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The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man

Frank Adams

Publication Year: 2012

Doc is the autobiography of jazz elder statesman Frank “Doc” Adams, highlighting his role in Birmingham, Alabama’s, historic jazz scene and tracing his personal adventure that parallels, in many ways, the story and spirit of jazz itself.
Doc tells the story of an accomplished jazz master, from his musical apprenticeship under John T. “Fess” Whatley and his time touring with Sun Ra and Duke Ellington to his own inspiring work as an educator and bandleader.
Central to this narrative is the often-overlooked story of Birmingham’s unique jazz tradition and community. From the very beginnings of jazz, Birmingham was home to an active network of jazz practitioners and a remarkable system of jazz apprenticeship rooted in the city’s segregated schools. Birmingham musicians spread across the country to populate the sidelines of the nation’s bestknown bands. Local musicians, like Erskine Hawkins and members of his celebrated orchestra, returned home heroes. Frank “Doc” Adams explores, through first-hand experience, the history of this community, introducing readers to a large and colorful cast of characters— including “Fess” Whatley, the legendary “maker of musicians” who trained legions of Birmingham players and made a significant mark on the larger history of jazz. Adams’s interactions with the young Sun Ra, meanwhile, reveal life-changing lessons from one of American music’s most innovative personalities.

Along the way, Adams reflects on his notable family, including his father, Oscar, editor of the Birmingham Reporter and an outspoken civic leader in the African American community, and Adams’s brother, Oscar Jr., who would become Alabama’s first black supreme court justice. Adams’s story offers a valuable window into the world of Birmingham’s black middle class in the days before the civil rights movement and integration. Throughout, Adams demonstrates the ways in which jazz professionalism became a source of pride within this community, and he offers his thoughts on the continued relevance of jazz education in the twenty-first century.


Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

Though it is Frank Adams’s voice you hear throughout this book, several individuals have contributed, behind the scenes, in valuable ways—confirming or clarifying historical details, offering photographs and clippings from their own collections, suggesting new areas for discussion...

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pp. xv-xxx

Frank Adams picked up a phrase from Sonny Blount, the intergalactic bandleader who later became Sun Ra, eccentric legend of avant-garde jazz: “What’s in you,” Blount used to say, “will come out.” Adams was only a teenager when he joined Blount’s band. He had studied music in the segregated school system of Birmingham, Alabama—studied and played enough to read...

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1. Family

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pp. 1-17

I was born on Groundhog’s Day, February the second, 1928—I think that makes me eighty-three. I was fortunate enough to be born into a family where my dad, Oscar W. Adams, owned his own newspaper, The Birmingham Reporter, and wrote for the Birmingham News—it’s...

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2. The Church

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pp. 18-31

Going back to the late twenties, I found myself in the church. In fact, the church I go to now, Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion, is the one I was reared in. I had to go to church every Sunday—my daddy was the superintendent of Sunday school, so there was no doubt about it. The only time...

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3. Schoolboy

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pp. 32-49

Whenever something big was in town, my daddy would carry me to see it. I had heard Marion Anderson and Paul Robeson, all those people who would come South and give performances. I remember I went to the Lyric Theatre and heard the band of the Republican Guard of France...

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4. “Fess”

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pp. 50-67

When I got to the high school, it was during the forties, during the Second World War. Professor “Fess” Whatley taught printing at the school, but he was famous all over the country for producing these great musicians like Erskine Hawkins—and his band, the Vibraphone Cathedral Orchestra...

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5. Outer Space

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pp. 68-85

The thing about it was: you would know from the very beginning that you were in an unusual organization with Sun Ra. Even though I was a youngster, I knew I wouldn’t find anybody like that again. You meet some pretty weird people, but not like Sun Ra. Sun Ra lived across the street from...

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6. First Gigs and Birmingham Clubs

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pp. 86-98

When I was starting out, there were a lot of opportunities for a young fellow to play music. In fact, I need to back up here to describe some of my very first gigs. The earliest of my playing was with a woman named Theo Carr. She was a pianist and a singer, and she had some little...

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7. Summers on the Road

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pp. 99-113

While I was in high school, I got a chance to play with Sammy Green’s stage show. Sammy Green was out of Atlanta, but they called him “Sammy Green from New Orleans.” That was one of the first stage shows I played, because they would come to the Frolic Theatre every Tuesday...

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8. Howard

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pp. 114-135

I graduated from high school in 1945. All my contemporaries were going off to the colleges, and I didn’t have a scholarship. So Sun Ra wrote a letter to Howard University, and it was a letter that was so unusual. He said that he had a player—that he was my mentor—and that if they furnished...

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9. Bounce, Bebop, Blues, and Swing

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pp. 136-149

Like I said: when I got to Howard, one of the first things Fess Whatley told me to do was transfer my union card. So as soon as I got there, I went to the union office. This man had a little room, and he was the executive of the black musicians union. He took my card and my information...

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10. Teacher

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pp. 150-172

I came back to Birmingham in 1950. I didn’t intend to be a schoolteacher. I had no idea that I wanted to teach— and it wasn’t for any altruistic reasoning that I started. I didn’t have any rosy ambitions. I started teaching at this school, Lincoln Elementary, and I taught there for twenty-seven years. I had no reason to ever think I would stay there; but the thing...

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11. Bandleader

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pp. 173-189

I taught at Lincoln School for twenty-seven years. That’s a long time. I would have these little dreams, sometimes, that I never graduated from Lincoln: I would just be recycled ad infinitum. I knew every brick in that school. I remember when I went there as a youngster, and all the little things...

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12. Friends and Mentors

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pp. 190-201

When I was first getting my band together, I needed a bass player. There weren’t too many bass players around, and I pushed Pops to play: Ivory “Pops” Williams. We hit it off right away. Pops was one of the most interesting characters I ever met. He was one of the very first jazz musicians...

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13. Building a Family, Making Ends Meet

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pp. 202-214

My wife, Dot: I call her my “tweety-bird.” Sammy Lowe—the great arranger, who helped write “Tuxedo Junction,” and all those tunes for Erskine Hawkins—had come back to Birmingham to live. He came to me once and said, “Can you make your horn sound like a tweety-bird?” I said...

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14. The Movement

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pp. 215-235

I want to go back and say more here about the civil rights era, and about what I’ve witnessed—in terms of segregation and race relations—in Birmingham. I tell people: I was there during the civil rights movement; I was there before the civil rights movement; and now here I am—still here...

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15. Keeping the Spirit

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pp. 236-245

One of the great things in my life has been the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. More needs to be said about the person who founded this place: Mr. J. L. Lowe. He’s the reason that the museum is here. He lived a block up from my home in Smithfield, when I was coming up, and he was an outstanding...

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16. “Doc”

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pp. 246-260

As I’ve said, my son Eaton was born in 1972. And when I got to the supervisory position at the Board of Education, I started thinking about a challenge: I said, “Before he finishes grade school, I’ll earn a doctorate degree.” I had done some study already at the University of Chicago...


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pp. 261-267

E-ISBN-13: 9780817386467
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817317805

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2012

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Subject Headings

  • Adams, Frank, 1928-.
  • Jazz musicians -- Alabama -- Birmingham -- Biography.
  • Clarinetists -- United States -- Biography.
  • African-Americans -- Alabama -- Birmingham -- Biography.
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