The saxophonist and bandleader Cannonball Adderley was not only an important and influential figure in the evolution of postbop and soul jazz, he was also by most accounts a man with a message and a personality who was generally beloved by his fellow musicians. Performing during a time when jazz artists seemed averse to talking with the audience, Adderley earned a reputation for his rambling onstage monologues, both serious and comic. What’s most disappointing about this biography by author, discographer and music historian Cary Ginell is that we experience little of that ebullience. Even those monologues seem less engaging on the printed page.
Ginell’s prose is clean and crisp with only an occasional hyperbolic misstep, so it’s not so much a matter of style as content. This biography does an impressive job of recounting the events of Adderley’s life-his gigs, recordings, television appearances, band personnel-and in the process uncovers lesser-known facts. We learn, for instance, that Adderley was a prodigy who graduated from college at 18 and soon learned to teach music. But unlike, say, recent biographies of Thelonious Monk or Lena Horne, this volume doesn’t bring you much closer to understanding the person behind the music. And that’s a pity.
The biographer’s notes on sources reveal that he interviewed just five people for this book. However you slice it, that figure seems incredibly low for a serious biography. Certainly it’s true that many of Adderley’s closest peers and associates have passed away, but that obstacle didn’t stop Robin D.G. Kelley from defining Monk as a human being. Adderley had a close relationship, both professional and personal, with his brother, trumpeter/cornetist Nat, but the relationship is never really explained. There is also little historical context provided, as though it is presumed the reader is well aware of the tumultuous events and trends whirling around the world of jazz and African-American society during the ’50s and ’60s.