SJF is sad to report the passing of soul-jazz pioneer Les McCann, who died on 29th December from pneumonia at age 88.

McCann hailed from Lexington, Kentucky, where he was one of five children born to parents who did cleaning work. Fascinated by his family’s old, out-of-tune piano, which was regarded as a piece of furniture rather than a musical instrument, he began picking out tunes as a youngster. Later, in his teens, he was drawn to jazz, inspired by the flamboyant virtuoso pianist Erroll Garner. 

A spell serving in the US Navy as a fireman during the late 50s, where he was allowed to hone his piano skills, led him to win a military talent contest which culminated with him appearing as a singer on the iconic US TV program, The Ed Sullivan Show. But it was as a pianist that McCann launched his recording career after relocating to San Francisco in 1960. Leading a piano trio, which got noticed playing at the Bay Area club, The Purple Onion, he signed with Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz label where he cut a string of popular LPs. With his distinctively gospel-tinged sound, McCann spearheaded the soul jazz movement, seen by some as the earthy antidote to the far-out jazz of the avant-garde scene, which was also gaining traction in the early ‘60s. He had an avid fan in Miles Davis, who told McCann “You’re the funkiest cat I know.” Miles recommended him to Cannonball Adderley who was looking for a new pianist. Recalled McCann in 2005: “A few days later, Cannonball rang me and said ‘Miles said I ought to hire you for my band.’ I said, Sorry, I want to do my own thing.”

A four-year stint at Pacific Jazz was followed by three years at the Limelight label before McCann was snapped up by Atlantic Records in 1969. His second album for the company was Swiss Movement, a live collaboration with saxophonist Eddie Harris recorded at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The album was a surprise entry in The Billboard 200 pop chart; it also spawned the R&B hit single ‘Compared To What,’ a Gene McDaniels’ song that McCann had first recorded in 1966. (Interestingly, the song was also covered by Roberta Flack in 1969, a singer whom McCann discovered and took to Atlantic Records). 

The 1970s saw McCann – who by this time was singing more on his records, his voice sounding like sandpaper drizzled with molasses – immerse himself in electric funk. His albums became more progressive and experimental, too, like 1972’s fusion-esque Invitation To Openness and ‘74’s Layers, where he experimented with synthesisers. 

After his eight-year Atlantic spell, McCann recorded for a succession of different labels in the late 70s – among them ABC and A&M – but he was unable to emulate the commercial success of his earlier years. In the ‘80s, he released fewer records, then suffered a stroke in 1995 while on tour in Germany that paralyzed his left side and put him out of action for several years. During that period, he channeled his creative energy into painting pictures with his right hand and even had his work exhibited. 

McCann reappeared in 2002 with the album Pump It Up, on which he mostly sang; it featured Bonnie Raitt and Dianne Reeves among its many guest contributors. After that, McCann was quiet for a long while but in 2018 returned with a festive album, A Time Les Christmas.  

LES McCANN 1935-2023