Trumpeter, composer and bandleader Nat Adderley redefined the idea of “brotherly love” in a musical context. He devoted most of his creative energies to the band fronted by his saxophone-playing brother, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, in which Nat played cornet, composed, managed the band’s money and generally looked after his older brother. Together, the brothers drove the Cannonball Adderley Quintet to great heights, in the process developing one of jazz’s greatest sibling success stories.
Adderley grew up in Florida during the 1930s in a household defined by education. The Adderleys moved from Tampa to Tallahassee during Nat’s infancy because parents Sugar and Julian Sr. planned to teach at Florida A&M University. Accordingly, Nat and Cannonball excelled at academics and music as children. The elder Julian played trumpet professionally throughout Florida, and he bought a trumpet for his oldest son, Julian Jr. When Cannonball switched from trumpet to alto sax, Nat got the hand-me-down horn, which his brother taught him to play.
Sugar Adderley urged her younger son to pursue law. “Nat was just as musical and musically inclined as Cannon,” she once said. “But I said, ‘One musician in the family is enough’ … and I thought that law would be a good field, ’cause he liked to argue.” But when Nat returned home from the Korean War — a duty both he and Cannonball fulfilled — he told his mother that he’d pass up law school. Instead, Nat accepted trombonist Buster Cooper’s offer to play trumpet in Europe with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra.
New to New York
In July 1955, after a successful tour with Lionel Hampton’s band, Nat met up with his brother and, on a whim, drove to New York City to visit Buster Cooper. On their first night in town, Nat and Cannonball made their way to the famous Cafe Bohemia. Cannonball edged his way onto the star-studded stage alongside bassist Oscar Pettiford, drummer Kenny Clarke and pianist Horace Silver. Before the evening ended, both brothers were onstage playing with their “new” band. By the end of the month, the freshly minted quintet had recorded its first album, Bohemia After Dark.
For five years, the Adderley brothers enjoyed tremendous success in New York. Cannonball’s prodigious style — marked by his ability to play blisteringly fast leads on alto sax — earned him the nickname “The New Bird,” after late alto great Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. Their material, much of it penned by Nat, often drew from R&B and bebop in a way that came to be known as “soul jazz.” Among their champions was Miles Davis, who immediately recognized the Adderley brothers’ talent and urged manager John Levy to handle their careers.
A ‘Straw Boss’
Though the Cannonball Adderley Quintet met with critical acclaim, it struggled financially. John Levy says that Cannon handled money poorly. “Cannon believed in really taking care of his musicians … we just didn’t make it,” he says. So beginning in 1960, Cannon fronted the band while Nat made sure they turned a profit. The younger Adderley took over the financial responsibilities, managing all of the band’s tours and earning himself the reputation of “straw boss,” while also playing trumpet and recording his own projects as a leader.
The brothers’ familial bond provided great strength to the band: “Everyone got along together very well,” drummer Louis Hayes remembers. “That was one of the main components to the band that made it such a great organization: that everybody was in tune with each other, on stage and off.” By the 1960s, Nat was also writing a majority of the songs, including the band’s greatest success, “Work Song.”
In 1966, the group, now a sextet, achieved the unthinkable when its hit single “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” — written by keyboard player Joe Zawinul — sold more than one million copies. When rock ‘n’ roll took over pop culture in the 1960s, the band changed with the times without compromising its music. Nat booked the band in venues like the Fillmore East, where its funky “soul jazz” reached a wider audience.
After Cannonball Adderley’s death in July 1975, Nat Adderley finished up the final tour with the remaining members of the sextet. Nat played with different bands until 1989, and along the way continued to discover and promote new talent, including saxophonist Vincent Herring.
In 1990, Nat found a new outlet in which to share his music: the classroom. He taught music theory at Florida Southern College for 10 years, sharing his knowledge and love of jazz until poor health took him into retirement. Nat Adderley died in Lakeland, Fla., on Jan. 2, 2000, of complications from diabetes. He was 68.