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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.

RR: During your workshop you were talking a lot about influences and it brought a few questions to mind. First of all, it seems to me, (and I'd like to know if you agree) that there is a certain amount of cultism in jazz. The reason I say this is because people speak in such lofty terms of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. I was wondering if it isn't more a cult—not that they're not great musicians—I believe they are—but when they talk about Charlie Parker, they don't talk about Dizzy Gillespie. When they talk about John Coltrane, they forget about Ornette Coleman. I was wondering if their personalities and the fact that they died had anything to do with it.

CA: No. You don't hear musicians going through that, see. Those are followers and fans. There's a great amount of cultism with fans. You know, I even have divisions for fans. There are people who are involved in whatever is hip and there are people who are genuine devotees and students. There are people who are really students of modern art and they can run down things to you about expressionism, etc. And there are other people who know how to say Picasso or they learn that there was such a person as Jackson Pollock. You know what I mean? And they start grouping. In other words, they have no use for Gainsboro or Rembrandt or any such things, because it represents something that is old rather than something that is new and it's a very odd position to be in. There's a difference between students and fans who want to be involved with hip movements. And so there becomes a Coltrane cult, a Paul Newman cult. Musicians themselves seldom get so involved with one person that they cannot associate the productivity or brilliance of another artist.

RR But what about the "Moldy Fig" era? Wasn't that to some degree among musicians?

CA: Uh uh. Very little. It was more or less self interest. What I mean by self interest is very simple. If you are a Dixieland player and someone comes along with something else and it gains more momentum than your thing, then you might take on rigid stands against change and that, in fact, would make a musician a moldy figger. But most people who like Dixieland—most people—were not real fans of the music, they were fans of the atmosphere and what it represented and fans of simplicity, and they kind of yearned for simpler times and simpler things. Life is more complex, so simpler solutions don't apply today.

RR: Your group is really in demand, but there's a lot of musicians, when they get to play, it's a big deal for them.

CA: Surely.

RR: There's a lot of musicians in NYC, like Lee Konitz, who spends most of his time doing things other than jazz, although he's a very talented musician. But you're a musician who's always on the road, always working. Does it ever get boring playing day after day?

CA: Not boring; it gets tiring. Because once we get on the stand it's far from boring. There's always something happening with somebody that's interesting. You see, that's the advantage of being in a creative medium.

RR: Especially after your really big records, like Mercy, Mercy, Mercy. I'm sure that sold more than most of your other albums. I can tell just by the workshop that there are plenty of demands to play "Mercy." Right?

CA: Yeah.

RR: Doesn't that bug you after a while?

CA: No. Of course not. It might bug people who don't understand. But to me, I think that's the most beautiful thing. After all that recording is almost five years old and for people to involve themselves in a piece of music to that extent is extremely gratifying.

RR: But in "Mercy," for example, there is very little soloing, except for piano.

CA: The pianist plays solo—right.

RR: Right.

CA: Okay.

RR: But you must have played it a thousand times by now. That doesn't get boring?
About Cannonball Adderley
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