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Les McCann: Never Say No Again

Chris M. Slawecki By

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We all have greatness within us. But we refuse—or we take many, many lifetimes—to discover ourselves. —Les McCann
"Be who you are and not who you ain't. Because when you are who you ain't, you're not who you are."

Keyboardist, vocalist, bandleader, songwriter and photographer Les McCann really talks like this. About his music, about musicians, about his career—about everything. I learned this during the following interview, scheduled to discuss Omnivore Records' March 2015 reissue of McCann's improvisational landmark Invitation to Openness, generally out of print since its original 1972 Atlantic Records' release; this reissue was jointly rolled out with the release of McCann's first book Invitation to Openness: The Jazz and Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960—1980 (Fantagraphics Books, Inc.), which features previously unpublished candid photographs of personal jazz friends and acquaintances—Miles Davis, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder and dozens more—culled from McCann's personal collection of hand-snapped black and white photographs, plus a new interview with McCann by book curator Pat Thomas.

Recorded at Atlantic's midtown Manhattan studio in the summer of 1971, Invitation to Openness is unlike any other title in McCann's extensive catalog mainly because of "The Lovers," a 26-minute plus collective experiment of improvisation that features the leader on acoustic piano, electric keyboards and synthesizers, directing an ensemble whose members showed up with no idea what they were about to play: McCann's bandmates Jimmy Rowser on bass and Donald Dean on drums and percussion, plus Yusef Lateef on saxophone, oboe and flute, guitarists Cornell Dupree and David Spinozza, percussionist Ralph MacDonald, drummers Bernard Purdie and Alphonse Mouzon, and harp player Corky Hale, who jumped in during a break between sets playing behind Tony Bennett at the Waldorf Astoria! "I don't believe he has ever had a record that he was more personally involved with or cared nearly as much about as this one," reflected McCann's Atlantic Records' producer, Joel Dorn.

(McCann strolled into the studio with the melody and bass lines but not much else written for the other two tunes on the original set, "Beaux J. Poo Boo" and "Poo Pye McGoochie." The 2015 reissue tacks on a historic bonus: A roaring live version of "Compared to What," a huge hit for McCann and Eddie Harris from their milestone Swiss Movement live album from the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival (Atlantic, 1969), recorded in 1975 with blues legend Buddy Guy on lead guitar.)

"I love to listen to this music with openness and without thoughts or images. I turn the lights down and the music up, and I find joy in the different places it takes me," mused McCann in this set's original liner notes. "My audience was becoming younger and younger, and that's really what I was after," he later explained. "Young people would say, 'We love that electric piano. You ain't shit on the other one, don't touch the grand, but Les McCann is the master of the Fender Rhodes.' They'd tell me that!"

"One listen to one of his recordings, one chance encounter, or one look at a few of the photographs in this book, and you can tell that this man, McCann, possesses sincere curiosity and compassion for 'the soul' inside others," A. Scott Galloway wrote in the Forward to the book Invitation to Openness. "In that sense, perusing the photographs in this book is not much different from listening to Les's music. The photos reveal another manner in which Les is able to capture intimate portraits of people and of the soul peeking out from the inside."

"What you hold in your hands is very much like the making of the Swiss Movement album, back in the day: Les McCann and Eddie Harris were booked to play a gig together at the Montreux Jazz Festival, which was originally recorded merely as a 'document' of the concert, not as a potentially stellar live album—it just happened to come out brilliantly," curator Thomas further explained in his Introduction. "McCann carried a camera around for years, just to capture the wine, women, and song that he encountered. Thoughts of a book? No way! Decades later, it just happened to come out brilliantly."

One of the most thoroughly enjoyable parts of the book Invitation to Openness, alongside his insightful pictures, is McCann's personal remembrances of his photographic subjects, including: Duke Ellington ("Of the ten albums I would take on a desert island, Live at Newport (1958, Columbia) would be one of them."); Richard "Groove" Holmes ("Damn! Biggest, blackest, fattest motherfucker ever!"); and Nina Simone ("Her personal relationships were sometimes volatile. So, I made friends with her kids 'cause I could tell they were looking for a real daddy, you know? 'We like you, Mr. McCann, would you consider being my stepfather?' I said, 'Hell no! Are you crazy?'").

"We're all improvising, trying to understand the purpose and contribute to the whole thing, but not with something we've already known," McCann confides in the new liner notes to the Openness reissue. "To me, discovery is true jazz."

