Like a lot of people, I knew Frank Adams most of all as “Doc,” but over the course of an extraordinary life he went by a variety of names. To many among his friends and family he was first and foremost “Frank,” and to years upon years of students at Lincoln Elementary he’d always be “Mr. Adams,” the much-loved teacher and role model.
As a high school student in the ‘40s, he traveled with comedian Mantan Moreland’s Hot Harlem Revue, and Moreland dubbed him “Juniflip,” a name for the young and unpredictable, the energetic but untested. (“You’re just a little Juniflip,” Adams liked to explain in later years: “You might flip over into greatness, or you might flip back into mediocrity.”) Other, older musicians in those days knew him as “Youngblood.” In college at Howard University, his bandmates called him “Francois” — a name which they on some occasions extended to Francois DeBullion (“I never knew where they got that DeBullion,” he said), but which on other occasions, as he launched into an especially hot solo, they might abbreviate to just “’wa.”
“Get it, ’wa!” they’d shout from the sidelines, and — as he’d do from many stages, for many decades to come — he’d get it.
He had an insatiable appetite for education — his students’ education, of course, but also his own — and so he pursued a series of degrees, culminating in the one that made him “Dr. Adams.” The title suited his role as gentleman and scholar, but he shook loose its stifling formality every opportunity he got.
“Please,” he’d plead, “just call me Doc.”
A local jazz icon and a tireless educator, a hero and inspiration to many, Frank “Doc” Adams died on Wednesday, Oct. 29. He was 86 years old.
I asked him once how he wanted to be remembered, and he gave the question considerable thought.
“I want to be remembered,” he finally said, “as a person who didn’t quit.”
Frank Adams was born on Feb. 2, 1928, and his earliest influences and inspirations were his family: his father Oscar W. Adams and mother Ella Eaton Adams, his grandmother Lynette Eaton and his brother Oscar Jr. His father was editor of the Birmingham World — from 1918 to 1934 the city’s leading black newspaper — and he was an early, prominent, sometimes controversial leader in and beyond Birmingham’s black community. Oscar Adams Jr., three years Frank’s senior, would also exert an influence on the politics and culture of Alabama; as a young lawyer in the 1960s he and his firm would fight many of the legal battles behind Birmingham’s Civil Rights Movement, and from 1980 to 1993 he would serve as the first black justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court.
Frank Adams’s earliest music mentor, meanwhile, was William Wise Handy, band leader at Lincoln School (and nephew of William Christopher Handy, the “Father of the Blues”). From there Adams graduated to Industrial High School and the strict tutelage of Fess Whatley, the legendary “maker of musicians” who’d sent legions of Birmingham players on to professional careers. The young Adams played wherever he could, working society dances and circuses, country clubs, nightclubs and vaudeville shows. His universe expanded exponentially when, still in high school, he started playing under Herman “Sonny” Blount — Sun Ra, the eccentric, spaceways bandleader who even in those early days was pushing the limits of jazz and speaking in late-night rehearsals of cosmic dimensions that stretched far beyond the Magic City.
From 1945 to 1949 Adams attended Howard University, where he helped found the Howard Swingmasters, the school’s first jazz band. In the meantime, hanging around Washington D.C.’s Howard Theatre, he connected with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and soon he was sitting in frequently with that historic ensemble. “All this time,” he later said of the Ellington experience, “I was absorbing history.”
In 1950 he returned to Birmingham and took a temporary teaching gig at Lincoln, filling in the seat just vacated by his own mentor, Mr. Handy. He didn’t plan to stay — he imagined he might rejoin the Ellington orchestra when they returned to the states from a tour of Europe — but he quickly discovered a passion for teaching that would fuel him and fire him the rest of his life. He remained at Lincoln for 27 years. For another 20, he was supervisor of music for Birmingham City Schools.
Not long after Adams started teaching, he was offered a permanent spot in the Count Basie Orchestra, but he turned it down, choosing to remain instead in the classroom, shaping young lives, preaching the value of “time on task” and aggressively seeking the good and potential in even the most rejected of students. Each year he’d bring young students into his home for festive Christmas parties, offering snacks and music, dancing and gifts. He integrated band competitions in segregated Birmingham. When, in 1963, the children marched in the streets, Mr. Adams was on their side; he’d turn his back to write on the chalkboard, allowing them to slip silently out of the room, then he’d follow from a short distance to make sure they were safe. (These, after all, were band children, he’d later say; you couldn’t stop them from marching.) As supervisor of music, he instituted a strings program in the schools, putting new and recycled instruments into hundreds of young hands.
All the while, Adams led his own band and performed with a wide range of area musicians, playing jazz, blues, rock and soul, whatever the occasion demanded. For 14 years he held a weekly gig at the Woodland Club, outside of Irondale. He married Doris Williams (“Dot”), a schoolteacher and a talented vocalist with whom he shared the stage. In 1972 they had a son, Frank Eaton Adams Jr.
