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Les McCann, Soul Jazz Pianist and Singer Sampled by Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg and Others, Dead at 88

In Entertainment
January 03, 2024

The jazz musician was known for helping to pioneer the soul jazz sound and his 1969 recording of the protest song “Compared to What”

<p>Paul Natkin/Getty</p>
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Paul Natkin/Getty

Les McCann performing in Chicago in 1978

Les McCann, a singer and pianist who helped to pioneer the soul jazz genre, has died at age 88.

On Monday, The New York Times reported that the musician died on Friday in a Los Angeles hospital after being admitted for pneumonia.

McCann — who released over 60 albums since he made his professional debut with Les McCann Plays The Truth in 1960 — is best known for his innovative, groove-based rhythms and funky use of synthesizers and electronic keyboards, which pushed the bounds of jazz and contributed to the creation of the soul jazz sound.

The legacy of his genre-defying compositions expanded well beyond the jazz world, as well, as his work became a source of inspiration for hip-hop and rap stars into the ‘90s and 2000s. A number of his tracks have been sampled on over 140 songs to date, including songs like “After Hours” by A Tribe Called Quest, “Soul on Ice” by Ice T, “The World Is Yours” by Nas, “Ten Crack Commandments” by Notorious B.I.G. and “The Next Episode” by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.

<p>Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty</p>
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Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

Les McCann performing at Newport Jazz Festival in 1974

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The singer-songwriter was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1935 and gained his first exposure to music through the church choir, as reported by AllMusic. McCann was primarily a self-taught pianist, having only taken several lessons at age 6 before his instructor died, and received more formal music training later in school where played in the orchestra and marching band.

According to Blue Note Records, who released his debut album, the singer-songwriter experienced his first bout of exposure in 1956 when he won a talent contest while serving in the Navy to sing on The Ed Sullivan Show.

After he was discharged, the performer went on to pursue a career as a solo artist, releasing a number of projects on jazz labels and eventually signed to Atlantic Records in 1968.

<p>Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty</p>
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Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty

Les McCann in 1967

Although he created a prolific discography throughout his career, one of the most memorable of his projects was recorded spontaneously in June 1969 at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. As The New York Times reports, after McCann and saxophonist Eddie Harris played their own sets, the two teamed up for another performance with trumpeter Benny Bailey. While the set wasn’t rehearsed, it was recorded and released as the album Swiss Movement later that year.

Swiss Movement went on to receive a Grammy nomination and ended up including McCann’s biggest hit: a rendition of the protest song “Compared to What,” which was originally written by Eugene McDaniels.

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He has also been credited with discovering R&B icon Roberta Flack and helping to get her signed to Atlantic Records, as stated on his official website.

Several artists have taken to social media to pay tribute to the late musician.

Rapper Nicholas Craven posted to X and wrote, “Man… Long live the great Les McCann.”

One of his collaborators, jazz musician Gerald Albright, honored him with a post on X. “I’m truly saddened at the loss of my dear friend, Les McCann,” he wrote. “Spoke to him only a couple of weeks ago, and his spirit was uplifting, and he was still the jokester that I’ve always known. Playing in his band was truly fulfilling. There were no limits, freedom jazz, good times. RIP.”

Musician/painter John Lurie also shared a thoughtful story on Facebook, reflecting on the time when he saw the jazz singer perform live when he was a teenager and how he still regrets not singing along.

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In a 2015 interview with Red Bull Music Academy, McCann opened up about what he learned in creating Swiss Movement, and how that’s resonated with him the rest of his career.

“When I heard it, I couldn’t believe it, which taught me another great lesson,” he told the outlet. “Let it happen. Let it be. You don’t have to be hovering over every little note. You do it, and let it happen, and you’ll know it.”

McCann continued, “My heart and my body is loaded with creativity. And when I step on that stage, I acknowledge it and allow it to come forth. I love my life.”

The recording artist also told All About Jazz in a 1998 interview that what he hoped listeners got from his music was “a sense of joy, uplifting, release, and to feel something.” He added, “I’m not selling a technique of playing. I’m selling feelings.”

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