July 19, 2024

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Scenes: Les McCann in his element made it real: If not beyond compare, the pianist and singer truly was one of a kind: Video, Photos

Pianist and vocalist Les McCann passed away on Friday. Known mainly as a soul jazz musician, his rich artistic history includes musical experimentation, political engagement, photography, and painting.

In 2008, I went to Telluride, Colorado for a summer jazz festival, where I spoke on a panel titled “The Jazz Life” and filed some radio coverage. On a walk through Telluride, I wandered toward Popcorn Alley, a historic street with brightly painted buildings that once comprised the mining town’s “sporting district.” If something was illegal or disreputable, it happened on Popcorn Alley: gambling, murder, and most of all, prostitution.

On Popcorn Alley’s northwest corner, I noticed a large Black gentleman—he must have been 300 pounds—holding court from his wheelchair.

That looks like Les McCann, I thought.

That is Les McCann, I realized.

Mr. McCann was scheduled to perform at the jazz fest that evening. I’d been informed earlier that he wasn’t giving interviews in Telluride, so I approached him only to say hello and offer some quick appreciation for his music. When Mr. McCann and I got along well, his handler offered me a chance to record a little on the spot. Busy Popcorn Alley was not an ideal recording setting, nor was I carrying proper equipment. I only had a small recorder on me. Still, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to tape this soul jazz legend on the street.

The handler instructed me to keep it light: no music interview, he emphasized. I did my best to follow his instruction with a jocular conversation, though Mr. McCann and I did end up discussing music and art’s profound meaning to him. In the course of our discussion, he hailed women to his side, engaged with kids, and accepted praise from fans.

Instead of a traditional interview, I captured something just as essential: Les McCann as a true character improvising the moment. In a 2015 conversation with Chris M. Slawecki, Mr. McCann referred to himself as a people person:

“I was born to be a people person. And I thank God because I am able to do what I really love doing. When I go to the market, I’m talking to everybody in the store. The light I see in my eyes is the same light I get from other people who I know are happy in their life; or if I need to give someone a song, I’ll do that too. That’s just what I am.”

This nine-minute clip is an example of that interaction: Les McCann holding court in a public setting, giving people life and gaining new life for himself in return.

When Les McCann died last Friday, at the wryly appropriate age of 88, a particular window of experience closed on the American musical scene. As was justly noted in the initial round of coverage, including a fine NY Times obituary by Andrey Henkin, McCann was “an early progenitor of the bluesy, crowd-pleasing style that came to be known as soul jazz.” His recording career spanned 60 years, give or take, and countless hours of earthy exuberance. It also yielded a handful of chart successes, including one hit so incandescent that it still threatens to cast all else in shadow.

I’m referring of course to a song that McCann laid down with tenor saxophonist Eddie Harris at the Montreux Jazz Festival on June 21, 1969, in a performance later included on the Atlantic album Swiss Movement. As noted in a brief but spot-on assessment on his Substack, “This is [the] rare occasion when I can write the following cliché about music I really love: The opening track, “Compared to What,” absolutely captures some of that 1969-era zeitgeist.”

My own obit for McCann … I chose to drop into the wave: the piece opens with an unabashed focus on “Compared to What,” because I think its runaway success illustrates something about the artist as well as his audience. As I wrote in the obit:

The song’s temperament, outraged and despairing, captured something crucial about the era; so too did its rhythmic drive and righteous, consuming fervor. When Atlantic Records released “Compared to What” as a single, it spent four weeks on the Billboard Hot 100; Swiss Movement, the live album on which it appears, held a spot on the Billboard 200 for 38 weeks.

Rather than make an obligatory nod to the juice of McCann’s outsize hit, I wanted to stop and really consider it for a moment. I couldn’t find a reliable tally, so in order to clock the duration of Swiss Movement’s tenure on the Billboard 200I plugged in the dates for each week’s chart during that period. As an armchair diversion, keeping Iverson’s zeitgeist remark in mind, I paid special attention to the No. 1 album during each of those 38 weeks. When Swiss Movement entered the chart at #183, the week of Dec. 13, 1969, the presiding chart-topper was The Beatles’ Abbey Road, which held on to that slot through the week of Jan. 10, 1970 — a total of 10 weeks at No. 1.

