Walk Tall: The Music & Life of Julian "Cannonball" Adderley by Cary Ginell: Book Review

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As a young rock 'n roller looking to explore jazz, my first step was to buy Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. I loved it so much that I bought other Miles albums, plus recordings by the other players on Blue, such as Bill Evans, John Coltrane, and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. As a quick and dirty method of introducing yourself to some of the finest jazz ever made, this turned out to be a very effective method, and one I would recommend to others. I probably would have checked out Evans and Coltrane anyway, but the real find for me was Somethin' Else by Cannonball Adderley. It is not quite as famous as Kind of Blue, but for this listener at least, it is just as good - one of the best jazz albums I have ever heard.

As much as I have enjoyed Somethin' Else (and others) over the years, Cannonball's life has remained a bit of a mystery to me. That is until the recent publication of Walk Tall: The Music & Life of Julian "Cannonball" Adderley by Cary Ginell. This new biography is part of the Hal Leonard Jazz Biography Series, and as the title indicates, is an excellent overview of both the life and the music of the original "Big Man."

Julian Adderley was born on September 15, 1928. In honor of his noted eating habits, he was nicknamed "Cannibal" by friends when he was young. This became "Cannonball" later on. As a talented saxophonist, Adderley was kicking around the New York jazz scene, he attended an Oscar Pettiford gig at the Café Bohemia in 1955. Adderley traveled everywhere with his sax, and when Pettiford's saxist did not show up, he was invited to fill in. Cannonball's performance that night was so hot that it literally launched his career.

They called him the "New Bird," which were some big shoes to fill. Charles "Yardbird" Parker had just passed away, and while his name is still revered in some circles, it is unfortunate that it is not quite as well-know 68 years later as it should be. A quote from Miles Davis might be helpful in illuminating just how much respect he commanded, "You can tell the history of jazz in four words," said Miles, "Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker."

Along with his brother Nat, Cannonball was in the studio the week after his first night with Pettiford, recording with Kenny Clark for Savoy Records. Just a couple of weeks after that, he had been signed to Savoy, and began recording his debut, Presenting Cannonball. For various reasons, he then signed with Mercury.

Miles was a pretty good guy to have in your corner, and he definitely was "all in" with Cannonball. In one of his final appearances as a sideman, Davis appeared on Somethin' Else. Following that, Adderley's sax was featured alongside that of John Coltrane on Kind of Blue. It was a heady time indeed.

I was somewhat familiar with Adderley's work in the 1950's, but what makes Walk Tall so valuable for me are the discussions of Cannonball's work from 1960 until his death in 1975. This is when he began calling his music "soul-jazz," and developed an interest in the avant-garde.

With his recording of brother Nat Adderley's "Work Song" in 1960, Cannonball became a superstar. "Cannonball was never more popular than he was in 1961," says Ginell, and "Work Song" (among others) was a major factor in this.

For one thing, Ginell illuminates the reasons why Cannonball's live albums were so consistently popular. The music was always stellar, but his on-stage demeanor was a big plus as well. Before his performing career took off, Adderley had a promising future as a teacher. His manner in explaining things to an audience was a huge plus, and added a significant element to his appearances.

As rock began to edge out jazz as the hip music of choice in the early 60's, jazz musicians began to broaden their horizons. John Coltrane took the idea of group improvisation about as "far out" as possible on Ascension, while Miles increasingly incorporated electric instruments into his music, beginning with In a Silent Way. Cannonball Adderley incorporated African flavors into his Accent on Africa, and an ill-advised visit to the astrologer on Love, Sex, and the Zodiac.

There are at least two albums from this later period that I need to investigate. The first is The Black Messiah, a double-live set from a show at the Troubadour in 1970. The all-star band included Nat Adderley, George Duke, Walter Brooker, Roy McCurdy, Airto Moreira, Mike Deasy, Ernie Watts, Alvin Batiste, and Buck Clarke.Ginell's description of Cannonball's fusion sets during this weeklong stand have me highly intrigued.

Then there is the final Big Man, from 1975. Adderley was just 46 when he died, of natural causes. Considering his size, one might assume that the title "Big Man" was self-referential. It was in fact a concept album about the legendary John Henry. The author describes the music as "a mixed bag of '70s funk, spirituals, and even some primitive disco leanings, with a few attempts at Gershwin balladry." It is worth quoting his take on the results as well, "[What] Cannonball thought would be the crowning achievement of his career, instead became a desultory footnote."

Adderley avoided drugs and excessive drink all his life, but you just never know. With Walk Tall, Cary Ginell certainly opened my eyes up to a musician who achieved a whole lot more than "just" appearing on the greatest jazz album of all time, as well as making Somethin' Else. This is the first Hal Leonard Jazz Biography Series book I have ever read, but it will not be the last. Walk Tall is an excellent resource, in every respect.