McLean, a contemporary of some of the 20th century's most famed jazz musicians, died at his Hartford home after a long illness, family members told The Hartford Courant.
McLean was founder and artistic director of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford's Hartt School. He and his wife, actress Dollie McLean, also founded the Artists Collective, a community center and fine arts school in Hartford's inner city primarily serving troubled youth.
University of Hartford President Walter Harrison said Dollie McLean called him Friday with news of her husband's death.
Harrison said that despite his many musical accomplishments, McLean was a modest man whose connections with his students lasted for decades after they left his classroom.
He fully understood the way that jazz as an art should be passed down to students," Harrison said. He saw his role as bringing jazz from the 1950s and '60s and handing it down to artists of today."
McLean, a native of Harlem in New York City, grew up in a musical family, his father playing guitar in Tiny Bradshaw's band. McLean took up the soprano saxophone as a teen and quickly switched to the alto saxophone, inspired by his godfather's performances in a church choir, he told WBGO-FM in Newark, New Jersey, in an interview in 2004.
McLean went on to play with his friend Rollins from 1948-49 in a Harlem neighborhood band under the tutelage of pianist Bud Powell. Through Powell, McLean met bebop pioneer Charlie Bird" Parker, who became a major influence on the young alto saxophonist.
He made his first recording when he was 19 on Miles Davis' Dig album, also featuring Rollins, which heralded the beginning of the hard-bop style.
In the 1950s, McLean also played with Charles Mingus and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, experiences that he credited with helping him find his own style.
I never really sounded like Bird, but that was my mission," McLean said in the WBGO radio interview. I didn't care if people said that I copied him; I loved Bird's playing so much. But Mingus was the one that really pushed me away from the idea and forced me into thinking about having an individual sound and concept."
McLean made his first recording as a leader in 1955. He drew wide attention with his 1959 debut on Blue Note Records, Jackie's Bag, one of dozens of albums he recorded in the hard-bop and free jazz styles for the label over the next eight years. His 1962 album Let Freedom Ring found him performing with avant-garde musicians.
In 1959-60, he acted in the off-Broadway play The Connection," about jazz musicians and drug addiction. McLean, a heroin addict during his early career, later went on to lecture on drug addiction research.
In 1968, after Blue Note terminated his recording contract, McLean began teaching at the University of Hartford. He taught jazz, African-American music, and African-American history and culture, setting up the university's African American Music Department, which later was named in his honor.
He took a break from recording for much of the 1980s to focus on his work as a music educator, but made his recording comeback in 1988 with Dynasty, and later re-signed with Blue Note. His last Blue Note recordings included Fire and Love (1998), featuring his youthful Macband with son Rene McLean on tenor saxophone, and the ballads album Nature Boy (2000).
He received an American Jazz Masters fellowship, the nation's highest jazz honor, from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001, and toured the world as an educator and performer.