Q. Your first night with Sonny Rollins you just show up and play? No rehearsals?
A. No rehearsals. We just went right in and hit. That’s what it was. The gigs would be one, two weeks at a time in one place. Then you go to another place for one, two weeks at a time. I mean, by the time the week was over – especially the two weeks – we were pretty comfortable with each other. I knew what he was going to play. I was fine.
He changed personnel a lot. So sometimes you’d be playing with some guys, sometimes it would be different.
Q. Let’s talk about bass players a little bit. You’ve played with a lot of great ones. Do you talk with bass players about how you’ll work together? Do you just start playing and see how you two fit? How does that work?
A. You just play and try to feel each other out, see where everybody’s playing on the beat. If it’s comfortable, there’s nothing to say. Sometimes you find people who play a little different place than you play. I like to play way up on top of the beat. Sometimes you run into guys who play way behind the beat. It’s kind of like pulling a truck up a hill. You try to adjust. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Most of the guys that I’ve played with, we kind of adjusted right away and everything goes great.
Q. You’ve played with acoustic bass players who aren’t using amplifiers. It seems to me you’d have to play pretty soft not to drown them out.
A. Fortunately, when I came up playing there was no amps. It was all acoustic. Guys just take their bass out of the car and walk into the club and play. We were used to playing acoustic like that. It wasn’t until later that guys started using amps and things started getting a little louder.
When I was playing with Sonny’s band it was acoustic some times. Also with The Jazztet. Sam [Jones] didn’t have no amp for a while. Then bass players started using them. Even before amps they started putting mics on the bridge of their basses. Remember that? They would put mics into the bridge to get a bigger sound. Then amps came out and they started using pickups. If anything, when bass amps came out it made everybody play louder.
Q. What happened between your time with Sonny Rollins and when you joined Cannonball Adderley’s group?
A. I left Sonny in 1963 and went home to take care of some family business. I stopped playing for almost a year. I took a job at Eastman Kodak as a film tester. People were calling offering me gigs. I was working in this factory and missed playing a lot. I was working the night shift, so I would take my radio and listen to the late jazz programs. That just made things worse, because every now and then I would hear things I played on.
Finally, one night I was home hanging out with some guys I grew up with. A couple of them were musicians. The phone rang and it was Cannonball Adderley. He said Louis Hayes was leaving the band to join Oscar Peterson and was offering me the job as his new drummer.
I put my hand over the phone and told the guys, “It’s Cannonball on the phone.” They had a fit when they heard that. I told them, “He wants me to join his group.” I had been refusing a lot of guys that called because I was working and trying to get my marriage together. My friends told me, “If you don’t take this gig we’re going to kick your butt.”
So I told Cannon, “Yeah, I’d love to do it, but I’m working in a factory. It will take me about two weeks to get out of there.” He said, “Well, take your time. When you’re ready, call me and we’ll make arrangements to bring you in.” And that’s what he did.
I called them in about two weeks and joined Cannonball’s group in Atlantic City. They were playing in the club opposite Willie Bobo’s group. Louis Hayes had left to join Oscar Peterson. Cannonball had started the gig in Atlantic City two days before I got there. So Willie Bobo played drums with them until I got down there.
Q. Same thing? No rehearsals. Just going in and hitting it?
A. Fortunately, I knew a lot of Cannon’s music because I had been listening to a lot of his records at that time. It took me about a month – or a little more – until I felt I was really playing well with them. I had been off for a while, and in the beginning, I have to say, I was real nervous. But Cannon was so patient. He said, “Don’t worry about it. It’ll be fine.” Then one night, man, it just happened. The music started burning consistently and it was fine from then on. That gig turned out to be 11 years.
Q. Talk about the different changes you went through over that time period. Eleven years with such a popular band is unusual. For example, when Mercy, Mercy, Mercy became a hit record was Cannonball’s group accused by jazz lovers of selling out?
A. When I joined the group it was Cannon, Nat, Sam Jones, Joe Zawinul, and Charles Lloyd. We were just playing straight ahead, you know, all the things Cannon was playing at that time. Great songs. Work Song, Jeannine. All those straight ahead tunes.
