By Hal Galper

Published in Jazz Improv Magazine, June 2001

I was fortunate to have played with Cannonball Adderley’s quintet (with with Nat, Walter Booker, and Roy McCurdy) for almost three years in the early 70’s. Bassist Bob Cranshaw recommended me to them. Ironically, they flew me up to Boston one weekend to audition for them.

That weekend was the beginning of a unique experience that will never occur again. Most of you readers will never experience it because it was the end of an era that will never be repeated. Jazz club gigs were 5 to 6 nights long and there were a lot of them.

We stayed on the road, playing these clubs, 50 weeks a year, with time off for good behavior for Christmas & New Years. For the first year, I felt like a feather in a hurricane. It was the strongest band I had ever played with. Those guys kicked my ass around the bandstand every night until I was black and blue. Finally, at the beginning of the second year, I had my strength up and I was doing some major kicking back myself.

Let me make this very clear; to learn what I had to learn to play the gig, it took constant playing with these particular guys, three sets a night, for 50 weeks straight. This was the real school of the bandstand.

First there was the energy.

Cannon’s band worked “hard.” Luckily, I had worked with the great singer Jackie Paris for many years. It was with him that I learned about “hard work.” I hadn’t known, up until then, what “work” was. So when I joined Cannon’s band I was ready. The group’s primary goal was to capture the audience’s attention and give them a good time. They didn’t leave it up them to come to us. We came to them. It was as if a wall of energy was coming off the bandstand. The audience didn’t have a chance. For me, the challenge was to learn how to open those inner doors that released the level of energy necessary to match the band’s output. This energy output had to be controlled so that you didn’t use it all up in the first set; it had to last for the whole night. It had to be released in an “easy” manner so that your own energy wouldn’t excite you. I also had to deal with the energy that the other band members were putting out. To find a way to deflect it so it didn’t get me excited and loose control. The band was great at that. They played in such a way that most of their energy was directed out into the audience and didn’t stay on the bandstand where it could affect the other players. It was then that I learned the secret of how energy can be directed. Energy goes where you “think” it’s going. If you don’t “think” about where it is going it will stay on the bandstand and only affect the other players without being communicated to the audience. In order think of my energy as going outward from the bandstand, I’d pick a point in the back of the room, a lamp or door or a person, that I could “aim” if you will, my energy toward. Eventually it became an automatic response.

Secondly, there was the beat.

It was what has been called the “Big Beat.” Cannon’s beat was so wide, you could put a beer, an ashtray and TV on it! The whole band played with that beat. It’s tough to describe the “Big Beat.” Eventually becoming more sophisticated in succeeding decades, it was the way time was played for the first 50 years of jazz’s history, before the “cool school” of playing began to exert it’s influence. You can’t really hear the big beat on a recording as the recording process tends to thin the beat out. I had no idea it even existed until I played with Cannon’s band. It was as if an alternate reality had been in existence that I had never been aware of. This way of playing time is rapidly disappearing as these masters from that era pass on to that big bandstand in the sky. There are a few left who still play the “Big Beat,” but they’re out there and if you ever get a chance to play with them, even for the shortest moment, jump, at it ’cause it may open your eyes to another world.

Then, along with the “Big Beat” was the band’s articulation.

It was slightly larger than life. Notes had a “snap” to them. Listen to the way the Adderley’s play ensemble. Tight and snappy. Everything was articulated like that. Since the beats were wider, the spaces between the notes were wider and had a lot of what I call “air” in them. There were more places on the beat you could attack (subdivide) and the band would hit at a certain place in the “air” in the beat, the same place all the time, all together, every time. You couldn’t count it. You couldn’t figure out where it was, you could only learn how to feel it.

Along with all that, I learned the joys of using my ears and my memory.

When I ever I wrote some music, especially for a recording, I’d have it all blocked out, intros, endings, interludes, sometimes, to get a certain sound, even that scales. It was very different with Cannon. At the first recording I did with them we were a few tunes short. Cannon and Nat went into a corner and made up a melody. Once they had it worked out, they’d spread out and start making suggestions to the rest of the band about how they wanted the tune to go and we’d fill in the rest. Nat would come over to the piano and try to hit a few simple triads to give me some idea of what the changes might be but he was no piano player. Eventually he’d end up spelling them out on his horn and I’d hear them.

While all this is going on I’m panicking, scrambling around looking for paper and pencil to write some of this down so I wouldn’t forget it. There wasn’t any! By the end of the date we had all the tunes recorded. Everyone ears were so sharp and their retention so fast that it didn’t take much longer to make up a tune together than if you had had to rehearse a new one at a date. The beauty of this process was that, by necessity, the tunes had to be kept simple which made them more easily communicable.

I also learned how to play the blues on that band.

Cannon’s band was, basically a blues band, no matter how modern the material they played. We played “Country Preacher” and ” Mercy, Mercy” at least twice a night and I was having trouble with communicating my solos to the audience. Not once during the time I spent with that band did anyone tell me how to play but, if I asked they’d respond. Occasioning much mirth from them, I asked them for advice about playing the blues stating ” Hey man, I’m white, what do I know about playing the blues?” They said ” Everyone can play the blues. It’s not about the notes, it’s about the feeling you play them with. Keep it simple.” Of course thier advice worked.

I also relearned a lesson that I had previously learned during my six year stint playing with Sam Rivers in the 60’s. That “superimposition” was the path to musical freedom.

One night after I had joined the band, Walter Booker and Roy McCurdy took me aside and pointed out that I might have a hard time finding my place between what Cannon was playing and what the rhythm section was playing because Cannon often made up (superimposed) his own changes while soloing. Cannon used the tempo, harmony and melody of a tune as a guide, a reference point from which to depart and return, often superimposing whatever rhythms, harmonies and melodies he heard at the moment over the original set. Luckily, my experience playing with Sam had prepared me for this as he was a constant superimposer. So, wherever Cannon went, so went I and the rhythm section be damned. It had also been my training that the soloist is the leader of the band at that moment and all ideas for accompaniment come from the soloist. And, since Cannonball was the one paying me I figured it wise to follow wherever he went.

Playing with Cannonball was an introduction to another world where the sense processes reigned supreme. My playing was never as strong as it was by the time I’d left his band and it will never be again. Playing a few months a year will not suffice. You can’t maintain that level of performance by yourself, because you need to play with other like players and play with them a lot!

I still miss Cannon. When you’re comping for someone for so long you really get to know them intimately. When I hear one of his recordings, that big swinging beat and soaring sound, I step back into the time machine and give thanks to the powers that be that I was one of the fortunate.