Les McCann was a renowned jazz pianist and vocalist whose inventive contributions to the soul jazz genre are still felt today. The music world is saddened by his passing. Beginning on September 23, 1935, in Lexington, Kentucky, McCann’s path was characterized by a very spiritual background in music through his family. He learned to play the piano at the young age of three due to his early exposure to music, and his skill only grew from there. He added more instruments to his repertoire as a marching band player at Lexington’s Dunbar High School, where he played sousaphone and drums.

After winning a talent contest, Les McCann found himself singing on The Ed Sullivan Show at the age of 17, which had a profound influence on his life. He developed a closer relationship with the jazz scene by attending the Black Hawk, a jazz nightclub in San Francisco, on his nights off. After serving in the Navy, McCann moved to Los Angeles and enrolled at Los Angeles City College to study journalism and music. He became well-known in the community’s music scene during this period when he started a Monday night jam session at the Hillcrest Club.

McCann’s career took a drastic shift when a Pacific Jazz Records official saw him playing in a Los Angeles bar. After this meeting, McCann was offered a record deal, and from 1960 to 1964, he recorded more than a dozen albums for Pacific Jazz. His trio, also referred to as Les McCann Ltd., established themselves as mainstays in the jazz world by showcasing a professional commitment to their craft. When McCann was with Pacific Jazz, he worked with saxophonist Teddy Edwards, the Jazz Crusaders, and other artists.

After that, McCann moved on to Limelight, a division of Mercury Records, and then, in 1968, to Atlantic. His recordings from this era demonstrated his flexibility by adding components of R&B and funk. When McCann made his debut at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, he and tenor saxophonist Eddie Harris made a captivating performance that gave rise to the famous song “Compared to What.” Even though the partnership was spontaneous, McCann achieved commercial success as a result of the recording. Half a million copies of the resultant record, Swiss Movement, were sold, and it was nominated for a Grammy.

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Les McCann’s impact extended beyond the world of conventional jazz and into the domains of funk and hip-hop. His dedication to the art form persisted even when he briefly turned his attention to singing in 1994 due to a stroke. After a full recovery, McCann continued to put out albums until he released the solo album A Time Les Christmas in 2018.

In addition to his musical pursuits, McCann was Harvard University’s first artist in residence for the Learning From Performers program in 1975. Passionate about painting and taking pictures, Les McCann caught the spirit of Black history and jazz culture. His photographs and paintings were included with his albums and published as Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960–1980.

Les McCann’s legacy lives on via the innumerable musicians he inspired and the timeless contributions that have cemented him as a real jazz legend, as the jazz community remembers the immense effect he had on it.