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Nat Adderley: A Player's Player


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This interview was originally conducted in 1997.

I met Nat Adderley in San Diego, California in 1986 when I was working as a disc jockey at a jazz radio station and doing the PR for La Jolla Playhouse. We did an interview about a new production of a musical being revived at the progressive La Jolla Playhouse and premiered on Broadway later that year. "Shout Up a Morning," based on the folk hero John Henry, began as a musical collaboration between Nat and his brother Julian ("Cannonball") and Diane Charlotte Lampert, lyricist, with librettists Paul Avila and George W. George.

Although some folks might think that Nat always played second to Cannonball in terms of his success, Nat liked to think of himself as a collaborator. The music of "Shout" had Nat's signature throughout with its jazz, gospel and blues score. In the last decade of his career which spanned nearly 50 years, Nat took pride in being a generous mentor to such saxophone virtuosos as Antonio Hart and Vincent Herring. He knew that brother 'Cannon' was a tough act to follow, but he also knew it was his task to nurture the young blood and keep the jazz tradition alive.

When I moved to Amsterdam in 1987, I remained in touch with Nat. We would meet up after one of his gigs at the Bimhuis and catch up on our mutual friends. He was starting his battle with diabetes when we last met up in a cafe by the Rembrandtplein in 1996. He was tired and although some critics grumbled that in his later gigs, he was talking the talk more than playing his horn, it was his proud and pragmatic way of pacing himself onstage, so he wouldn't be worn out before the set was over. He was about to become 'artist in residence' at Florida Southern College in his home state. Little did he know that he would soon have part of his leg amputated and have to give up playing. I prefer to remember him on the bandstand after a good session with his regular sidemen: Jimmy Cobb, Walter Booker, and Rob Bargad.

This is an abbreviated version of a lengthier interview where Nat reminisces about his early days, the rivalry of East Coast versus West Coast jazz, and racism. He assessed the jazz scene internationally and referred to the so-called young lions taking the place of the jazz giants who have left us and the so-called ''smooth jazz'' movement which has polluted the airwaves over the past decades. Though most of the topics were serious, he spoke in an easy Southern drawl, with an occasional chuckle.

Joan Gannij: Let's talk about the East Coast versus West Coast rivalry in the early years.

Nat Adderley: "Cannon and I were from Florida and we played a lot of Mulligan. The West Coast style was based on the classical tradition, at least that's what was intended. There was a lot of success at the time, mainly among white players getting the big concert venues, like Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck. While back East, cats like Miles, Art Blakey and Horace Silver couldn't get arrested. In 1955, when I was very young, I used to imitate Chet Baker. And when we got to New York and I started playing my Bakerisms, which was an affectation, it triggered off some racism among the players in the local scene who said, 'hey brother, what are you doin,' playin' that white folk stuff?' I thought, 'Oh Shit, this ain't goin' down,' and I began playin' like Dizzy Gillespie in order to get everyone off my back. The reason that Cannon's and my music got goin' was based on the Black Southern Church, not the classical tradition, which was something Gerry Mulligan could not do. So the soul jazz movement was spearheaded by Cannon, myself and Horace as a result of the West Coast backlash.

JG: What do you mean about racism?

NA: Back then, racism was also rearing its ugly head in the area of jazz criticism. There were some critics, for example, who did not understand the music and came off racist in their writing because they were strictly into the west coast scene. So they had to put down the music in order to protect what was already established. Of course there were a tremendous amount of top white players. Cannon's man was Paul Desmond, and I liked Chet and Mulligan. But I'll never forget one critic who called Miles a"sloppy Chet Baker." If anything, Chet was a Miles concoction. When the New York musicians heard this, they were furious. You can't call the man who invented the style a sloppy imitation!

Adderley says that by the 60s, many of the problems had faded and everything had come to a balance. Jazz hits were suddenly making their way into the top 40, like Vince Guaraldi's "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond's collaborative "Take Five," and Eddie Harris' theme from the movie "Exodus." Adderley's "Work Song" was released in a massive hit version by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, along with many version of "Mercy, Mercy," the Joe Zawinul tune (at least 160 versions, including many foreign language versions) .

JG: Why the need to ''label'' jazz: And what the hell is smooth jazz?

