Les McCann: Free and Funky

Photo by Michael Baker

It’s about everything. It’s about religion, about life, about God, about truth. It’s about how we live.

The damn stair lift isn’t working! And it’s brand new, too!

Three men fiddle with it, jump up and down on it, push the buttons over and over while jazz legend Les McCann sits in his bulky, airline-style wheelchair in the hot sun, sweat beading up on his bald head.
McCann waits patiently. “This happens all the time,” he says. Ever since he started using a wheelchair after a 1995 stroke, he’s been to many a jazz club — like the Jazz Showcase here in Chicago — where access has been a struggle.

All of a sudden, the lift works. A burly, no-nonsense-looking, African American man pushes McCann onto the platform.

McCann rises up.

Inside the Showcase, McCann sits sunken down in an easy chair, his wheelchair folded and tucked away against the wall. As he’s introduced, he struggles to his feet. He places his hand on the shoulder of his burly assistant and walks behind him, hunched but steady, up the steps of the stage. The assistant leads McCann to the bench of the electric piano.

This is the band of young jazz saxophone star Javon Jackson, featuring Les McCann. They play the song “Cold Duck Time,” a classic tune off McCann’s classic album, Swiss Movement. It’s a crowd-pleaser.  And later, McCann sings, and his voice sounds as strong and soulful as ever. It’s a crowd-pleaser, too.

After the set, settled back in the easy chair, McCann admires my wheelchair. It’s scuffed and dirty and taped up, but it’s a space age beauty compared to his basic box. He says he’s learned a world of stuff in more than a decade living the wheelchair life. He’s even lived the nightmare of finding himself trapped in a nursing home. It happened early in 2008. After being hospitalized for emergency hernia surgery, he was sent to what the doctors said was a rehab center for therapy. “The first night, they gave me this big old red pill,” he says. He took the pill, then he asked what it was. “And they said, ‘Well, Mr. Johnson …’ And I said, ‘Mr. Johnson! That ain’t my name!’”

At the nursing home, people sat around and moaned. There was very little therapy. There was nothing to do, and of course there was no piano. After two weeks, he had to get out. “I called my buddy. I said, ‘Back the truck up and I’ll be ready to go.’”

McCann didn’t tell any of the staff or residents he was leaving. He just left. He was never happier to see home sweet home, his cramped and cluttered apartment in Los Angeles.

The masterpieces of McCann’s career are Swiss Movement and its platinum single opening song, “Compared to What?” McCann and his longtime musical partner, the late saxophonist Eddie Harris, led the quintet set recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1969. The music is classic because it has a thoroughly funk rhythm and heart, McCann plays an acoustic piano and the performance is immersed in the spirit of straightahead jazz. McCann sings the romping and gleefully defiant “Compared to What?” — which for me ranks near the top of the many protest songs of the era. Here’s an example of the timeless lyrics:

The President, he’s got his war
Folks don’t know just what it’s for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Have one doubt, they call it treason
We’re chicken-feathers, all without one nut.
God damn it! Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what?

McCann says of the song, “It’s about everything. It’s about religion, about life, about God, about truth. It’s about how we live. The first time Bush won, they were playing it on the radio in New York City and a bunch of Republicans called the station talking about how mad they were because they thought it was about him.”

McCann broke into the music business as a singer. He won a talent contest when he was in the U.S. Navy in 1955 and the prize was an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. He sang “It’s Almost Like Being in Love.”

But as a pianist, he’s self-taught. He was born in 1935 in Lexington, Ky., and his parents couldn’t afford piano lessons. Critics, especially those with a stubborn purist streak, have sometimes been harsh on McCann. “I was probably the most put down musician of all. They told me I was no good, I was terrible.”  Maybe his critics don’t like how his musical body of work is rooted so deeply in the dreaded funk groove, or the way it strays off into realms like Rhythm and Blues and mainstream pop. Whatever. McCann’s fellow musicians often disagree wildly. Jazz piano legends like Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Horace Silver have come to hear him play and complimented him, he says. “Musicians who tell me they like what I do emphasize the funk. They say no one was as funky as me. They also emphasize my ability to play ballads the way I used to do it.”

