Audio Archive: Frank “Doc” Adams remembers…

This weekend marks the five-year anniversary of the publication of my book with the great, much-beloved Alabama jazz hero, Dr. Frank Adams: a master performer, educator, family man, community icon, storyteller, and history-keeper known to many around here as “Doc.” Our book — Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man — tells Frank Adams’s story in his own words, drawing from more than two years of weekly interviews.

To celebrate the anniversary of the book’s publication, I’ve uploaded the first few minutes of the first interview I conducted with Doc, from July of 2009 (in the recording below, I attribute this interview to 2002, not catching my verbal typo). At the time, I thought I’d write an article about Doc and about the history of Birmingham jazz community. Most of all I wanted to preserve some of this man’s remarkable story and storytelling for posterity; beyond my vague ideas for an article I didn’t have much of a plan. But this interview turned into many more interviews, which turned in turn into our book — and eight(!!) years later, I’m still very hard at work on the book that’s grown out of that one, a history of jazz in Birmingham, and of Birmingham in jazz.

Doc died two years after the publication of this book — three years ago this month. It’s a joy to hear his voice again in this recording. I remember vividly the day of this interview, sitting across from Doc in his office, engrossed in his stories and his spirit. I had no idea that we’d record ninety-something more of these interviews, no idea that this recording would become the opening pages of our book. I certainly did not anticipate the friendship and collaboration that would grow out of this first session. For that friendship, above all, I’ll be eternally grateful.

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When the book was finished, Doc constantly instructed me: “Keep the book in front of people.” He believed, and I believe, that it told an important story — a story about more than jazz, and more than Birmingham — and a story that ought to be widely shared. He didn’t want it collecting dust on book shelves but wanted it to pass through as many hands as it could. So I’ll remind you on its anniversary that’s it’s still available from Amazon — and right now available at the best price I’ve seen on it yet. Maybe your library has it, or maybe you can get your library to get it. If you’re in Birmingham, we’ve got it for sale at our new store, The Jaybird. However you get your hands around it, I hope you’ll spend some time with this book and with Doc.

Meanwhile, here’s how this whole thing started: Dr. Frank Adams sitting in his office, age 81, talking about his father and his brother and his mother, and about his first musical performance — a brothers’ duet of “The Old Rugged Cross,” performed for the congregation of Birmingham’s Metropolitan A. M. E. Zion Church.

“That,” he said, “sort of hooked me on music.”

Happy anniversary, Doc.

Thursday!

Tonight I’m donating a drawing apiece to two auctions going on around town, both of them for very good causes.

At TrimTab Brewing Company from 6 to 9 there’s a Beer Tasting and Silent Auction Benefiting the Public Interest Institute. This institute sends UA law students on summer internships with nonprofits and government orgs committed to social justice and the public good; tonight’s fundraiser directly supports participating students, since the gigs are unpaid. The students are doing important and inspiring work; in the past they’ve spent their summers with groups like the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice, Alabama Possible, and the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in Kampala, Uganda. Tonight’s fundraiser is one of the many important and exciting projects spearheaded by my inspiring wife, Glory.

Since it’s a law thing, I drew some favorite legal figures:

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Last night the power went out while I was drawing the next one, so I had to do it by candlelight.

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I didn’t realize last night that I was mixing black and blue pens in the dark, but now I like the way the two colors came out together. “Pioneering Women of Rock and Roll” is for the Girls Rock Art Auction at Seasick Records and Crestwood Coffee tonight. Girls Rock Birmingham is a great local org. Here’s their exciting mission: “Girls Rock Birmingham helps girls build self-esteem and find their voices through unique programming that combines music education, performance and promotion; empowerment and social justice workshops; positive role models, collaboration and leadership skill building.” You can find out more at www.girlsrockbham.org.

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To be sure, both events will have greater and hotter auction items than these two modest contributions. And both events will assemble great groups of people for a great good time. You might not even remember you’re supporting a good cause, just by showing up.

Finally, I must mention, too, one more incredible event, also happening tonight: an evening performance and art exhibit to benefit the Society for the Arts and Culture of South Asia, featuring Parvathy Baul—singer, painter, musician and storyteller from Bengal. That event is 7-9 at Tres Taylor’s studio in Avondale (right next to Saturn) and is bound to be an inspiring and memorable night. Call Lloyd at 205-317-8983 for more info.

