The Magic Citizen

Today, an excerpt from my book Doc – and a chance to win a copy of the book’s new paperback edition. To win, submit your email address on this page to follow this blog. This Friday (4/26), I’ll put the new followers’ names into some kind of hat and randomly draw a winner. (If you’re impatient – or read this after Friday – feel free to go ahead and buy yourself a copy here or wherever else you buy your books.)

Doc tells the story of Frank “Doc” Adams (1928-2014), a beloved icon of Birmingham, Alabama’s historic jazz scene. In the early 1940s, the teenaged Adams belonged to Sonny Blount’s band, which was already pushing the bounds of local convention; a few years later, Blount would move to Chicago, become Sun Ra, and launch his Intergalactic Arkestra, creating a new kind of music for the cosmos. Adams joined Blount’s band after a brief fallout with Fess Whatley, leader of Birmingham’s preeminent dance orchestra, but after patching things up with Fess, he found himself playing in both bands. Whatley led the music program at Industrial High School, where Adams was a student, and he was notorious for his strict discipline and rigid approach to music. In Sonny Blount’s band, meanwhile, it was another culture entirely.

Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man is a work of oral history, drawn from two years of weekly interviews with Frank Adams. Even into his 80s, Adams was a consummate musician, teacher, and storyteller, and his memories of Sun Ra represent the only detailed firsthand accounts of that musician’s early years in Alabama’s “Magic City.” The following excerpt comes from Chapter Five, “Outer Space.”

… Blount’s band was real unique. Everybody in there couldn’t read music real well, but he could put them together: I admire Sonny for being able to mold his musicians together to do things that he did. His orchestra would consist of maybe three trombones or five, it didn’t make any difference — he wanted to know how you sounded and how you sounded. If two bass players showed up, they were both on the job: he’d have two. Some of the musicians might have complained, because they’d have to split the money more ways, but Sonny wanted to hear what each one of them could do: how it all sounded together.

As I said, he lived in this rickety old house, and his whole world was in that place. It was a wooden frame building. As far as we got, and anybody got, was the front room, and that was where he had his bed and where he rehearsed. I think he took his meals in there. We understand that he had a sister or somebody, but nobody ever saw anybody there in the house. He would always be there, and he had these records stacked about five feet off the ground, these 78 records, and he had his piano in there. I remember that the hallway was about to fall in — you could step down in a hole or something if you weren’t careful — and the furniture was in shoddy shape.

Always it was very crowded. Whenever we had a singer, after he set the drums up, the singer would have to be out in the hallway, and he would call that person in whenever they would do a vocal number. The saxophones would be up against the wall over here, and the trumpets would be somewhere back in there. But you didn’t think about it. There was never any talk about anything but the music. He had a wire tape recorder, and he had a shortwave radio — I don’t know how he got it — and he could get music out of New York, like from the Savoy. He would have all these wild players on there, like Don Stovall. They were playing bop before bop was even heard about. He’d listen at night to that, and he’d play that back for you. It was the craziest music, but he would say, “That man’s not crazy. You just aren’t able to understand it yet. He’s trying to tell you something, but you don’t know what to do. He’s just trying to tell you he’s free — okay? So listen at it.” And if you listened long enough, you’d get it.

He would say, “I was born with x-ray ears; I can hear all these things you humans can’t hear yet.”

He had people like Henry “Red” Allen on that transistor radio, and they would be playing the trumpets: they would be playing very differently than you would hear them play in a concert, in a ballroom, or even on a record. It was a wild thing, and they would be playing number after number after number.

Sometimes if there was a big band like Jimmy Lunceford or Benny Goodman, he would transcribe that off the radio; he’d copy his arrangements right off the radio. If a band would come to the Masonic Temple, I don’t care who it was — Duke Ellington — he’d put that little wire recorder down there, and in about two or three days, he’d have all those parts written down, by hand. Nobody knew how he could do that.

Of course, Professor Whatley called me back after reflecting on what he had done. So it wasn’t but a couple of weeks before I was playing with both Fess Whatley and Sun Ra. That gave me two bands — and there was a great difference between Fess Whatley’s band and this Sun Ra experience. I know that sometimes I would look at Whatley’s music, and I would compare it to Sun Ra’s. If a vocalist would be singing, Sonny’s background music would be much simpler to play, lots of whole notes and things. Professor Whatley would have bought and copied out arrangements that would have these cascading runs like the pros would play. On the “Swanee River,” you’d have maybe a sixteen-bar reed chorus — Sun Ra didn’t have that type of thing, but he’d play a lot of blues. He had a fellow named Teddy Smith who played saxophone — a natural. They would play this “Hootie Blues” that would go fifteen minutes. Teddy Smith would be out there playing, playing, swaying from side to side; the people would be hot and sweaty and perspiring, and he’d go on and on and on.

