Cannonball Adderley

Jazz musician Cannonball Adderley was an alto saxophonist renowned for performances with his own band as well as with Miles Davis and John Coltrane.


Jazz musician Cannonball Adderley was born Julian Edwin Adderley in Tampa, Florida, on September 15, 1928. He attended the U.S. Navy School of Music before moving to New York City in the 1950s. He eventually played alto sax with John Coltrane and Miles Davis, drawing comparisons to his idol, Charlie Parker. Critics and audiences alike adored Adderley’s upbeat, quicksilver-fast sounds, and his plethora of albums included Know What I Mean? (1961) and The Soul Zodiac (1972). He died on August 8, 1975.

Background and Early Years 

Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderley was born on September 15, 1928, in Tampa, Florida. He was the oldest of two boys and his father, Julian C. Adderley, a cornet player and respected musician encouraged Cannonball and his brother, Nat, to explore their own musical interests.

While Nat followed in his father’s footsteps and took up the cornet, Adderley migrated to the alto saxophone. He later learned to play tenor and soprano sax as well as the flute.

At high school in Tallahassee, where his parents had moved the family when they landed teaching jobs at Florida A&M University, Adderley earned the nickname Cannonball.

“When I was going to school I used to eat anything,” he later explained. “So the kids called me Cannibal. Older people didn’t get the connection so they called me Cannonball.”

In 1955, when an old friend saw him perform in New York City, he called him by his hometown nickname and it remained with the saxophonist the rest of his life. 

Life in Jazz

After high school, Adderley enrolled at Florida A&M University, where he studied brass and reed instruments. He graduated in 1948 and then remained in his home state for several years, taking a position as band director at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale.

But by the early 1950s Adderley had outgrown the local music scene, and in 1955 he moved to New York City with brother Nat. There, the two brothers formed the Cannonball Adderley Quintet.

The same year he moved to New York City, Adderley made a splash with a cameo at a nightclub. Praise was heaped upon him for his fast-paced, upbeat style, and it wasn’t long before some of the giants of jazz came calling.

Landmark Albums With Miles Davis

In 1957, after the dissolution of his band, Adderley joined Miles Davis's group. Playing alongside John Coltrane, Bill Evans and others, Adderley was part of two landmark Davis albums, Milestones (1958) and Kind of Blue (1959). Adderley later collaborated with song stylist Nancy Wilson on an esteemed 1962 record. 

Adderley was not only one of jazz’s biggest talents, but he was also one of its fiercest defenders. The target of his ire was sometimes fellow African-Americans, who he felt too easily dismissed its importance.

“Black music has been neglected by black leaders who were striving for bourgeois values,” he once said. “Many black school officials frown on jazz. We play at 40 or 50 colleges a year where black kids dance to James Brown or Otis Redding but they don’t know what this music is.”

Later Years and Death

Adderley continued to release studio albums throughout the '60s and '70s. In 1975, he released his last two recordings: Phenix and Big Man: The Legend of John Henry, a grand orchestral work. He suffered a stroke on July 13, 1975, entering a coma, and died weeks later on August 8 in Gary, Indiana. He was survived by his wife, Olga James Adderley, among other family members. 

Having a deep love for his art, Adderley left behind a treasure trove of recordings; compilation albums of his work include Ultimate Cannonball Adderley (1999) from Verve and Ballads (2002) on Blue Note/EMI.

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