Cannonball: A Man of the People

Rob Rosenblum By

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...being compared to Charlie Parker was flattering. Commercially, it may or may not have had an impact. You know, people were saying any dude that compares with Bird must be alright. Internally, professionally, I didn't feel good about it at all. —Cannonball Adderley
This interview was conducted at Union College in Schenectady, New York in 1971 and was originally published in an arts newspaper called Transition.

Julian Cannonball Adderley was only three when he began to dig jazz and his hunger for his music is yet to be satiated. The first music he remembers hearing was in church. His mother was the organist of an Episcopal church. This church background has had a profound effect on his playing. His father played in a band called the Sunset Royals and he enjoyed listening to the big bands of the day—Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, etc—so Cannonball was immersed in jazz at an early age. His two uncles and aunts were also musicians.

"I always knew I was going to be a musician," Adderley told me. And indeed his history supports his statement. Beginning on trumpet and soon changing to alto, he took lessons all through high school, played in the school band, and played at an early age with a territory band led by Buddy Johnson. He attended the University of Florida and later taught there. It was in the midst of his pedagogical career that he received a phone call from his brother, Nat, who had been playing cornet with Lionel Hampton, but had just been fired. Nat told him the scene was hot in the Big Apple and if he (Cannonball) came up he might not want to teach any longer. It was a prophetic statement. Cannonball came to New York to study orchestration at NYU under Bertha Bailey.

The death of Charlie Parker left a big vacuum in the jazz world and it was inevitable for a talented musician like Adderley to be drawn in. First, however, he returned to Florida to complete a teaching contract for $5,000 a year "with a kind of skepticism about my ability to remain in New York." But he did come back and teamed with his brother, Nat and later joined Miles Davis and, for awhile, John Coltrane, creating a furor and was quickly claimed by DownBeat to be the next Charlie Parker. It was not long before he was to become a major voice in jazz. Though not an innovator, his tremendous technique enabled him to use the legacy of Charlie Parker to develop a personal style. He eventually rejoined his brother, forming a very popular quintet.

Cannonball Adderley is a big man. His nickname is a distortion of the name Cannibal, referring to his appetite, and he is as extroverted as he is large. He took more than an hour and a half to hold a free workshop, during which he patiently answered questions, played a few requests, and signed autographs.

Beyond being an extraordinary musician, Mr. Adderley is an insightful, thoughtful and fluent individual, which makes him not only capable of interpreting his own experience, but an excellent critic, commentator and spokesman for his musical culture.

Rob Rosenblum: Did it take courage to become a musician?

Cannonball Adderley: No. It was very easy for me. I'll tell you what was difficult—the regiment of the system, and practicing and things. It was difficult to be that regulated. But other than that, it came easy.

RR: Did it bug you when people were always comparing you with Charlie Parker.

CA: I'll put it this way. the fact of being compared to Charlie Parker was flattering. Commercially, it may or may not have had an impact. You know, people were saying any dude that compares with Bird must be alright. Internally, professionally, I didn't feel good about it at all. And neither did a lot of musicians who said anyone who compared themselves to Bird weren't worthy of carrying his dirty reeds. And they wouldn't have been as hard on me if I wasn't compared to a person who represented what Bird did, because Bird is an institution. How can you compare anybody to Charlie Parker? Really! I resented being compared to him. Me or anybody else. But I'm saying it was flattering—me being a Florida musician and coming to New York and being compared to Bird by a professional journal like DownBeat or Metronome! You see what I mean? That was satisfying because of the league. Even if you come off second best. But it's terrible to be tenth best. You know, it's terrible to have somebody say "Charlie Parker? He don't compare to Jackie McLean or Gigi Gryce." Well then you have to stop them, because your ego is backed up.

RR: There is a lot of music—especially rock and folk—that's politically oriented. Do you see any definite political views as far as jazz musicians go?

CA: Well, some jazz musicians take definite political views...if you want to call racism political. I think racism has political overtones for certain politicians, but racism is much more sociological and much more an evil fact of life than it is a political fact. The politics of racism are negligible when you get to the nitty gritty. You know, people can exploit racism. So, in that sense there are musicians that exhort and vilify racism through their music and take a political stance, because in our world today there are good guys and bad guys; there's a right and a left. In other words, there are no degrees. If someone comes off conservative on one issue, he is automatically lumped into the whole bag. He represents extreme right wing politics, anti fluoridation of the water, against sex education in the schools, supports John Stennis and other senators of that ilk. It makes no difference if he's a truck driver or working in a factory in Milwaukee. That's why all the Hollywood liberals looked at Frank Sinatra and turned and left him as soon as he supported Ronald Reagan. For some people that represented the end of Frank Sinatra as a supporter of liberal causes. I think that one basic thing that's wrong in our world today is that immorality is rampant. And by immorality, I don't mean nudism, and free attitudes about sex and dirty language on television. Immorality, to me is exploitation of the poor and people who don't know. That is immoral. That is the world's greatest problem today the fact that there is little concern on the part of the people who are powerful enough to make changes.

RR: And as far as music goes, do you think it hurt him among jazz musicians.

CA: Oh, it hurt him with everybody. Everybody who formally liked him said he was a turncoat. He doesn't say that. I don't know. We say how can anyone in his right mind support Reagan.
About Julian "Cannonball" Adderley
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