Sonny was very popular because he had these soloists, and if you got out in one of those public housing projects where he played, your three-minute record wouldn’t do. If you played Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” and had to stop after three minutes, like the record — those folks want to stay out there eight minutes, perspiring. That’s what they call dancing. Even a blues band like B. B. King: they could play what they recorded, but that’s not enough for dancers. They want to get out there and dance until they fall out. So you had these soloists who could carry on all night. That was one of the things that made Sonny’s band so popular in certain areas: Sonny could play the thing through once, twice, over again, and add something to it — and people liked that.

Now, Professor Whatley’s band: he’d play a dance, and we’d play a number — maybe “Tea for Two” — and then the number would be over, and people would sit down. When I left Birmingham, I found out that people don’t do it that way in New York and other places: you play sets of numbers. You’d have a set of four or five numbers before people would sit down. Sonny would take just one number, and play it for thirty minutes if he wanted to, as long as he saw people out there dancing.

Of course, Professor Whatley believed in the strictest interpretation of things. Sun Ra would take liberties — and he was composing his music, so he had a say-so in it. Sun Ra took pride in who he was as a creator of music. And that was all he did; morning and night, it was music. He’d say, “I can’t afford to be sick, because my music demands that I’m working twenty-four hours a day on it.” Said, “I wish I didn’t have to do that, but — it’s my mission. And even if I am sick, I’m still creating.”

So Sun Ra was in demand, because his band could improvise. They could start from the back and go to the top, and all that type of thing. And they had some showmanship — they could move a little bit. In Whatley’s band, you just stood there; he didn’t want you to move. Whatley had all these rules, that if you were playing a wedding or something, the band was not to eat the food — because, he said, “You’re the servants.” But in Sun Ra’s band, during intermission, if there was some food out there, they were going to get it. And with the people they were playing for, it was okay.

Man, Sun Ra: that was jazz music. Those guys didn’t wear tuxedos, they wore what they could. He didn’t tell you certain things to wear, like all the other bands would, and as a consequence, they said he never got those jobs over at Mountain Brook Country Club — because his band would be in their BVDs or whatever. Somebody might have a tux on, but the next guy might have his T-shirt on. And Sun Ra wouldn’t discuss that. It was all okay.

He played all over the housing projects — on the street, anywhere he could play. And when I finally started playing with him, that was a change in my life. I found out there was a discipline in Sun Ra’s band that you wouldn’t necessarily perceive. Whatley’s thing was this rigid discipline, which was okay, but in Sun Ra’s band, he had his own concept. With Whatley we were strictly doing what was proper. The dynamics wouldn’t be changed; you weren’t allowed to get up and play a solo unless it was written down. But with Blount, you could stumble over something, and then go back and try it again. And it was the sort of thing where you could talk to each other; you could have fun. You would sit there sometimes all night. If somebody was making a mistake, you could stop and help him — there isn’t anybody getting mad about it.

Sun Ra had discipline, but he had a thing where you would want to discipline yourself. If you messed up, he might say a little something and just pinch you with the fact that you should know better than that: you’re disrespecting the music. He wouldn’t talk about it so much, but you know; you know you didn’t play your best.

When I was playing with Whatley’s orchestra, it was mathematical, precise — and I marveled at that. Everything Fess Whatley did had its place: when to get up, when to go to bed, what to read. I would organize my thing, and it was good.

But I knew there was something else out there in this jazz music.

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That’s all for now. For more, check out the book Doc. Sign up to follow this blog, and I’ll enter you in a chance to win a copy this week; I’ll announce the winner this Friday, and post a new story about another of Birmingham’s jazz pioneers, the bebop trumpeter Joe Guy. 

