RIP Jazz Pioneer Les McCann, Dead at 88

Wednesday, January 3, 2024
American jazz pianist Les McCann performs live on stage at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island on 12th July 1970. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

Pioneering jazz pianist and vocalist Les McCann, whose work was sampled by hundreds of hip-hop artists including Notorious B.I.G. and Dr. Dre, has died at the age of 88 in Los Angeles.

The musician, with more than 60 albums to his credit, had a career-defining moment at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival alongside saxophonist Eddie Harris and trumpeter Benny Bailey. The three came together for an impromptu jam session that resulted in the live album, Swiss Movement. Among the songs they performed was an impassioned take on protest song "Compared to What," which McCann's friend Roberta Flack had covered just months earlier for her debut album, First Take.

Atlantic Records released "Compared to What" as a single, which sold over a million copies and reached No. 35 on Billboard's R&B chart. Swiss Movement was also a hit, reaching #1 on Billboard's jazz album chart, #2 on the R&B chart, and #29 on the Billboard 200 album chart.

McCann's music reached a new generation as it was sampled by scores of hip-hop artists, including Notorious B.I.G., A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Slick Rick, Dr. Dre, and Mobb Deep.

"With the passing of the great pianist and vocalist Les McCann, the jazz world has lost one of its most gifted and influential artists," said Kevin Gore, the President of Global Catalogue and Arts Music for Warner Music Group). "Les released a dozen albums on Atlantic Records between the late-‘60s and mid-‘70s. At the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1969, an impromptu set by the soul jazz pioneer and fellow Atlantic artist Eddie Harris produced the top-charting, Grammy-nominated album Swiss Movement – featuring the duo’s renowned performance of the protest song, “Compared to What.” Among his many other accomplishments, Les discovered and recommended Roberta Flack to Atlantic. His timeless work has been sampled by hundreds of hip-hop artists, and while we deeply mourn his passing, his music will live on in the hearts of millions of music fans across the globe.”