All About Jazz: A personal note before we begin the interview: From the bottom of my heart, thank you for the hours of enjoyment I've received from your Les McCann Live at Montreux album (1973, Atlantic) album, particularly side four when Rahsaan Roland Kirk comes out to blow through your encores with you.

Les McCann: Yeah, yeah—wow, I haven't heard about that record in a long time. Nobody talks about that one.

AAJ: The joy in your singing and playing has brought joy to so many others, including and especially me.

LM: Wow, you sound like the way I feel about my music, too, so I can understand what you're saying.

AAJ: Do you have children, or grandchildren? It's easy to imagine that you're a pretty hip grandpop.

LM: I do but I don't get to see them like I want to. I'm good with everybody else's babies. Especially on airplanes. I've been on planes where mom was so sleepy that she couldn't even hold her eyes open but her baby's crying, and I've said, "Let me take your baby." And they did, a couple times. This was years ago. People are afraid to even look at you nowadays on a plane. But I've had some great experiences with babies. Only because I am a baby myself.

AAJ: You are very open and non-judgmental and childlike, in the best possible ways.

LM: And most of my friends can't stand it.

AAJ: It looked from the outside that the Atlantic jazz recording family in the 1970s was precisely that—a family—because a lot of you guys played on each other's records. Did it feel like a family on the inside too?

LM: Well, that's what they called us. It was totally accepted that way there: People worked with who they could work with and they had enough crew of people that they had hired with the company so that you could deal with the person you felt you best worked out with. Most of the time it seemed like they'd put you with the right people. In my heart, the way I feel about the music we call jazz, I didn't need to work with anyone trying to tell me what to play, you know? My theory is, you don't tell a jazz musician what to play. You can tell somebody who's looking for songs or who needs help what to play, if you're an A&R man, but not the musician. A jazz musician, he only does his music.

So when the time came for me to change my contract and go to Atlantic, they told me that they were putting me together with a nineteen year old disc jockey who we just hired from Philadelphia, and I just so happened to know who he was. When we talked, he said, "I don't tell nobody what to do. I'll listen to it and I'll tell you if I like it or don't like it and that's it." I said, "OK, we can work."

He was I would say one of the people I was really close to. Joel Dorn was one of the few people I ever met who, we had no restrictions on how we spoke or what words to use with each other as free human beings.

AAJ: Is that why there's such a great feeling on all your records Joel Dorn produced?

LM: No, the point I was trying to make was that when I came to the company—to any company—the focus has to be on me and my music. All the producer has to do is just back me up. Tell me if you like it or you don't, but it really doesn't matter because you can't tell a jazz musician what to play. You can suggest. But often they want you to play pop songs or to do a jazz version of one, which they now call "smooth jazz." But I wasn't really into that then and I don't think I am now, either.

I was born to do what I do and I knew that from a very early age. So I didn't want to deviate, although sidetracks are part of the lessons I had to learn to be honest to myself, you know? The better you know yourself, the better you know what it is that yourself is here to do. You've got people around you who may not like what you do, or try to tell you what to do, or you should do this, or make sure you have a good job....Hey, get the fuck out of my face. Please.

I know Joel's sons very well. Adam Dorn, the second son, was at my book signing, and he showed pictures of his father from the book and it was a beautiful thing. We're talking about getting back together to do a record together, Adam Dorn and my people. It's for the rappers who've been taking tracks from my records and didn't pay for them. So we're going to come right back at ya!

AAJ: Invitation to Openness came out at a time when Bitches Brew was casting a large shadow. It's such a free-form experimental departure from much of your other music at that time, which came across as more groove-and song-oriented. Did anyone mention that to you?

LM: That's what I think I'm still trying to say: No one would dare suggest to me what to do. Everything that came out on Atlantic was just out of what I wanted to, and I had a young guy who was willing to accept that and go with it if it felt right to him and he felt the quality was professional. He was on that side of the business. I'm doing the music. You do the quality check. Make sure everybody's recorded right, make sure the instrument is where it ought to be, proper mastering, proper mixing, and all that.

To me, my jazz is personal. You can't mess with my heart. And you can't mess with my music because my music is my heart.

AAJ: What sort of feedback did you receive after it was released from musicians or your friends and family?

