lou. Tell the audience that you know that Lou Donaldson is one of the world’s great alto saxophone players in jazz, but here he is playing Hot Dog.”

M: “Yeah, I understand.”

JM: “Donald Byrd is wearing big buttons and all of that because he has to in order to be in with the cats, and to be in with that whole thing that he’s perpetuating, the commercialism. He’s not smiling, man, because he’s happy with what he’s doing musically, because he’s not. He can’t be.”

M: “Mary Lou Williams was talking about, that the only way jazz was going to come back into focus is that they need to start, the radio stations need to start playing it more and people need to start talking about it more.”

JM: “They ain’t going to let you do it. They won’t let you do it, Melvin.”

M: “Why?”

JM: “Simply because they have got to perpetuate the music that the system wants to perpetuate. Now, this will take the rest of the class for me to tell you about it. I’m serious, man. This gets back to John Kennedy’s head being blown off, and I don’t want to talk about that tonight.”

M: “OK, I understand –”

JM: “You can’t do that, man. You get on that radio station and play – unless you’re going to be here at the University of Hartford station. But if you’re talking about going into a commercial station and lining your pockets with some money, you’d better keep on practicing saying, [radio DJ voice] ‘Hey, jam, here we go with the Top 10’ and all of that, because that’s what they’re perpetuating.”

M: “Yeah I can see that to a point but I –”

JM: “The only jazz stations that are doing anything, man, are losing their jobs in New York City, man. These guys [pointing] from NYU, they’re not from up here on Mars with all of us, they’ll tell you, man. We’re on, don’t talk, we’re on Mars, man. You don’t know any, you can’t talk about it, Melvin, because you don’t understand it. The only thing you understand, man, is that commercialism is the thing that’s successful here on Mars, and there’s no place else to go and look because if it don’t happen at the Civic Center and it don’t happen right here in town, it ain’t real. You know, like for instance, like Sun Ra. I’ve been saying that word to you for all semester. Have you listened to one Sun Ra record?”

M: “Yeah.”

JM: “You have? Do you like his music?”

M: “It’s kind of far out.”

JM: “I’m hip. But do you think it’s worthwhile listening to because I told you to, and I know about what I’m talking about?”

Another student: “I saw Sun Ra last Saturday night in New York. And he played, his band played for a long time and they played, you know, really good music and everything. But why does he have to walk out with capes on and pretend he’s from Saturn?”

JM: “[Inaudible] It’s the same reason that they’re blowing blue smoke up. And only difference about, only thing about Sun Ra is he’s been wearing those blue capes and playing electronic music since 1957. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell all of you, man. He’s the master of it, and the personifier of all that crap you’re listening to.”

S: “[Inaudible] the music that he was playing. But it was when he’d walk out like, you know, they have a big setup and he had a lot of musicians and they were playing good rhythms. And he’d come walk out, like walk up and down in front of everybody like, smiling like he’s a king or something like that.”

JM: “He is a king, man. Can’t he be a god and a king? The man’s 60. He’s been out here starving all these years. Can’t he be a god and a king? Can’t he be, man? Let him be.”

M: “[Inaudible] you’re losing me, you’re losing me.”

JM: “I’m losing you, look – I’m talking about, he’s smiling because, he’s not smiling because he’s getting $50,000 a week to be a hamburger. He’s smiling because the music he writes is being played, and artistically he’s being fulfilled. And he puts on a cape and plays his electronic piano and walks up and smiles and lives with his musicians and they have a commune. He’s a teacher and a great, great artist, man. And he is not accepted commercially. So he ain’t smiling because somebody from CBS or CTI is out there getting ready to give him a big contract and a worldwide tour. He’s smiling because he’s a king and he’s in heaven. Can’t somebody smile?”

JM: “But in France, like, one day I was there and Bud Powell lived in a street and he would leave his house and be walking, and sort of looking like he was a million miles away. I always said that Monk and Bud are in a state of grace all the time. You know, they’re beyond things earthly. And when Bud – the traffic in Paris, you know, is like a race. And the cop would see him coming, the policeman. And he’d dash to the middle of the street and stop the traffic so that Bud could cross the street. And Bud didn’t have to signal him or stop and wait at the curb. The minute Bud reached that curb and his foot stepped off, the traffic had stopped. And he would cross the street, not running, just at his same pace. And when he was well up on the other side and heading down the street, traffic would start up again, man. And I just said to myself, God, man, look at that. And it’s over here in Paris, man. And they don’t do that for anybody. You know, they, this man did it because he knew Bud. And would see him, knew who he was, a great artist. And even when I got off the boat in Paris, and gave my passport. The guy was stamping passports, you know, and he opened mine and looked down, and the first thing he said was, ‘Ah, jazz musician. Artiste.’ You know, stamped it. You know, it made me feel, feel good, man. Yeah, I felt – I mean, what do you want? Somebody might say, ‘Oh man, this cat’s got to have somebody telling him he’s a jazz m—, you know, he’s an artist.’ Yeah, you’ve got to have somebody sometime to tell you that you’re an artist, man. You’ve got to have somebody recognize the fact that you are in an exclusive kind of art form, that’s something special.”

JM: [Practicing] “I’ve got to do this every day. Because if you don’t, man, if you lay off as long as I’ve been laying off –”


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