The Lauderdale Cannonball

Before fame, jazz legend Cannonball Adderley put his musical skill to work in local clubs and at Dillard High School.

By: 

John Dolen

Published date: 

Aug. 1, 2017

He played his alto sax with Miles Davis on the landmark jazz album Kind of Blue. He formed his own quintet, often featuring another jazz legend, John Coltrane. He later became a jazz giant in his own right. And his career took off when he was still the leader of a high school band. That high school: Dillard. That man: Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.

In the early 1950s, you could not only witness Adderley’s magic at the band’s events but also as he played with his brother Nat, a cornetist, in an enclave of hot clubs stretching from Broward to Sunrise boulevards and from the railroad tracks to NW 27th Ave. Joints with names like Windsor Hall, Two Spot, Clover, Down Beat, Tino’s Bar and the Elks Club thrived in segregated Fort Lauderdale’s African-American quarter. The neighborhood’s boundaries were so legislated by our city in meaner times. But white jazz lovers didn’t know what they were missing.

It was on a 1955 vacation trip to New York City when Adderley – still Dillard’s band leader - struck gold. One evening he (then still going by his given name Julian) and Nat were checking out Greenwich Village’s Café Bohemia, one of the city’s popular jazz venues. A renowned band was about to play, but the alto sax player was late. According to one story, a friend suggested Julian step in; another story has Julian insisting on playing with the group himself. Either way, he was begrudgingly given a spot on the stage.

But in number after fast number, all chosen to shame him, he was soon blowing everybody away. The manager then called out over the crowd noise to Nat, “Who is this guy?” Nat shouted back, “Cannibal.” That was a nickname Julian earned from Dillard colleagues (the big guy ate ferociously). But the manager mistook it for Cannonball, and introduced him to the savvy jazz aficionados as that. It stuck.

Before the week was out, the 26-year-old “Cannonball” Adderley - now heading back to finish out his term at Dillard - had made his first record.

Born in Tampa in 1928 to a father who played the cornet, Adderley moved to Tallahassee when his parents got teaching posts there. He studied music at Florida A&M before being hired at Dillard in 1948. He had to leave Dillard for a three-year military stint during which he guided jazz groups and played in service bands, returning in 1953. In 1962, he married Olga James, an actress.

Although Cannonball later played in major concert venues, it seems the club player never left the musician.

According to the New York Times, he once said, “I prefer nightclubs to concert dates because I dig the sound of laughter, the murmur of crowds and that cash register — there’s something Freudian about the ringing of a cash register. I must be some sort of moral incorrigible because I feel that when people pay to hear music, I owe them something. And even if they don’t pay, I feel I owe it to myself to blow the best I know how.”

The former Dillard teacher also remained an educator of sorts. From 1969 on, Cannonball and his band members spent an extra day at the sites of college concerts. There, they gave workshops in black music in conjunction with black studies and/or music programs. Adderley also served on several university and government committees for the advancement of jazz.

Adderly passed away after a cerebral hemorrhage in 1975 and was buried in Tallahassee. He was only 46.

Today, much of the history is gone. Not one of Cannonball’s old Fort Lauderdale haunts - Windsor Hall, Two Spot, Down Beat, Tino’s Bar - remains.

However, each year the Old Dillard Museum and the high school’s Dillard Center for the Arts sponsor the Cannonball Jazz Series. The museum also has a permanent gallery full of wonderful photographs from the Adderley era, as well as various memorabilia. And of course, the Cannonball legacy lives on in the band he led. Dillard High School’s jazz band is one of the most lauded in the country.

Thankfully, the music endures.