Cannonball Adderley popularized the merging of soul and jazz

This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.

Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderley was born on Sept. 15, 1928 in Tampa, Fla. During his youth, both of Adderley’s parents obtained jobs teaching at Florida A&M University, which inspired their children’s musical aptitude. Eventually, Adderley and his family relocated to Tallahassee, where he and his brother Nat had the chance to play the saxophone with Ray Charles (who happened to live in Tallahassee circa 1940). After finishing his studies in music at A&M University, Adderley moved to Broward County, Florida, in 1948. Soon, he became the band director at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale.

By 1955, Adderley relocated once more, this time to New York to pursue a professional career in music. His nickname “Cannonball” was supposedly derived from the word “cannibal,” which his friends called him because of his massive appetite.

In the late 1950s, Miles Davis made Cannonball a part of one of his legendary quintets, in which he played alongside John Coltrane. During this time, Cannonball appeared on the “landmark albums Kind of Blue and Milestones.” Largely influenced by the work of Charlie Parker and Benny Carter, Cannonball created his own identity as a “proponent of soul-tinged jazz saxophone.” According to historian Thom Holmes, Adderley is noted for “popularizing a style of music that combined elements of soul music and jazz, a precursor of the funky jazz sound that is so much a part of today’s jazz idiom.”

The Cannonball Adderley Quintet featured Cannonball on alto sax and his brother Nat Adderley on cornet. Cannonball’s first quintet was not very successful, but after leaving Davis’s group, he formed another group again with his brother. This time, the group was a huge success, and Cannonball later added more members to the band, eventually creating the Cannonball Adderley Sextet.

By the end of the 1960s, Adderley’s playing began to reflect the influence of electric jazz. In this period, he released albums such as Accent on Africa (1968) and The Price You Got to Pay to Be Free (1970). Tragically, on Aug. 8, 1975, Cannonball succumbed to a cerebral haemorrhage he had endured four weeks earlier. He was 46 years old.

Work Song (1960)

Work Song was first recorded on Jan. 25, 1960, by Riverside Records. Nat Adderley’s Work Song is a “dramatic number inspired by his childhood memories of seeing chain gangs bashing rocks along the roadside nearby where he and Cannonball grew up in Florida.” The song is a “hard-bop anthem that stands alongside songs such as Bobby Timmons‘s Moanin’ and Horace Silver’s The Preacher.”

The song gained considerable popularity, and has been covered by countless artists over the years. As Paste Magazine highlights, Cannonball “digs in” with “gusto on his potent alto solo while Nat responds with a searing high-note cornet solo on top of the mid-tempo swing pulse,” while the brothers shout encouragements at one another.


Thom Holmes. American Popular Music: Jazz. Facts on File, Inc. (New York, 2006)

Paste Magazine. “Cannonball Adderley Quintet – Work Song” January 13, 2011,