Here are all of the subsequent No. 1s in this period, which tell some kind of story about American culture as the ‘60s lumbered into the ‘70s.

  • Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II (7 weeks at No. 1)
  • Simon & Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water (10 weeks at No. 1)
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Déjà vu (1 week at No. 1)
  • Paul McCartney, McCartney (3 weeks at No. 1)
  • The Beatles, Let It Be (soundtrack) (2 weeks at No. 1)
  • Woodstock (soundtrack) (4 weeks at No. 1)
  • Blood, Sweat & Tears 3 (2 weeks at No. 1)
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cosmo’s Factory (9 weeks at No. 1)

The album that knocked CCR off its perch was Santana’s Abraxas — another beneficiary of the Woodstock Effect, alongside the film soundtrack, CSNY’s Déjà vu, and the third album by Blood, Sweat & Tears. But Les McCann and Eddie Harris had gracefully exited the chart by then, having already achieved what precious few jazz acts ever manage: an album of enduring popular appeal.

The next album you could say this about actually overlapped with Swiss Movement: Miles Davis’ jazz-rock hallucination Bitches Brew entered the Billboard 200 the week of May 16, 1970 (see CSNY, above). It hit its peak position of #35 during the week of July 4, 1970 (see Let It Be, above), and held on for a total of 29 weeks. The sound of Miles and Joe Zawinul’s alchemy on Bitches Brew — and, let’s be honest, the album’s commercial reception — led McCann to concoct his own brew, producing another, less-heralded but often funkier album, Invitation to Openness, with Yusef Lateef on flutes and reeds, Cornell Dupree and Jody Christian in the chordal mix, and a drum corps featuring Bernard Purdie, Alphonse Mouzon and Donald Dean.

Thinking about those aforementioned chart toppers with this music in the background, I can’t help but think of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival — the contemporaneous concert series often affectionately called “the Black Woodstock,” and indelibly captured in the award-winning recent documentary Summer of SoulIf I told you Les McCann has a scene in that film demolishing “Compared to What,” you might catch the fib — but maybe not without a moment’s hesitation first.

Partly this is because McCann, the song’s message, and his irresistible groove just feel so perfectly in tune with the pulsing energies in the film. Partly it’s his lifelong insistence on playing music for the people, with an implied understanding of what, and who, that means. Over the last several months, I’ve been listening to a lot of Never A Dull Moment! Live From Coast To Coast (1966​-​1967), which finds McCann doing his thing to perfection in a pair of first-rate jazz clubs. It’s a beautiful illustration of his grounded exaltation at the piano, and his unbeatable instinct for tension and release.

By pure happenstance, today also saw the publication of the Francis Davis Jazz Poll, in which I’ve cast a ballot for each of its 18 years. If you’re interested in critical consensus, I’d encourage you to check out the poll; thanks to the diligent numbers-cruncher Tom Hull, you can cross-list the results with individual ballots. (Mine corresponds to the Top 10 that I filed to NPR Music a few weeks ago.)

It’s not my aim to drag jazz criticism here (again, I am a member of the guild), but the timing of this poll got me thinking about critical blind spots — the sort of structural biases that, however harmless in intention, end up undervaluing someone like McCann. He certainly didn’t suffer obscurity during his active years, but neither did he receive all that much thoughtful consideration.

Partly inspired by Henkin’s perceptive Times obit, I plugged McCann’s name into the NYT archive, which only turned up a few desultory reviews. One, by John S. Wilson, was published on July 18, 1970, when Swiss Movement was still hanging onto the chart. Taking in a Jazz in the Garden concert at MoMA, Wilson centered his remarks on how the music was received: “Mr. McCann’s quartet poured out its rhythm with such communicative joy that they had the whole garden rocking and clapping.” (Where’s that bootleg, I wonder?)

