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When Elegance Met Jazz: Nancy Wilson / Cannonball Adderley

Updated: Apr 15

Nancy Wilson was taking a walk with Rusty Bryant in New York when they bumped into saxophonist Cannonball Adderley at the corner of Broadway and 52nd Street. Rusty and Cannonball knew each other, and Wilson and Adderley were introduced. It was 1958 and Adderley mentioned that his band was breaking up and he was joining Miles Davis’ band. This chance encounter would ultimately lead to Wilson’s move to New York, her signing with manager John Levy and Capitol Records, and help pave the way for the recording of the timeless Nancy Wilson / Cannonball Adderley record.

Nancy Wilson / The Cannonball Adderley Quintet

Nancy Wilson / Cannonball Adderley

Capitol Records – T 1657 (mono), ST-1657 (stereo)


Front cover of Nancy Wilson / Cannonball Adderley

Back in Columbus not long after their encounter with Adderley, Wilson and Rusty Bryant were just finishing up an engagement at the 502 Club when Miles Davis and his band rolled into town. Cannonball Adderley was playing sax and Wilson ended up sitting in with the band. Now, the details of this legendary musical convergence are hazy. Most accounts state, or imply, that Wison sat in with Adderley’s band. But the timelines don’t match up. Adderley was with Miles at the time the encounter occurred, and Miles’ gig at the 502 the week of September 29, 1958, just as Rusty Bryant’s engagement at the club ended, puts Adderley and Wilson in the right club at the right time. This is almost certainly when the momentous collaboration happened.

"Nancy did some tunes with the band that night," Cannonball remembered in the album liner notes. "Unrehearsed, off-the-top-of-the-head stuff. Even then, this young kid had so much to offer-tone, style, confidence-I felt she just had to go a long way."

Cannonball was a high profile artist and Wilson was surely happy to make the connection. But, for her, the most important part of the connection may have been her interest in hiring Cannonball’s manager, John Levy. Wilson picks up the story in a 2010 Smithsonian NEA Jazz Master interview with her publicist (and John Levy’s widow), Devra Hall Levy:

“I finally got a showcase where I did come to New York. We went to a club called the Blue Morocco. Irene Reid was the featured singer. I went to the Blue Morocco and sat in. A couple of weeks after I had sat in, Irene Reid broke her ankle, and they called me to replace her. That gave Cannon and everybody who knew I was in the city a way to get John there to hear (me).”

John Levy showed up and was won over by Wilson’s version of “Guess Who I Saw Today.” They signed a management contract - the only one Wilson ever signed - and Levy remained her manager for the rest of her life. Levy helped get Wilson signed to Capitol Records. Since Wilson and Adderley were both clients, a collaboration was a no-brainer for Levy. And it was mutually beneficial for the artists. The album raised Wilson’s profile internationally and provided credibility to the jazz crowd while doing the same for Cannonball in the pop world. A recording with another Levy client, George Shearing, was also released in 1961.

In June 1961, Wilson and Adderley’s quintet entered Capitol’s New York studio on 46th Street to begin sessions. The newest member of the quintet, pianist Joe Zawinul, had been hired a week earlier. Zawinul, of course, would go on to play with Miles before forming Weather Report. But this was the beginning of his integral role in Cannonball’s career, highlighted by the Zawinul composition “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” becoming Adderley’s biggest hit. A second recording session with just the musicians took place in August. The final album included a mix of vocal tracks with instrumentals, including Zawinul’s “One Man’s Dream.”

Label of the "Save Your Love For Me" single.

Released in February 1962, Nancy Wilson / Cannonball Adderley opens with “Save Your Love For Me,” the single. The track features Cannonball and brother Nat soulfully answering Wilson’s vocal on alto sax and cornet, respectively. The album featured a collection of standards and original compositions that showcased the remarkable synergy between Wilson and Adderley. Tracks like "Save Your Love for Me" and "Never Say Yes" became instant classics. Wilson embraced her role as a jazz singer for the album. “It would be Cannonball's quintet with me fitting in as a sort of easy-going third horn on some nice songs that haven't already been 'heard to death' on records," she states modestly in the album’s liner notes.

