The history behind Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s saxophone

A few seconds past the five-minute mark in "So What," the opening track of Miles Davis's masterpiece album Kind of Blue, an alto sax moves to the front of the mix. The artist behind that solo was Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (1928-1975), one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. Last year, our museum had the opportunity to collect the instrument that Adderley used to bring that solo and countless other pieces of music to life. As a curator, I learned that finding Adderley's horn and figuring out its history was a story all its own.

Julian “Cannonball” Adderley plays a saxophone on a stage
Julian “Cannonball” Adderley performing. Duncan P. Schiedt Photograph Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History (AC1323-0003346)

Cannonball was born in Tampa, Florida, to a family of educators. He followed in their footsteps as a high school band director. Influenced by the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Charlie Parker, he came to national attention in 1955 when he moved to New York City. Cannonball performed often with his brother, Nat, a cornetist and trumpeter. Black history in the 1950s witnessed the dynamism of migration, urbanization, moves to industrial jobs, and the charting of new social and cultural attitudes. Cannonball’s music became part of the soundtrack for the 1950s and beyond.

Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, seated, holding a saxophone.
Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. Duncan P. Schiedt Photograph Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History (AC1323-0006173)

The cool sophistication heard in Cannonball’s playing throughout the 1950s transformed into soulful preaching evident in his 1966 recording of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” a composition penned by the great Joe Zawinul. Cannonball’s music echoed and celebrated attitudes about Black pride and self-love that were in constant motion throughout the 1960s and 1970s. You’ll hear that self-assuredness in the complex explorations of Afro-Latin arrangements in his Accent on Africa album from 1968 and his live album The Black Messiah from 1971. Toward the end of his short 46 years, Cannonball released Phenix, a collection that summed up his many styles and musical tastes. Decades after his passing, Cannonball continues to be an inspirational teacher.

Composite image. On the left, a portrait of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, smiling. On the right, the portrait appears alongside an article that has been taped to a page in a scrapbook. The article's headline is “Cannonball - Charles at Apollo."
Frank Schiffman's scrapbooks include this undated article describing a Ray Charles concert at the Apollo Theater. Adderley, one of the cast, is highlighted as a "man who in 1959 became recognized as one of the [great artists] of the jazz world." The article adds that the saxophonist was "a musician's musician for twenty years, but it is only recently that he achieved the public [acceptance] which has made him such a sought after attraction." Frank Schiffman Apollo Theatre Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History (AC0540-0000113-28)

Recently, the museum’s curator emeritus, John Hasse, provided me with a lead for a potential donation that was irresistible: an alto sax once played by Cannonball himself. It was owned by Jim Barrall, a retired lawyer and senior fellow at UCLA Law School who’s had a love affair with Cannonball’s music. Along with Cannonball’s recordings and transcriptions of his solos, Barrall has paintings and photographs of the altoist. I started speaking with Barrall in September of 2020, when he helped me trace the provenance—the authenticity of an object’s ownership—of Cannonball’s horn.

The horn was one of many instruments owned by musician and teacher Bill Green (1925-1996) before it was acquired by Barrall. Barrall studied the alto saxophone with Green, a Kansas City born multi-instrumentalist and teacher based in Los Angeles. Green spent decades teaching and playing in studios with some of the brightest lights in American jazz history, including Quincy Jones, Gene Ammons, Sarah Vaughan, and Louis Bellson.

Green was also a good friend and colleague of Cannonball. They would often substitute for each other on various gigs—at recording sessions, concerts, or special events. Green sold Cannonball’s horn, a prototype King Super 20 Silver Sonic, to Barrall on July 24, 1996, just a few days before Green passed away on the 29th. Barrall treasured the horn and Cannnoball’s and Green’s legacies as educators and musicians.

Gold King Super 20 alto saxophone.
Julian “Cannonball” Adderley's King Super 20 Silver Sonic alto recently joined the ranks of some of the most treasured musical instruments in the Smithsonian’s collection, including John Coltrane’s Selmer Mark VI tenor sax and Lester Young’s Conn tenor sax. The horn’s bell is engraved with a floral design and the text, “King Super 20. Silver Sonic. The H. N. White Company. Cleveland, Ohio.” (2022.0093)

Barrall had provided me with vital information about the horn's past, but I was keen to learn more about it. So, I spent several months talking with a variety of people to fill in the details of the horn’s history.

Via videoconference, the great tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts, who studied with Green, confirmed Green did in fact have a Cannoball horn in his collection. A Grammy Award-winning musician who has played with Marvin Gaye, the Tonight Show Band, and Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, Watts also has an enviable resume that includes recording dates with Cannonball. A musician’s musician, Watts knew the historic value of what it meant to have an alto once owned by Cannonball Adderley in Green’s collection.

I then spoke with Julian Adderley’s widow. Singer and actress Olga James Adderley Chandler was married to Adderley from 1962 until his death in 1975. She told me that she had sold Cannonball’s horn to Green shortly after Cannonball’s death because he was a teacher, and she and Cannonball valued education and educators.

Finally, I benefited from a brief but detailed conversation with the Sydney-born alto saxophonist Andrew Speight. In addition to being a well-respected musician based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Speight was incredibly knowledgeable of all-things-Cannonball—from recordings and live concert dates to the kind of gear that the jazz legend used during his career (mouthpieces, neckstraps, and the horns). Speight sent me detailed research that confirmed that the horn we collected was played during the mid- to late-1950s by Cannonball, including on the iconic Miles Davis Kind of Blue album. Sadly, Speight’s life was tragically taken in an auto accident on December 1, 2022. But his contributions to music history continue to live on in the story of Cannonball’s horn. These interviews about the horn’s history gave me a deeper appreciation of Cannonball's work and legacy.

Cannonball Adderley, Olga James Adderley Chandler, Bill Green, Andrew Speight, and Jim Barrall all shared a passion for both music and education. This connection was displayed on December 11, 2022, at a very special concert and donation ceremony for Cannonball’s horn.

That night, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO), the museum’s big band in residence, assembled a repertoire that traced the arc of Cannonball’s musical career, highlighting compositions he played and wrote from the 1950s to the 1970s. SJMO artistic director Charlie Young played Cannonball’s horn and talked about the life and career of Cannonball, who served as his early inspiration. The foot of the stage was lined with Young’s album covers from Cannonball’s varied discography. In between musical selections, Young offered remembrances of meeting Cannonball and how Cannonball’s style evolved, evidence of the jazz legend’s searching mind and a craftsman tackling new musical ground.

Although he’s no longer with us, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s musical recordings will remind us forever of the beauty and intelligence of his performances and compositions. And with his horn in the national collection, we will continue to celebrate and study his legacy, as a musician, composer, and educator.

Dr. Theodore S. Gonzalves is a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Support for jazz programming is made possible by the LeRoy Neiman and Janet Byrne Neiman Foundation; The Argus Fund; the Ray and Vera Conniff Foundation; the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, founding donor of the Smithsonian Jazz Endowment; David C. Frederick and Sophia Lynn; and Goldman Sachs.