I’m not sure whether I ever had a good opportunity to cover Les McCann during my years as a reviewer at the Times; he had a stroke in the ‘90s, and dropped off the scene for a while. If I did have the chance, I blew it. There’s cold comfort in knowing that a lot of others passed on reviewing him, too. (Looks like we always end up in a rut…) One thing I’ve tried to do in recent years is take a good hard look at my taste profile, in an effort to preempt this sort of thing and, as it were, try to make it real.3

It only feels fitting to give McCann the last word, and I’d like to do so with a hat tip to my friend and colleague , who posted this lovely remembrance today on her Substack, Call & Response. It features audio of a brief but meaningful exchange at the 2008 Telluride Jazz Festival, which is a real delight.

McCann was, rather famously, an irrepressible raconteur, a playful flirt, and a genial Buddha; all of this comes across in the clip. At one point, Michelle asks whether he ever gets tired of playing “Compared to What,” and he doesn’t wait a second before answering: “No.” What follows is well worth hearing.

It’s about everything. It’s about religion, about life, about God, about truth. It’s about how we live.

The damn stair lift isn’t working! And it’s brand new, too! Three men fiddle with it, jump up and down on it, push the buttons over and over while jazz legend Les McCann sits in his bulky, airline-style wheelchair in the hot sun, sweat beading up on his bald head.

McCann waits patiently. “This happens all the time,” he says. Ever since he started using a wheelchair after a 1995 stroke, he’s been to many a jazz club — like the Jazz Showcase here in Chicago — where access has been a struggle.

All of a sudden, the lift works. A burly, no-nonsense-looking, African American man pushes McCann onto the platform.

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McCann rises up.

Inside the Showcase, McCann sits sunken down in an easy chair, his wheelchair folded and tucked away against the wall. As he’s introduced, he struggles to his feet. He places his hand on the shoulder of his burly assistant and walks behind him, hunched but steady, up the steps of the stage. The assistant leads McCann to the bench of the electric piano.

This is the band of young jazz saxophone star Javon Jackson, featuring Les McCann. They play the song “Cold Duck Time,” a classic tune off McCann’s classic album, Swiss Movement. It’s a crowd-pleaser. And later, McCann sings, and his voice sounds as strong and soulful as ever. It’s a crowd-pleaser, too.

After the set, settled back in the easy chair, McCann admires my wheelchair. It’s scuffed and dirty and taped up, but it’s a space age beauty compared to his basic box. He says he’s learned a world of stuff in more than a decade living the wheelchair life. He’s even lived the nightmare of finding himself trapped in a nursing home. It happened early in 2008. After being hospitalized for emergency hernia surgery, he was sent to what the doctors said was a rehab center for therapy. “The first night, they gave me this big old red pill,” he says. He took the pill, then he asked what it was. “And they said, ‘Well, Mr. Johnson …’ And I said, ‘Mr. Johnson! That ain’t my name!’”

At the nursing home, people sat around and moaned. There was very little therapy. There was nothing to do, and of course there was no piano. After two weeks, he had to get out. “I called my buddy. I said, ‘Back the truck up and I’ll be ready to go.’”

McCann didn’t tell any of the staff or residents he was leaving. He just left. He was never happier to see home sweet home, his cramped and cluttered apartment in Los Angeles.

The masterpieces of McCann’s career are Swiss Movement and its platinum single opening song, “Compared to What?” McCann and his longtime musical partner, the late saxophonist Eddie Harris, led the quintet set recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1969. The music is classic because it has a thoroughly funk rhythm and heart, McCann plays an acoustic piano and the performance is immersed in the spirit of straightahead jazz. McCann sings the romping and gleefully defiant “Compared to What?” — which for me ranks near the top of the many protest songs of the era. Here’s an example of the timeless lyrics:

The President, he’s got his war
Folks don’t know just what it’s for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Have one doubt, they call it treason
We’re chicken-feathers, all without one nut.
God damn it! Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what?

McCann says of the song, “It’s about everything. It’s about religion, about life, about God, about truth. It’s about how we live. The first time Bush won, they were playing it on the radio in New York City and a bunch of Republicans called the station talking about how mad they were because they thought it was about him.”

McCann broke into the music business as a singer. He won a talent contest when he was in the U.S. Navy in 1955 and the prize was an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. He sang “It’s Almost Like Being in Love.”