Although Nancy Wilson / Cannonball Adderley didn’t receive a lot of critical attention at the time of release, its profile has steadily risen over time and is now considered a classic. AllMusic's retrospective review states, "Given the play list and the outstanding artists performing it, why any serious jazz collection would be without this classic album is difficult to comprehend."

Photo of drummer Louis Hayes.

Louis Hayes’ drumming on this album has been cited by fellow drummers as a template for how to accompany a singer. “There’s a certain simplicity that’s involved, and I know Miles Davis talked about it a lot, like drummers playing ‘quiet fire,’” Karriem Riggins states in the February 2019 issue of Modern Drummer. “Louis is one of those drummers that had intensity without volume; you just feel the groove. You feel the intensity.” The 86-year-old Hayes was part of the 2023 NEA Jazz Masters award class.

Back cover of Nancy Wilson / Cannonball Adderley.

But if the George Shearing and Cannonball Adderley records appeared to indicate a change in direction in Wilson’s career, that wasn’t the case. Again, from the Smithsonian interview:

Levy: Let’s talk about that album and also about the Cannonball album. The Shearing album was ’61, the Cannonball album was in 1962, and suddenly, Nancy Wilson is a jazz singer. How did you feel about that?

Wilson: I wasn’t that thrilled. I was not thrilled. And I have not changed my mind about that. I’m a song stylist. Whether I recorded with Cannonball Adderley and George Shearing or not, I’m still a song stylist. I didn’t – I knew who the great jazz singers were.

Levy: Which were who, in your opinion?

Wilson: Ella. And Sarah Vaughan had pipes that – you know, please God. But they all went in a different way. They would go with the music. They knew more about music than I did. I don’t know squat about music. I don’t know anything about it. I don’t read it. I can’t play it. I just have ears. They were more musicians. And Carmen was a musician, Sarah. They were jazz singers, to me. Then, as I say, I sang a lot of pop things. But it took a long time before the jazz singer happened. They didn’t – I was still working in supper clubs for many, many years after that.

Nancy Wilson / Cannonball Adderley would rise to number 30 on the Billboard Top LPs chart and number 21 in Cash Box. Wilson was content to remain a song stylist and would continue in that role to much success including three Grammys. But this album remains one of the high points, critically and commercially, of Wilson’s long and prolific career.

Jazz Academy Jam Session promo graphic.

The night Nancy Wilson sat in with Cannonball Adderley at the 502 Club was a serendipitous moment that changed the course of Wilson’s career. Their collaboration, fueled by mutual respect and a shared love for musical exploration, led to the creation of an album that continues to resonate with audiences to this day. Columbus' Jazz Arts Group just organized a jam session featuring songs from the album last week. The Nancy Wilson / Cannonball Adderley album stands as a testament to the power of collaboration, the magic of musical spontaneity, and the enduring legacy of two extraordinary artists coming together in the name of jazz.

Side one label of Nancy Wilson - "Cannonball" Adderley


Side one

  1. "Save Your Love For Me" Buddy Johnson

  2. "Teaneck" Nat Adderley

  3. "Never Will I Marry" Frank Loesser

  4. "I Can't Get Started" Vernon Duke, Ira Gershwin

  5. "The Old Country" Nat Adderley; Curtis Lewis

  6. "One Man's Dream" Joe Zawinul; Charles Wright

Side 2 label of Nancy Wilson - "Cannonball" Adderley

Side two

  1. "Happy Talk" Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II

  2. "Never Say Yes" Nat Adderley

  3. "The Masquerade Is Over" Herb Magidson, Allie Wrubel

  4. "Unit 7" Sam Jones

  5. "A Sleepin' Bee" Harold Arlen, Truman Capote

Companies, etc.

Copyright © – Capitol Records, Inc.

Manufactured By – Capitol Records, Inc.


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