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Prolific Jazz Icon Les McCann, Whose Influence Echoes in Hip-Hop, Passes Away at 88

Photo Credit: F.N. Broers, National Archives of the Netherlands
McCann (left) with the Les McCann Trio (Herbie Lewis & Ron Jefferson), in 1962.
Les McCann, the legendary jazz pianist whose iconic 1969 protest anthem "Compared to What" resonated across genres, has died at the age of 88.

The news, confirmed by his longtime manager, Alan Abrahams, to various media outlets, attributes the cause of death to pneumonia. McCann breathed his last on Friday at a Los Angeles hospital.

A self-taught musician, samples of McCann's dynamic and soulful playing, particularly with his trio, laid the foundation for some of hip-hop's biggest hits. His influence echoes in tracks by The Notorious B.I.G. ("10 Crack Commandments"), A Tribe Called Quest ("After Hours"), Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre ("The Next Episode"), and more.

Beyond his instrumental prowess, McCann showcased his vocal talents. In 1968, he signed with Atlantic, releasing the rendition of Gene McDaniel's "Compared to What" in collaboration with saxophonist Eddie Harris, a song that remains a powerful protest anthem.

In 1971, McCann participated in the historic "Soul to Soul" concert in Accra, Ghana, alongside R&B and rock luminaries, documented in the film of the same name. Despite facing challenges such as a stroke in the 1990s limiting his keyboard playing, McCann continued to perform.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky, McCann's journey began with a Navy singing contest, leading to an appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Rejecting an offer to join Cannonball Adderley's band, he pioneered soul jazz, merging jazz with funk, soul, and world rhythms.

McCann's legacy extends beyond music; he was the first artist in residence at Harvard University's Learning From Performers program. An avid photographer, his work is featured in the book "Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960-1980."

His prolific discography boast over 60 albums. McCann's final album, "Les McCann — Never a Dull Moment! Live From Coast to Coast 1966-1977," a collection of unreleased live recordings, was released posthumously on Dec. 1, 2023.

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