Cannonball Adderley - Biography


By Stuart Kremsky


              It sounds like the stuff of myth, but everyone that was around the Café Bohemia the night that Julian “Cannonball” Adderley sat in for the first time tells a similar tale. It was mid-June 1955 and this was Adderley’s first night in New York. He and his brother Nat, a cornetist who had recently left the Lionel Hampton band, were sitting in the back with their instruments while bassist Oscar Pettiford was leading the band on stage. Saxophonist Jerome Richardson was supposed to be in the group, but was nowhere to be found. When Pettiford looked around the room for a replacement, he spotted Adderley and his sax. Pettiford asked another saxman in the room, Charlie Rouse, to go over and see if he could borrow the horn. It turned out that Rouse had met Adderley in Florida and knew that Adderley could really play. So he told a little fib to Pettiford, saying that the man would not give up his horn, and if the bassist wanted a saxophone on the stand, he’d have to call Adderley up to sit in. Needless to say, this did not go over very well with the bandleader. He attempted to get rid of the young man quickly by counting off, “I’ll Remember April,” at a punishingly fast tempo. But that didn’t faze Adderley at all. He went ahead and played a long, well-received solo. When he followed that up with another authoritative solo on Pettiford’s own “Bohemia After Dark,” the now-impressed bassist offered him a gig on the spot. And so the buzz began among the musicians about the hot new alto saxophonist in town. As fellow alto saxist Phil Woods described it to Ben Sidran, he was taken to the Bohemia by another altoman, Jackie McLean. “We just sat there,” he said, “listened to a couple of tunes. Then we went outside, and he looked at me and I looked at him, and we just said ‘Oh, shit.’ ‘Cause he was the baddest thing we’d ever heard.”


            Cannonball Adderley drew on the examples of Charlie Parker, Benny Carter, and Johnny Hodges for his joyful and exuberant sound, imbued with the earthiness of the blues and buoyed by his genuine good humor and cheerful nature. It was a sound that audiences immediately connected to, and it helped that the former schoolteacher was always ready to introduce and explain the songs with his wry commentary. His informative and friendly stage presence made his groups extremely popular. Musicians were fans, too. Phil Woods described his style as “a funny kind of rhythmical approach. It’s riveting, it’s intense ...  It’s not choppy, but it’s very highly articulated. And the cats do not try to do that. It’s too hard.”


            The story of Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderley begins with his birth in Tampa, Florida, on September 15, 1928. His father, Julian F. Adderley, was a cornet player who played in the Eagle Eye Shields Band and in the Celery City Serenaders. Just as soon as he could physically handle the instrument, the younger Julian was given a cornet of his own. This may not have been long after the birth of brother Nat, on November 25, 1931. By 1939, when Julian was eleven and Nat was eight, they made their first stab at organizing a band. The two would remain extremely close collaborators for Cannonball’s entire career.


            Julian had switched to saxophone by 1939. He was taken as a child to see the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra with their great tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and later in life Adderley recalled Hawk as “the most impressive looking jazz musician I’ve seen in my life. He just looked so authoritative. I kept looking at him. I never did look at Fletcher. I said, 'Well, that’s what I want to do when I grow up.'” Toward that end, he studied music at Florida A&M, graduating in 1948, an uncertain time for jazz. He got his nickname during this period, a moniker derived from his prodigious eating habits, telling an interviewer that “when I was going to school down in Tallahassee one of the guys in our group wanted to call me a cannibal; but he mispronounced it as ‘can-i-bol.’So the other guys in the band would call me Canibol more to tease him than to tease me. But of course other folks, not being in on the joke, distorted it and it became ‘Cannonball.’”


            From 1948 until he was drafted in 1951, Adderley was a high school band director in Fort Lauderdale. After a stint in the Army band, he went back to Florida in 1953 and regained his teaching post while also playing in local clubs with small combos. What finally got him to New York was the prospect of graduate work at NYU. But he got derailed from the academic track at the Café Bohemia, and his career started to take off immediately.


            Within eight days of his introduction to New York, Cannonball did his first recording, as a member of a septet led by bebop drummer Kenny Clarke on Bohemia After Dark (1955 Savoy). Nat was on the gig as well, as he would be on so many occasions to come, alongside Donald Byrd on trumpet and Jerome Richardson on tenor and flute. Pianist Horace Silver and bassist Paul Chambers completed the group. Cannonball recorded his first album as a leader that July, Presenting Cannonball (1955 Savoy).


