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Les McCann: Never Say No Again

Chris M. Slawecki By

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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.")
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