Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man
Author: Frank “Doc” Adams and Burgin Mathews
Publisher: The University of Alabama Press
Price: $34.95 (Cloth)
The reader can tell that Burgin Mathews put in a heap of work on this book, interviewing “Doc” Adams dozens of times, transcribing the interviews from nearly a hundred cassette tapes, and editing, cutting, and arranging the material.
But Mathews did the right thing. This book is so much better than if it had been a traditional biography of Adams. The great strength of this story is the voice of Doc Adams, and it comes through in every sentence.
Adams, born in Birmingham in 1928, has seen it all. Now in his mid-eighties, Adams has the attitude of a wise old jazz guru, a man who has lived in segregation, participated in the civil rights movement, seen life over the decades in Birmingham and on the road playing music and has a measured opinion on all change, including what passes for progress.
Adams’ story reminded me in several ways of Condoleezza Rice’s life story. Adams’ father, Oscar Adams, Sr., owned a black newspaper, “The Birmingham Reporter,” which more than once defied the KKK.
After publishing a piece that upset the Klan, Adams received a letter in the mail that included a silver bullet and the threat “You’re going to have to be out of town.” In the next article he replied: “I wish I could oblige you [but] I have nowhere else to go….I’m staying here.”
Adams Sr. owned a share of the Black Barons while Satchel Paige was pitching there and wrote a column for the “Birmingham News” titled “What Negroes Are Doing” from 1918 until his death in 1946.
Doc Adams reminds the reader of the importance of the church among African-Americans, for mutual support and during the Movement, for organizational purposes. He also discusses the centrality of the fraternal organizations.
Membership in the Masons, the Knights of Pythias and others conferred status in the community, and these organizations worked steadily to improve the conditions for African-Americans.
As the decades went by, and more and more blacks from Birmingham became part of the Great Migration to the north, Adams Sr. urged people: stay and “stand up for yourself” right here.
Oscar Adams was at the center of the Birmingham black middle class. He and his wife had graduated from Talladega and A & M, respectively, and stressed education. Frank’s brother, Oscar Adams Jr., would go on to be Alabama’s first black Supreme Court justice.
The Adamses, like all African Americans, lived in segregation, but Frank recalls how, of necessity, the successful lived among them, in the neighborhood, side by side. The dentist, doctor, lawyer, teacher, architect lived in the community and served as role models; “[t]he children could see their idols.” Adams notes, “They couldn’t move over the mountain.” Now, he says somewhat ruefully, “they live in Trussville; they live in Mountain Brook. They live in Hoover.”
Oscar insisted his boys study their lessons and learn their manners and made sure, wherever possible, they were exposed to the good life. There is a wonderful scene in a railroad dining car where the boys are introduced to “honeydew melon… oysters on the shell…lamb chops.” They had to sit in the “colored” section of the dining car, but the food and the service from the black waiters was first-rate.
Frank studied music with William Wise Handy, nephew of W. C. Handy, at the Lincoln grade school and then with John T. “Fess” Whatley at Parker High. (“Fess” is short for professor.) Whatley, like Handy, was a superb teacher, taskmaster and eccentric. He insisted the band carry several fire axes with them to gigs. They could chop their way out if the venue caught fire.
Even more colorful than Whatley was Sun Ra, nee Herman Blount, musician and leader of the Birmingham Intergalactic Arkestra.
Sun Ra seemed to eat only grapefruit, claimed he could call his spaceship and return to Venus if he chose to, and walked the streets of Birmingham in “Egyptian robes and peculiar hats.” Sun Ra did not insist on the discipline that Fess Whatley did, but gave Adams invaluable advice: listen. Listen to what each musician is saying. Each musician has something unique to say. You do too. It will come out.
Adams’ talent and drive took him far. He played and recorded professionally with many groups, including the Duke Ellington orchestra—and this book contains a collection of colorful stories of life on the road with Ellington and others—but then returned home to Birmingham in 1950 to begin a long, extraordinary career as a teacher of music. A master psychologist, Adams knew that the most unlikely student could learn; change can happen.
And parents want results. If the father buys an “expensive trumpet in November, he’s got to hear ‘Jingle Bells’ before Christmas.”
Doc Adams went on to earn an MA from Samford and a doctorate at the University of Alabama and was inducted into the first class of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. When asked what he wants to be remembered for, the answer is simple: “I’m still here.…I want to be remembered as a person who didn’t quit.”