McCann says he tries not to think about where he’s going or where he’s been in his career or his life. “I just go to work.” He says. “I don’t predict anything. I have no fortune telling ability. You do what you do and whatever comes out comes out.”

The stroke hit him in Germany, just as he was preparing for his evening gig at a jazz club. “I knew something was wrong when I woke up from my nap to go to work. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t get up from the floor.” He insisted that his band members take him to the club, but a doctor met them there and immediately sent him to the hospital. “When I woke up in the morning, they told me I had a stroke due to diabetes.”

He stayed in the German hospital for six weeks and he was treated like gold. “They offered everything to me because of their love for jazz, American jazz.”

His rehab was at UCLA, where again he was treated wonderfully. He was diligent in his therapy, but his right arm and leg were weak and practically useless. He couldn’t play piano for nine months. But the same live-in-the moment sensibility that guides his music helped him gain a calm perspective on living with a permanent disability. “I knew that my life would be different. I allow it to be what it is. I can’t command things. I can’t say, ‘This is how it’s gonna be.’ I knew that it was a time in my life for me to learn something, which is what life is all about as far as I’m concerned. Every event is a chance to learn something.” Even if he never played again, McCann figured, he could still sing. He could still teach.

But slowly, the right hand and leg returned enough for him to play and get around again. He says he’s playing at about 65 percent of his capacity. And there are still great days when something returns and he says to himself, “Oh wow! That finger’s working now!” He only plays electric piano now. Playing a grand would exhaust him, he says.

McCann was lucky because his apartment building was accessible and he doesn’t use a wheelchair inside his home. So he didn’t have to move. “When I’m home I don’t come anywhere near a wheelchair. I always got something to lean on. I couldn’t fall if I wanted to. There’s stuff everywhere. Junk.”

Those few days in the nursing home were some of the starkest and most sobering days of McCann’s disability learning experience.

“That was a very frightening experience. I realized I was in deep shit. I wasn’t doing anything. I was just lying there every day. I’d go downstairs for a half hour of therapy. Couldn’t even see the Super Bowl game. Nothing. It’s like being in a prison because there’s nothing you can do. It got to the point where I would talk to the therapists and I’d say, ‘Hey man, take me outside! I’ll pay you! Go put me in the sun, okay?’”

There was no one to turn to. McCann’s daughter and primary physician thought it was best for him to give up his apartment and stay there indefinitely, he says. “It hurt me in my heart that my daughter felt I needed to be in a place like that. That was kind of hard to deal with because my daughter, being a doctor, her only focus is on medical things. I tried to let her know that there’s more to my life than medical things. I have a heart. I like to laugh. I like to have fun. My doctor kind of agreed with her and I finally realized there’s only one person here that counts and that’s me. I realized I had to make the move myself.”

That’s when he called his buddy with the truck. And he hasn’t spoken to his daughter since. “This was part of the learning too. Whatever, I’ve been totally happy ever since.”

Last year McCann traveled extensively with Jackson’s band, and he plans to keep doing so for as long as he can. “I’ll probably die on stage somewhere. Be okay with me. Take me out back, dump me out in the yard. Put up a marker that says ‘Thanks Les, good bye, whatever.’”

When he’s not on the road, he doesn’t go out much. But home is where he creates music and paints watercolors and watches football and basketball. So home is a place of joy. And when he does go out, it’s often in the company of a certain “beautiful young lady friend.”

“I’m extremely happy. If it got any better than this, I’d be throwing up,” McCann says. “There have been days when I couldn’t move, the pain was so hard. Those are rough days. But I know they don’t last forever. It might be like a new song that I have trouble learning. But I know that if I work on it, I will get it.”

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