The Day Cannonball Fired Charles Lloyd

Miles Davis to John Coltrane:

Miles Davis to John Coltrane, on his penchant for taking long solos: “Try taking the (expletive deleted) horn out of your mouth, John.”

Thanks to old buddy Alex Coke, I recently finished reading a book on the life of Julian ‘Cannonball Adderley called Walk Tall: The Music & Life of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.  Alex was kind enough to gift me the book he just read before he hopped a plane back to the more jazz-friendly, or at least more musically adventurous, land he calls home these days–the Netherlands.  So, one less thing to carry on the plane.

I appreciate the gift.  I have been a big fan of Cannonball for many years, but only had sketchy knowledge of his life and history.  I knew he was once a high school band director in Florida–now, there’s a motivation to practice–and I was aware of his amazing work with Miles Davis, of course.  But I knew little of the man personally nor the trajectory of his career.

Turns out that being a jazz colossus does not free you from the demands of the marketplace.  Cannonball spent a significant portion of his too-short recording career (he died at age 46) worried about keeping his recordings commercial enough to make a buck.  I was always agog at his ability to construct phrases that swing and sing, alternately soaring and dancing the huckle-buck.  So I thought he was above all those mundane concerns.  Silly, silly me.

After his time with Miles, Cannonball went back to his own band with his brother Nat, young keyboard wiz Joe Zawinul (who would go on to form Weather Report), Sam Jones, and Louis Hayes.  For a time, he added woodwind player Yusef Lateef.  And when Yusef left to form his own band, he drafted Charles Lloyd to fill the same position in the band, playing tenor and flute.

In an effort to reach out to an even broader audience, Cannonball and his long-time producer David Axelrod decided to record an entire album of tunes from the (then current) Broadway hit Fiddler on the Roof.  It had everything!  Harmonic minor scales!  Jazz!  Jews!  Jeez, it couldn’t miss.

I honestly don’t know how it sold.  But after the session was over…well, here’s what Axelrod had to say about it:

“Charles Lloyd was trying to be a cross between Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane.  The minute we were done recording the album, Cannon looked at Charles and said, “You’re fired.  You’re through.  Get out of here!” …Cannon had told him not to go into his John Coltrane bag.  “Just play, ” he said.  But Charles started playing a thousand notes in every bar when he soloed.  Cannon told him, “If that’s what I wanted, I’d do it myself.” “

I find this noteworthy for two reasons.  First, it seems out of character for Ball.  By most accounts, he was a gentle giant and a sweetheart of a guy, frequently performing clinics for young people and being very giving of his time.  This quote sounds like a tirade more in character for certain jazz drummers who shall remain nameless.  (Oh, what the hell–Buddy Rich.)

The second, more compelling reason is that Ball evidently didn’t want to scare any potential customers away.  He was asking Lloyd to pull his punches and acknowledging that he was doing the same (“…I’d do it myself.”)  Remember, this was the man who went toe to toe with Coltrane on numerous occasions.  The way he wanted the Fiddler session played was a conscious decision on his part.

This has always been the dilemma of the jazz recording artist, ever since the Beatles touched down in America in 1964.  Some met the challenge head-on.  But does it matter?  Instrumental music of any sort already has two strikes against it in our vocal-happy culture.  Playing fewer notes with a heavier groove was not going to dent the Billboard charts appreciably.  Cannonball had already had soul-crossover hits with “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and “Work Song”, but unless your name is Ramsey Lewis, it’s hard to keep that sort of thing going.  Of course, Ball died too soon for us to know anything for sure.  Maybe he would have been bigger than Ramsey Lewis.

Cannonball Adderley’s Fiddler on the Roof is not a record I have listened to much, so I’m giving it a spin as I type this blog entry.  And it appears that whatever Ball found offensive in Lloyd’s playing has been mostly edited out.  For big chunks of time, Lloyd plays flute, where his exuberance is more easily contained.  And the few places he does play tenor, he takes brief solos.  I’m guessing it was the first track on the album, which they have listed under the title “Fiddler on the Roof” but I have always thought of as “Tradition”.  And yeah, Lloyd, who solos after Nat, plays tenor here like he’s trying to take the title from Trane.  To me, it doesn’t sound that over the top, but maybe a lot of it got cut.  Plus, this was recorded over fifty years ago.

Side note: the last track on the LP, not from the musical, is called So Long, Charlie.  Maybe not so coincidentally?

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