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Guest Blog: The Genius of Jackie McClean (D'JAM Jazz Appreciation Month)

by Vicki Meek 16 Apr 2012 11:13 AM

How jazz great in Connecticut influenced the South Dallas Cultural Center. And a special concert and film screening celebrating that influence. Another offering from D’JAM Jazz Appreciation Month.


Guest blogger Vicki Meek is an artist, arts educator and the head of the South Dallas Cultural Center. This post first appeared on her blog, Art & Racenotes.

Jackie McLean Photo:

I first met Jackie McLean in 1977 after taking my first arts administrative position at the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. So it seems almost uncanny that I should be presenting the Jackie McLean Quintet’s former pianist, Alan Jay Palmer, in what is surely going to be my last arts administrative job.

When Alan Jay Palmer came into my life it was like deja vú for me and for him. You see we both got our indoctrination into the world of community arts at The Artists Collective, an organization founded by Jackie and Dollie McLean in North Hartford designed to bring excellent African-centered arts instruction & performances to that low income community. Jackie had, by this point in his jazz career, been on the faculty of Hartt School of Music at The University of Hartford for a number of years and was responsible for developing its jazz education program. He dedicated countless hours to teaching both on the college campus and at The Collective.

I don’t know how many of his young charges at The Collective knew how fortunate they were to have someone the caliber of Jackie McLean sharing his vast music knowledge with them, but I certainly did! I was thrilled to be associated with the McLeans, Jackie in particular, because I knew of his music long before I moved to Hartford. I owned several McLean LPs and respected his musicianship which was easily on the level of the greats like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and their peers. The idea that this exceptional musician was giving back to his community in such a significant way impressed me immensely. Jackie was a genius, both as a musician and as a teacher. His music was always innovative and powerful. His instruction was always comprehensive and incomparable.

The institution he and his wife built is now over 40 years old and remains a major cultural force in New England. When I took over the South Dallas Cultural Center over 15 years ago, I modeled its program after The Artists Collective. My goal, like the McLeans’, was to provide excellent arts instruction and presentations that reflect the extensive contributions of the African Diaspora to world culture.

Like The Collective, SDCC sees jazz as being one of the most significant one of these contributions in that it is an art form that has literally touched the entire world. In the documentary Jackie McLean on Mars by Ken Levis, Jackie remarks on how differently jazz artists are received in Europe and Asia from how they are received in its birthplace, America. He lamented the fact that jazz never receives the same level of respect European classical music does in this country and how frustrating that is. Sadly, Jackie’s observations remain true today.

It is for this reason that I jumped at the chance to have Alan Jay Palmer join our faculty at SDCC to teach jazz piano and so I secured a partnership with Big Thought’s Thriving Minds Program to realize this desire. I want our students to know this music and its originators. I want them to know its history and respect its place in the musical spectrum. Jackie McLean instilled in Alan Jay Palmer the obligation to give back and to teach the history of jazz along with its performance techniques. Each Saturday when I peek into the music studio at Alan’s young students, enthusiastically, albeit tentatively, finding their way around the keyboard, clumsily plunking out a Duke Ellington tune, I know Jackie McLean would be proud to know that his dedication to the preservation of classical jazz is alive and well at the South Dallas Cultural Center.

For more information on the genius of Jackie McLean, join us on Sunday, April 22 at 4 pm when the Alan Jay Palmer Quintet will be joined by another former Jackie McLean Quintet band member Raymond Williams for an evening of jazz music. In addition, there will be a screening of  Jackie McLean on Mars and a Q & A following the concert. More details here.

Check out the Art & Seek D’JAM calendar for more jazz events in April.