How Cannonball Adderley Shared the Joy of Jazz

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Jazz Helped Fuel the 1960s Civ­il Rights Move­ment

Miles Davis Icon­ic 1959 Album Kind of Blue Turns 60: Revis­it the Album That Changed Amer­i­can Music

Her­bie Hancock’s Joy­ous Sound­track for the Orig­i­nal Fat Albert TV Spe­cial (1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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