But Cannon was interested in playing other things too. He had a wide interest in a lot of different kinds of music. And he was encouraging everybody to write. He got Joe Zawinul to write. Joe was kind of shy about writing. And finally Joe started writing. Nat was writing, and Sam was writing. Everybody was writing!
The band’s music started covering a wide range. It wasn’t just straight ahead anymore. There was some funk in there. A lot of Latin. There was odd-time signature tunes. Joe was writing tunes like 74 Miles Away in 7/4 time. He was writing Mercy, Mercy. He would bring that song into rehearsal. He just brought it in one day and said, “Listen, I got this little thing I just wrote on some paper. Why don’t we try it?” We tried it and we loved it in rehearsal. We worked on it. We played it for a few weeks and took it out in front of an audience and they just went crazy!
During that period of time electric stuff was coming in. It was hard to get bass players to play electric bass. Sam, a straight up bass player, didn’t want to play the electric bass at that time. Also, the electric piano. We started out on the Wurlitzer with Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, and then that kind of progressed into the [Fender] Rhodes. Then things started happening with that. Little things. Joe used to say, “I wish I could change the sound. I wish I could do this. I wish I could bend these notes.” And those things started developing. They were making little attachments where you could do all those things.
Mr. Harold Rhodes himself use to fly into different cities and meet us. When the piano broke down he would repair the piano! Then Joe learned how to do it and Fender would send parts to him on the road if he needed them. And Joe would repair the Fender Rhodes.
Joe was writing tunes — he was thinking different — so he was writing tunes that progressed later on into the Weather Report kind of tunes.
It was just great. We had such a variety of music. It was unbelievable. And we were playing , six nights a week all the time. First we were driving. We’d start in New York, we’d drive all the way to California, all the way up to Vancouver, British Columbia, and all the way back. We would play all the way up and all the way back.
We were so tight! Cannon didn’t like to record unless he played the music for a while. So by the time we went into the studio to record — we were ready. I did about 11 or 12 albums with the Cannonball Adderley band — a lot of it live. And a lot of it was done at Capitol Records where they would set up a bar and chairs and tables in big Studio A. They would invite people in. It was like a club atmosphere. We would play and they would record the whole night.
We did quite a few albums like that. There were a few people waiting to get in with the first albums, Then there’d be a line all the way down the block. People who’d hear we were recording were trying get into Capitol Records to be there when it happened. It was one big party. We did have some people who criticized us because they wanted to hear straight ahead music all the time, but the band was riding high and doing fine.
It was the same thing with the Live at Memory Lane album. Line all the way down the street. That was Nat Adderley’s recording, the Adderley band without Cannonball. Joe Henderson played tenor sax that night.
Q. How big was the Memory Lane club?
A. The club was small. It maybe held 200 people, if that. But there were people lined up down the street trying to get in there.
Q. There’s just something magical about that album. The music is so loose. Joe Zawinul’s tunes are….
A. Oh yeah. It was just a fun night. We had the best time. The first time we recorded without Cannon. Joe Henderson played saxophone. Cannon was there. And, it’s a funny story. My wife — who I met several years later — told me she was in that line and couldn’t get in that night.
Q. Cannonball was in Memory Lane when that album was recorded?
A. Yeah, he was in the audience. It was really, really an electric night. Everybody was right on top of their game. It was fun to do.
Q. What was the story with the acoustic piano that night? It’s slightly out-of-tune. Joe made it work, obviously.
A. Yeah, that was the old piano in the club, and it probably was out of tune. I don’t think they were tuning it much in them days.
Q. But it’s cool. It fits. The piano’s not horribly out of tune. And it’s a great album. Just a great, great date.
A. Yeah. We just did so many things. And it was a crazy band. Cannon loved the music. Just before he passed away the band was really stretching out and doing a lot of colleges, a lot of seminars, and a lot of master classes in colleges around the country. It was a big thing. He loved that.
