The events surrounding the Saturday return of Lexington jazz legend Les McCann are rooted in education.
First, there will be the daytime commencement presentation of an honorary doctorate from the University of Kentucky, a belated honor for a jazz career that reached international proportions with the 1969 album Swiss Movement, which the keyboardist and vocalist cut with saxophonist Eddie Harris and its hit version of the activist anthem Compared to What.
In the evening, McCann will perform at the Lyric Theatre, just a few blocks away from his long ago home on Eastern Avenue. The concert is designed to raise funds and awareness for the locally established arts school that bears his name.
For McCann, the degree and benefit are reflections of his devotion to a lifetime of learning.
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"We all have the power," McCann, 79, said by phone last week from his current home in Los Angeles. "It's all within each one of us. It's a simple word called creativity. We all are creative. We all have something special within us. We are unique. We all have a special talent, but everybody doesn't know that. Life is learning. It's about the lessons we learn to love each other more.
"The point I'm trying to make is that each one of us, even though we might not think we have anything creative to offer, just need to sit down, relax and open up to the part most of us never do and just listen to your heart. We always want to go with the head. The head is just another tool to use in life. It's not the machine that drives the whole thing."
Now in its second academic year of operating on a seasonal class schedule (including sessions during the spring, summer and winter breaks of other school systems), the Les McCann School for the Arts offers instruction in music, photography, theatre and other arts related fields at various Lexington community centers including the Lyric.
"Some instructors may only have two or three students in a class," said Denise Brown, the school's artistic director. "But what's been so nice is the instructors have been able to work one on one with students and really mentor them and do a lot of hands-on teaching. The students get so much out of that. That's especially vital in the early stages of the school."
As with two previous performances at the Lyric, McCann will perform alongside saxophonist Javon Jackson during the Saturday benefit. The partnership was struck after McCann suffered a severe stroke onstage during a concert in Germany.
"When I got out of the hospital and came home, Javon was one of the first people to contact me," McCann recalled. "He said, 'I want you to be in my band.' Now I couldn't even touch a piano at the time. My fingers didn't operate right. He said, 'Then come anyway and just sing.' So working with him has allowed me to get back into shape and get my touch back with the keyboard because I had lost all the feeling in my hands. The only thing I could feel was severe pain. It's been like that, but lately it's started to turn around. So Javon has been real special to me."
"When I had my stroke, they told me I wouldn't be playing no more and that was it. But I went into intense therapy. Since I never take no for an answer, I just knew that I had to work. So my message to everyone is to celebrate every day. Find something new and great about every moment of every day because there is so much there."