Remembering Big Jay McNeely

Big Jay McNeely

A tribute to the jazz pianist-composer

Big Jay McNeely (April 29, 1927 – September 16, 2018) was the definitive r&b honking saxophonist, able to take the early 1950s style to its extreme.

He was born Cecil McNeely in Los Angeles and was originally inspired by Illinois Jacquet who largely started the r&b tenor style with his solo on Lionel Hampton’s 1942 recording of “Flying Home.”

McNeely started out playing small group swing but developed a style full of exciting repetitions, honks and screams.

He made his recording debut with Johnny Otis and was soon signed to a contract with the Savoy label, having a hit with “Deacon’s Hop” in 1949 that made him a major attraction on the r&b circuit.

The most flamboyant of the honking saxophonists, McNeely often went out into the crowd while he played, sometimes honked away while laying on his back, and always put on a colorful and rambunctious show.

He was at the height of his popularity in the 1950s, even having a hit in 1959 with a ballad (“There Is Something On Your Mind”) before the rise of rock and roll and the electric guitar made his music seem more of a period piece.

McNeely was outside of music during much of the 1970s, working as a postman, but he made a comeback in the early 1980s and continued playing the music he loved throughout the remainder of his life, passing away at the age of 91.

This film clip features Big Jay McNeely playing before an enthusiastic crowd in Los Angeles in 1983.

-Scott Yanow