Interviews » Biographers

Interview with Cary Ginell — author of Walk Tall: The Music and Life of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley

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Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s stellar career began in the era of hard bop and ended (far too soon) during the time of jazz fusion. In between, he played on some of the most prominent recordings in the history of jazz — Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and his own Somethin’ Else among them — and ultimately became what the critic Gary Giddins described as “the patron saint of the soul-hymn movement,” a music that would reach a broad affluent audience while also keeping jazz relevant in the African-American neighborhoods.

Hal Leonard Books recently published jazz historian Cary Ginell’s biography of the artist known simply as “Cannonball.” Mr. Ginell joined me via email in an interview about Walk Tall:  The Music & Life of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, and some of the highlights of Cannonball’s life.

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“What Cannonball Adderley did was make jazz accessible to the average person’s ears.  Previously, jazz was an in-group genre.  You had to get it from the inside out.  With Adderley, you didn’t have to understand complex chord progressions, modal scales, or arcane musical references.  All you had to do was dig the groove.”

– Cary Ginell

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Listen to “Autumn Leaves”, from the album Somethin’ Else

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JJM What is your background?

CG I started out as a record collector, but always had a burning curiosity about the records I liked to listen to. This began with wanting to know the record labels and the songwriters, then the personnel, and finally, biographies of the musicians. I spent Saturdays hanging out with other record collectors at the Jazz Man Record Shop in Santa Monica, where I was introduced to a wide variety of early music of many genres. This led me to publish my first book, a discography of country music recordings made by Decca Records before World War II. I published by first biography on western swing pioneer Milton Brown in 1994 and have now published a total of eight books. I received my master’s degree in Folklore from UCLA and spent 30 years educating listeners with a variety of roots-oriented radio programs. Today I give lectures on music aboard American riverboats and write about musical theater on my own blog, VC On Stage, celebrating the thriving performing arts scene in Ventura County, California.

JJM In the introduction to your book, you wrote; “My fascination with the music of Cannonball Adderley began when I was a boy of thirteen, immersed in the pop and rock broadcast on Los Angeles radio station KHJ…Through the radio I discovered hits by Ramsey Lewis (“The In Crowd”), Hugh Masakela (“Grazing in the Grass”), El Chicano (“Viva Tirado”) and many other hit singles. With all of these artists influential in your early interest in music, why did you choose to write a biography of Cannonball Adderley and not, for example, Ramsey Lewis?

CG When I was contracted by Hal Leonard to inaugurate their Jazz Biography series, they asked me to recommend artists as likely topics. The criteria was that the artists should have had a major influence in jazz but to have not yet had major biographies written about them yet. I gave them a list of about three dozen artists, and we settled on Cannonball Adderley, Billy Eckstine, and Herbie Mann as the three I would write about first.  Ramsey Lewis was also on that list, but was not selected.

JJM Cannonball came from a solid family background. You describe it as being “not only stable and supporting throughout his life, but the chief influence on the kind of man he would become.” Can you describe his family life a little?

CG It was really kind of ordinary. He had a traditional two-parent family. Both parents were teachers so education was stressed when he was growing up. His best friend was his brother Nat. From what I gathered in talking with his widow, his boyhood was pleasant, except for the racist attitudes experienced living in the South (Florida). But he emerged with a positive attitude towards life, not bitter, and I think this was due entirely to his stable upbringing.

JJM  What was Cannonball’s first introduction to jazz?

CG Cannonball’s father was a jazz cornetist, so there is little doubt that jazz could be heard in the family household from the moment he was born. His first exposure to jazz, however, came probably because of the radio, the first one in his neighborhood. He probably listened to remote radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club in Harlem, which played the music of Cab Calloway, the house band leader at the time.

JJM Regarding what he heard on the radio, you wrote that while he liked the big bands of the 1930s, “Julian also took notice of the less prominent smaller units, which usually consisted of contingents from larger groups, such as the Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet.” You then write that the band that “really caught Julian’s attention was one led by bassist John Kirby.” What was about Kirby’s band that caught young Julian’s attention?

CG I can only speculate based on my own impressions of the Kirby unit and how it differed from the more free-wheeling sounds by the Goodman units. Kirby’s arrangements were very disciplined and often based on classical compositions. I’m guessing that it would be singular nature of the Kirby group — doing something that no one else had done before — that attracted him. Cannonball developed a very broad-based knowledge of many musical styles, not just jazz, and I think he would have been fascinated by how Kirby generated excitement by adapting familiar classical pieces by Chopin and other composers for a small jazz group.

