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Les McCanns Movement
By Brian L. Knight
The Vermont Review got a chance to speak with Les McCann from his home in "beautiful, downtown Van Nuys, California". Born in Lexington, Kentucky, McCann grew up in a musical family where his exposure to church music first stimulated his interest in music. "I came from a beautiful family. Hard working poor people who never let us know that we were poor," he continues, "Everything that is part of my life is a part of my music. As is everything that is part of my music is a part of me. It is all connected." Although surrounded by influences, McCann taught himself to play the piano " I am a self taught piano player who had a whole lot of help from a whole lot of people. I learned every thing on my own and I am still learning. Self taught only means that I didnt have a teacher in school."
Like so many other great jazz musicians, Les McCann honed his love of musical skills while serving in the Armed Forces. "That is where I really began to get into music. As a young kid, I was in a marching band in high school, " McCann continues, ",Once I got into the Navy, I began to get really serious and develop myself as a musician." Unlike the other great jazz musicians who played in various Armed Forces bands, McCann used his armed forces career to gain exposure to music. " It was being out in the cities like San Francisco and hearing the music. Going to New York City, walking up and down Broadway and hearing great music. I was always into music but the Navy took it to another level." When he wasnt taking liberty and checking out the best in jazz music, he had the difficult responsibility of fighting aviation related fires.
Les McCann may be best known for his legendary performance at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1969. With saxophonist Eddie Harris and trumpeter Benny Bailey, Les McCann electrified the Swiss crowds with an amazing set. Although considered a classic almost instantly after the performance, McCann was relatively unaware of the sets magnitude: "It was great day. I didnt know about anything happening at the time or the first moment we played. A few hours later, we went back and listened to the recording and I heard something quite shockingly wonderful."
The 1969 performance at Montreaux also stood out for McCann took the vocals for the two tunes Compared To What and Cold Duck Time. At a time when jazz was straying away from vocals, this was considered to be quite a change. McCann never thought twice about throwing some vocals into his performance, "vocals are such an integral part of music and jazz is an integral part of music," McCann continues, " the original instrument is the voice. Bobbie McFerrin had it right."
The annual Jazz Festival in Montreaux, Switzerland has always been a special place for Les McCann. In addition to 1969s Swiss Movement, McCann also released 1974s Live at Montreaux which captures the same musical spirit. "It is one of the places that we collected during our touring years that we like to call home. When we go there, the fans come out in a special way. I have been there 5-6 times and I have friends all over Switzerland. It is a special place for me." McCanns love of musical festivals does not stop just with Montreaux: "I like playing all of them." As far as his favorite albums, McCann doesnt throw his weight behind the two Montreaux albums but rather two studio sessions: "Invitation to Openness" and "Layers" for they had "no restrictions."
Along with Montreaux mate Eddie Harris, McCann led the musicians movement of electrifying acoustic instruments. Eddie Harris electrified his saxophone while McCann plugged in his piano. McCann speaks very highly of the late Eddie Harris: "He was truly one of greatest musicians ever. In many eyes, one of the greatest human beings because he was loved by everybody. He and I together made magic all over Europe and we became great loving brothers."
Today, McCann has no real preference between electric and acoustic pianos: " I prefer making sounds. I have no preference over anything." McCann continues to describe his switching over to the electric piano as a matter of convenience more than anything, "During my traveling years, I discovered, that you cant always have a fine instrument when you are playing the piano. I switched to electric for one main reason: to make sure that I could assure myself of what I was going to hear. It was easier to tune an electrified piano. On the other hand, having a condition of Carpal Tunnel. It is very hard to play an acoustic piano when you have weak wrists."
As far as the new revival of soul jazz, McCann is completely oblivious: " I never knew it went away. We have no problem wherever we go." As for the latest craze of 1960s jazz music being sampled by todays musicians, McCann maintains a smooth opinion. Unlike other jaded musicians of the past, McCann could care less: " If it makes them rich, it must be great."
In addition to his piano playing, Les McCann also paints with watercolors and he is an avid photographer, but he does not stop with these art forms: " I am involved with art period. I am a multi-talented motherfucker." These talents still are going strong today as McCann is involved with recording his own albums and producing some other as well. Until we get his new release, get a little taste of 32Jazzs latest release "Hows Your Mother?" which was recorded at New York Citys Village Vanguard in 1967.