LM: All I remember is that I felt like the clouds had opened up and I saw the light. It's not about anybody else. And I don't care—I'm sure somebody had something to say but I don't go around waiting for other people to comment on my music, is what I'm trying to say. I just did it. Just like why I had first gone to Atlantic: To grow, to expand and be different, to do other things.

Invitation to Openness came to me out of a dream. And it's connected to the time I was invited to Frank Zappa's freak party and that's when I realized what I had been trying to work out was almost happening right there at that party. He had a party for three hundred people and each one of the people who came in the door they gave an instrument to. This was for Frank Zappa's first record.

It was maybe a few years later, but I realized that what happened that night was where I was going and it was a clear road, a clear understanding, of what I had to do. So after my vision in a dream, I called my producer Joel Dorn the next day and said, "I got it. I know what I want to do for the next record." He was open to what I had to say, so I explained it to him and he asked, "When do you want to do it?" And I said, "Tomorrow." He said, "Well, we've got to get all these people in town." Fortunately, most of them were in town except for one person and that was the lead horn, Yusef Lateef; we called him, he was available, and he flew right in the very next day. And we did it right then and there—bam! And the musicians had no idea what was going to happen.

AAJ: There's a great story in the notes about the harp player (Corky Hale) playing on your session in between sets backing up Tony Bennett at the Waldorf Astoria hotel?

LM: That's the story. I hope it's true. I know she missed the gig. The story was that Tony was on and he was doing his thing and he didn't realize she wasn't there and he introduced her anyway and then he sang the song by himself! She called me the next day and told me she'd been fired. Because she could not leave the session: We were right in the middle of "The Lovers" and it was time for her to go back and she already told me that she'd love to be there because we knew each other but she had to leave because she had a special song, a solo, with Tony, on the stage at a certain time. But she didn't make it. I love it.

AAJ: The thing that personifies your keyboard playing is your amazing, almost incomprehensible, sense of rhythm. I played your closing clavinet solo from the live version of "Get Yourself Together" for a good musician friend and asked him what the hell was going on, and he explained that you are playing so far behind the beat to make what you're playing funky that you're almost playing in five while the rest of the band stays in four.

LM: That's a pretty good description. I always have to tell guys to slow down if not stop. We're not rushing to get someplace. Let the groove take you—you just play the notes. Don't try to "make it swing." You can't "make" something swing. You can't "make" something groove. You allow it to groove.

AAJ: But in your formative, figuring things out, years, whose sense of rhythm did you admire? Who has impacted you rhythmically?

LM: Nobody but the way I grew up. I grew up in a marching band. I grew up doing a rhythm thing they used to call the hambone. Rhythm was part of my childhood. All we did was rhythm things. Basketball is rhythm and I'm a basketball fanatic, you know? Rhythm is my middle name. That's what we were raised on in Kentucky. That's what it was all about.

A lot of people look at hambone like it's an "Uncle Tom" type of thing and they say, "Wow, you're still doing that?" It's a wiped out art. I was a state champion once and I was talked about so bad that I just said "OK, I'll put that one away." But it's all rhythm. It's all about the rhythm. And tap dancing—watching great dancers like Bill Robinson at the theater right around the corner from my house, live shows. The chitlin circuit, it was called.

AAJ: Do you share the opinion that your live albums are some of your best records? What is it about you and your music that works so well for live recordings?

LM: I really can't answer that other than the fact that I know that I'm a people person. When I'm recorded live, doing what we do, the record company is very much attracted to that play back and forth between the audience and the musician. There's a lot going on, so much so that after those records, even when I was recording in a studio, I made sure that they turned the tapes on when we walked in the room. Whatever goes on should be recorded. No matter who said it or where it came from. And I'm talking about non-musical things, just whatever went on in the room.

I'm a people person. I was born to be a people person. And I thank God because I am able to do what I really love doing. When I go to the market, I'm talking to everybody in the store. The light I see in my eyes is the same light I get from other people who I know are happy in their life; or if I need to give someone a song, I'll do that too. That's just what I am. My father was a people person. He'd speak to people on the street and my mother would tell him to stop it. Why would she not want him to make someone else smile? Maybe she was afraid but I don't care about that. You know, the Beastie Boys call me out on one of their records: "And I talk to the people like Les McCann..." ("Alright Hear This" from Ill Communication (1994, Capitol).)

AAJ: You also seem to be in a Steely Dan song.