Regrettably, none of us can be in three places at once. So let’s spread out tonight and each do our best to support art, social justice, education, and community in Birmingham and around the world.

 

The “Singing School Marm” & Sun Ra: The Ethel Harper Story, Part One

Ethel Harper described a certain “bulldog tenacity” as her most distinguishing feature. She was independent, resilient, energetic and strong-willed, and she knew how to get things done. But she was also a bottomless well of generosity, full always of compassion and charity—for children and the elderly, especially. She was elegant and refined, full of grace, poise, and glamor. She had several careers, all successful—was an educator, an entertainer, and a civic leader—and her impact was broad, most notably in her adopted home of Morris County, New Jersey.

I went to Morris County a few years ago to learn more of Harper’s story. Her personal papers are housed in the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center, in the lowest level of the beautiful, old Morristown library. The papers include news clippings, speeches, original poetry, and an autobiography, self-published in 1970. I went there hoping to fill in some gaps in my research on the Birmingham, Alabama jazz story. Harper’s career started in Birmingham, and she was one of the few women to emerge from the fertile scene there. Indeed, if she’s remembered at all today, it’s likely for this curious footnote: her first band, Ethel Harper’s Rhythm Boys, included in its lineup a young player named Sonny Blount. Blount would emerge as the band’s star musician, eventually replacing Harper as the group’s leader; soon after that he’d move to Chicago and become Sun Ra—one of the most iconoclastic, inventive, and utterly unclassifiable figures in the history of jazz.

But Harper’s own history is interesting and illuminating in its own right. After Birmingham she’d perform on Broadway and in Europe, and she’d tour, broadcast, and record with a popular vocal group, the Ginger Snaps. In her later years, in Morristown, she’d become a tireless and respected champion of numerous social causes, a voice for both the youth and the aged, an advocate for education, black history, civil rights, and the arts. When she died in 1979, newspapers around the country (among them the New York Times and Washington Post) remembered her in their headlines for one of her longest running—and ultimately most controversial—roles: as Quaker Oats’ “Aunt Jemima,” a character she portrayed in live appearances through much of the 1950s. It was a character steeped in stereotype, but Harper had sought to bring the job a dignity and grace, even a kind of authority. In the 1960s Jemima was increasingly denounced as an icon of American racism, but Ethel Harper, a vocal proponent of civil rights, took a staunch pride all her life for her work in the role.

Last week, for International Women’s Day, the internet was full of images, quotes, and stories of inspiring women, some famous and others not. I found myself thinking of Ethel Harper, a unique and complex figure whose story has been all but forgotten but very much deserves to be told. This week on this blog I’ll try to tell some part of that story, as I understand it.

Here’s part one: on Birmingham, Sun Ra, and (as Ethel Harper was for a while called) the singing “Bama School Marm.”

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Ethel Harper was born in Alabama’s Black Belt in 1903. At the age of nine she was orphaned and came to Birmingham from Selma to live with an adult brother and his wife. Her autobiography describes her anticipation for the “big city with the bright lights and big crowds,” a city that weighed in her imagination with a thrilling and terrible kind of mythological power: she’d been told the train as it pulled into town would pass right over the giant Sloss Furnace, and the idea of it haunted her. “I thought that to get into Birmingham,” she wrote, “one had to cross the fiery furnace on the train; if the furnace was open and the passengers could see the fire, all would be destroyed”—the train itself melted along with the iron, the passengers consumed in molten steel and flame.

As a new student at Industrial High School, Harper joined the school’s Dramatic Club; a performance with that group at the the upscale Jefferson Theatre downtown inspired in her the desire to spend her life on stage. In her earliest career, she’d balance her passion for the stage with an equal passion for the classroom: at the age of seventeen she graduated from the the State Teachers College in Montgomery (now Alabama State University), and she landed her first job at an elementary school in North Port, Alabama. Her salary there was $62.50 a month—“a small fortune”—and she picked up some extra income offering private music lessons on the side. North Port Elementary had a faculty of seven, and the teachers shared a range of duties. Harper took charge of the choir, “my first big adventure in the music field.”

Soon, though, she was back in Birmingham at Industrial High, the state’s largest high school for blacks and her own alma mater. There she organized the Girls’ Minstrel, an annual musical and theatrical showcase, one of the most popular events of the school year (there was a Boys’ Minstrel, too, and competition was high between the genders). At the behest of the superintendent of schools and to much local acclaim, she coordinated a thousand girls in an elaborate, costumed, and choreographed military drill at Birmingham’s Legion Field. Meanwhile, she pursued her own opportunities to perform.

