My Dad, Jackie McLean


above: a candid shutoff Melonae’ McLean and her father Jackie McLean taken at a photo booth, Times Square, New York, 1974. below: Jackie McLean performing, c. 1978. photo: Stephen Schwartz, courtesy of Melonae’ McLean, used by permission

By Melonae’ McLean

(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Fall 2008

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“Jackie McLean in Connecticut” began in the 1960s. Little did we know at the time that “Jackie McLean in Connecticut” would give birth to two major institutions: The African American Music Department at the Hartt School, University of Hartford (renamed The Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz in 2000), and the Artists Collective, Inc. Both continue to exist today, almost four decades later.

The template for the Artists Collective was formulated throughout the 1960s on New York City’s Lower East Side, where we lived, and in Harlem. My father became involved with Mobilization for Youth, one of the poverty programs developed by Robert Kennedy during the John F. Kennedy administration. He also worked with the HARYOU ACT, an initiative supported by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. to introduce the arts to youth in Harlem. These programs were among several developed nationally in response to the volatile political times of riots, protests, and demonstrations taking place in America’s inner-city communities.

My father performed at many of New York City’s jazz meccas, including Slug’s Saloon, formerly an Armenian bar in our neighborhood. He helped to establish Slug’s as a jazz club by initially proposing Sunday afternoon jazz sessions featuring his band. The success of the Sunday events led to sessions throughout the week, and soon the giants of jazz were performing there on a weekly basis.

Jackie McLean’s first encounter with Hartford came years earlier when he was a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He recalled performing at the Strand Theater in Hartford. His next Hartford encounter, sometime in the mid sixties, would come at the invitation of Hartford jazz musician Paul Brown, who hired his band to perform at the Monday Night Jazz concert series offered by the Community Renewal Team.

During this time my father met Tony Keller, who was the first executive director of the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, during the Ella Grasso administration. This meeting would be the beginning of a life-long friendship and led to Dad’s being invited to become an artist in residence advisor in North Hartford.  

During one of my father’s performances at a New York club, students attending the University of Hartford, wanting their culture to be better reflected in the curriculum, approached him about teaching a course on African American music. This would be the beginning of the African American Music Department at the Hartt School.

In the beginning, Dad commuted back and forth for his classes, which were held once a week. As time passed, more classes were added, and he began to formalize the African American Music Department with the blessing of Hartt School Founder Dr. Moshe Paranov. Though the two men were from different worlds and generations, they enjoyed intellectual conversations about music, history—and dogs. My father often spoke about Dr. Paranov’s beloved pets. Dr. Paranov would succeed each of his dogs with one of the same breed—and the same name. My dad knew them all and loved the concept of renaming multiple dogs of the same breed over a lifetime. When Dr. Paranov retired, my father remained in contact with him, and they worked on special projects until Dr. Paranov’s death in 1994 at age 99.

When Dad arrived, the University of Hartford campus was in its infancy; The Hartt School and other initial structures were relatively new. The African American Music Department began in a trailer where the path is now between The Hartt School and the Harry Jack Gray Center. Gengras Student Union at the time functioned as a cafeteria, gaming area, bank window, post office, and more. The gaming area included a pool table, a place my father frequented so he could commune with the students. Often these encounters became counseling sessions about life, lessons he had learned the hard way, and, many times, drug abuse. Counseling was another of my father’s callings. He counseled in the New York penal system, in our community, and with anyone he thought was in trouble. He continued this avocation when we moved to Hartford. 

As my father’s Hartford responsibilities grew, he was invited to stay with the Keller family during the week. Conversations about a community arts initiative began.

As time passed, my father and mother Dollie (who was reluctant to move to Hartford) started to consider the idea of moving here. Before the move took place, I was sent on the second phase of the McLean pioneering expedition to Hartford and was enrolled in school. Again, the Kellers extended their home to my dad and me. We stayed with them during the week and returned to New York on the weekends.

Eventually my father, with the help of Tony Keller, convinced my mother to move to Hartford. My oldest brother was married by this time and not living at home. He and his wife moved into our apartment on the Lower East Side. I am sure my mother really liked this idea—just in case things didn’t work out in Hartford. My other brother, who was engaged, did move with us but returned to New York within the year to be married and remained in New York for several years. Eventually he and his wife moved to Hartford.

Living in Hartford, my father continued teaching and developing the African American Music Department at the University of Hartford, which at times was difficult because until Jackie McLean arrived, Hartt’s culture, understanding, and respect embraced only Western classical music traditions. He was also becoming more involved with the North Hartford community and continued drug counseling in addition to performing.

He and Tony Keller began to formulate the idea of a group of artists coming together to teach the arts and to address the perils faced by inner-city youth.  With Paul Brown, he enlisted Ionis Martin, Cheryl Smith and other local artists working in the community. The group began meeting regularly in our living room, and the Artists Collective was born. The Collective began its programming in area schools. My mother became interested in helping. Her work ethic, administrative, artistic, and managerial skills, driven passion, and self-taught business acumen (honed by managing my father’s music career) would propel the concept of the Artists Collective into what it is today, the benchmark for community-based programs nationally. 

The Artists Collective’s first home, in 1973, was at 780 Windsor Street. In 1975, the owners of the building wanted to sell it, and the Collective had to relocate. Nick Carbone, then deputy mayor, and Donald Conrad of the Aetna helped find a new home for the Collective at 35 Clark Street (formerly Saint Michael’s School). In 1999, after sixteen years of relentless, driven work by Dollie and others, the Collective was able to erect and move into a new building designed by Tai Soo Kim on Albany Avenue.

Jackie McLean touched many people around the world through his art and humanity. All kinds of people from all walks of life recount wonderful stories about my dad, the artist. I am currently communicating with a man from Israel who tells me stories of how he plays Jackie McLean music for his daughter who is five and how much she loves him. There’s the cab driver who told of being on the verge of suicide due to drug addiction until one fateful encounter with my father, an encounter he credits as saving his life; the Japanese man who pleaded to come to Hartford to see Jackie McLean just to say thank you because in his youth he had traveled from a remote area in Japan to see my father perform in Tokyo. Once there, he ran out of money, and my father gave him a meal and money to get back home.  The gentleman is now an executive at a major Japanese automobile company.  I now refer to these wonderful, random communications as postcards from my dad. They keep me connected to him. 


Read more about Connecticut’s art, music, theater, and literary history on our TOPICS page. 

Read more about Connecticut’s African American history on our TOPICS page. 

Read about other Notable Connecticans on our TOPICS page.

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