            The Adderley brothers formed a quintet the following January, but by September 1956 financial realities forced the group to split, in part due to a lack of support from Mercury’s EmArcy subsidiary, which preferred to hype Cannonball as the “new Bird.”  In 1957, Cannonball joined the Miles Davis group, where over the next couple of years he worked alongside such major talents as pianists Red Garland and Bill Evans, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, and drummers Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb. Important recordings with Miles include Milestones (1958 Columbia), Porgy and Bess (1959 Columbia), and the much-admired, Kind Of Blue (1959 Columbia). The trumpeter also did his sideman a favor by appearing on Adderley’s classic Somethin’ Else album (1958 Blue Note). Cannonball remained in the Davis Sextet until late 1959, when he and Nat once again formed a quintet. This time it worked, on the strength of his increased public exposure with Davis. Adderley would remain a leader of a small band, usually a quintet or sextet, for the rest of his career.


            A record contract with the New York independent label, Riverside Records, starting in June 1958. It resulted in a series of increasingly well-received releases, as well as a significant new role for Adderley as talent scout and record producer. Orrin Keepnews, who was co-owner of the label and supervised Adderley’s sessions, describes the records they made together as “among the most remarkable combinations of valid, soulful music and commercial viability that I have ever had the pleasure of being involved with.”


            The first quintet featured Nat on cornet and also included pianist and composer Bobby Timmons, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Louis Hayes. Their initial release, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet Live In San Francisco (1959 Riverside), was popular, starting a trend in on-the-job recording that has lasted to this day. A successful series of Riverside albums followed, featuring the group’s crowd-pleasing diet of compositions by Cannonball (“Sack O’ Woe”), Nat Adderley (“Jive Samba,” “Work Song”), and  Timmons (“This Here”). The busy Cannonball was also involved in a number of prominent collaborations including projects with arranger Gil Evans (New Bottle Old Wine, 1958 World Pacific), composer and arranger John Benson Brooks (Alabama Concerto, 1958 Riverside), vibraphonist Milt Jackson (Things Are Getting Better, 1958 Riverside), John Coltrane (Cannonball Adderley Quintet In Chicago, 1959 Mercury), and Bill Evans (Know What I Mean?, 1961 Riverside).


            As a talent scout, Adderley had ears second to none, and his own storybook introduction to the New York scene encouraged him to seek out new players. Guitarist Wes Montgomery and vocalist Nancy Wilson are two of the important performers that Adderley was instrumental in bringing to wider attention, and he also supervised recording projects by Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Dexter Gordon, James Clay, and Bud Powell, among others.


            Multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef had joined the band in 1960, and stayed on until the end of the Riverside era in the mid-Sixties, when he was replaced by Charles Lloyd. In June 1961, Austrian pianist Joe Zawinul came aboard. Adderley, along with some of his Riverside master tapes, moved on to Capitol in 1965. Under some pressure from the label, the band performed more and more commercial music, although the group never lost its kick on stage. In 1967, Cannonball had his greatest popular success with a little thing that Zawinul came up with called “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” The vast popularity of the song, which reached no. 2 on Billboard’s Black Singles chart and no. 11 on the Pop Singles chart, also led to Adderley’s sole Grammy award, for the album Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at the ‘Club” (1967 Capitol). Zawinul stayed on until December 1970, when he left to form Weather Report. He was succeeded by George Duke, on piano and electric keyboards.


            In 1973, Cannonball moved over to Fantasy, a California independent label that was the new home of Riverside’s Orrin Keepnews. Inside Straight (1973 Fantasy) announced their reunion with a live-in-the-studio ambiance that the group had perfected with producer David Axelrod at Capitol. Further projects for the label included the very much of its time concept album  Love, Sex and The Zodiac (1974 Fantasy) and the ambitious “folk opera” Big Man (1975 Fantasy), based on the story of John Henry, as well as providing backing for singer Joe Williams on Joe Williams Live (1973 Fantasy). At the time of his heart attack and subsequent death on the road in Gary, Indiana, on August 8, 1975, he’d been working on updated versions of his classic material using newer rhythms and electric instruments (Phenix, 1975 Fantasy).  


            In a discussion of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” Cannonball stated that “The jazz we knew and loved in the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, yes, even the Sixties ... is gone. The audience for it is gradually fading away. We enjoy a great deal of success playing what we do, because people don’t get enough of a chance to hear it ... But there aren’t that many playing.” Cannonball Adderley was one of the cats that were playing, from the beginning right up until the end.

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