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Makin Waves with Nat Adderley Jr.: 'The Path Chose Me'


By Bob Makin

originally published: 08/03/2023

Makin Waves with Nat Adderley Jr.:

After 50 years in the music business as a sought-after pianist, arranger, composer, producer and music director, Nat Adderley Jr. finally will be releasing his debut solo album soon. PHOTO COURTESY OF NAT ADDERLEY JR.

West Orange-based pianist-arranger-composer-producer Nat Adderley Jr. hails from an amazing legacy of music. His father is trumpeter Nat Adderley, brother and longtime bandmate to legendary jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. Despite composing two of his uncle’s recordings and performing on one of them, the 1970 title track, “The Price You Got to Pay to Be Free,’ Nat went on a different path that at first was completely non-musical. After graduating from Yale University with a degree in African American Studies, Nat worked for a while in Houston, but then the path of music chose him when he found he could make more money playing a two-hour daily piano gig than a desk job.

At that point, old friend Luther Vandross came calling and recruited Nat as his music director, pianist, arranger and eventual composer and producer. Like his father, Nat put most of his musical eggs into one basket, yet far afield from the family jazz mine. It wasn’t until years later, that Nat’s musical path finally forked into the jazz direction of his famous uncle and father.

Now leading the Nat Adderley Quartet, the talented Jersey jazzster will play Aug. 4 with that ensemble at their first headlining gig at New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, where Nat also has performed as a music director for Crossroads Theatre Company as part of such productions as “Sarah Sings a Love Story,” “Sophisticated Ladies,” and “Robeson.” A beloved figure within Hub City’s rich and vibrant jazz scene, Nat has had a very fruitful relationship with New Brunswick Jazz Project, promoters of the NBPAC show and hundreds of others for than a decade. Nat Adderley Quartet also will play the Sept. 30 NB date of the four-day Middlesex County Jazz Festival, an expanding event founded by NBJP, as well as one of their shows backing saxophonist Ray Blue on Aug. 10 at the Tavern on George.

I spoke with Nat Adderley Jr., the August Makin Waves Artist of the Month, about his jazz pedigree and his various impactful musical paths in the following interview. To learn even more about him, visit http://www.natadderleyjr.com/.



 
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What is your greatest musical accomplishment and why?

When Luther had the stroke in 2003, we had just done our first live recording, which is crazy. All of those years, and we never had put out a live record. In 2002, finally we did from Radio City Music Hall. We did four shows and recorded two of them. He was sick for some of that. We edited and finished three of the songs, then he had the stroke, so I was instructed to finish producing the live record by myself. It took all summer long because we big problems. I had to call in for help at the very end to meet the deadline, but we got it to Clive Davis in time. That’s one thing I’m most proud of, finishing that record without him and putting out apparently very successfully. People seem to like it. That was the last Luther Vandross album that exists in the world today.

 

Which of your songs did your uncle record, and how old were you when you wrote them?

‘I’m on My Way.’ I was 11. I was 15, and I did write ‘The Price You Got to Pay to Be Free.’ It was 1970. I flew out to California and performed and sang that song. It wasn’t a big hit. I left and went to high school. I was just trying go to high school and do high school things, but a lot of people heard and loved that song. Les McCann recorded the song a few years later.

 

Did your father record any of your songs?



 
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No, he stopped for a while. We both did similar things with our careers. We put all of our eggs in the one basket. His life was with his brother. When Cannonball had the stroke and died, my Dad looked around and started wondering what to do. It was weird. It took him a while to figure out his next move. He didn’t move at all for three or four years after that.

Years later, I did not learn from his mistakes. I had kids. My ex-wife lived across the country, sharing kids back and forth. After Luther, I wasn’t in the studio or touring. I was just being Dad, taking care of kids. I didn’t take jobs. I was satisfied and content with everything. It took a while to figure out the jazz journey I would go on.

Around 2010, Mary J. Blige’s manager called me to go out on the road with her and be her musical director. I dug Mary J. at that point, but I wasn’t a huge aficionado. So I collected all her stuff and fell in love with her. I loved who she had become, especially ‘Father Figure.’ At the same time, I realized I did not want to go out on the road. If I am getting ready to turn down Mary J. Blige, I realized that I don’t want to be in R&B at all. I decided it was not for me, and I was just going to play jazz from now on.

 

How and why did your father and uncle influence you professionally and personally?

I feel like very little on purpose. I cannot put a finger on what happened, but it was not on purpose. They influenced me like crazy, but I can’t tell you how. I spent my youth running in the other direction. In junior high school, I was in love with The Beatles, Motown, and Burt Bacharach and Hal David. That’s the stuff I loved when I was 12 and 13. They did not give me piano lessons until after I started plunking stuff on my own. They did not want to force me into the family business. When I started gigging in high school, it was mostly in pop.