LM: I've never heard that one before.

AAJ: On the Steely Dan album Gaucho, there's a song called "Glamour Profession" and one of the lyrics is "Special delivery for Hoops McCann..."

LM: Oh, I think that's somebody else. I've heard about that.

AAJ: The reason I think it's you is because the liner notes to the original vinyl issue of "Live at Montreux" mention you playing basketball while waiting to perform.

LM: I play basketball. Every day, I used to play basketball. I remember that happening and we talked about it but no one ever told me that it was me that they were talking about. And being in Hollywood, I'm sure I've played basketball at the "Y" with guys who didn't say who they were or what they were doing. I know there were other young musicians coming up and everything so it could very well be that.

There's no place better for college basketball than where I'm from, Kentucky. That's what Kentucky IS. That's where I just came home from, Kentucky, a few days ago: I received my Doctor of the Arts degree from the University of Kentucky.

Kentucky is my home. When I grew up, we couldn't even go near that school. My mother was very upset by statements that some of the coaches made back in their day about other people. And I comforted my mom and told her it was okay. My biggest moment in receiving my degree was to quietly speak to my mother and say, "Mom, we've come a long way. Things are different. God knows what he's doing. All is well."

AAJ: What are some of your own favorite records from your Atlantic catalog?

LM: I have two: Invitation to Openness and Layers (1973). Period. Because they were totally free and open. Like all the things I was telling you in the beginning: I had nothing to do with it, it just came right out of my heart. It had nothing to do with planning, had nothing to do with songs. We weren't doing songs—we did music. Music direct from the source.

AAJ: You also had a hit with "With These Hands" from Much Les (1969), another title through which many people discovered your music.

LM: A lot of people love that, with Leroy Vinnegar's "Doin' That Thing." That was his song, too. He wrote that. He and I were next door neighbors in Hollywood. I'd call him up and say, "What's happening, Leroy?" And he'd reply, "I'm kind of busy—I'm doin' that thing." He had his girlfriend over there...

AAJ: Is that why it went on for more than eight minutes?

LM: It was really thirty or forty minutes. You just got what we put on the record. See, that's what I mean: A lot guys go into the studio to record and they say, "This song is going to be five minutes and twenty seconds." No, I could never do that, never. I play. Tape it for what it is. If it's too long, we'll take out some parts—maybe. But you cannot ruin the music.

AAJ: What was it like working with Yusef Lateef? He has a reputation for being quite a strong personality.

LM: But that's a beautiful thing. That's how you learn where he's coming from. Every jazz musician is different. Every jazz musician is like a painter who is painting his own creation. It has nothing to do with anything that you ever thought about the last musician that you liked. You need to be open to what is coming from that person. That's the beauty of jazz, to me. Which is now gone. It's passed.

AAJ: His oboe works so brilliantly in "The Lovers."

LM: Those are "God moments," I call them. We had nothing to play but it was there. I didn't even know who was going to be on the record. I said to my producer that I need someone to play the sound of the oboe and out of Joel's mouth came, "There's only one person to do that." I said, "Well, it can't be Eddie Harris." And as soon as Joel mentioned his name, I knew he was one hundred percent right.

AAJ: Why don't more musicians use the moaning sound of the oboe to play the blues?

LM: Yeah, but we're talking about American traditional music. That's what the blues means to so many people. The blues is about how you feel, what you think. I grew up working with the great blues guys, people like Bumblebee Slim. People ain't never heard of these guys. They were not musicians. They couldn't even sing a song the same way if they tried. The first verse would be five and a half measures, the next verse would be fifteen measures, it was unbelievable. What the hell is going on? Because they wanted it to be something we could recognize and get in with. But these guys just sung what they would sing and they'd have a guitar in their hands and that's all it was. Period. It had nothing to do with time, had nothing to do with rhythm, had nothing to do with measures, and nothing to do with music on paper.

It's like talking to someone who can't speak and they get the words out when they can. And you accept it because you finally get it. But everybody has the blues in their heart. When I grew up, the blues was it. The blues and church music are exactly the same, with different words.

AAJ: Did you ever play organ or piano in church?

LM: I don't think so. I don't remember. I may have done it but I was not a church pianist.

AAJ: Did you ever record with Dr. Lateef again?

LM: No, that was the moment. That's what I'm saying: It was a moment and that was it. It cannot happen again. It would not happen again. I wouldn't even want it to happen again. I don't even know him.

