“The thing about this business,” says Les McCann, “is it’s a reality show, and we’re live when you get it.”
Singer and pianist McCann, who will play tonight and Saturday at The Blue Monk, is recalling his 1983 performance at the Mt. Hood Festival of Jazz, where a stolen car slammed into a transformer, suddenly cutting power to the festival stage. The funk jazz pioneer knew exactly how to handle it.
Using only his voice, hand claps and a drummer, McCann entertained the big, restless crowd sprawled across the football stadium until power was restored nearly an hour later.
“There’s always something goes wrong, always.” He’s speaking by phone from his home in Van Nuys, Calif. “So you learn to deal with it and go with it, or you get mad and walk off. But with all those people, you don’t want to walk unless there’s no way to communicate at all.”
Now 70, McCann has found ways to communicate with audiences despite the vagaries of life and the road for nearly 50 years. His most notable performance under pressure came at the 1968 Montreux Jazz Festival, where his hit album, “Swiss Movement,” containing “Compared to What” and “Cold Duck Time,” was recorded live in an astonishing, impromptu set that featured saxophonist Eddie Harris and bassist Leroy Vinnegar.
“We didn’t have a chance to rehearse,” he recalls, “I’m yelling out the chords to the guys as we’re going. And Eddie (Harris ) and I were walking around town the night before looking for a musician to play trumpet with us; then the police came to arrest me the next day .” He laughs, remembering how he’d pilfered the bankroll of a drunken stalker to stop the man from drinking. He returned the money.
Since then, McCann has been forced to deal with more serious obstacles, including a stroke 10 years ago that paralyzed his right side.
“For a year and a half I was playing with my left hand only,” he says, “counting on my horn player to do all the hard work. I’ve regained about 55% of the use of my hand. I don’t think about it anymore. My main thing is my inability to walk,” he adds. A walker and wheelchair help him get around.
That kind of adaptability was hard won, learned on the road as well as during his years as a young, ambitious jazz man in Los Angeles in the early 1960s, when he was the biggest seller for the Pacific Jazz label.
“Those were difficult years, the learning years, the hard times and also very valuable times,” he says. “You don’t know nothing, you think you know something, you’re dealing with guys who are great like Leroy — Leroy had a great big attitude along with his big body. You can look back and say, those were gifts in my life. That’s how I learned how to get tough myself.”
He’s grateful for those lessons today, because they taught him how to thrive in the reality show of music, taught him that, on stage, “when you get it, you better go with it, because that might be all you get.”