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Nat Adderley: A Player's Player

Joan Gannij By

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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!

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