Doc Adams book

 

Some Birthdays & Obituaries & Lives Well Lived

Lately we’ve been losing some greats — musicians, poets, and icons of various stripes. A couple of weeks ago, my friend Gerald posted these words on Facebook:

The recent passing of Dick Dale (81), W. S. Merwin (91) and earlier this year Mary Oliver (83) has caused me to reflect on how my heroes have changed. When I was young I worshiped artists who flamed out early: Ian Curtis, Arthur Rimbaud, Jimi, Janis and Jim. The list goes on. Now, I’ve come to admire artists that not only live a full life, but those who continue to do their work until they pass.”

Hear, hear. I’d add to this list the poet Donald Hall, who died last year at the age of 89, and whose Essays After Eighty I adore. For the last few years I’ve kept by my bedside either that book or its follow-up, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. I look to Donald Hall’s last books for their wisdom and their wit but above all, I think, for the simple beauty of their sentences, each laid carefully after the next. I hope that something in those books will rub off on me and that somehow, someday, I’ll write sentences that seem so effortless and clean.

Then there’s Andre Williams, the outrageous R&B wildman original, who was funny, creative, irreverent, raunchy, prolific, and gleefully strange all the way up to his death, just a couple of weeks ago, at the age of 82.

He’d released his last album at the age of 80. It’s called Don’t Ever Give Up.

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Some of our creative elder-heroes still walk among us. Austin Kleon’s new book, Keep Going, opens with a quote from Willie Nelson. “I think I need to keep being creative,” Willie says, “not to prove anything but because it makes me happy just to do it…. I think trying to be creative, keeping busy, has a lot to do with keeping you alive.”

Willie Nelson turns 86 this month. Last year he released his seventy-third album. It’s called Last Man Standing.

And then of course there’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti, still with us at the age, now, of a hundred. For his birthday a couple of weeks ago, he released a new book, Little Boy. City Lights bookstore threw him a huge birthday party. (I couldn’t make it to San Francisco, but I did make him a card.)

Meanwhile, a little closer to home: last Saturday, in Petal, Mississippi, the British-born ballet dancer Henry Danton celebrated his own centennial. He still actively teaches and dances and is writing down the details of his long and celebrated career.

“I don’t have a lot of free time,” he told the Hattiesburg American. “And I want it that way. I don’t want to retire.”

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Stories like these keep popping up into my news feed lately. A week or two ago I read about Delana Jensen Close, who just published her first book, a novel called The Rock House, at the age of 95. She started writing it sixty-plus years ago, back in 1955. She told the Associated Press that “It had to come out” and compared its long-awaited release to the birth of a child. “In the days after it was published,” the A. P. reports, “she literally treated it that way — carrying the book around in a basket with a baby blanket.”

The Indie Book Awards gave Close the prize for this year’s best historical fiction. She has two new novels underway.

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Maybe, like I did, you grew up on Beverly Cleary books. This Saturday, Cleary turns 103.

Back when she was just a hundred, someone asked her the secret of her longevity.

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” she said.

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And here’s my favorite story from 2018: “Alabama man turns 99 this Fourth of July, plans to cast his first vote.” John McQueen of Montgomery voted for the first time in his life last summer, in Sen. David Burkette’s runoff election. (Burkette won.) According to Al.com, McQueen stays active today, working in his garden and singing gospel music. “I still work,” he told the paper. “I ain’t never stopped…. I believe if I stop and rest I won’t last long.”

Here’s McQueen, just before his ninety-ninth birthday, singing at a rally for Sen. Burkette: “You Don’t Know What the Lord Done For Me.”


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All this has gotten me thinking about Stranger Malone, a musician I interviewed at length some years ago and wrote about for the Old-Time Herald magazine. The first time I laid eyes on him he was already past ninety, performing onstage at a summer outdoor festival in Western North Carolina, blowing a clarinet and playing the bones, standing in the hot sun in a heavy corduroy suit. Long before that, way back in the twenties, he’d played clarinet on records by Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers and Clayton McMichen’s Melody Men. After he died, he was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest working recording career in history, one that stretched from 1926 to 2003.

Stranger didn’t care to make distinctions of musical genre. “I like sentimental music,” he told me, defining the common thread in his repertoire. “I feel sentiment about life: I think life is a marvelous thing, and I think we should take care of it. And I like songs that express that idea, that this is a marvelous world, we better take care of it.

“So I like that type of music. But the nonsense I leave behind.”

Malone died in 2005, at home and in bed in his Rome, Georgia, apartment. A musician friend found him there, after he’d failed to show up for a recording session. By his hand was a book called Life is Worth Living.

