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Artist Profile: Saxophonist Cannonball Adderley

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Saxophonist Cannonball Adderley © Hulton Archives/Getty Images
Real Name:

Julian Adderley

Instrument:

Alto Saxophone

Reason for Nickname:

“Cannonball” was originally “Cannibal,” a name Adderley’s childhood friends gave him for his insatiable appetite.

Born:

September 15th, 1928 in Tampa, Florida

Died:

August 8th, 1975 in Gary Indiana

High School Band Teacher to World Famous Jazz Musician

Alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley is best known for his loose, melodic, and virtuosic bebop lines, and his soulful style. He was dubbed “the New Bird” for his ability to improvise long, fast, and bouncy melodies in a way that few other than Charlie Parker himself could play. However, before becoming one of the top alto sax players in New York city in the late 1950s, Cannonball was a high school band teacher in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Adderley was a local hero in Florida, thanks to his dazzling virtuosity and exuberant tone. He played buoyant bebop lines with an effortless sense of rhythm and a genius for melody. After teaching band from 1948 to 1950, and then outgrowing the Florida music scene, Adderley moved to New York in 1955. He lived in Corona,Queens, and started a band with his younger brother, cornetist Nat Adderley. The band struggled, although Cannonball earned a reputation after an impromptu gig with bassist Oscar Pettiford.

The story goes that on his first night in New York city, Cannonball walked into the Café Bohemia in Manhattan to hear Pettiford’s band. Pettiford’s saxophonist, Jerome Richardson, was late. Cannonball had his saxophone with him by chance, and convinced a dubious Pettiford to allow him to sit in. He impressed Pettiford so much, that he was invited to officially play in the bassist’s band at Café Bohemia two nights later.

Cannonball’s New York debut created a buzz, but his career didn’t really take off until 1957, when trumpeter Miles Davis invited him to play with his sextet. The group featured John Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers, either Philly Joe Jones or Jimmy Cobb on drums, and at various times, either Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, or Bill Evans on Piano. With Davis’ sextet, Cannonball recorded Milestones (Columbia, 1958) and the seminal album, Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959).

Cannonball’s bluesy, playful, and jubilant solos rounded out the group’s sound. At the time, Miles, who was honing his minimalist style, and Coltrane, who was developing his sheets of sound approach, created a cerebral, pensive mood that Cannonball’s playing permeated. After 1959, however, Cannonball left Miles’ sextet to lead his own group, which performed a soulful style of hard-bop.

The Cannonball Adderely Quintet always featured Nat Adderely on cornet, and also included a variety of bassists, drummers, and keyboardists. Pianists Bobby Timmons, Joe Zawinul, and George Duke had stints in the band. Among the bassists were Ray Brown and Sam Jones, and Louis Hayes and Roy McCurdy played drums at various times. The group made a series of live recordings, among which, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco (Riverside Records, 1959) is the most famous. The group epitomized the soul-jazz style.

The Cannonball Adderley Quintet made commercially viable music that was rooted in blues, and maintained its musical integrity. Perhaps the most famous example is Joe Zawinul’s 1966 song, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”

In the late 1960s and early 70s, Cannonball began to embrace the influences of electronic instruments and free jazz with albums such as Accent on Africa (Capitol Records, 1968), and The Price You Got to Pay to Be Free (Capitol, 1960). On these albums, Cannonball plays the soprano saxophone in addition to the alto.

Cannonball’s ebullient personality and musicianship came to an end in 1975 when he died of a stroke. However, his music is as fresh and invigorating today as it was during his career.

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