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Cannonball Adderley - archive interview

Location: Opposite Lock Club, Birmingham

Year: 1971

(Article copyright John Watson)

'Let me tell you something,' said Cannonball Adderley.'I don't believe in segregated jazz. That is to say, I don't think you just have to have a jazz radio programme, or a special jazz show on television. I don't believe that that any kind of music has to be set aside unto itself.

'The reason there is a small market for jazz, a small market for chamber music, is because everybody categorises everything - that's a Western passion, pigeonholing and putting things into niches. I think everything belongs together. All the music that is from the people is what people are about'

The great alto and soprano saxophonist was relaxing in his dressing room after giving a stupendous performance with his quintet at the Opposite Lock, a small club in a side street not far from the city centre in Birmingham. 'We did a TV programme in London, and there was a bit of drama, a bit of comedy, some classical music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, there was poetry, and there was us. I don't see why it shouldn't always be like that.


'We're also going to be involved in a Broadway show, called Big Man, in which mixed media will be employed. There will be a great emphasis on dance, classic ballet as well as modern, and what we might call social dance, you know, the dances that the kids do in the discotheques. There are sound effects that go right along with the dialogue, there are songs, there is jazz, there is also rock, there is R&B, there is the classic traditional of strings. It's really a monumental work.

'It's about the legendary figure known as John Henry, who is colourless, he is just a Superman, and he was among a bunch of people building a railroad, and John Henry was called a steel driving man. He drove more steel than a steam drill. In this case, the producers have made John Henry black. I imagine that black people have looked on John Henry as black, white people as white, Irish as Irish and so on.' It is likely to be an impressive show, for whatever Adderley tackles in the music business usually turns out to be hugely successful.


The quintet's performance at the Opposite Lock had been awe-inspiring, absolutely electrifying. With Cannonball on tour were, as usual, his cornet-playing brother Nat, plus George Duke on grand piano and, on some numbers, Fender Rhodes electric piano, bassist Walter Booker and drummer Roy McCurdy. This was a supercharged unit, exciting yet utterly musical. Many of the tunes played were from Cannon's new double album on Capitol, The Black Messiah. His recorded output has been considerable, but there are few weak releases in the Adderley catalogue. He is simply a heck of musician, and he has always had a heck of a band.

Cannonball Adderley was born in 1928 in Tampa, Florida. He was christened Julian Edward, but acquired the nickname Cannibal because of his extraordinary appetite. This changed to Cannonball, and the label stuck. Bebop pioneer Charlie Parker was a major inspiration for the young saxophonist, and it took him quite a while to find his own style, expanding Parker's musical language with a strong emphasis on the blues. After a spell in the Army, in which he became director of the 36th Army Band (with Nat on trumpet), Adderley was persuaded to try the New York scene by blues singer and saxophonist Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson. He was an immediate success, and signed to Riverside Records, later joining the group of the great trumpeter Miles Davis. He made some magnificent recordings with Davis, including the classic Kind Of Blue for Columbia, but eventually left to reform his own quintet with Nat. Adderley built up a huge following, with soulful hits including This Here, Work Song, and Mercy, Mercy, Mercy. The role of pianists in the band has been critical: before George Duke took over, his keyboard men included Bobby Timmons, Victor Feldman and Joe Zawinul.

I began our interview by asking Adderley about his approach to the business side of jazz music. 'We have consciously tried to survive,' he said. 'In this business, in order to play any music at all you have to be able to survive, and weather the storm - to be able to survive the vacillation of jazz fans and you must be able to exist as an entity to play any music.


'I often tell kids, who say "I want to be a jazz player, and I'm playing with James Brown", or maybe Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett or someone like that, and they say "I want to play jazz - now, what do I do?" 'Well, first of all: play. Don't worry about with whom you are playing, because playing some music is better than playing no music at all. Under the circumstances, as far as the sound we make is concerned, we seek to make music that people enjoy. It's true that all our commercial successes, our originals . . . you know, somebody said in a review that we played some tunes from the Hit Parade.Like Mercy, Mercy, Mercy and Work Song. A great compliment! Those tunes originated with us [Joe Zawinul wrote Mercy, Mercy Mercy, and Nat Adderley wrote Work Song] and they were not necessarily great successes to begin with. But our biggest record to date has been Mercy, Mercy, Mercy. It did not start out as a smashing success - we had been playing it for about six months before we decided to record it. And before we recorded it, it didn't get a big response when we played it - it was just that, people seemed to like it, like they do most of our things.

