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Jackie McLean on Mars captures the jazz giant’s all-too-clear thoughts on JFK, Sun Ra, the conspiracy to silence jazz and the Big-Mac mentality of life here on Mars.

They don’t put Jackie McLean on T-shirts, like Coltrane, or make movies about him, like Bird, his mentor both in saxophone and dope. But McLean—the fire-breathing bebop altoist of the 1950s who would evolve to somehow combine the disparate ideas of modal jazz and political consciousness—is every bit the jazz giant of those household names. If you need convincing, put on one of the records that came out of his groundbreaking stints at Prestige or Blue Note. Or just watch Ken Levis’ beautiful, fiery short documentary Jackie McLean on Mars.

By the time of Levis’ 1975 film, McLean’s heroin issues are behind him, but he’s still on the hustle, an academic one, as a prof at the University of Hartford. Here, the camera captures a mind as crystalline and sharp as his sax tone, both far out—he calls it “on Mars”—and deeply grounded. On jazz icon Donald Byrd’s success as a funk/soul fusion artist, he’s got this to say: “He’s not smiling because he’s happy with what he’s doing musically because he’s NOT. He can’t be!” On whether Sun Ra’s onstage flamboyance undermines his seriousness as a musician, he’s philosophical: “He’s not smiling because someone from CBS or RTI is offering him a big contract,” explains Jackie. “He’s smiling because he’s a king and he’s in heaven!” And on the vexing issue as to why jazz flourishes in Europe and not its birthplace, Jackie is blunt. “Everybody [here] is a Big Mac, mentally,” he says.

Don’t be a Big Mac. Put some blue cheese on it, man. Make it Animal Style. Explore Jackie McLean. Explore life on Mars.

 

BONUS CUT: Jackie McLean’s respect among jazzbos and fellow musicians is of the highest order. From his first recordings to his very last, there may be no other artist who can match Jackie for sheer album-after-album-after-album quality over 50 years of recording. There are no lazy efforts and no stylistic missteps, just the work of an artist fiercely committed to his art. Where to begin? Almost anywhere. So we’ll pick the very Trunkworthy New Wine In Old Bottles, recorded around the time Jackie McLean On Mars was filmed. This Jackie doing what he does best, backed by a trio of legend. It’s accessible enough for the most casual jazz listener and a later-period revelation for folks already hip to the Jackie Mac Attack. Dig. 

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