As Kirk Silsbee alludes in the excerpts from the sleeve notes to the Les McCann and Joe Pass Pacific Jazz On Time recording [PJ A916] that follow this introduction, both The Bit, a club that pianist Les McCann often performed at in the early 1960s and Dick Bock, the owner of Pacific Jazz records, were “a bit off the beaten path” [horrible pun intended].
The club was not in Hollywood per se, nor was it quite on The Sunset Strip. It was between the two as you exited Hollywood to the west along Sunset Blvd. You had to know exactly where it was located [along a short curving pathway off of Sunset at the corner of Gardner], because when it first opened, there was no signage directing you to the club.
Les played The Bit quite often in the early 1960’s. His soulful, bluesy and funky style of playing really appealed to the younger Jazz audience who were becoming especially put off by the rapid changes going on in mainstream Jazz at that time.
As Ted Gioia described it:
“Jazz was like one of those newspaper chess problems: move from bop to free in ten moves. Change was the byword….
As is often the case with change, some of it had a positive effect on Jazz, but there were also disastrous consequences as well.
In a way, the soul and funk movement was a step to the side for Jazz or, if you will, a look backward at its rhythm and blues roots.
Dick Bock at Pacific Jazz records became the West Coast equivalent of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff and their New York-based Blue Note Records in his attempt to add elements of the soulful gospel music of the sanctified souther Baptist Church to the hard bop then prevalent on the Jazz scene.
And no one was better at “signifyin’” and tesifyin’ than pianist Les McCann. His music was very straight-forward and very direct. You could clap your hands to it, snap your fingers or stomp your feet.
Many musicians criticized Les because of the emotional appeal of his music, the fact that it was commercially successful, and that it was often limited to Blues in B-flat and Blues in E-flat. To which Les responded: “My music makes people happy and the bread [money] I make from selling albums keeps me happy. What more do you want?”
As indicated at the outset of this piece, here are some additional perspectives on Les and his music from Kirk Silsbee’s sleeve notes to On Time.
“[Pianist] Hampton Hawes melded gospel with bebop in his piano playing, While Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons and other East Coast pianists used gospel devices in their essentially bop-rooted styles, Les McCann may have been the first to add jazz devices to an essentially gospel-rooted style. "'You know," contends [pianist] Mike Wofford, "I always thought that Les single-handedly created a genre: that gospel/blues school of jazz piano. I don't think he ever gets credit enough for being the innovator he was."
McCann was quite popular around LA, both through his Pacific Jazz albums and his tenure at The Bit, It was a legendary coffeehouse and jazz room on Sunset Boulevard at Gardner, in West Hollywood. The late and celebrated walking bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Ron Jefferson made up McCann's original trio. He observes, ‘Leroy and Ron were like all my trios back then: they worked for the groove. They were a solid foundation, unwavering. I've seen a lot of guys try to copy all of Leroy s little nicks and bumps without getting to the highway. They don't understand that Leroy had the whole highway!’
McCann, with his gospel-rooted style, was the point man for Pacific Jazz's "Soul-jazz" platoon (which included The Jazz Crusaders, Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes, tenor saxophonist Curtis Amy and organist Paul Bryant).
‘Dick always had suggestions,’ states McCann. ‘He was the first one who asked me to sing. That's why when he suggested Joe, I was open to it. Dick often put people in the studio together to sea what would happen. His idea was: let's open the door...’
While Pass was clearly a guest on the date, he was certainly a welcome one. He added a bop-derived musical sophistication absent from most soul-jazz recordings of the period.”
Yours Is My Heart Alone is one of my favorite tracks from On Time. It is usually rendered as a slow ballad, but Les, Joe, Leroy and Ron add some soulful, “down-home” elements to it and take it at a medium tempo which turns the tune into a real swinger.
You can check out their version Yours Is My Heart Alone on the following video tribute to Les and Joe.