When we did the college master classes with Cannonball, the whole band took part. We talked to music students about the history of jazz and how it progressed through the years. Then we would do lessons with the drummers, bass players, piano and sax players. Cannon and Nat and Joe would work with the other instruments as well. Then the evening of the next day the band would give a concert, open to the students and the public. I’m not sure if any of our clinics were recorded.
We also did a record called Big Man which is a play Cannonball had written. I just read in the paper the other day that it had just been released on CD. [Big Man: The Legend of John Henry was originally released by Fantasy in 1975. It was released on CD by Real Gone Music in 2015.] There’s a lot of stars on it. [Cannonball] wrote all the music and he wrote all the lyrics and stuff for this. And he had big hopes. He wanted to take this play on the road.
Q. When Cannonball passed was that a shock? Unexpected?
A. Yeah, it was a shock. It was just him and I together. Not when he died, but….
We had just finished in Milwaukee and we were going to Indiana. We had some time off with the band, so Cannon and I decided to drive to Indiana. The rest of the guys went home just to hang out for a few days.
We drove to Gary, Indiana. On the way we stopped in Chicago. Cannon bought a lot of barbecue and stuff, and we drove on into Indiana. He had all this barbecue in his room. Yeah, we were just hanging out.
The next morning I woke up and went down and had breakfast. Then I went back up to my room and Cannon called me and says, “Roy, come and have breakfast with me.” And I said, “Well, I just ate, but I’ll come down and have some coffee with you. He said, “Cool.”
So I met him downstairs. They were closing the restaurant and he was standing there trying to charm the lady into opening up the restaurant so he could get some breakfast. And while he was talking he just had a stroke. He just started slapping his face. He was saying “mmm, mmm, mmm.” He couldn’t talk. And his arm was going up and down, out of control.
We figured out he was having a stroke and we had to rush him to the hospital. We put him in a car and were starting out to the hospital about two or three blocks away. On the way to the hospital we got broadsided by another car in the street.
Q. Oh man!
A. Yeah. It was just amazing. Nobody got hurt. I kind of literally picked Cannon up and put him in another car and we got him the rest of the way to the hospital. Doctors and staff were waiting out there for him. He was kind of paralyzed on one whole side of his body. He passed away about two weeks later. I think he passed away from — not the stroke so much — I think it was pneumonia. He was only 46 years old.
Q. He was such an incredible improviser. One of his albums I especially love is Somethin’ Else.
A. Isn’t that a beautiful album? He was such a lyrical player. He was such a melodic player. He also had a lot of Blues in his sound. I loved Cannon.
The reason we stayed so long together – it was like family. I mean, everybody was like family. Cannon wanted it to be that way. He says, “This is a group. We’re together. And we’re all great musicians playing together, but it’s like a family.” Everybody loved each other. It was just great.
Q. What do you tell students in your Master Classes about Cannonball and Nat Adderley?
A. They ask me questions about him. They want to know what he was like. How it was playing with him. They had heard stories about how he loved to eat. They ask me about that. They ask me about him playing with Miles [Davis]. They would ask about when Cannonball first came to town, because they had heard about the stories about when he first came to New York, and how he blew everybody away. So I would tell them about that. And about things we did on the road, the different clubs we played in, the recordings we did, how we did them, and how much fun we had, and about the guys that were in the band.
Q. What do you think it’s important for students to know about the musicians you’ve played with? I’m guessing some student questions you like, some you don’t. If someone asks, “Roy McCurdy, what should I know about Nat Adderley? Sonny Rollins? Cannonball Adderley?” What would you say?
A. Well, I would tell them that they were intelligent, smart. They were very well-schooled about their instruments, very particular about their instruments. Cannon and them guys – Nat, Sonny – practiced all the time. They were interested in everything that was going on. Cannon had a big interest in everything that was going on around the world and he could talk about those things.
Q. You traveled extensively. What advice can you offer drummers for keeping body and soul together on the road?
A. Well for me it was two things. I would find the nearest gym to my hotel and I would work out everyday. If there was no gym around I would work out in my room or go for a run. The other thing was to always have good books around. Reading is good for plane rides or just some quiet time in your room.
Q. Any book or author recommendations?