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Les McCann, Jazz Pianist and Singer, Dies at 88

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The lasting influence of McCann was apparent in real time, but especially in the 1990s and 2000s when countless artists began sampling his songs in their own music. While bands like Massive Attack, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and H2O included portions of his tracks in their own, McCann’s pulse imprinted most effortlessly and noticeably on the hip-hop scene. A Tribe Called Quest, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Notorious B.I.G., De La Soul, Nas, and Cypress Hill all sampled his music, as did Mary J. Blige, Pharcyde, Eric B. and Rakim, Mobb Deep, Gang Starr, and Raekwon. When not sampled outright, McCann was still referenced in pop culture, with everyone from Beastie Boys to Steely Dan namedropping him in their lyrics.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1935, McCann was raised by a churchgoing family that quickly steered his direction in life, as he took up singing in church choirs with his siblings. After trying his hand at tuba and drums, McCann began teaching himself how to play the piano as a six-year-old and stuck with it out of a love for the instrument. McCann went on to enlist in the U.S. Navy, where he won a singing contest that earned him a brief appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Upon finishing his service, he uprooted to California, studied music and journalism at Los Angeles City College, and started his own trio.

McCann went on to release over 50 albums on prominent labels such as Pacific Jazz, Limelight, and Atlantic over his career. His last album as bandleader, 28 Juillet, arrived in 2018, as did the self-released holiday recording “A Time Les Christmas.” In addition to his own work, McCann also played alongside Herbie Mann, Bill Evans, Teddy Edwards, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Stanley Turrentine, and others on their own records. McCann also explored painting and photography in his later years, displaying artwork from both fields in exhibits.

When reflecting on the life he lived in a 2015 interview, McCann talked about how grateful he was to interact with people onstage and off, crediting it as what fueled him. “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,” McCann said. “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.”

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