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Black History Month: The Legacy of Cannonball
Cannonball Adderley is heralded as one of the greatest soprano and alto saxophone players of all time, and known as a progenitor of the musical genre Hard-bop
By Michele Wilson-Morris
(more articles from this author)
2012-02-18
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Julian Edwin "Cannonball" Adderley was born on September 15, 1928 in Tampa, Florida to Sugar and Julian Adderley, Sr. The nickname Cannonball was a later derivative of "Cannibal," which he was lovingly called because of his voracious appetite and the speed with which he devoured his meals. But his musical prowess quickly overtook the attention previously given to his stomach. Cannonball Adderley is heralded as one of the greatest soprano and alto saxophone players of all time, and known as a progenitor of the musical genre Hard-bop - the fusion of a robust, rhythmic jazz style that incorporates R&B, gospel, and blues.

Cannonball's home was one in which both music and academics were emphasized. Julian Sr. played trumpet professionally throughout Florida and purchased one at Sears for Cannonball. When it became clear that his sights were set on the alto sax instead, the trumpet was given to younger brother Nat, who mastered it along with the cornet. The two began what would become a lifelong musical partnership by first playing with Ray Charles in Tallahassee while their parents taught at Florida A&M. Cannonball led several bands after being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1950, and while studying music at the U.S. Naval Academy. He and brother Nat relocated to New York in 1955, where Cannonball was quickly signed to a recording contract after an astounding performance with bassist Oscar Pettiford's band at Café Bohemia, where he had been asked to sit in for the group's sax player who was late. Just days later, the group's drummer Kenny Clarke went into the recording studio with the brothers, resulting in the release of "Bohemia After Dark," after which critics proclaimed Cannonball Adderley the best alto saxophonist since Charlie Parker. The Adderley brothers had the full attention of New York City and more.

Commenting on Cannonball's popularity, Phoenix based KJZZ radio announcer and jazz saxophonist Paul Anderson said, "Cannonball was a prolific and amazing player, with a warm tone. Hands down, he was one of the most soulful masters of the alto saxophone. But he could get down with the best of them. He was the best of them. You could always count on Cannonball to play with conviction and soul, which is why his music is still popular today."

Cannonball formed his own group with Nat after joining the Savoy jazz label in 1957. Miles Davis quickly recognized the saxophonist's talent and invited him to play with his sextet in October 1957, three months before John Coltrane's return. Together, they released the albums "Milestones" and "Kind of Blue." Cannonball and pianist Bill Evans, who met through Davis, later recorded the albums "Portrait of Cannonball" and "Know What I Mean?" 1958 was a pivotal year for Cannonball, as he released his first solo album, "Something Else." He left Davis' band in September, 1959 to form the Cannonball Adderley quintet with brother Nat. Their live recording of Bobby Timmon's waltz, "This Here," catapulted them up the musical ranks, and they went on to pioneer the sub-genre "soul jazz." 16 years of successful recording and touring followed, during which time Yusef Lateef or Charles Lloyd played with them in a sextet. Cannonball's passionate playing and ability to connect with the audience brought a new world of fans to his music and to jazz, stabilizing the genre and making a mark on it that would never be forgotten.

More than a musician, Cannonball Adderley was an outspoken proponent of civil and human rights, composing the song "Walk Tall" on the Capitol Records label in 1967 in support of Jesse Jackson's poverty assistance conference Operation Breadbasket. He taught music classes at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, and was instrumental in bringing many jazz musicians to the national spotlight. He was a composer, a producer, and a philosopher. He was also a diabetic who smoked four packs of Pall Mall cigarettes a day, and suffered his first stroke at the age of 29. Among those he collaborated with and called friends were musicians George Duke, Hank Jones, Wes Montgomery, Art Blakey, Oscar Peterson, Victor Feldman, Charles Lloyd, Bobby Timmons, and singers Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Joe Williams, Lou Rawls, Sergio Mendes and Nancy Wilson. Cannonball Adderley died of a stroke on August 8, 1975 while on tour. He was 46 years old.


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