NA: Cannonball once said that in America we have a penchant for labeling, categorizing, pigeon holing things like music so we can reorganise it and promote it easier. While the West Coast jazz may have fell out of favour, the players didn't, and we found out something important. There are labels in all aspects of music. Phrases and words, that's all they are. In the final analysis, all there is, is the music, and it's either good or bad. What makes contemporary music different than progressive? Or East coast versus West? When the lines of delineation got crossed around Chicago, the music remained the same, only the words faded. Just cause the labels change or go out of style don't mean a thing. We're still here playing, only now they call it contemporary music. But what the hell is that, just another word to promote. It's like what's happening on the radio. Those so-called smooth jazz stations are playing Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, who are very good but hardly qualify in a strict sense or otherwise, as jazz performers. It's still a step forward from the days when they just played Gary U.S. Bonds and Paul Revere and the Raiders. But in terms of air play, radio is not progressing at the speed that I would like it to be. And what is smooth jazz anyway?

JG: How would you compare performing in Europe with the States:

NA: Around the world, the audiences are larger than ever. We get to play our music more now than at the end of the 50s when we were creating the style. In those days we would leave New York to go on a cross country tour from coast to coast, playing week-long gigs in clubs in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, then back again via Portland, Seattle and Tacoma. Today, you can't do that. In fact, I haven't been to Detroit or Cleveland in twenty years. Why? Cause there's no place to play, there's no market, no promoters. In fact, I rarely go to Chicago anymore. When I added up over the last five years, the city I played in the most was Zurich, even though I have a regular one-week contract to play in New York every year at Sweet Basil.

JG: What happened with the club scene in the States, the demise of black audiences?

NA: It doesn't bother me that I'm not playing in Detroit any more, cause I'm playing in Munich and Amsterdam, and I get more money playing in these other places than we could ever hope for in Cleveland. Straight ahead bebop is the style of music that we do. When we used to play those clubs across the states, the audiences were 90% black. But with the economy and the inner city problems in the last decades, I think that black people have lost the appreciation of the music. So that in fact, the audience is 90% white these days. That doesn't bother me, but what does is that all those clubs closed down. The fact is that economically, you have to play concerts in large venues, not the little clubs, in order to survive. It simply costs too much to move bands around to be supported by small clubs. And there's not a large enough audience to support them, so we gotta play concerts and festivals. And because the world economy is different, we can play small and medium clubs outside of the United States.

JG: What's your take on the international jazz scene?

NA: The jazz world opened up on an international level in the last decade. In the last few years I've played in places I didn't even know existed, which has been marvelous. A week in Christ Church, New Zealand, as well as many obscure towns in Australia. The audiences have been great everywhere, especially in Japan, which is really the greatest jazz market. They pack a hundred people into the smallest club, but they pay $100 to see the show because they have the money. In Toledo, Ohio, the automobile factory closed won and you can't pay $100 or much less there. So we're fortunate to be able to perform in Tokyo. The audiences love what we do. They know the music. They are serious, jazz lovers. And you can't ever let down on your playing cause they'll pick that up. They may be far from Baltimore, but they know what's good and they know when you're giving. Because there's enough good players who will get up and stomp your butt!

JG: How do you deal with life on the road these days?

NA: I'm on the road about six months each year, but I've started pacing myself. When you have a band, you have a responsibility to support them, but I happen to have musicians who work very well without me. Massimo Farao (a pianist who sits in when Rob Bargad is busy recording) is promoting concerts in Italy, inviting top headliners to perform and tour like Walter (Booker) and Jimmy (Cobb). I have to get Antonio when he's available, cause he's busy with his own band. Working with musicians that have their own gigs give me time to be off the road for a few months a year. I can relax and write some songs.

In the last few years before his death, Nat was finally at work on what he called the "Cannonball and Nat book." He was also involved with a variety of community projects in Lakeland, Florida, where he lived. They included a league to aid minority businesses, developing a swing band for elderly people, being on the board of a performing arts school, ''teaching some jazz'' to the kids at a racially balanced elementary school, and being 'artist in residence'' at the local college. "I'm the local jazzman," he joked with pride, though he wasn't too happy when he sent out a survey asking students to identify Duke Ellington and only 9% could. "I learn a lot about being with little children and older people," he said, citing one of the elders who recently told him, 'Louis Prima, now he was a player.' I thought to myself, Louis Prima?, but I checked it out again and you know, he was right." Nat Adderley was also a player.

Photo Credit: Frans Schellekens

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