In 1978, Adams was among the first small group of musicians inducted to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, and in the years that followed he maintained an active and vital engagement with the Jazz Hall; from 1997 to 2001 he was its executive director, and for many years until his death he served as its director of education, emeritus, orchestrating an annual Student Jazz Band Festival, giving deeply personal tours of the Hall of Fame’s museum and providing free jazz classes every Saturday morning. (Adams was proud to note that five of his own Lincoln students were themselves inducted to the Hall of Fame in later years.) He was a featured soloist in the 313th Army Band and in the Birmingham Heritage Band, a president of the local musicians union, and a beloved presence at his lifelong church, Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion.
As a clarinetist and alto sax man, he had a style that was unmistakable — a clear tone, and a phrasing that was at once sophisticated and playful — and he seemed only to get better with age. Friends, bandmates, students and admirers commented again and again that Frank Adams played the way he lived; that his heart was in his horn; that somehow, over the course of his lifetime, he’d learned to communicate through reed, wood and brass the profound and generous spirit that radiated from all areas of his life.
At the time of his death, Doc had been married to Doris Adams for 53 years. He was a beaming grandfather.
I met Doc in 2008 on a tour of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, but our relationship really began in August of the next year, when I asked him for an interview. I knew that Doc had an extraordinary and important story — and, besides that, a compelling storytelling style, engaging and enlightening, funny and indeed musical — and I’d hoped to record that story and its telling in some way, maybe for a magazine article, or at least for the sake of some archive. I did my homework for our meeting, researching Doc’s notable family, expanding my library of Duke Ellington recordings and reading for the first time Space is the Place, the Sun Ra biography for which Doc had been a source. I knew enough of Doc to know he was a prolific talker, but I came prepared, armed with four notebook pages of questions in case our conversation at any moment dried up. I knew there was a lot of territory to cover, certainly more than our designated afternoon would allow.
The notebook, and all my preparations, proved unnecessary. “I was born,” Doc said without prompting, speaking into my tape recorder, “on Groundhog’s Day: Feb. 2, 1928,” and for two hours — having begun at the beginning, with his birth — he narrated in incredible, hilarious, eye-opening detail the story of his childhood and adolescent years. At the end of the interview, he was still in high school.
“We’re going to have to have another session next week,” he said, and I happily agreed.
The next week, Doc spent two hours unraveling for me and my recorder his four years at Howard, outlining his studies and professors, his friendships and Swingmaster bandmates, his musical and philosophical awakenings. On our third week — I still hadn’t asked a single question, but I’d written down in my notebook 20 or 30 new ones — I made this deal with Doc: as long as you’re happy talking to me, I said, I’m happy listening. Three weeks later I confessed that the story had grown way too big for any conceivable article, and I’d given up on that idea. But if he wanted to make it into a book, I was game.
After that, every week for two-and-a-half years, Doc and I continued to meet in his office or in his home as he poured out on tape the intimate details of his life — and, moreover, the profound and eloquent ins and outs of his life’s philosophies. The process was collaborative at every step: as I edited the transcripts of our conversations into rough chapters, he would pore over each new draft, and each reading triggered new memories, insights and elaborations.
Part of Doc’s magic, I discovered, was his ability to give himself entirely to every moment and to every individual; whether he was speaking or playing to a crowded auditorium or to a single person, he would invest everything he had in the exchange. In each interaction with each new person he encountered, he’d look for the basis for some connection. Because I taught English, our connection as teachers became our first, most immediate bond. Doc always wanted to know about my students and my assignments, and he volunteered advice that I knew, even as he spoke it, would come to reshape key aspects of my own teaching. I invited Doc to speak to my students each year, and his visits to my classroom became one of the highlights of our friendship. Once he suggested that each of my creative writing students recite an original poem, which he would translate into song, and for a full hour he took 20 student poems and turned them into 20 impromptu compositions. The idea alone was compelling, but I was astonished to discover how accurately, how perfectly Doc could render each poem in all its nuances.
On another occasion, he spoke to a small assembly of students about what he often called the “defining experiences” of his life; since I had another class coming in immediately after, he sat in the back of the room and observed my English students as they recited passages from Macbeth. When the speeches were over, Doc applauded and offered his encouraging feedback — and, then, since we still had time left over, he moved to the front of the room and held court on the subject of Shakespeare, telling stories and offering observations from his life of reading. (Doc loved talking about Shakespeare, whom he’d first encountered in his father’s set of Harvard Classics. “It’s like Shakespeare said,” he told me more than once: “we all have that spot — that one damn spot — that, no matter what you do, that thing will get you in the end.”)
