Paying Tribute to Les McCann

When Atlanta-based pianist Joe Alterman released his self-produced album, Joe Alterman Plays Les McCann Big Mo & little joe, in August 2023, Jersey Jazz‘s Joe Lang described it as “a bluesy, funky tribute to a major player on the jazz scene for over 50 years that is played by one of the brightest young piano stars of the current scene.”

McCann died December 29, 2023, in Los Angeles at the age of 88, and Alterman recalled to njjs.org his first meeting with the veteran pianist who would become his mentor and friend. “We first met at the Blue Note in 2012 when a 23-year-old me got to open for Les,” he said. “He approached the piano and, in lieu of a greeting, told me to ‘play me some blues, boy.’ While I was worried about what I, a white, Jewish millennial, could offer Les, one of the greatest blues players ever, I did my best, trying not to let fear enter my mind. After a minute or two, Les said, ‘Amen,’ and I breathed a sigh of relief. When I finished playing Les asked my name. 
‘Joe Alterman,’ I replied. ‘Alterman,’ he said, before asking, ‘You a Rabbi?’ ‘No,’ I told him, through my laughter, ‘but I am a Hebrew.’ He said, ‘Well, from now on, you’re my He-bro,’, and that was the start of our beautiful friendship. 

“Knowing Les McCann has been one of the greatest blessings of my entire life. No one else taught me as much or made me laugh as hard — not to mention, inspire me so deeply on the piano! Because of Les and all that he’s shared with me, I’ve learned so much about music, life, love and myself – -and the interconnectedness of it all. 

Discovering McCann’s music,” Alterman said, “was an exciting, inspiring, and refreshing moment in my life. I was a teenager and, at the time, there were a lot of things I was being told not to do on the piano. But, Les was doing nearly all of them, and he sounded so good! In being true to himself, Les gave me the confidence to be true to myself.”

Since that first meeting, Alterman added, “barely a day passed in which we didn’t speak. Just like the resonance I grew up feeling to his music, I resonated just as deeply to the person behind it. It was like having a beautiful big brother. I’m ‘Little Joe’ and Les was ‘Big Mo.’ Just like the things I learned from his music before we met, the things Les shared with me since meeting continued to guide me. 

“Shortly before we met, I was opening for Hiromi at the Blue Note. Another hero pianist, Ahmad Jamal, was in the audience, and it was the first time I’d performed for one of my heroes. It was exciting that he was there, listening intently to my set, but I spent nearly the entire performance in a state of crippling anxiety.

“I eventually shared that story with Les, and he told me he had a similar story he wanted to share with me. He was about the same age that I had been at the time and was about to walk on stage for his first big Chicago gig at the London House, when Oscar Peterson walked in, and took a seat; Les felt similar nerves that I felt playing in front of Jamal.”

Here’s what McCann told Alterman. “I went over to say hello to him, and I told him, ‘I love you, Oscar, but I don’t know if I can play in front of you. I’m so nervous, I can’t believe it.’ Oscar looked at me and said something that changed my life. He said, ‘I didn’t come here to hear me. I came here to hear you.’ He was telling me to be myself, and that calmed me for the rest of my life. It was a moment of saying that I never have to fear what I do myself again…Without that experience, I’d have probably been fearful for some time longer. I’d have had to learn that anyway, eventually, but that’s what I learned on that spot and at that moment. I never looked back after that, either.’ After hearing that story, Alterman said, “Neither did I. Les’ music is, for me, one of the world’s greatest treasures.”

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The New Jersey Jazz Society (NJJS) is a non-profit organization of business and professional people, musicians, teachers, students and listeners working together for the purpose of advancing jazz music.