Remembering Les McCann

September 23, 1935 – December 29, 2023

A tribute to the pianist, keyboardist and singer

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Les McCann passed away on Dec. 29, 2023 at the age of 88.

He was born on Sept. 22, 1935 in Lexington, Kentucky, his sisters sang in church choirs, and he briefly played tuba and drums.

McCann was mostly self-taught on piano and attended L.A. City College before spending time serving in the Navy.

While in the Navy, he won a singing contest which resulted in him appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show.

After his discharge, McCann settled in Los Angeles, formed his own trio, turned down an offer to join Cannonball Adderley’s quintet (since he wanted to develop his own solo career), and began recording for Pacific Jazz.

Les McCann, who was mostly heard as a pianist during that era, had his own influential soulful piano style, influenced by gospel music, r&b and the blues although he could also play straight ahead jazz styles.

His long string of trio albums for Pacific Jazz during 1959-68 were some of the finest of his career; McCann also recorded with Teddy Edwards, singer Gloria Smyth, organist Richard “Groove” Holmes, Stanley Turrentine, Lou Rawls (the classic album Stormy Monday), Clifford Scott, the Jazz Crusaders, and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra.

Although he recorded an early album called Les McCann Sings and he took an occasional vocal, it was not until he performed “Compared To What” (which he had actually first recorded in 1966) at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival during a famous set that co-starred tenor-saxophonist Eddie Harris that he began to switch his focus.

From then on, McCann became a singer who also played piano (and by the 1970s electric keyboards), moving a bit away from jazz (without leaving it entirely) in favor of performing funk and r&b.

Les McCann stayed busy until suffering a stroke in the mid-1990s; he made a comeback, at first mostly as a singer although he eventually regained his keyboard skills.

McCann made his final recording in 2012 and, due to his declining health, soon retired except for rare guest appearances.

From 1970, Les McCann, bassist Jimmy Rowser, and drummer Donald Dean perform “With These Hands” and “Compared To What.”

-Scott Yanow


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