Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009


Les McCann passes away at 88 / Read the OMN Q&A from September 2010

By TOM D'ANTONI // Les McCann, the great composer, pianist died on Friday December 29, 2023 in Los Angeles from pneumonia at age 88. Here is my Q&A with him from 2010.

Les McCann played Portland many times and was a collaborator and close friend to bassist and Portlander Leroy Vinnegar. In September of 2010 he was booked at Jimmy Mak's. one of several times he played there.

I talked with him about "Compared To What" and lots of things.

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Les McCann is coming to Portland this week, on Thursday and Friday, September 16 and 17 at Jimmy Mak's, $25 in advance (guaranteed), $22 in advance (general admission). He's playing with Javon Jackson's band.

This just in. He will be doing "Compared to What." He's not tired of it. Nobody else is, either. KMHD has had to restrict the playing of it because every single DJ is liable to play it, no matter what the content of the show. I snuck it in a couple of weeks ago. The performance is over forty years old and has not aged a day.

It was recorded in 1969 at the Montreux Jazz Festival and released on Swiss Movement. The song was not actually written by McCann but by Eugene McDaniels.

Maybe you're not aware of the video of the actual performance, Maybe you've never even heard the song. Here's prime-time Les and Eddie Harris with Leroy Vinnegar on bass, Benny Bailey on trumpet and Donald Dean on drums.:

You will now have that in your head for the rest of the day, and probably tomorrow, too, no matter how many times you have heard it.

Les McCann is 75 years-old now and lives in L.A. where he writes music all the time, paints, and hits the road with Javon Jackson's band when the time is right. This week is the right time. He had stroke a few years ago which has restricted his mobility.

Yes, he's had a long and successful career. He went through a period when he was sampled by Hip Hop artists, who recognized his funkiness. His "Valantra" was sampled by The Notorious B.I.G. in the song "The Ten Crack Commandments) off his album Life After Death. Even Biggie. "Roberta" was sampled on Afu-Ra's "Whirlwind Thru Cities". The beginning of "Sometimes I Cry" was sampled by Massive Attack in their song "Teardrop". "Behind Bars" by Slick Rick also samples "Sometimes I Cry".

It was even used in a 2003 Coke commercial starring Mya and Common:


He spoke to us from his home in Los Angeles.

How's your health, Les?

I'm beautiful. My health is pretty good. They just push me out on the stage and go. I like the musicians I'm playing with, I'm really enjoying this phase of my life.

I saw where you might work some more with Eugene McDaniels?

We always talk to each other, we're dear friends and I would ever make a new record, I certainly would explore his music because every time he writes a new song he always calls me, I get to review it, give what I think and I love his songs.

He was Gil Scott-Heron before there was a Gil Scott-Heron.

There were several guys like that out there, Oscar Brown was one, but Eugene McDaniels was more romantic than those guys, they were more political, but he had some extremely political albums, too.

Was there ever a time when you said, "I can't play 'Compared to What' one more time?

Never. I decided not to play it one night and the people went crazy. Back in the day we did four sets a night and I played it four times. I'm thankful for it. It has carried me. A lot of people don't know we do other songs.

You had a long collaboration with Leroy Vinnegar, what was that like?

He was my next door neighbor in Hollywood. Whenever I wanted to play he was always ready. He'd walk in the door and we'd start playing. That's why we were so succesful because we had already worked it out. He was able to play what I was trying to project at the time in a way that a lot of other guys couldn't. Leroy figured out how to play with me.

We had a very good thing going.

He was my protector, as well.


Nobody would ever mess with me with Leroy was around. Nobody even thought of it after Leroy talked to them. He would just walk over and say a few words and it was all over. Oh yes. Oh yes.

Tell me about Javon Jackson, the young saxophonist who has been playing with you.

He's a young serious musician, not just out there to fool around. He takes care of business. When I had that heavy hospital period of my life, I had a stroke he was there. He had told me he wanted to work with me when he was 19 and with Art Blakey. He called me as soon as i got out of the hospital. He said he wanted me to come and play with him. I said, "Hell, yeah!" It doesnt' get any better than that.

Will it be all your tunes?

Not all. But then again, all they want to hear is "Compared to What."

Well, you can't blame them...

Sometimes I think I'll go out there and play nothing but "Compared to What." (Laughs) I'm a Jazz musician, I might play the melody but we never do it exactly the same. That's why we are Jazz musicians. We couldn't play it the same way if we wanted to. They wanted me to play it for the film Casino. They wanted us to play it like the record and I said why don't you just use the record!

It was one moment in history, one moment in the life of a Jazz musician. It's the kind of thing that you dream about.

You going to have any new tunes on this gig?

Why would we do that? That's the whole thing I'm talking about, people want to hear "Compared to What."

Some of us might want to hear what you go on you mind these days.

I don't think so. I'm a composer. There have been times when I've written ten, twelve songs a week...but who you gonna get to play it? I'm a painter as well. I have thousands of paintings here. I have one called "Miles Davis Goes to Work." That's the only one they want!

My life is beautiful. I have music, playing music. My life is filled with beautiful people, difficult people...it's full and complete.


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