Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann

“We all have these abilities. What I’m saying is, ‘Use them! Get into it deeper! Go for it even more!’” – Les McCann

At the piano, Les McCann is a dominating soul jazz force, but unbeknownst to many, he lived a double life behind the camera. He shot thousands of photos throughout his long career, collecting beautiful and candid shots of those with him at the forefront of black culture. McCann’s photography is exhibited in Fantagraphics’ Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann, which collects his photos from 1960-1980, compiled by longtime manager Alan Abrahams and writer/archivist Pat Thomas.

Upon moving to Los Angeles, Thomas paid McCann a visit, having worked with him on reissues of albums from his back catalog. Hanging out in his apartment, admiring the pianist’s watercolor paintings, Thomas happened upon a photo of Jimmy Carter. “It was a professional looking photo, but I just thought, ‘I wonder if Les took that?’” Thomas says. He inquired, and McCann surprised him. “He grabbed a bunch of very dusty 8x10s from near his bed, and there’s Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, and he says, ‘Oh yeah man, I’ve been taking photos for years.’”

McCann’s eye for the moment is astonishing. You see it in Count Basie’s wide smile, in the ecstatic photos of drummer Sonny Payne, in the passionate shots of Stevie Wonder, Nancy Wilson, Mahalia Jackson, Pops Staples Tina Turner, and Lou Rawls, along with many more. “It’s almost easier to list who’s not in the book,” Thomas says. “There’s Coltrane, Miles, Duke, Louis Armstrong, Cannonball…basically every major jazz artist, then you throw in Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King, Redd Foxx. It’s something.”

Only the good shit. Aquarium Drunkard is powered by its patrons. Keep the servers humming and help us continue doing it by pledging your support.

To continue reading, become a member or log in.