Their influence is hard to put into words. I did love my uncle’s version of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ I play that now, and I’m sure I’ll play it at both upcoming New Brunswick concerts. So, while they influenced me, that was not the direction I went. When I went to college, I didn’t want to be a musician. As a freshman in college, I was strong at math, especially calculus. I would help people with their calculus homework.

In my sophomore year, I met a gentleman named Dwight Andrews, who’s now a minister of the First Congregational Church in Atlanta, the church that the civil rights leader Andrew Young was minister of. Dwight took over for him. At Yale, I formed a group with him and stayed with that group the whole time. I was still in music, even though I was trying to make headway in a different direction.

Luther called me while I was a freshman and a junior. During Christmas break, I would come down to Philly work on his record. He did two whole albums before ‘Never Too Much.’ For Luther, I worked on the rhythm arrangements both times.

Then I had been working with Valerie Simpson of Ashford & Simpson. She was singing by herself. We did the Troubadour in L.A. while I was still in high school. That happened professionally before college, but I still felt I had to do something else. Nick Ashford called me, and I turned down going on the road with them because I wanted finish college, and I knew I never would.



 
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When I graduated, I went to Houston and got a straight job. I was doing OK in the accounting department of a steamship company, but this Texas singer called me. She knew I was in town and asked me to come play piano. I accompanied her on piano from 5 to 7 Mondays through Fridays. I found I made more money -- even with a Yale degree -- than the steamship, so I quit. I was 24 then and have been a fulltime musician ever since.

In Houston, I worked with Ornette Cobb, Kirk Whalum. I joined his band. I had an act with my first wife. I was making a lot of money in Houston. Luther visited while in town singing background with Roberta Flack. I came to my apartment and played with my little girl. He was going into the studio and wanted to have me come up to do arrangements. I said sure.

At the end of that, ‘Never Too Much’ was coming out. It was a big hit, and the rest is history.

He called me and asked me to lead his band on the road. I did all the rhythm arrangements for ‘Never Too Much.’ I was not doing strings yet.

We both thought that it would be a temporary thing. I figured I would be doing something else in two or three years. We never had a contract, but we stayed together 23 years. He always called any time he was going into the studio. He’d say, ‘Got any new songs?’ Any time we’d go into the studio, I’d start writing. We were together forever. It was quite a thing.

 

What other artists influenced you musically?

McCoy Tyner, Coltrane. ‘My Favorite Things,’ I was all into that. Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock.

I happened to be in a band rehearsing above where Nick Ashford’s manager lived. Nick was looking for a young band. They were such mentors. He heard the band and hired myself, the bass player and the drummer. We had become the first band who can demonstrate the influence of Valerie Simpson on my piano playing. For pop and R&B piano playing, I learned a lot from her. Probably the biggest influence other than my dad and uncle would have to be Valerie Simpson.

Other big musical influences are Stevie Wonder and Burt Bacharach & Hal David, especially their time changes. And Stevie Wonder has the most fantastic chords that you can’t change if you want to cover him.

I did the arrangements for all of Luther covers. We would change the originals a lot. I’d come in with the chords. I’d change the melody. With ‘My Favorite Things,’ I felt free to change the melody. But it was different with arrangements of Stevie Wonder. His songs, you cannot change any chords. He already did the best version.

I also loved Motown and the Philly Sound. I decided I wanted to be a arranger because of the Teddy Pendergrass record ‘Close the Door.’ That was it. I loved all that Philadelphia music that came out in the 1970s. And I did become an arranger. I got the books after college and studied on my own afterwards.

Makin Waves with Nat Adderley Jr.:

Nat Adderley Jr. Quartet will perform Aug. 4 at New Brunswick Performing Arts Center and Sept. 30 at Middlesex County Jazz Festival in New Brunswick. PHOTO COURTESY OF NAT ADDERLEY JR.

 

It seems like the path of music chose you rather than you chose it.

Absolutely, even with jazz. That path chose me, and I ran away from it to go into R&B. Part of the reason I was running away from dad and uncle was the jazz thing. To be a musician, I wanted to make my mark in pop and R&B. But it still chose me. I allowed myself to be chosen by it and still avoided all the obvious paths that I might have taken. I went with the path that absolutely chose me.

It still took some years to go the jazz route. I just remember very clearly that I didn’t want to work for Mary J. Blige at that point. I wanted to do my own thing and start really small. I was not even that good (at jazz). It took forever. I started in South Orange doing this gig every Friday. I said, ‘I’m going to be good in six months.’ I would gig all the time. Six years past, and I still was struggling. I had no idea it would take that long. I’ll never be satisfied. I’m still learning, getting better, working at it and growing in this jazz thing.

