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Adderley, Cannonballlocked

(15 September 1928–08 August 1975)
  • Frank Tirro

Adderley, Cannonball (15 September 1928–08 August 1975), jazz saxophonist, was born Julian Edwin Adderley in Tampa, Florida, the son of Julian Carlyle Adderley, a high school guidance counselor and jazz cornet player, and Jessie Johnson, an elementary school teacher. The family moved to Tallahassee, where Adderley attended Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College High School from 1941 until 1944. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Florida A & M in 1948, having studied reed and brass instruments with band director Leander Kirksey and forming, with Kirksey, a school jazz ensemble. He then worked as band director at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and jobbed with his own jazz group.

Adderley served in the army from 1950 until 1953, leading the 36th Army Dance Band, to which his younger brother, cornetist Nathaniel “Nat” Adderley, was also assigned. While stationed in Washington, D.C., in 1952, Adderley continued to play with his own group and furthered his musical studies at the U.S. Naval School of Music. Assigned to Fort Knox, Kentucky, he again led an army dance band. After his discharge, he returned to Fort Lauderdale to continue as the high school band director and as a jobbing musician.

Encouraged by singer and saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, he moved to New York in 1955. After sitting in with Oscar Pettiford at the Cafe Bohemia, he so impressed fellow musicians that he was asked to join Pettiford’s band. Almost immediately, he signed a recording contract with EmArcy. These early recordings display the influence of altoists Charlie Parker and Benny Carter. Although the bebop influence led Adderley to play long and sometimes highly chromatic solo lines, his deeply rooted interest in gospel and modern blues helped him create a distinctive voice.

In January 1956 Nat and Cannonball formed a quintet that toured nationally until 1957, when Cannonball joined the Miles Davis quintet. When tenor saxophonist John Coltrane was added, this ensemble of trumpeter Davis, Adderley, Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones, and both Bill Evans and Red Garland on piano, became the most influential group in jazz. The spectacular recordings where Adderley and Coltrane vie for dominance, such as 1958’s “Dr. Jekyll,” and the modal jazz improvisations of the Kind of Blue session of 1959, such as “So What?,” are recognized jazz masterpieces. This latter session introduced a new style, establishing modal jazz, improvisation based on a succession of scales rather than a progression of harmonies, as one of the mainstream techniques in jazz from that time forward.

In late 1959 Adderley left Davis and re-formed a quintet with his brother, Nat. This group, with changing rhythm section personnel and the occasional addition of a second saxophonist (first Yusef Lateef and later Charles Lloyd), continued until Adderley’s death and enjoyed considerable popular and critical success. Influenced by both the work of Ornette Coleman in the early 1960s and the technological advances of electronic instruments that became a part of jazz shortly thereafter, the new Adderley brothers’ ensemble played a fusion of bebop, modal jazz, rock, and free jazz elements, sometimes called “Soul Jazz,” that carried them on the crest of one avant-garde jazz wave of the 1960s. Their Jazz Workshop sessions, recorded live in San Francisco in 1962, display an early stage of this development, and their 1966 live album, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!, which reflects this style, became one of the bestselling jazz records to that time. Their music appealed to fans of rock ’n’ roll as well as to those of modern jazz, and the ensemble’s tours often drew huge crowds, not only in the United States but in Japan, East and West Europe, and Great Britain. Speaking of his music, Adderley was quoted in 1966 as saying: “I’m aware that jazz is changing, and I have listened to and absorbed many influences. I feel that Ornette Coleman was a most important force. However, what I play today is a logical development of my own style.”

Adderley married actress Olga James in 1962. In the late 1960s he added soprano saxophone as a regular solo instrument in his performances. His mature playing was a masterful combination of elements: lessons learned from Charlie Parker, associations with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, and a natural affinity for black soul and gospel music. His solo lines and incisive sound were charged with an unerring sense of direction, a dazzling improvisatory technique, and a sense of timbral exploration married to a “down home” feel for the blues. While on tour, before his forty-seventh birthday, he suffered a stroke and died several weeks later in a hospital in Gary, Indiana.

Adderley’s legacy is twofold: as a creative and compelling jazz artist of the later 1950s through the mid-1970s, and as an influential spokesperson for this music and the black community as well. He served as a committee member for the National Endowment for the Arts, was a member of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, and also served on the jazz advisory panel of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He hosted thirteen weeks of a television series, “90 Minutes”; appeared in a few motion pictures, including Play Misty for Me (1971), Soul to Soul (1971), and Save the Children (1973); made guest playing appearances on several television shows; and participated in many college workshops and seminars.

Among Adderley’s honors are the Julian Cannonball Adderley Artist in Residence Program at Harvard University, and several Down Beat, Playboy, and Encyclopedia of Jazz All Star and Poll Awards. Among his important and representative recordings are Presenting Cannonball Adderley (1955), Somethin’ Else (1958), Miles Davis’s Milestones (1958) and Kind of Blue (1959), Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! (1966), Country Preacher (1969), and Inside Straight (1973). A posthumously issued recording, Big Man (1975), composed jointly with his brother, Nat, was based on the legend of John Henry with blues singer Joe Williams in the title role. Adderley considered this one of the major achievements of his career. Among his many jazz compositions, several have entered the repertory as standards including “Sack O’ Woe,” “Domination,” “Sermonette,” and “Them Dirty Blues.”

Speaking of Adderley in 1993, Nat Adderley reflected: “I believe that a large part of what Cannonball did musically might have been missed or overlooked at the time he did it, because the concept of critical analysis of the music at that time was based more on alleged ‘European concepts’ than on the total impact of what the music was. So it has only been in the last few years … that there has been a lot more consideration, a lot more interest, in what Cannonball did as students now study the solos. It has become much more evident that Cannonball was far superior in many areas than he was originally given credit for … many of the critics, I think, did not understand the infusion of Southern black gospel music and blues into what they considered a hallowed European classical tradition.”


Adderley’s papers, scores, and memorabilia are in the Black Archives Research Center of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee. Oral History material and recordings are preserved at the Institute of Jazz Studies of Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. Adderley’s recordings are extensive, and the most complete listing of his published recordings with full discographical details may be found in W. van Eyle, “Cannonball Adderley’s Discografie,” Jazz Press, nos. 37, 38, 40, and 43 (1977). There are many interviews and popular journal articles about Adderley, and he contributed one article to the Jazz Review 3, no. 4 (1960), “Paying Dues: The Education of a Combo Leader.” There are few critical studies to date. The best and most useful are David Baker, The Jazz Style of Cannonball Adderley: A Musical and Historical Perspective (1980), which includes transcriptions, and Barry Kernfeld, “Adderley, Coltrane, and Davis at the Twilight of Bebop: The Search for Melodic Coherence (1958–59)” (Ph.D. diss., Cornell Univ., 1981). An obituary is in the New York Times, 9 Aug. 1975.