'We have never started out but one time to make a record to be a commercial success. We did a record, something that John Dankworth did here in England too, and that was African Waltz. We recorded African Waltz because the record company asked us to do it, as a favour to them. And it was our first record with a big band, so it was not our image at all. They just did African Waltz; it was arranged for us and I didn't have anything at all to do with it. However, it was moderate success as these things go; there were a few records sold. But we have never played that tune - we only recorded it, and we've never played it on tour. It's not our music. We use music that we write. And we write things that run the gamut - all compositions by guys in our band. We're very happy when something happens for one of the tunes, and it's a success, but we play all kinds of things.'

Two driving new tunes - The Chocolate Nuisance, written by Roy McCurdy, and The Steam Drill, written by George Duke - had proved particularly popular with the audience at the Opposite Lock.'Those tunes are on an album we did, The Black Messiah, recorded live at the Troubadour Club. But we make all our records live, frankly. Even in the studio, we work live. Even if we say "We're not going to record in a night club, we're going to record in a studio", we still have a live audience, because we would rather play to a live audience rather than just play to microphones.'


Adderley is a powerful advocate of the importance of musicianship among young players, and while there are avant garde players he admires he is wary of many "free" players who concentrate on expressing themselves and dismiss the importance of technical accomplishment. He seems that approach as simply unprofessional, and he is very proud of his profession.  'I talk about people who have musicianship, and I never talk about the people who don't! There is a standard of playing that we like to have in our group, and that's true for most groups. I expect John Lewis likes to have certain standard of playing, as does Thad Jones - and so on.

'I have been concerned about the inability of large numbers of young musicians to play with anybody else, because they were of the "do your own thing" philosophy. They would listen to players like Ornette Coleman and they would just play without understanding the musicianship involved. They would simply say: "Well, I can just play like [sings series of random notes] without regard to the fundamentals of music: Playing in tune with other people, playing in time, and reading music and so forth.

'They felt all they had to do was play "creatively" rather than professionally. But I don't put down all young musicians, that's why I don't talk about specific people. I could put my finger on individuals who I think have never improved. I'm talking about people who don't know what is going on with music and they hear certain superficial things, surface things, and they think that's all that is necessary. They hear Don Cherry or Gato Barbieri, and they think that is all that is necessary - just the surface things that they hear. But these are wonderful musicians, who have been playing all kinds of music all their lives - they have paid their dues as such by playing a full spectrum of jazz music, and other kinds of music too. Like our pianist, George Duke - he's been a teacher at a conservatory, he can play anything.


'And there are many young musicians who can play anything well, you see. I played a festival in Berkley, California, where Tony Williams was playing with Earl Hines, and he could play Earl Hines' kind of music. I know how much time and study Tony Williams has put in learning to play drums and become a good musician.'

College jazz courses have an important role to play in the future of the music, he believes. 'Let's put it this way. Seasoned professionals who play jazz, who play it and have done the road thing, will talk about the truth, the truth about the music profession, in school. There is no perfect substitute for doing it, but now there are at least places where one can study the real thing, and be told what's happening. You know, all things are not perfect.

'You might get, say, a Ben Webster style of player teaching someone who wants to play more freely. He might tell them that that ain't it. But it's nice to have a Ben Webster [style teacher] to talk to, even if his ideas are not the end of the world. At the same time, you may get a young person, or even an older person like George Russell, who believes in a free exploration of sound, who will tell young people it is not necessary to do the old fashioned study of harmony taught by the old masters, and that it's almost like a waste of time. I disagree with that too.

'I think it's necessary to do it all, to be exposed to it all, and make internal decisions about what your music is going to be. But you've got to study what to do, under any circumstances, because there's no substitute for musicianship.'