JJM It is interesting to read that the alto was not the first instrument Julian chose to play. How did he settle on alto?

CG The saxophone was actually the first instrument he fell in love with, after seeing Coleman Hawkins perform with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. But the first instrument he learned to play (other than the piano) was the trumpet, which his father bought for him from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Remember that Cannon’s father played the cornet. He had so much trouble with his lip that he eventually gave up on the trumpet and gave it to Nat. He was then free to take up the sax, which is what he wanted to play all along. Nat’s trumpet was stolen and the only other instrument he could get from the high school band department was a cornet, so Nat played cornet from then on. Cannon wanted to play tenor sax initially, like Hawkins, but during the war, instruments were scarce, so he bought a beat up alto, the only saxophone available to him at the time.

JJM Julian and Nat played together all their lives…What was their first band?

CG It was called the Royal Swingsters. Julian and Nat put it together with some of their school buddies. Julian was 12, Nat was 9.

JJM Their father did not encourage his boys to get into the music business. What were his concerns for them?

CG He warned the boys about the unstable nature of working as a freelance musician. That, plus the more unsavory aspects of playing on the road in the South are probably the main reasons why he did not encourage it.

JJM Julian moved to New York to go to school at NYU. It was at that time that what you describe to be “Cinderella story” occurred for Adderley at the Café Bohemia. Can you talk a little about how he was hired to play there, and the night of his debut?

CG He didn’t move to New York. He was still living in Florida, but was thinking about going for his master’s at NYU. Nat invited him up there, since Nat was freelancing at that time, after having been fired from the Lionel Hampton Orchestra by Gladys Hampton. With some musician friends, Nat took Julian to Cafe Bohemia in Greenwich Village, to hear Oscar Pettiford’s band. They all had their instruments with them (you don’t leave your axes in a parked car in New York — ever!), but when they got to the club, the gig hadn’t started because the band’s saxophonist, Jerome Richardson, hadn’t shown up yet, and neither had his sub. Pettiford saw the Adderleys sitting in the back of the club and saw the alto sax case sitting next to Julian. He then asked Charlie Rouse, a saxophonist who was sitting in the audience, if he would go ask Julian to borrow his alto to play the gig. Rouse decided to play a joke on Pettiford. He had known Julian in Florida when Julian was playing lounge music and backing pop and R&B singers. Rouse told Julian that Pettiford wanted HIM to sit in with the group, the top bebop band then going in New York. Julian didn’t bat an eye and went on up to the bandstand. When Pettiford found out that Julian was merely a high school music teacher, he thought he’d teach him a lesson and called out “I Remember April” at a fast tempo. Julian played flurries of notes that showed that he had committed to memory every lick Charlie Parker had ever played. It stunned not only Pettiford but the entire audience. Pettiford invited Julian to play the rest of the gig with the band, which led to an immediate contract with Savoy Records.

JJM You wrote that Cannonball regretted signing with EmArcy, a subsidiary Mercury Records. Why did he regret making that move?

CG Miles Davis had warned Cannonball about signing with EmArcy and recommended he go with Alfred Lion and Blue Note instead. But Cannon ended up signing with Bobby Shad and EmArcy. As it turned out, EmArcy mainly used Cannon as a sideman in various larger groups and his first LP with his quintet languished in the vaults for more than a year until it was finally released in 1957. They did little marketing for Cannon, and after two years of this, a frustrated Cannon was actually moonlighting for other labels under pseudonyms like “Ronnie Peters” and “Buckshot LaFunke.” By 1957, the quintet was faring so poorly that Cannon had to break it up and go work for Miles.

JJM And…Bobby Shad publicized him as “The New Bird.” How did Cannonball react to this comparison?

CG Like everyone else, I’m sure Cannonball knew that nobody could replace Charlie Parker and he undoubtedly was embarrassed by the nickname but couldn’t do anything about it.

JJM At what point did Miles Davis begin recruiting Cannonball for his group?

CG Probably from the moment he first saw him at Cafe Bohemia, playing with Oscar Pettiford.