But as a pianist, he’s self-taught. He was born in 1935 in Lexington, Ky., and his parents couldn’t afford piano lessons. Critics, especially those with a stubborn purist streak, have sometimes been harsh on McCann. “I was probably the most put down musician of all. They told me I was no good, I was terrible.” Maybe his critics don’t like how his musical body of work is rooted so deeply in the dreaded funk groove, or the way it strays off into realms like Rhythm and Blues and mainstream pop. Whatever. McCann’s fellow musicians often disagree wildly. Jazz piano legends like Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Horace Silver have come to hear him play and complimented him, he says. “Musicians who tell me they like what I do emphasize the funk. They say no one was as funky as me. They also emphasize my ability to play ballads the way I used to do it.”

McCann says he tries not to think about where he’s going or where he’s been in his career or his life. “I just go to work.” He says. “I don’t predict anything. I have no fortune telling ability. You do what you do and whatever comes out comes out.”

The stroke hit him in Germany, just as he was preparing for his evening gig at a jazz club. “I knew something was wrong when I woke up from my nap to go to work. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t get up from the floor.” He insisted that his band members take him to the club, but a doctor met them there and immediately sent him to the hospital. “When I woke up in the morning, they told me I had a stroke due to diabetes.”

He stayed in the German hospital for six weeks and he was treated like gold. “They offered everything to me because of their love for jazz, American jazz.”

His rehab was at UCLA, where again he was treated wonderfully. He was diligent in his therapy, but his right arm and leg were weak and practically useless. He couldn’t play piano for nine months. But the same live-in-the moment sensibility that guides his music helped him gain a calm perspective on living with a permanent disability. “I knew that my life would be different. I allow it to be what it is. I can’t command things. I can’t say, ‘This is how it’s gonna be.’ I knew that it was a time in my life for me to learn something, which is what life is all about as far as I’m concerned. Every event is a chance to learn something.” Even if he never played again, McCann figured, he could still sing. He could still teach.

But slowly, the right hand and leg returned enough for him to play and get around again. He says he’s playing at about 65 percent of his capacity. And there are still great days when something returns and he says to himself, “Oh wow! That finger’s working now!” He only plays electric piano now. Playing a grand would exhaust him, he says.

McCann was lucky because his apartment building was accessible and he doesn’t use a wheelchair inside his home. So he didn’t have to move. “When I’m home I don’t come anywhere near a wheelchair. I always got something to lean on. I couldn’t fall if I wanted to. There’s stuff everywhere. Junk.”

Those few days in the nursing home were some of the starkest and most sobering days of McCann’s disability learning experience.

“That was a very frightening experience. I realized I was in deep shit. I wasn’t doing anything. I was just lying there every day. I’d go downstairs for a half hour of therapy. Couldn’t even see the Super Bowl game. Nothing. It’s like being in a prison because there’s nothing you can do. It got to the point where I would talk to the therapists and I’d say, ‘Hey man, take me outside! I’ll pay you! Go put me in the sun, okay?’”

There was no one to turn to. McCann’s daughter and primary physician thought it was best for him to give up his apartment and stay there indefinitely, he says. “It hurt me in my heart that my daughter felt I needed to be in a place like that. That was kind of hard to deal with because my daughter, being a doctor, her only focus is on medical things. I tried to let her know that there’s more to my life than medical things. I have a heart. I like to laugh. I like to have fun. My doctor kind of agreed with her and I finally realized there’s only one person here that counts and that’s me. I realized I had to make the move myself.”

That’s when he called his buddy with the truck. And he hasn’t spoken to his daughter since. “This was part of the learning too. Whatever, I’ve been totally happy ever since.”

Last year McCann traveled extensively with Jackson’s band, and he plans to keep doing so for as long as he can. “I’ll probably die on stage somewhere. Be okay with me. Take me out back, dump me out in the yard. Put up a marker that says ‘Thanks Les, good bye, whatever.’”

When he’s not on the road, he doesn’t go out much. But home is where he creates music and paints watercolors and watches football and basketball. So home is a place of joy. And when he does go out, it’s often in the company of a certain “beautiful young lady friend.”

“I’m extremely happy. If it got any better than this, I’d be throwing up,” McCann says. “There have been days when I couldn’t move, the pain was so hard. Those are rough days. But I know they don’t last forever. It might be like a new song that I have trouble learning. But I know that if I work on it, I will get it.”

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