Her memoir picks up the story: “Permission was given me by the principal of the high school to form an orchestra with some of the boys from the band department.” Ethel Harper’s Rhythm Boys “made quite a name for themselves, playing for social affairs through the state.” Harper fronted the group, acting as singer and emcee, and the band was a hit. It was the era of the fierce if friendly “jazz battle,” with local groups competing onstage for the acclaim of their fans, and Harper and her boys held their own, besting such popular Birmingham bands as Fred Averytt’s Society Troubadours, another collective of Industrial students. In the summers, Harper took the band on the road. “Miss Ethel Harper,” the Chicago Defender reported, “popular teacher of the Industrial high school, left Monday in a special chartered Greyhoud bus,” accompanied by “her newly organized rhythm boys orchestra whose ages range from fourteen to sixteen years…. Miss Harper,” the paper went on, “is to be commended. This is her second trip to New York. She worked last summer in a night club in Chicago.”

After a while, though, the school intervened. “It was with regret,” Harper later wrote, “that finally the Board of Education felt I must relinquish this activity because it was too strenuous along with my teaching chores. The boys in the orchestra remained together and some of them went on to become top musicians and today are members of some of our leading name bands.”

One of those Rhythm Boys who remained was the pianist and arranger Sonny Blount—Sun Ra—who was already distinguishing himself as one of the city’s most creative and promising musicians. As he would later tell it, the real reason Harper left was a bit more sensational than Harper herself let on: the school’s leadership simply wasn’t comfortable with a female teacher—young and glamorous, dressed in an evening gown and crooning sweet love songs—fronting a stage loaded full with her own male students.

“Well,” Sun Ra explained to brothers Peter and John Hinds for Sun Ra Research, “everybody talked about fifteen or sixteen fellows being up there under a woman. They talked about her because she was a schoolteacher … and it was a big scandal.” Harper herself was “very dignified,” Sun Ra said—nothing ever but pure professionalism—but “a lot of people were jealous of her.” The gossip mill churned, and “the fellows in the band got worried.” The upshot was that Sonny Blount found himself fronting his first band.

“Everybody was talking about her, so some kind of way, they voted to give me the band,” Sun Ra said. “And the next thing I know I saw my name out there—and I didn’t ask for it, they just said I was the person that should be the leader of a band.” He never wanted the job, he’d always insist; it was just part of a larger, transcendent design. “So my destiny in music was determined by other people—not me.”

“Change seems to be part of my destiny,” Ethel Harper wrote of the incident, echoing Sun Ra at least on that point—that a greater force was at work. The moment would mark the beginning of Sun Ra’s career as a bandleader, but it also marked the real beginnings of Ethel Harper’s own professional career. Her break with the Rhythm Boys—and with Industrial High School and Birmingham—presented more an opportunity than a setback.

Her ambitions anyway lay elsewhere.

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In 1936, after twelve years in the classroom, Ethel Harper left Birmingham for New York. She took with her two students, Albert Phillips and William Keyes, both dancers. “I had made a promise to the boys’ parents,” she wrote, “to try and get them started in their chosen field of dancing.” She planned to spend the summer performing where she could, getting all three of them gigs; in the fall she’s continue her own education in the graduate program at Columbia University.

Again, though, destiny intervened.

Harper was beautiful, talented, and charismatic, and the local black press quickly took notice of her arrival in town. The New York Age announced matter-of-factly that “Miss Harper, who divides her time between teaching high school and leading a band, will try her hand at night club entertaining while in New York.” Her first week there she performed at the local Poosepahtuck Club, and a few days later the Age reported this gossipy tidbit (with a slight geographic inaccuracy): “Just because Ethel Harper … a singing chick from Montgomery, Alabama has come to town, Fats Savage, whom you remember if you’ve ever sipped a cocktail at the Poosepahtuck, went and rigged himself out in a brand new linen suit.”

How Fats and his suit came out went unrecorded, but Ethel Harper appeared several more times that summer in the papers. She performed next at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Hour, and she won: her rendition of “Without a Word of Warning” earned her a weeklong engagement at the theater, where she was billed “The Singing School Teacher from Alabama.”