AAJ: Did you ever record with Rahsaan Roland Kirk again?

LM: I don't record with ANYBODY again, unless they're in my band.

AAJ: You previously mentioned "the light in your own eye." It's very easy to see that light shine through the lens of your camera and reflected in the pictures published in your photography book.

LM: Wow, that's pretty good. I like that.

AAJ: Is it the people aspect that makes photography so attractive to you?

LM: No, it's people, period. It's life. Life. I don't separate it. It's all one thing, I just happened to have a camera in my hand. And these are the guys, all the pictures in that book, are of people way before me. Way before my time. I just happened to be there. Because no one knew me or was getting to know me, I could take pictures and nobody could even see me. In fact, in the book, I think it was Quincy Jones, I forget exactly how he put it but it was very hip and I loved it: We thought we were looking at him, but he was looking at us! ("All the time we were watching him, it turns out he was watching us from behind that lens.")

AAJ: Your music is so rhythmic that it leads one to believe that in your day you must have been one hell of a dancer.

LM: No, not at all. Back then, that was the one thing I said no to. Somebody would invite me to come dance and I'd say no. I felt that I could dance myself because I felt the rhythm, but what I saw people doing on the dancefloor, to me, was not dancing. It was just people getting out there doing physical exercise, that's what it was. But I always said no. Even after I got married. I finally relented and got out there on the floor to do it. I had a girlfriend who loved to dance and I would go because I knew she wanted me to, but I wasn't really into it. I was into Baryshnikov. The Nicholas Brothers from old black vaudeville. Rhythm was my thing. You say you know about the hambone, that's all you need to know.

AAJ: How have you managed to so successfully pull so much of your life and personality through so much of your music?

LM: That's what it takes to be a great artist: The body, the mind and the heart. They all push hard. What seems like pain may be what it takes to make the music and the artist what he is. You don't feel the pain, it's just something in our heads. When we get afraid, we feel pain. When we deny God, we feel pain. When we deny ourselves, we feel pain. We are naturally born to be and do great things.

Each one of us is extremely creative. But we think that it's only "special people," it's only "those people" who have genius. We all have greatness within us. But we refuse—or we take many, many lifetimes—to discover ourselves. Period.

AAJ: The best line in your entire book is: "That phrase, Invitation to Openness, symbolizes what I am." Could you expand on that for readers who may not intuitively grasp it?

LM: Well, what do you want me to say?

AAJ: Do you mean that your life is an open book or that your life is always open to new experiences, or something else?

LM: All of that and ten million things more. What I'm saying is that we're all here to experience greatness. You have an invitation to live your life the way you see it. It has nothing to do with anyone else. Nothing to do with churches, nothing to do with religion. Nothing to do with all the bullshit we've been fed by our parents. It's your life. Live it and love it. And love the trip. Period.

AAJ: You would describe yourself more as a spiritual person than a religious person?

LM: Well, we're all spiritual people. We're all angels having a human experience on earth. This is just a mere dream, a little short side trip. It has nothing to do with what we are completely. And the sooner we accept that, and begin to work hand in hand with what we are spiritually and what we are humanly, things become clearer. Things become what we call easy.

These are my lessons that I've learned. To me, life, earth, the human experience is a school. We're here to learn the power of love. Period.

AAJ: Is there anything that we didn't talk about that you'd like to discuss?

LM: I love when people ask real questions and not, "Where were you born?" Kiss my ass, I don't want to talk about that shit. It's been said a million times.

Music can change your life. That's what music can do. And that's what angels can do for each other. That's why we're here: Learning to love.

One last thing, and this is just for you, okay? I look at life now as only two things, love or fear. Make that choice in everything you do. I've learned that. That has opened the door to another level of knowing my godhood, knowing my connection to the all in all, and not just this chaotic situation that we call earth life. It's far beyond our understanding, but all extremely beautiful. Period. You've got to look, though, to find it. The secret of life is within us, and that's the last place that most of us ever look. We do everything, we want everybody to teach us what to do, we go through all that shit and then after sixty-five years you wake up and realize, "Oh, I knew this all along. What the hell?"

Open up your heart to love at all times. Never say no again. If you've got a child, trust that they already know what's going on. Don't try to teach them shit they don't want to know. They already know—leave them alone. Just love them, and learn.
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