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On His 90th Birthday
“Cannonball” Adderley

Blog
On His 90th Birthday “Cannonball” Adderley

27.09.2018

Written by Leyla Aksu

Renowned jazz musician and one of the genre’s loudest champions, legendary alto saxophonist “Cannonball” Adderley burst onto the New York jazz scene in the 1950’s, on a mythic night that is forever etched into jazz history. Navigating the waters between hard bop and jazz fusion and known just as much for his charming and gregarious personality, Adderley was part of numerous memorable collaborations and influential albums, also courting a sizable audience before passing away in 1975. This September would have marked Adderley's 90th birthday. Due to the musician’s 90th birthday, we present a retrospective glance to his career.

The legendary saxophonist was born Julian Edwin Adderley on September 15, 1928 in Florida, as part of a highly musical family. While his brother and life-long collaborator, cornetist and composer Nat Adderley, would be by his side for most of his career, the artist started making a name for himself, quickly transcending his local music scene with his fast and fun delivery and engaging performances, while also working as a high school band director.

Inspired by the likes of Benny Carter, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington, “he to me is the greatest ever and my favorite jazz philosopher” Adderley received his nickname early on in his life, as it was initially inspired by his large stature and insatiable eating habits: “When I was going to school I used to eat anything, so the kids called me ‘Cannibal.’ Older people didn’t get the connection” so the name was eventually slurred all the way to “Cannonball.”

Moving to New York in 1955, under the pretense of pursuing graduate studies, the Adderley brothers found themselves at the Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village, a night after which nothing would be the same again. Allowed, perhaps begrudgingly, to sit in with bassist Oscar Pettiford’s band when the group’s saxophonist was running late, Adderley was given a shot at the stage, playing one of the hardest and fastest tunes around, “I’ll Remember April.” Captivating the audience with his professionalism and skill, that night earned him a regular spot on that very stage, a reputation as “the new Bird” and a record deal almost overnight. “From that point on, I was a confirmed jazz musician” he said.

Taking up jazz full time after that unforgettable night, Adderley started his own quintet, though initially disbanding in 1957 as he joined Miles Davis’ legendary band alongside the likes of John Coltrane and Bill Evans. “I felt that Cannonball's blues-rooted alto sax up against Trane's harmonic, chordal way of playing, his more free-form approach, would create a new kind of feeling” Davis said. Featured on albums Kind of Blue and Milestones, working with Davis changed Adderley’s approach, finding him less “hung up on technique” with Davis also popping up as a guest on Adderley’s 1958 solo outing, Somethin' Else.

In 1959, after receiving the “New Star” award in Down Beat Magazine's Critics Poll, Adderley’s quintet formed once more, finding a rather immediate hit in “This Here.”

Steadily remaining together until 1963, also known as the Riverside years, the quintet’s sound delivered bop with a side of soul and funk, while simultaneously growing their audience with the surprising successive releases of tracks like “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” and “Jive Samba.”

While the quintet’s experimentations widened, growing to include avant-garde elements, electronics, and African rhythms, Adderley went onto sign with Capital. Frequently stepping up to the mic when it came to jazz and appearing on television, in films, and giving lectures, Adderley informed and engaged his audiences in his own distinct and witty way.   “It gives them a closer association with what you have to say musically. That's healthy. Some guys hide behind their horns. I do everything but hide behind mine…”

Emphasizing the fact that “there's no future without the past and anybody who doesn't really understand where jazz has come from has no right to try to direct where it's going” Cannonball also had a penchant for noticing new talent, as he was responsible for spotting the likes of Walter Booker, Wes Montgomery, Chuck Mangione, and Nancy Wilson. Some of Adderley’s other collaborators also include names like Oscar Peterson, Quincy Jones, Art Blakey, Sergio Mendes, Dinah Washington, and Sarah Vaughan.

 “Cannonball” Adderley passed away in 1975, still in the middle of recording “Big Man,” a folk musical based on the life of John Henry, which was later finished by his brother. An incredibly skilled musician with a larger than life persona, Adderley was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame a year after his passing.

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