Her background in the classroom made her something of a novelty—and good copy for the press. “Bama School ‘Marm’ Wins Amatuer Hour,” reported the New York Amsterdam News: “Miss Harper teaches English in Industrial High School, but in her leisure she dances and sings torch songs for the fun of it and within the walls of her own home.” “The piece de resistance of the night,” the New York Age reported of the Apollo show, “was the big timey singing of Miss Ethel Harper, a reformed school teacher from Alabama.” That paper, though, qualified its praise: Harper may have been good, but talent guaranteed little in the big time. “If she’s smart,” the paper concluded, “she’ll stick to her pedagogy as the existence of singers is for [the] most part precarious…. That night club songstress can sing but so do oodles of other people whom I know. No she isn’t likely to set the world on fire.”

That warning notwithstanding, the Apollo gig boded for Harper a greater financial success than any classroom might offer. For a week’s performances she netted $125; and “by comparison with my teaching salary of seventy-five dollars per month, one can readily see how I could be lured away from the world’s most honored profession”—even though, she was quick to add, all her life, “my love for children exceeded my love for the theatre.”

Ethel Harper called off her plans with Columbia. There were still bigger stages waiting.

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Later this week on this blog—the Ethel Harper Story, Part Two: Broadway; Shakespeare in swing; Aunt Jemima; a civic life; more.

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The Birmingham Sessions

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I’ve got an article in this month’s issue of The Old-Time Herald exploring Gennett Records’ 1927 trip to Birmingham. For two months the label set up shop in the Starr Piano store and waxed records of all sorts of local music makers: blues musicians, old-time string bands, jazz bands, Sacred Harp singers, society dance orchestras, gospel quartets, and more. The records, seldom heard today, offer a kind of cross section and time capsule of Alabama music as it sounded 90 years ago. My article dives into the specifics of these Birmingham sessions, placing them in the context of other “location recording” expeditions of the era—and takes a look at the many performers who came to the Starr store to record.

For many years, The Old-Time Herald has documented both the history and contemporary state of old-time string band music and other related traditions.They make room for long articles like this one, and they take great care with their photos and illustrations—as you can see in the spreads below. My article on the Birmingham sessions is a much-expanded version of a piece I published last summer in Birmingham magazine.

A quick excerpt follows. To read the whole thing, subscribe to the OTH. Thanks to the magazine’s editor, Sarah Bryan, for all her help—and to Joyce Cauthen for loaning some great photos, like the two below.

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From “The Birmingham Sessions: Gennett Records and the Sounds of 1920s Alabama”:

“Southern Artists To Make Records,” a headline announced in July of 1927: “Making Of Phonograph Discs Is Birmingham’s Latest Industrial Effort.” Gennett Records had come to Birmingham from Richmond, Indiana, with a load of equipment and a team of engineers. The company planned to set up a temporary studio in the Alabama city and hoped to attract talent from across the South. Ambitions were high all around. The Birmingham News imagined the city becoming “a musical center of the South,” drawing in new streams of profit and acclaim; in a town whose name had been built from steel and coal, music was a local resource so far untapped—and it could be the foundation, the papers imagined, of a whole new industry.

Gennett had plenty to gain, too, from the enterprise. According to one trade magazine, the company expected from its Birmingham base “to make a specialty of Alabama negro folk songs.” Gordon Soule, the studio’s chief recording engineer, spoke auspiciously on his arrival: “The nation looks to the South,” he said, “for its Dixie melodies, its jazz orchestras, its ‘hot’ music. Our initial reception here in Birmingham has been beyond our expectations.”

The very same month, up in Bristol, Tennessee, the Victor label set up a temporary studio of its own, likewise inviting local musicians to audition. Victor’s twelve days in Bristol have become the stuff of American musical mythology: the sessions produced the first recordings of both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, two iconic acts that helped shape the sound and the business of country music for generations to come. Scholars, fans, and tourists have all flocked to Bristol for years, and the impact of those sessions is well known […] Less familiar are the other field recording sessions conducted, in the same decade, by Victor’s contemporaries. Gennett’s trip to Birmingham offers a single case study.

As it happened, the Gennett sessions did little to advance the careers of the musicians who participated; most of these artists never recorded again. Birmingham, for all the newspaper’s excitement, wasn’t reborn into a mighty music hub. There were no game-changing discoveries, no Carters or Rodgers as there were that summer in Bristol. But the recordings made in Birmingham that July and August—nearly 170 sides altogether—represent a unique and valuable cross-section of the region’s musical culture. There are jazz bands and country blues singers, old-time string bands, gospel quartets, a ragtime pianist and singers of the Sacred Harp—a rich diversity of local sounds, all testament to a community steeped in music….

