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Nat Adderley Bridges The Theater-jazz Gap

July 08, 1986|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

Theater lovers like to mention how the musical is America's only contribution to world culture. Jazz aficionados like to say that jazz is America's only original art form. Neither appears to acknowledge the other. In fact, when jazz cornetist Nat Adderley recently went to the La Jolla Playhouse to help put together "Shout Up a Morning," which he composed with his brother, the late Julian (Cannonball) Adderley (the show has moved to Washington and will reopen at the Kennedy Center next week), he took a call from a member of his quintet who said, "Hey, man, when you gonna cut out that nonsense and come to work?"

"The world of jazz and the world of the theater--they're at opposite ends of the pole," said Adderley, spreading his arms over the back of a couch in the artist's lounge at the playhouse and sipping a diet cola while smoking a cigarette. "Jazz isn't like theater, where everything is set. In jazz, if you have a song to sing, you do it your way."

Are we seeing a new genre in the making? We've had straight opera, light opera, rock opera ("Tommy") and even the pop opera of Gershwin's "Porgy & Bess." Jazz opera is something else, a fusion of Afro-American sound, blues and bebop, with the linear narrative form of Western Europe and American naturalism.

"Shout Up a Morning" deals with the real and legendary account of John Henry, a powerful and lyrical black man who worked in railroad construction during the period in the mid-to-late 19th Century when the American railroad seized the imagination as a symbol of the chuffing triumph of America over its native wilderness, and represented the emergence of blacks from slavery.

The railroad also represents the first era in which the most heroic expression of human flesh had to face its limit against implacable mechanization. It was, and, in retrospect, remains, a critical time, not only for blacks making their way in white-dominated society, but on a more fundamental level, seeing for the first time in history the human scale of doing things infiltrated and even obliterated by machinery, capitalism's heroic surrogate.

Diane Charlotte Lampert's lyrics for "Shout," and Paul Avila Mayer and George W. George's book (Peter Farrow created the original libretto and lyrics) give us essentially a tribe embattled. It could almost be in ancient Judea, or the Sudan, or in the social organization that predates the Battle of Hastings. This is an American story, however, or more particularly, the story of American blacks who still carry with them the mythic overlay of black Africa filtered through the Bible. Jazz then, which normally operates so far afield of the American musical theater, would seem a natural and necessary choice here.

"The idea for the musical has been around a while," Adderley said. "I understand that at first Lampert and Peter Farrow tried to get Duke Ellington to do the score. Eventually, they got Cannonball, who called me one day to say some crazy people wanted him to do a score for a play. He said he'd send me the script. One half would be marked with what he composed, the other half would be marked by what he wanted me to do. We were living in different parts of the country. When he called to ask me if I was working on it I said, 'Hey, I thought you said these people were crazy!' But he kept after me about it.

"Cannonball, in his infinite wisdom, said we'd make a cast album even if we never had a production. Sure enough, he recorded it in Berkeley in 1975, with Joe Williams, Randy Crawford and Bob Guillaume--before Guillaume got into TV. The album didn't do good, but it got to be an underground thing after Cannonball died that same year."

Nat Adderley is 54, but he still talks of his older brother--by three years--as if he were still around. Part of that has to derive from how close Nat said they were as kids, and how Cannonball always looked after his younger brother.

"Cannonball and I grew up in Tallahassee, Fla. My father was a cornetist, but both he and my mother were very unhappy over the idea of our becoming professional musicians. They wanted us to be educated instead. I took up the cornet in the school band because all the trumpets were gone, and I found that when the trumpets played the flourishes, the cornet played the melody, and the girls came around. When Cannonball went into the service and played in the band, he got me in there too.

"Afterwards, he went into teaching, then decided to take an advanced degree at NYU. It's true, the story about the Cafe Bohemia, where he tried to sit in with Oscar Pettiford, and when they speeded up the tempo to trip him up, he blew them away. We never made it to NYU."

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