Les McCann, Pioneer in Soul Jazz Music Dies at 88

Portrait of American Jazz musician Les McCann plays piano as he performs at the Ivanhoe Theater, Chicago, Illinois, January 14, 1978
Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Musician Les McCann passed away at the age of 88 after being admitted to a Los Angeles hospital for pneumonia. McCann was known as one of the pioneers of soul jazz and helped to inspire countless artists. McCann began learning piano at a young age and primarily taught himself. He won a talent contest in the Navy to sing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 and eventually became a singer-songwriter, signing on to Atlantic Records in 1968.

McCann went on to release over 60 albums during his long career and is known for his innovative sounds. His work became an inspiration for many rap and hip-hop artists in the ’90s and 2000s and helped create songs such as “The Next Episode” by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. He has also been credited as discovering some icons including R&B artist Roberta Flack.

American jazz & soul musician Les McCann plays piano during the 'Keep A Light in The Window: An Homage To Joel Dorn' concert at Damrosch Park Bandshell, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Lincoln Center, New York, New York, August 13, 2008

Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

While his career spanned decades, it has been said that his most memorable work was in 1969 at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. He played with saxophonist Eddie Harris and trumpeter Benny Baily and their performance was recorded as Swiss Movement. The album contained his most popular song called “Compared to What.” In 2015, McCann opened up about how Swiss Movement impacted the rest of his career.

He shared, “When I heard it, I couldn’t believe it, which taught me another great lesson. Let it happen. Let it be. You don’t have to be hovering over every little note. You do it, and let it happen, and you’ll know it. My heart and my body is loaded with creativity. And when I step on that stage, I acknowledge it and allow it to come forth. I love my life.”

May he rest in peace.

Farewell 2023
Want More?

Farewell 2023

December 2023

A look back at the stars we loved and lost in 2023.

Buy This Issue