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Farewell to the Maestro: Les McCann, Pioneer of Soul Jazz, Bids the World Goodbye

The musician, sampled by Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, and hundreds of other artists, passes away at 88. Renowned for the anti-Vietnam War anthem 'Compared to What.

Les McCann, the pianist, singer, and pioneer of soul jazz, passed away last Friday at the age of 88. The cause of death has not been disclosed, but according to his manager Alan Abrahams, the musician died in a Los Angeles hospital after developing pneumonia a week ago. McCann had been hospitalized for four years in a care facility in L.A., as reported by The New York Times.

McCann is best remembered for the 1967 protest song “Compared to What,” released with saxophonist Eddie Harris. Throughout his career, he released more than 50 albums. His music has been revitalized, especially through sampling in rap: Notorious B.I.G.’s “10 Crack Commandments” samples his “Vallarta”; A Tribe Called Quest’s “After Hours” contains elements of “North Carolina”; Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre’s “Next Episode” features a sample of “Go on and Cry.” Nearly 300 artists have sampled his work, ranging from Warren G to Cypress Hill.

Born in 1935 in Lexington, Kentucky, McCann formed a trio after being discharged from the Navy. While still in the service, he performed on the Ed Sullivan Show after winning a singing competition. The cover of “Compared to What,” originally by Eugene McDaniels, dates back to 1969 and stands as one of the highlights of his career. McCann and Harris performed it at the 1969 Montreux Festival. The lyrics address not only the Vietnam War but also various forms of hypocrisy and social injustice. Since then, the song has been covered by over 250 artists.

In the notes for the album “Swiss Movement,” which includes the recording of that historic concert, McCann recalls, “Just before going on stage for the first time in my life, I smoked some hashish. I didn’t even know where I was. I was disoriented. The others told me, ‘Come on, play.’ Somehow, I got myself together, and we started.”

“Compared to What” was later released as a single. Under contract with Atlantic, McCann released a dozen albums for the label, including “Invitation to Openness” and “Layers” in 1971 and 1972, respectively, where he played keyboards and synthesizers influenced by Joe Zawinul’s work with Miles Davis.

In the following years, he took a more musically traditional path, moving between jazz, pop, and soul, occasionally returning to the piano but focusing mainly on singing, following a stroke in 1994. His last album was “A Time Les Christmas” in 2018.

McCann also pursued a parallel career as a photographer. His photographs were compiled in the 2015 book “Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960-1980.”

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