les is more

les mcann

It wasn’t the first time Les McCann felt perplexed by a reporter. But few interviews the Lexington native has given in his 50-plus year jazz career have derailed in such outlandish fashion.

While in Switzerland for what would become an historic 1969 performance with saxophonist Eddie Harris, pianist/vocalist/composer McCann couldn’t make sense out of questions being posed by a foreign journalist.

 “This guy was asking all these things that had nothing to do with me,” McCann recalled. “I thought, ‘Man, what are you talking about?’ Finally, he goes, ‘OK then, Mr. Basie…’ And I began laughing so hard. This guy thought I was Count Basie.”

It would be the last time a writer or jazz fan in or out Switzerland would mistake McCann and his soul-soaked music for anyone else.

The performance, a highlight of the annual Montreux Jazz Festival, was recorded and released as the career defining Swiss Movement album. Within its grooves was a volcanic piece of social commentary that had already been part of McCann’s repertoire for six years. But the Montreux version was released as a single and became a generational anthem for change. Its title: Compared to What. To this day, some 70 subsequent versions of the song exist. Among the artists that have covered it: Ray Charles, Brian Auger and the artist McCann is credited for discovering, Roberta Flack.

Compared to What is alone reason enough to win McCann a place in the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. But for decades, he has forged a jazz sound full of modern groove, feisty spirit, topical smarts and one of the most effortlessly soulful singing voices of his generation.

“I’ve never been a predictor of the future,” McCann said last weekend from his home in Los Angeles. “But I always knew we had a great song with Compared to What. It’s just that my style of learning comes from playing a song until I finally figure out a way that it makes sense. We had already tried to record it because the words were so powerful. They still are. The words will always be relevant. But it wasn’t until six years later, while I was onstage in Switzerland, that the song really hit me.”

Inducting McCann into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame this week is a reminder that Kentucky has not only introduced the world to groundbreaking country, bluegrass and gospel music, but to extraordinary jazz. Sadly, it will fall short of a full homecoming. At 72, McCann is recovering from hernia surgery and will be unable to attend the induction ceremony. But McCann emphasized his appreciation of the Hall of Fame honor and of how Lexington helped prepare him to take on the world.

“How could I have had a better foundation to go out and face life than with what I learned in Lexington? It was a time of perfect understanding. We didn’t grow up surrounded by racial hatred. We didn’t grow up with any of those awful things people think of when they think of Kentucky as a Southern state. We grew up with open minds that were soon ready to see the world.”

And see the world they did. A graduate of Laurence Dunbar High School, McCann joined the Navy in 1953 and eventually found himself stationed in Northern California. But jazz, especially in the nearby San Francisco area, was everywhere. And once McCann got a taste of serious jazz pianists like Erroll Garner there was, literally, no turning back.

“Erroll Garner was the whole reason I wanted to play piano,” McCann said. “When I first heard one of his records, I was marching in formation. The record was playing in a building nearby, so I followed the music there instead of following the company. Got into a bit of trouble for that, too. But as experiences go, it was an eye opener.”

Encouraged by a commanding officer to pursue music just as he was by teachers at Dunbar years earlier, McCann moved to Los Angeles and formed a jazz trio after his discharge. A recording career began with 1960’s Les McCann Plays the Truth.

From there, McCann never slowed down. Swiss Movement and a 1971 studio sequel with Harris called Second Movement were part of a highly prolific eight year stay with the flagship R&B label Atlantic Records. While the Harris collaborations are among his best known works, McCann selected two other Atlantic albums, 1971’s Invitation to Openness and 1973’s Layers (which contained an instrumental ode to his alma mater, The Dunbar High School Marching Band) as personal favorites.

Layers was done almost completely alone using keyboards and electronics while Invitation to Openness has 15 musicians who had come into the studio because of a vision, a dream I had. I remember calling the people at Atlantic and saying, ‘I’ve got to do this music.’ And there was no argument. They understood then what it meant for an artist to be creative at the moment.”

When asked if five decades of making music has made for a good professional life, McCann seemed stymied. Maybe he sensed a Count Basie question was coming next. Or perhaps he was simply at a loss to fully describe a jazz life that brings him this week – in spirit, at least – to the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame.

“Has it been a good life? No. It’s been a great life. It’s been the best life. Everything I ever dreamed about has happened. And best of all, it isn’t over yet.”

The 2008 Kentucky Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony honoring Dwight Yoakam, Florence Henderson, Norro Wilson, Crystal Gayle and Les McCann will be held at 6 p.m. tonight at the Lexington Center Bluegrass Ballroom. Tickets range from $125 to $2,000. Call: (877) 356-3263.

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