Jazz has always had big personalities. In the mid-20th century, an explosion of major players became as well known for their personal quirks as for their revolutionary techniques and compositions. Monk’s endearing oddness, Miles Davis’ brooding bad temper, Charles Mingus’ exuberant shouts and rages, Ornette Coleman’s cryptic philosophizing, Coltrane’s gentle mysticism…. These were not only the jazz world’s greatest players; they were also some of the century’s most interesting people.
The same can be said for Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderley, saxophonist and bandleader who was heralded as a new Charlie Parker on arrival in the New York scene from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where he had worked as a popular high school band director and local musician before deciding to pursue graduate studies. Music had other plans for him. Instead of going back to school when he arrived in Manhattan in 1955, he fell in with the right crowd and became an instant critical sensation.
Adderley ended up playing onstage and recording with greats like Davis, Coltrane, Art Blakey, Bill Evans, and his brother, Nat Adderley, who joined him to play in his Quintet, completed the Cannonball Adderley Sextet in the sixties with Yusef Lateef, and helped him make some of the best music of his career. Adderley joined Miles Davis’s band when Coltrane left and played on Kind of Blue and Milestones, leaving “a deep impression on Davis and his sextet,” notes one biography.
Unlike some of his famous peers, Adderley had none of the traits of the difficult or enigmatic artiste. Where most jazz musicians remained silent and mysterious onstage, Adderley engaged boisterously with his audience, in monologues one can imagine him shouting gregariously over a band room full of students warming up. With his irrepressible charm, he established an “amusing and educational rapport with his audience, often-times explaining what he and his musicians were about to play” (hear him do so before launching into his popular 1966 soul jazz single “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” below.)
Adderley’s personality helped put jazz newcomers at ease, but he didn’t teach from the textbook, experimenting broadly with several genres and incorporating electronic elements and African polyrhythms in the 60s and 70s, when he also became “a jazz spokesman. Whether it was television, residencies at several colleges, or film appearances.” Adderley helped pioneer soul jazz, post-bop, and other experimental subgenres, many of which crossed over into the pop charts. “Two words best encapsulate the music of alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley,” writes Nick Morrison at NPR: “’joy’ and ‘soul.’”
The Polyphonic video at the top focuses on the role of joy in Adderley’s music, making the case that he “exemplifies joy more than anyone else in jazz.” His voracious appetite for life—reflected in his high school nickname “Cannibal,” which morphed into “Cannonball”—propelled him into the “center of the jazz universe.” It also led him to devour influences other jazz musicians avoided. He had no pretensions to jazz as high art, though he was himself a high artist, and he joyfully embraced pop music at a time when it was scorned by the jazz elite.
“Adderley’s great ambition was to share the joy of jazz with the world, and he knew that no matter how technically impressive a piece of music was, people wouldn’t listen to it if it wasn’t fun, so Cannonball made his music fun and accessible.” Records like The Cannonball Adderley Sextet in New York sound like “a party,” writes CJ Hurtt at Vinyl Me, Please: “a party with some far-out nearly free jazz post-bop elements to it” but no shortage of straight-ahead grooves. The album kicks off with Cannonball “telling the audience that they are actually hip and not merely pretending to be.” It’s tongue-in-cheek, of course; Adderley never pretended to be anyone but his own outgoing self. But his unrelenting cheerfulness, even when he played the blues, also made him one of the hippest cats around.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness
And his “Fiddler on the roof” album!