One could call Les McCann a jazz musician. But then what of his forays into R&B, funk, and soul on albums like Talk to the People and Hustle to Survive? What of his early adoption of synthesizers, clavinets, and electric pianos? What of his painting, his photography?
That last one, photography, is especially important. If McCann never touched a piano in his life, he’d likely still have become famous as a photographer. The proof is in his new book, Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann, which collects many of his best pictures.
Looking at McCann’s photographs, one gets the distinct sense of being in the room with the subjects. One can practically hear Richard Pryor mid-routine at some unnamed comedy club, before he lost his babyface to the vagaries of fame. One can feel the seething inner turmoil that amplified and destroyed Nina Simone’s genius. One can see the unguarded Cannonball Adderly, smoking a cigarette, the expression on his face cooler than a frozen pack of peas. In each case, McCann’s lens strips these icons of pretense, brushes away the dust of history, and leaves them not naked, not vulnerable, but open.
Perhaps that’s why McCann called the book Invitation to Openness. It is an invitation not only to the subjects of the pictures, but also to the reader. The pictures are suffused with the sense that these aren’t icons or legends, but normal people. And if they are normal people, what does that say of the rest of us? McCann’s answer, which he repeated several times during the interview, is that we are all made to do great things. We just have to be open to it.
In the intro to the book you talk about how your brothers all had cameras growing up. I’m curious to know more about what it was like growing up in Kentucky in that era.
My father worked at the Lexington Water Company as a custodian. It was a good job for him, because he never went to school really. My mother just took care of the house. Occasionally she would take odd jobs taking care of people’s houses. Everybody was in a position of doing the best they could with whatever. We never thought of ourselves as being poor. My life was fantastic, just as it is now. It has been great all my life.
But you grew up in a time of pretty strict segregation. How did that impact your life?
It made me the great person I feel I am today. I don’t believe in – I’m trying to say it in the right way – I see and have learned that everything that happens in this life, this time, for me, was exactly what I asked for. In order to be a jazz musician, which is something I’ve always wanted, I’m going to say it to you the way I say it in my own heart, in sitting down with God [before I was born], “What you wanna do when you go down to Earth this time?” “Well, I want to something different this time. I want to be a jazz musician.” “Really? That’s a noble thing. Me and my staff will do the priming, and we’ll call you when you’re ready to go. We’ll figure out what family you need to be born in, what part of the world you want to be born in. What type of jazz you want to play?” I said, “I want to be soulful, just like the church.” “We got you covered. We know what to do.” And that’s how it was.
There’s no difference between jazz and photography, or any art form. It’s all about creativity.
I guess had you been anywhere else, you couldn’t have been a jazz musician, because jazz came out of that specific place and time.
That’s the way it is for all of us. We often forget that we’re just here for a few moments. This ain’t the real shit. This is like taking a little nap.
Jazz and photography are obviously different art forms, but it seems like with both you have to be constantly present, constantly paying attention. Whether it’s a picture or whether you’re creating something musically, you have to have a heightened sense of being in the moment.
No. You don’t have to be anything. You just live, enjoy your life, and all these things will come to you. It’s when we start thinking in our head, trying to figure it out, trying to make it what we want it to be, we stumble. We go down the side roads. We don’t mess it up, we just put it on hold. We go off the main track, but we always end up back on the right one. There’s no difference between jazz and photography, or any art form. It’s all about creativity. It’s not always a conscious thought, “I’m going to go down here and take some pictures and be creative.” No. You are directed to the things you’re supposed to do. They come automatically.
Yes, but not everybody can take a good photograph, or not everybody can be a great jazz musician. Would you say that’s just because it’s not their path?
Is that your path?
No, I suppose it’s not.
What’s the main thing we learn when we’re young? How to be afraid of everything.
But even so there must be some thought, or craft, to it.
No. I say one thing. It’s pure God. With this in my heart, I can do anything. You’re not always conscious of trying to be great. It’s certainly not intellectual. “Intellectual” is people that like to play mind games. The mind is a tool, but it certainly isn’t the full truth of what we are.
Is this something you’ve always felt or have you developed this philosophy as you’ve gone through your life?
Well, once again, I’ll say we all know this. When we’re born, we’re trained to forget these things. What’s the main thing we learn when we’re young? How to be afraid of everything. They want to protect us, they want to keep us away from things. Everything is about teaching the fully armed baby who comes into the world beautiful, and loving, and knowing everything, just waiting to develop and learn, and we try to make them as fearful as they can get.
How do you escape that?
You have to know it first.
The song that you’re best known for, “Compared to What,” there’s a lot of anger in it, a lot of questioning of society. I know you didn’t write the lyrics, but there’s anger in your reading of them. And that’s coming back up now. There’s a lot of that anger in modern music, with all the police brutality, and riots happening yet again, and so much turmoil going on in society.
I’m trying to understand what you’re saying. What, we should not be angry about things?
No, no, no. I think we absolutely should be angry. But what I’m wondering is how that coincides with feeling like everything is a part of love. Is the anger a part of love?
How do you define love if you don’t know what love is? Why are we angry? We’re forgetting something. We’re forgetting the basis of what we truly are, which is pure love. This beginning is part of the trip. You can’t break everything down into fragments and say, “What about the little kids over in Africa?” It’s the whole picture we’re looking at. We’re all here in the name of love, and since we’re here just temporarily, it doesn’t matter what we do. There’s no right and wrong. There’s learning. Period. Laws are for communities, cities where people live around each other. But the real laws come from what we came from. If you believe this is all there is, then you have some beautiful things to learn, and that’s okay.
Some of the most interesting pictures in the book were the ones of Duke Ellington toward the end of his life.
He looked very depressed, didn’t he?
He did, absolutely. I got the sense that he was getting toward the end of his life and there was just such sadness in him. I don’t know how well you knew him...
Very few of them I could say are friends of mine, but I knew them all because we were all doing the festivals and passing each other on the road all the time. Or, they’re in my record collection at home. Me, I feel like I know them, but I don’t mean I know them as in what he eats for dinner. I’m talking about how you sometimes recognize the great things about yourself by looking at the people you like. They’re lessons for us too. But I want to stress again, there is no such thing as right and wrong, good and bad. There are things. Period. They are. Try to do that, take a little time each day to be quiet, forget the daily things and open up to another realm of your great ability to be everything.
But there are so many things going on in the world where you think, “I have to resist this.” The kid gets killed by the cops, and you think, “That’s terrible, I have to resist this,” and you get angry.
It’s been like that always hasn’t it?
I suppose so. That’s another thing that makes me angry.
In every culture, in every country, it’s no different. We call it everything but what it really is. “It’s racism; it’s whatever you want.” No. It’s fear. It’s fear.
When we made Swiss Movement, I was so angry after we finished playing.
Did you pick the pictures that went into the book?
I did not pick any pictures. Not one. They just had to check everything before they printed it to make sure I liked it.
This might not apply for the book, then, but how do you know when you’ve got the right take of a song or the right shot of a person?
In jazz, it’s not one thing. You know it when you hear it. It’s about the heart and the feeling. When you hear something great, or you have a producer or partner that you trust, you listen to them. Sometimes, like when we made Swiss Movement, I was so angry after we finished playing, I went right back to the hotel and told the man, “Don’t take no calls from anybody, I don’t care who it comes from.” And they were trying to call me from the moment I left the building. “Get your butt back over here. You’re not going to believe how great this is.” I though it was the worst thing we ever did, because we were making a lot of mistakes.
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.