Claude McLin

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"Who Was Claude McLin?," Dutch saxophonist Luc Houtkamp asked as a musical question on his 1997 trio recording for Entropy. To wind up with an avant-garde composition named after him, let alone questioning…
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"Who Was Claude McLin?," Dutch saxophonist Luc Houtkamp asked as a musical question on his 1997 trio recording for Entropy. To wind up with an avant-garde composition named after him, let alone questioning his basic identity, might have been something this artist would have found highly amusing. Someone who saw him on-stage at a distance might have assumed he was Lester Young, since he played the same horn -- the tenor sax -- and held it an angle just like Young did. McLin might not have minded this assumption at all, as Young. At 19, McLin began his professional career in the Chicago-area band of Walter Dyett. In 1946, he returned to the Windy City after serving in the Army, and led combos in Chicago bars and nightclubs through 1952. The atmosphere of the Chicago jazz scene was hot and heavy. Fans were particularly thrilled with sweaty, thrill-a-minute cutting contests, the goal being to determine who might be the best jazz improviser on a given instrument. On tenor saxophone, young talents emerging were players such as Gene Ammons, Von Freeman, and Johnny Griffin, and McLin held forth in this company. Ammons frequently worked in McLin's bands, sometimes on double bills with Griffin. In 1948, jazz history happened when Charlie "Yardbird" Parker came to town, and naturally enough he was billed with the increasingly popular Claude McLin & His Combo. Keyboard players on the scene were also not slouches, including Junior Mance and Wild Bill Davis. The Aristocrat and Chess labels recorded many of these musicians in different combinations. In 1950, McLin scored his first hit with a recording of "Mona Lisa" and collaborated with vocalist Laura Rucker. This newfound popularity had quickly faded by the next year. Part of his problem might have been embracing bebop, as it was considered too far out for the mass audience taste. But embrace it he did, fronting bands with names such as Beautiful Be Bop and Claude McLin Bop Band. He also played and recorded in the early '50s with Bennie Green. A 1950 Pershing Hotel broadcast recording with Charlie Parker led to McLin's widest exposure and distribution. It would have for anybody involved, considering the number of times these particular recordings have been reissued, re-released, and otherwise regurgitated by more labels than could have ever found space in the old Brill Building. This isn't just a case of his name appearing as a credit in a discography, however. There is plenty of McLin's soloing on this date, and he and Parker play extremely well together. Sometime in the early '50s, McLin vamoosed from Chicago. A confirmed sighting of him on the West Coast took place in 1954, a recording session behind R&B shouter Amos Milburn. He also continued recording singles on his own sporadically, as if issuing edicts. In 1960, there were the fast blues numbers entitled "Countdown Orbit One" and "Countdown Orbit Two," perhaps influenced by the space program. "The Growler" came a bit later. A sort of striptease grind, it suggests that McLin might have been feeling his days of Baroque bebop invention were behind him. Then in 1964, it was time for the immortal "Jambo." Now it seems McLin was into garage rock, complete with a singer who sounded like he swallowed a mouth harp by mistake. He was still playing organ-based soul, jazz, and blues, as evidenced by several unreleased tracks he recorded for the same label. In the harsh musical environment dominated by white rock groups and new forms of soul music, McLin's opportunities to perform or record basically began to dry up. In 1978, he was driving a bus for a car rental agency at the Los Angeles International Airport. He died in Los Angeles not long after retiring from this job.