Doc was as gifted a storyteller as he was an instrumentalist, and indeed his talk reflected the rhythms and improvisations of a true jazz soloist. Doc sometimes described Duke Ellington’s arranging style like this: Duke was constantly creating, constantly composing, constantly filing away in his mind riffs and movements and snatches of incomplete songs. It was as if he had an “icebox” full of his ideas, Doc said, and when it came time to make an arrangement, he’d root through that icebox, pulling out that piece and this piece, moving this here and that there, seeing what he could create from all those pieces he’d stored away. Even when it came to his old standards, he’d take the familiar pieces and rearrange them, presenting a new construction and a fresh creation with each performance.
Doc created his solos in a similar fashion, but this is also, I discovered, how he told stories. He repeated favorite stories again and again, but he could recraft a familiar story so it reflected a different moral or message in each telling. Or he might juxtapose this story against that one, and the fresh combination of two disparate scenes would illuminate new connections, shedding new meanings on both.
When I first brought my tape recorder and notebook of questions to Doc’s office, I was eager to learn about some of the legends he’d played with: Duke Ellington, Erskine Hawkins, Sun Ra and others. Certainly, in time we’d talk plenty about each of those figures—his experience with Sun Ra loomed especially large in his consciousness — and, indeed, Doc’s history included appearances by a incredible array of 20th century cultural icons: Thurgood Marshall, W.C. Handy, Alain Locke, Howlin’ Wolf, Martin Luther King. But what struck me most in those first meetings was the litany of names I’d never heard of, never would have known to ask about: Arthur “Finktum” Prowell, the roustabout uncle who died standing up and singing; Bishop Benjamin Garland Shaw, the bulldog preacher with the giant golden cross, jumping from behind the pulpit and threatening damnation; George and Blue, professional neighborhood bullies springing from trees with bricks in their hands. There was “Prof Green,” the eccentric Howard intellectual and self-proclaimed “Little Giant of Song,” perpetually striving to “get heavy” and “win some note”; there was Ironjaw Wilson, the vaudeville comedian, picking up tables with his teeth and spinning them around on stage. There was Godpa Taylor and Ms. Elmonia B. Nix, Tanglefoot Carson, George from Georgetown, Blue Jesus, Reverend Becton, Sweetie Walker and Snake — all of them resounding with life and significance. For Doc Adams, the world was peopled with fascinating characters, bursting with life-changing, revelatory experiences. To the day he died, Doc lived with his eyes wide open to all the unexpected wonder inherent in humanity. And in his stories, his music, his laughter and his teaching, he invited all he encountered to witness and share in that wonder.
“I want my students to expect shocking things in their lives,” he said in our book together. “And I want them to know: what they think is it isn’t always it.”
Once the book was written, I stopped taping all our conversations, but I still found myself scrambling, time and again, for a scrap of paper to jot down some burst of wit, eloquence or insight that might spring from Doc’s lips. A few weeks ago I happened upon a postcard on the back of which I’d transcribed an ad-libbed monologue Doc was giving someone on the subject of young love: “He’s in love,” he said of some hypothetical lovestruck youth, “he’s still infatuated. All he cares about is the chemistry, and compatibility, and the smell. The make-up doesn’t matter, and the clothes don’t matter. He’s still just all in love.”
Another time, he offered, “I went out and bought a dog and a cat the day that Kennedy was assassinated. I don’t know why. People show grief in different ways.”
The last time I saw him, the Sunday before his death, he gave me a piece of advice he wanted to be sure his students understood. First he paraphrased Lester Young: “I don’t care what he does, or she does, or it does, or they do; I do what I do.” Then he looked at me: “Just do you,” he said, “and see what happens.”
This, I realize, is why those who knew or even just encountered him loved Frank Adams so profoundly: because Frank Adams did Frank Adams so well — so beautifully, and seemingly so effortlessly. And while the rest of us admired him endlessly — his sound, his style, his generosity, his eloquence, his humor, his wisdom and his joy — he urged us, always, not to be like him or anybody else, but to spend our lives learning to become ourselves. Just do you, and see what happens.
The Saturday before he died, Doc Adams was at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, teaching his weekly classes. On Sunday, when we met, he was characteristically bursting with talk about all the projects he was pursuing and planning to tackle next. That day he suffered a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. I understand that on Tuesday Doc sent word to the Hall of Fame: he had two tours scheduled for the next day, he was sorry he wouldn’t be there, and he wanted to be sure that someone covered them.
He was a person who didn’t quit.
And — his legacy living among us in more ways than we can know — I don’t think he ever will.
Burgin Mathews is a teacher, a writer, and the host of The Lost Child on Birmingham Mountain Radio. His book with Frank Adams is titled Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man.