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And then there is Doc.

My dear friend, the late Frank “Doc” Adams, told me, in our very first conversation, about his cousin, Arthur “Finktum” Prowell. Finktum was a roustabout, an old carnival worker, a comedian and singer. He was a dirt-poor rambler and a lifelong bachelor; he refused to profess religion, and his own family declared him no good. Doc adored him. No matter what others thought, Finktum was wholeheartedly and unrepentantly himself.

“And,” Doc told me, “when he died, he died singing: ‘Life is Like a Mountain Railroad.’ See, he could sing, man, and he died.”

That, I think, is the way to go.

Doc himself died at the age of 86, in 2014. That may sound old to you, but the news of his death shocked everyone who knew him: Doc was so alive, so fundamentally full of youth and vitality, that the thought of his dying just didn’t compute. He and I had published a book together in 2012, and Doc was still brimming with new ideas every time we met. At the time of his death, he was trying to reunite some old musician friends for a recording session in his basement. He had some poems he was planning to set to music And he’d been working on a barbecue sauce he intended to market — he’d just perfected the recipe and was working on a design for the label. The ideas just poured out of him — for collaborations, research projects, presentations, performances, recording dates — and it sometimes breaks my heart to think of those projects that never reached fruition.

But then again, that’s the only way it could have been, and that was the beauty of the man. If he hadn’t been still working on a million new ideas at once — if he’d finished everything and just sat back and slowed down — he wouldn’t have been Doc.

In our book, I asked him how he wanted to be remembered, and he said this:

“I want to be remembered as a person who didn’t quit.”

And that’s the thing about all these creators — Stranger Malone and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Dick Dale and Doc Adams and Delena Jenson Close and Henry Danton and Andre Williams and Mary Oliver and all the rest of them — they’ve shown us how to keep going, to keep creating, to never give up, to continue the work. They didn’t, don’t, and won’t quit.

And, listen: I know we’re just lucky to be here at all, that we’ve got to make the most of the days we’ve got. I’m not betting on making a hundred, or even forty-five. Of course, I can’t help but hope I’m here a long, long time, still creating new things, still getting closer to my best, all the way up to the end; and that when I do come to die, I’ll die singing, like Finktum.

In the meantime, for however long I’m here, I’ll just be doing my best — to learn from a wealth of ancestors and elders, to keep my hand on the throttle and my eye on the rail, and to leave the nonsense behind.

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Thanks for reading this blog. If you’d like more, take a minute to hit the “follow” button. You can find my radio show, The Lost Child, on Instagram and Facebook, and find my book Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man wherever you buy your books. If you’re in or around Montgomery, Alabama, this weekend, stop by the Alabama Book Festival on Saturday (April 13); I’ll have a table there with the Doc Adams book and a whole bunch of zines. Hope to see you around. 

Ridiculous? No! (a month of rare photos)

Every day this month, I’m posting to Instagram photos and memorabilia from Birmingham, Alabama’s extraordinary — and, for the most part, unknown — jazz history, the subject of my current book-in-progress. I’ve been cracking away at this book for a few years and am getting ready at last to try to find it a good home for publication. (Wish me luck.) In the meantime, consider these photos a preview of much more to come. Here are the first five days of Instagram posts; to see the rest, please follow along on Instagram or Facebook. Let me know your faves as the month unfolds.

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Dec. 31:
Every day for the month of January, I’ll be posting a photo, or some other memorabilia, from the history of Birmingham jazz. I’m starting a day early, with this one: a matchbook from Harlem’s Ubangi Club, where the ‘Bama State Collegians landed their breakout New York gig. The Collegians were a bunch of musicians out of Birmingham who enrolled for college at Alabama State in Montgomery. Their band helped the school survive the Depression as they traveled the South and beyond, raising money and recruiting new students for the college. Soon after the Ubangi gig—where they backed the cross dressing, outrageous and raunchy Gladys Bentley—the Collegians cut their ties to Alabama State and became the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, one of the most popular bands of the swing era. Many more images and history to come, all through January. Stay tuned.