JJM And they gave each other balance…You wrote that “Davis felt that Cannonball’s extroverted, exuberant style balanced his own reserved, moody playing,” and that “by playing with Davis, the outgoing Cannonball came to understand the value of playing less rather than more.” 1958 was also a time where, in addition to joining Davis for the recording of “Milestones,” Cannonball was paired for the first time with John Coltrane. During one of the session’s recordings — “Dr. Jekyll” — Coltrane and Cannonball, you wrote, “traded furious choruses, utilizing what [critic] Ira Gitler would call ‘sheets of sound’ in describing Coltrane’s new, vertically constructed chordal style.” How would you characterize Cannonball’s working relationship with Coltrane?

CG From what I could tell, they got along well and Cannonball learned a lot of Coltrane’s chordal approach to music from him.

JJM Adderley’s 1958 Blue Note album with Miles Davis, Somethin’ Else, is one of the great jazz recordings of the 1950’s and preceded Kind of Blue by a year. What influence did this session have on Kind of Blue?

CG Personally, I don’t think one album had anything to do with the other. Somethin’ Else was just about as perfect a jazz album as has been ever recorded. But Miles had not instigated his plans for Kind of Blue yet. He was just getting started with Gil Evans at this time.

JJM How important was Orrin Keepnews to Cannonball’s career?

CG Extremely. Keepnews signed Cannon to Riverside and was directly responsible for Cannon’s spoken introductions to be included on his live LP at the Jazz Workshop. He understood Cannon’s appeal and wanted to “humanize” the connection Cannon made with his audiences.

The records Cannon made for Keepnews and Riverside revolutionized live jazz recordings in the 1960’s and also stimulated the beginnings of what came to be known as soul jazz.

JJM  Following the death of Riverside co-founder Bill Grauer and the subsequent demise of the label, Cannonball signed with Capitol Records. What was their original strategy for Cannonball?

CG They wanted to improve the jazz catalog of their label and thought that Cannonball had the potential for crossover success through hit singles.

JJM Is that a strategy Cannonball agreed with?

CG Tough question. I don’t know. He wanted to be successful, but he never sacrificed his integrity.

JJM What was the genesis of his interest in soul jazz?

CG Julian and Nat grew up loving music heard in their church. That music seeped into their playing almost from the very beginning. From there, it was just a matter of developing his own style and the soulful church feeling naturally helped shape the style of both Adderleys.

JJM “Mercy Mercy Mercy” is a song that Cannonball became known for in the mid 60’s — a song you describe as a “modern-day version of the kyrie, a lament impelling black Americans to turn mercy into activism.” What are some examples of Cannonball’s political activism, and how (or when) did it show up in his music?

CG Cannonball allied himself with Rev. Jesse Jackson’s “Operation Breadbasket,” which wasn’t a political organization, but one that sought to improve economic conditions among black Americans in the United States. If Cannonball had any “political agenda,” it was to do this — educate black Americans in order to boost their status in society. So, Cannonball’s activism was extant in songs such as “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “The Price You Got to Pay to Be Free,” and others in his later career — but not to support any one political point of view or party.

JJM Education was important to Cannonball throughout his life — either as student or teacher. What was his philosophy concerning education toward the end of his life?

CG His philosophy towards education never really changed in his lifetime. He always knew that your status in society was elevated according to your level of education. He learned this from his parents and never forgot it.

JJM What is Cannonball’s legacy?

CG Cannonball’s legacy is on different levels — first, as a musician, he influenced a generation of saxophonists; he led the way in combining sounds of the church with jazz to form “soul jazz,” he was an educator, stimulating thousands of young Americans as well as musicians abroad to understand jazz’s history, and he left behind a stunning array of recordings covering a wide variety of subgenres of jazz.

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“Julian was one of the most completely alive human beings I had ever encountered. Seeing and hearing him on the bandstand, you realized the several things that went to make up that aliveness: he was both figuratively and literally larger than life-sized; he was a multifaceted man and it seemed as if all those facets were constantly in evidence, churning away in front of you; and each aspect of him was consistent with every other part – so that you were automatically convinced that it was totally real and sincere, and you were instantly and permanently charmed.”

– Orrin Keepnews

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Walk Tall: The Music and Life of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley

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Cary Ginell

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About Cary Ginell

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 Cary Ginell is an award-winning writer, jazz historian, and discographer.  A Grammy nominee and five-time winner of an ARSC Award for Excellence, he is also a recipient of the prestigious ASCAP Deems Taylor Award.  He lives in Thousand Oaks, California.

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Watch a 90 minute, 1963 concert appearance of the Cannonball Adderley Sextet

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This interview was conducted via email during August, 2014

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You may also enjoy reading our interviews with Ben Ratlff, author of Coltrane:  The Story of a Sound, and Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece