Aping Jackie McLean

I started getting serious about music when I was 15. When I was 16 I wrote Jackie McLean a letter because I knew he had developed a music program at the Hartt School of Music, University of Hartford, which was only a half hour from my house.

He graciously invited me to come and meet him in his office at the school. I was very familiar with his playing at that point and he was probably my very favorite alto saxophonist. I brought some of my favorite recordings which he autographed for me. He invited me to come to his house so he could hear me play, which resulted in my studying with him privately over the next few years until I graduated high school and entered the Hartt School.

By the time I graduated I really sounded like Jackie – or at least a fair rip-off. I always had my own feelings about music – but Jackie became a larger-than-life super hero to me during those years between the time I was 16 and my very early twenties. To me he was much like a parent, and I wanted to do and think about everything the same way he did.

Jackie had such a massive persona – it would take me many years to understand that and put that wonderful gift into perspective and integrate it into a “self” that melded peacefully into Charley.

My very first job out of school was playing in the lounge band on a cruise ship in Los Angeles. The house band was a really tired and disharmonious group – and it was very, very difficult for me – without going into detail, a young twenty-something from the East Coast fresh out of school with a big New York alto sound and ideas and presumptions to match was not exactly well received.

The highlight of the time I spent on that boat gig was a week-long jazz cruise featuring some of the legends who were still alive at the time.

I was practicing in the lounge one day – and in walked Billy Higgins himself, with a huge smile on his face. Jackie and Billy Higgins were very close.

The minute he saw who was playing the saxophone his face dropped. It was one of the type of moments I’ll never, ever forget.

He didn’t say anything to me. He didn’t have to.

I realized at that moment that I had some deep soul searching to do. I switched to tenor for many years.

In school it wasn’t popular to talk about anything outside the 50’s/60’s hard bop legacy. I began listening to all kinds of music and rediscovering my own tastes – and making my playing personal and more about me.

Two musicians who are very close to me – Tony Scherr and Tony Lee – made comments to me that there was something personal in my alto playing that they liked – and I realized I had “thrown the baby out with the bath water”. It wasn’t that I needed to stop playing alto – I just had to finally become Charley and play the alto like that.

There is still a lot of Jackie McLean in my playing – and there is a lot of Jackie McLean in who I am. He was a great mentor and remains one of my heroes. I’m free to express the Jackie McLean inside me – but it is now in the context of Charley.

This is something that took me YEARS to understand.