Recently, a national news magazine half-questioned, half-predicted:
"The rediscovery of Gospel Music by jazzmen may be the opening of Jazz's last frontier."
Rather than being labeled as a rediscovery, the current vogue of utilizing themes and patterns associated with the Music of the Negro Church should probably be more correctly called a "renaissance," a re-birth. For, actually, the music has always been there and been since the earliest roots of jazz a strong and influential force in its development.
Only public taste and acceptance have been slow in coming, allowing its greater flow into the mainstream of jazz. It was the first music of any consequence that nearly every great Negro jazz artist since New Orleans heard. For many, it served as the first music conservatory. The alumni reads like a Who's Who. The late, great Charlie Parker once told me:
"I'll never forget as a boy sitting on those hard wooden benches in church on a Sunday morning and hearing those great old choirs singing songs which were so beautiful and emotional that I'd break out in a cold sweat at the sheer joy of just being allowed to listen. It was my first experience with music and anyone who ever heard the music like I did can never forget it."
Like Parker, I as a boy heard similar sounds and know from personal knowledge what he meant. He was correct: you never can forget the sound. I can still hear it now as vividly as if it were yesterday. The singing which could range from a sweet whisper to a foot stomping shout. The rolling, throbbing, crackling piano or organ accompaniment with rhythmic breaks and moving strong chords that made your blood tingle. The smaller the church, the more primitive the religious beliefs of the congregation, the more remote the location, the closer kinship the music performed had with jazz.
I can still remember in my early teen years in Los Angeles during the mid-1940's standing for hours with a group of friends outside a small Negro church on West Jefferson Boulevard and listening to some of the most inspired music I've ever heard. The church is gone, torn down and replaced in the name of progress. Who knows what has become of the choir members, those who beat the tambourines, and the pianist? The young trumpet player who performed with the religious group went on to become one of the leading jazzmen ever produced on the West Coast. Hearing him today, I can still hear the strong hand of the gospel music he used to play on those warm Sunday nights.
It was not--and is still not--unusual for Negro church choirs to be augmented by the addition of a tambourine, trumpet, guitar, or other instruments. Ray Charles, who readily admits the strong influence gospel music had on his career, has at times sounded much more "churchy" to me than have legitimate church groups. Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet is another with strong religious music ties. He once told a critic:
"My earliest school was the music I heard in the Sanctified Church when I was a boy in Detroit."
Ironically enough, as gospel music becomes more acceptable to the general taste--there is even a new night club in New York which features nothing but this type of music--there are fewer places in the U.S. where one can hear it in its most authentic form. Sociologists have pointed out that as conditions improve for the Negro, the further he'll move away from emotional intonated religions and closer towards services which appeal to the mind more than to the heart. Sadly enough, the time may come when Gospel Music, authentic gospel music, may face the creeping extinction faced by authentic Dixieland Music. As the Old Guard die away and the ever changing public taste keeps rotating to something new, only poor imitations step into the lurch.
Already, since the beginning of the New Renaissance of gospel music, we have seen the field invaded by many who call themselves gospel entertainets but who are not. What effect they will have on the jazz giants of the future who are growing up and cutting their musical eye teeth at this time can only be guessed at.
The three pianists from the West Coast who I think have had the greatest impact upon jazz in the past decade--a point I've stated in print on many occasions--all have strong gospel music influences. Of the three, Les McCann's may be the most important to the development of the New Wave of church inspired jazz and, is undoubtedly, the most resourceful in utilizing the music to its fullest jazz advantage. The other two members of this distinguished trio are, of course, the late Carl Perkins and Hampton Hawes. Hamp's father was a minister and he heard religious music in the elder Hawes' Los Angeles church. Carl got his introduction to the music in his hometown of Indianapolis.
Les in his native Lexington, Ky., listened and was influenced.
I remember the first time I heard Les McCann. It was back in 1958 and he had just arrived in town (Los Angeles). I hadn't heard of him until one night a friend dropped by and asked:
"Do you want to go to church?"
Since it wasn't Sunday, I asked him what he meant.
"I want you to hear this guy who comes closer to preaching on the piano than anyone I've ever heard."
We went and were greatly impressed as have been all those who have heard this truly remarkable young pianist since his meteoric rise to prominence. I've heard Les many times since my introduction to him five years ago and, on each hearing, whether it was on one of his several Pacific Jazz albums or in person, three points have stood out in my mind:
1) Les McCann doesn't sound like anyone. He is one of the few truly distinctive pianists of our time who can be easily recognized as soon as he sits down at the instrument. In a day when most are followers or heavily influenced by others, Les is strongly independent. Those who know of McCann's great admiration and friendship for Perkins might have expected him to borrow heavily from the late pianist following his death, but he has not. Only on occasion, when he has dedicated compositions to Perkins has he even attempted to emulate the Indiana musician's distinctive approach to jazz. I have felt, when hearing McCann, that here is a pianist who has heard Tatum, Peterson, Powell and the other giants of the instrument but who has not allowed his respect for their greatness to dictate a course of action to him. The distinguished social commentator, David Riseman, might classify Les as one of the few in our society who is truly "inner directed."
2) McCann's wit, personality, and his obvious desire to experiment have always intrigued me. He is like Erroll Garner in respect to having his charm come across on records. Few vocal artists and fewer instrumentalists are possessed with this inborn quality. I have marveled on many occasions at how Les has maintained the rapt attention of his audience in what for others would have been a noisy club. He has played old anthems in sophisticated bistros and joked about and composed songs dealing with such heretofore unknown gastronomic delights such as chitterlings. People have loved it and loved Les for being not only a vibrant, exciting jazz artist but a highly entertaining showman as well. In these days in which far too many have forgotten that jazz should first of all entertain, McCann has been in the foreground of a select few.
3) Even from the beginning of my listening experiences with Les, I've heard the gospel sound in his playing. Whether he was performing "I'll Remember April" or his own classic, "A Little 3/4 For God & Company," that earthy, emotion-paced, unmistakable sound has been there, gnawing at your innards and causing shivers of excitement to roam up and down your spine. He hasn't duplicated note-for-note what he probably heard as a child, nor, has he experimented with Horace Silver's harsher approach to the gospel sound or Ray Charles' at times primitive approaches. He has digested the patterns, rhythms and feeling of the Negro Church music and come up with a sound which is authentically rooted but highly individualistic in its interpretation.
This is Les McCann! A distinctive, individualistic, probing, many-sided young man who only took a few lessons in his life. A pianist of great taste, a man of many interests, a musician of immense depth. On this, his first album dedicated entirely to gospel music, he enters into what I personally feel may be the most exciting and musically rewarding phase of his still soaring career.
After hearing "The Gospel Truth," it seems to me that there can be but one answer to what has been said about McCann:
-- Stanley Robertson