Originality, and finding your own voice as player, is also hugely important. As a young saxophonist, Adderley was dismissed by many critics as a Charlie Parker imitator. How did he cope such a negative response to his music?  'It did not hurt me, but, frankly, being an inexperienced person . . . I had done a lot of study and I knew I was a good musician. I could deal with music under most circumstances. At that time I was still also a clarinet player and a flute player. I played those instruments because it was fundamental to me. I no longer play them, because playing the alto saxophone and the soprano saxophone takes up a lot of time. Being called a Charlie Parker imitator I thought was unfair. I did not resent it on any kind of emotional level. They took their time to put me down, and maybe it was deserved because there was a great Charlie Parker influence in my playing. However, there were many other Charlie Parker-influenced players about. The critics resented my kind of immediate success - I imagine that that was justified, you see, because there were players around like Jackie McLean and Gigi Gryce , Lou Donaldson, all those guys - all influenced to some extent by Charlie Parker, some of them influenced to a much greater extent. With some of them, a much greater influence had landed upon them, because I came from the South and away from the New York scene, so I did not have that same exposure to Charlie Parker, I could only listen to some records.


'I think I understand the criticism more now. I was frightened by it, though, because I didn't want to have my first opportunity spoiled. I was a later show-er, you see, because I was almost 30 before I turned up in New York. So compared to the way kids show up now, in their teens, I was frightened that I would have just this one opportunity and that I would be dismissed as inconsequential. 'So I do think it was unfair for people to say "Well, he just plays Bird licks" and so forth, and then completely accept all the work that had been done by the guys who were there before me. That's the dues-paying syndrome, I guess.'

He is optimistic about the future of the jazz scene, and point to developments which are beginning to transform the business for young musicians. 'Things have improved, because now there's a "council" to go to - not a council of elders per se, but any young musician can come up to me and talk to me, and talk to Quincy Jones, or to John Lewis, or to people who've had to deal with the realities of this business, and facing up to them directly. I can tell people: "No, that's not a fair contract, that's not a right thing to do". I have spent time introducing young people, by way of recordings, to this business. It's fun!"

'I think that, in the United States, there are more clubs now than when I first got into the business, but people have tendency to look at the more obvious things, like there is no more Birdland [there is now, in a different location to the historic New York club], there's no more Basin Street, you know, or Cafe Bohemia. But, listen, in Los Angeles now there must be 10 jazz clubs, featuring musicians from New York and everywhere else. Jean Luc Ponty and Phil Woods [based in France at the time of the interview] have worked in LA and come from Europe to do so - to work clubs only, not do a grand concert tour the way American musicians do on the Continent.'


Adderley is actively involved in striving for improvements in the life of the black community in the States. This has included a project for racial advancement called Operation Breadbasket.  'I became involved in Operation Breadbasket because the leader, the Rev Jesse Jackson, who is a very charismatic man, influences me and my band very much, in terms of morality, the causes of black status and freedom. Now he is involved in a new organisation called Operation PUSH - People United to Save Humanity. So we have gone along with him, to other horizons. The new organisation is not so religion oriented as the other, even though there are ministers and so forth involved. It has a more secular focus, rather than dealing with people's religious beliefs. It's a pressure group. It's a political, socio-economic group, that's about what it is.

'It's more than just about music, it's a very broad spectrum organisation. For example, Operation PUSH has signed contracts with major employers in American to provide employment, and the distribution of funds throughout the black community on a more equitable basis. It has signed a $65million contract with General Foods, to see to it that more jobs go to black truck drivers, to jobs for black people in packaging plants, to black suppliers, to black advertising agencies. So it's much more interested in the broad economic spectrum of society in the United States.

'Here in England, I notice the small ways in which racial prejudice rears its head, in a way that didn't happen 15 years ago. People have always had their own personal prejudices about, you know, friends and community, etc. For example, I stayed in a hotel where there were large numbers of people working who came from Eastern Europe. Nobody is complaining about the migration of white people from Eastern Europe, coming to England to do jobs, but they complain about the Indians, about blacks from the islands and from Africa. So this immigration quota thing is designed to halt the flow of dark skinned people.'

'That's what Operation PUSH is all about. We're saying, "We're no longer talking about integration and desegregation. Let's just divide the pie".'

[Cannonball Adderley was at the peak of his creative powers at the time of this interview. He died just four years later, in August, 1975, in Gary, Indiana.]

(Article copyright John Watson)