I never felt that way about pop music. It’s a different thing. You never stop learning, growing with jazz. I’m in the middle of it now.

What is your most fond memory of Luther?

We had such a good time. He was such a comedian. We had a ball on the road. We were very close friends.



 
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My favorite memory was way before all that. I have pictures of him coming to Houston to sing background with Roberta Flack coming to my little apartment to visit meet my little baby. He told me he was going back into the studio. He flew me up to New York and did four cuts. He flew me up again to do two cuts. One was ‘Never Too Much.’ I remember it like yesterday. I didn’t know it was going to be a big hit. We did it in one take. It just come out like that.

Then he called me up a third time from Houston to do one more song. I said, ‘Luther, you don’t need me to fly up from Texas for one song. I’ll get the session covered.’ He said, ‘Nope, Nat, you’re flying here to play this song. So, I got on a plane to do one song, and that one song was ‘House Is not a Home,’ his biggest record, the most played still today on radio 40 years later. He insisted I come play piano on that one track. I’m glad he did.

What was the biggest hit you composed for Luther and do you still perform it?

I don’t perform any of them. None of my songs work. I do jazz arrangements of Luther but none of mine work in context now. ‘Stop to Love’ was our first our first crossover to the Top 20. That certainly was my biggest Luther Vandross hit in this country. ‘Give Me the Reason’ did go to No. 1 in London. It did go to the top of the charts and still is part of the radio culture in the UK. I see that in the royalties. ‘Give Me the Reason’ was the biggest hit there.

Actually, does well now are the ballads. They say that ballads will do the best for you. I’ve seen it over the years with ‘Wait for Love.’ I’ve seen that grow steadily better than the other two uptempo songs. ‘Wait for Love’ has overtaken both those songs as my best royalty. It was not as big a hit then -- not even a single -- but it seems to be a bigger hit on radio now than when it was released.

 

You have composed and produced albums for other artists, but have you released any of your own albums or plan to?

I’m in the studio in the middle of recording an album now. I’m finally taking advantage of a studio recording. I’m more than halfway done and will have a recording out within a few months. I’m doing some of the songs live. I have two or three original tunes that I’m playing live right now.

It will be my very first album after all this time. My very first. I think that’s hilarious. Everyone has a record. My next-door neighbor has one, and he’s not even a musician.

It became evident that I needed to finish out my life with an album. There was nothing left to do but lead a band myself.

I expect to sing again too but not yet. I used to sessions as a background singer, and I had a band called Natural Essence that put out a record in 1973, and I’m singing all over that. Then I went to college.

It was a very strange decision. I really wanted to college. It didn’t make sense because I was working with that group and we made a record. The other members should have been furious with me. I was on the road anyway with Ashford & Simpson.

I did an interview at Columbia University eight years ago. I was doing a gig over there, did an interview, and they asked if I had any music under my own name. I said, ‘I don’t have anything under my own name.’ They didn’t know what to play. I walked into that interview, and they were playing cuts off the Natural Essence record on the air that day.

Makin Waves with Nat Adderley Jr.:

Nat Adderley Jr. performs as Paul Robeson’s accompanist Larry in Crossroads Theatre Company’s production of “Robeson” at New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. He also served as music director for the production, along with two other Crossroads shows: “Sarah Sings a Love Story” and “Sophisticated Ladies.” PHOTO COURTESY OF NAT ADDERLEY JR. 

 

What have you enjoyed most about working with Crossroads Theatre Company and why?

I loved the show ‘Sarah Sings a Love Story.’ That’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. I had a friend I went to the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan with, John Green, who was partners with Stephanie Berry, whose first play was ‘Sarah Sings a Love Story.’ John told her, ‘Call Nat to do it.’ She called me, and that’s how I got to Crossroads through my friend John Green. Then they called me to do the Duke Ellington thing (‘Sophisticated Ladies’). They called me to conduct.

 

How and why did you gravitate to New Brunswick musically?

Way before I started working with Crossroads, I remember meeting all three of the founders of New Brunswick Jazz Project (Michael Tublin, Virginia DeBerry and Jimmy Lenihan) at a jazz festival in Somerville I was playing with Sheila Anderson. She called me to work with her. They saw me play at the jazz festival and asked me to come to New Brunswick and play. It sounded good to me. First time down there, I played Makeda, the Ethopian place. I  in with Winard Harper. Then I brought my band. They started calling to do the Hyatt … many times. And got together there with Jackie Jones and her band. I really dug New Brunswick Jazz Project right away. The audiences were astute and responsive. It was just a good time so I kept going back. That’s how I started coming to New Brunswick.



 
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Bob Makin has produced Makin Waves since 1988. Follow Makin Waves on Facebook and contact Bob at makinwaves64@yahoo.com.


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