The Homewood P.O., & Radical Kindness

(I posted the following to Facebook just over a week ago, a few days before I started this blog. Now that this blog exists, I thought I’d say it here too.)

From November 18, 2016:

1. I just got back from the post office in Homewood, Alabama.

2. Apparently, yesterday or today this post office received a load of hate mail, directed at its African American and Hispanic staff. Something vile and odorous was left in its lobby and the place smelled awful this morning. I haven’t been able to find specifics online — will post them when I see them — but the letters, I understand, said something like this: now that Trump is king, you’d better get out. (Update: It looks like my details were accurate. Here’s the story, on local news.)

3. I didn’t know any of this while I was standing in the long line at the P.O., although I did wonder about some hushed conversations going on behind the counter. As usual, the postal worker announced to the line: if you’ve got anything just to drop off, you can go ahead and bring it up. A white woman who’d been waiting in line stepped forward and said to the room:

“I don’t have any business to do. But I heard that this staff had received some hateful messages in the mail. And I want you to know that you have many friends here in this community. We love this post office, and we love you, and I just came here to say that. We love you.”

4. Last Saturday, a friend initiated #radicalkindnessday, encouraging anyone to devote their day to performing acts of radical kindness, however small or large. And people all over the country wrote in on Facebook to say what sorts of things they’d been doing, and what sorts of reactions they were getting.

It’s desperately important that this not be an annual or one-time event. Find a day in the next week to devote to radical kindness. And try to commit some such act of kindness — creatively and purposefully — every single day, from now on.

5. If you happen to live in or near Homewood, or if you ever use the post office on 18th Street, here’s a suggestion I’d like to offer as you consider your next act of #radicalkindness: send its staff some love. Bake them some Thanksgiving pie. Send them some love mail. Stand in their line, when you have no business to do, just to verbally declare your support.

Your kindnesses matter.

P.S. For what it’s worth, here’s what Glory, Norah, and I did last Saturday, on our first Day of Radical Kindness. (We enjoyed reading what others were up to — we read all the #radicalkindess posts to each other for inspiration — so I share our details here, in that spirit.) We gave out flowers and notes of encouragement at Railroad Park (the notes were Norah’s idea), baked brownies and cookies for our favorite convenience store owners, and bought doggie treats for the Humane Society. We still have a few more baked deliveries we didn’t have time to make, and a few letters we intend to write and mail; so several days later we’re still checking things off our ambitious list of weekend kindnesses — which is one way, I guess, to keep it going. Once we’ve checked them all off, we’ll make a new list.

To be clear, here’s the thing: we are overwhelmed. And we know (we do!) that cookies and flowers and dog treats aren’t going to stop white supremacy or hold an administration — and its most dangerous cheerleaders — accountable. Really, we know that. We are searching for bigger, real, political solutions and hope you are too (let us know what you got).

But/meanwhile/also:

a stranger at Railroad Park gave me a long, intense and wonderful hug after I handed her and her husband a flower. We introduced ourselves and talked for a moment and looked each other in the eye. Another young man told us, with a shaking voice: “I have been having a really hard time today, and this does help.” And I’d never seen the convenience store guys so excited as they were by this enormous delivery of sugar and butter. Nor have I heard the word “love” uttered so many times in the post office line. So all that, surely, is something. Baby steps, but something. And, anyway: if the alternative is despair, or complacency, or complicity, or never getting out of bed again — then for me the choice is clear.

Peace, everybody. Let’s all see what we can do.

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Another P.S. The Day of Radical Kindness began as a Facebook event, thrown out to the world by Ally Wallen, just a few days after our presidential election. Here’s an excerpt from her proposal. Again, it’s a good plan for every week and weekend, and for every single day:

“I challenge us all to a day of radical kindness.

This Saturday, find a way to show radical kindness to your neighbors, friends, family, and strangers. Call your mom, buy a stranger a cup of coffee, reach out to someone that you know is afraid or feeling marginalized, send a friend some snail mail, volunteer, look people in the eyes and share a smile, connect with someone you disagree with, share a meal, send a prayer.

Imagine what we could do, as angry, afraid, disheartened as we may feel, if we choose to spread love and kindness as far and wide as possible. What could this day look like if we take all we feel and turn it in to tangible good?”

Thanks, Ally.

Let’s all get to work.