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Jan. 1: Every day this month, I’m posting a photo from the history of Birmingham jazz. Here’s Ivory “Pops” Williams, grandfather to Birmingham’s historic jazz community. Regarded as the city’s first jazz musician, Pops (born in 1885) served as a crucial link between Birmingham and the larger world of music. He played with W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith, and the celebrated circus bandmaster, P.G. Lowery; he led the house band at Birmingham’s Hippodrome Theater; he co-founded the city’s first musicians union for African Americans (after being denied entry in the white local); and he served as mentor to Fess Whatley, Birmingham’s once legendary “Maker of Musicians.” Pops played violin, upright bass, tenor banjo, mandolin, cello, trumpet, trombone, and drums, and he was a great advocate for the use of stringed instruments—in classical music, in jazz, and in the classrooms of Birmingham’s segregated black schools. Like many musicians of his era, he played for the silent movies and, once sound came in and put him out of a job, he refused for the rest of his life to enter a movie theater. In the ‘40s her played the upright bass in Sun Ra’s Birmingham band; in the ‘50s and ‘60s he played with local bandleader Frank Adams at the Woodland Club and other local venues. He died in 1987, at the age of 102. He’s pictured here — courtesy the @alabamajazzhall of Fame — with his violin and two of his many dogs.

pops williams grave

Jan. 2: Every day this month I’m posting a photo from the history of Birmingham jazz. Here’s the grave of Ivory “Pops” Williams, who I wrote about yesterday, Birmingham’s first jazz musician and the grandfather to a fertile music community. Pops grew up with the city of Birmingham, witnessed the birth and development of jazz, and became a patriarch in his community. He lived to be 102. The words on his headstone (sadly, the stone is now broken): “His friends were his world.”

fess whatley grab

Jan. 3: This is John T. “Fess” Whatley, the legendary “Maker of Musicians,” the man at the center of the city’s jazz tradition. From 1917 to 1964, Fess led the band at Industrial High School (renamed A.H. Parker High School in the ‘40s), and his band room trained scores of professional musicians. Whatley’s students played in all the major black bands of the swing era—Ellington’s, Basie’s, Louis Armstrong’s, Cab Calloway’s, and more—and Birmingham gained a reputation among the nation’s top bandleaders as a reliable reservoir of talent. Fess also led the city’s first jazz band, the Jazz Demons, and for decades he provided music for the majority of the city’s elite “society” dances, both black and white. Stay tuned every day this month for more from Birmingham’s unsung jazz history.

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Jan. 4: Ridiculous? No! Every day this month I’m posting a photo from the history of Birmingham jazz. Huntington “Big Joe” Alexander was a powerful tenor sax player who left Birmingham to study at the Detroit Conservatory of Music and landed, in the mid-1950s, in Cleveland, where he became an icon in the local scene. Mostly forgotten today, he was a member of Sonny Blount’s (Sun Ra’s) innovative Birmingham band in the 1940s (it was Sun Ra who moved him from the alto sax to the tenor, to give him a “bigger” sound), and he’s considered a likely early influence on John Coltrane, with whom he played as members of Gay Crosse’s Good Humor Six. This standing $500 reward for any sax player who could “outblow” him drew many competitors to Rip’s Shangri La in Cleveland, where Big Joe played a long-running gig, but no challenger every succeeded in taking the money. Joe recorded his only album as bandleader, “Blue Jubilee,” in 1960. He died in 1970, at the age of 41, after a struggle with a debilitating heart condition. A jazz funeral was held in his honor.

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Remember to follow my radio show, The Lost Child, on Instagram and/or Facebook for more photos, all this month. For all other sorts of updates — and for new writing, musings and music, plus occasional drawings — keep following this blog.

Also, please know you can support the next book by supporting the last book: Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man was just issued in paperback by the University of Alabama Press. At $19.99, it’s a cool $15 cheaper than it used to be, which is great. And it contains personal reflections on all the musicians listed above: Doc Adams played with Fess Whatley, Sun Ra, Pops Williams, Erskine Hawkins, and Big Joe Alexander (his cousin). You can get the book online or, better yet, from your local book dealer. If you’re in Birmingham, join us for the paperback release party next Thursday night (January 10) at the Little Professor Bookcenter.

Happy new year. See you soon.

Jazz Demons!

The latest, from my ongoing Book of Ancestors: Fess Whatley’s Jazz Demons.

Jazz Demons, Book of Ancestors

Fess Whatley was nicknamed the “Maker of Musicians,” thanks to the legions of professional jazzmen he trained at Industrial (later Parker) High School in Birmingham. He started the city’s first jazz band — the Jazz Demons, seen here — and for years he led one of the Southeast’s premiere “society” dance bands. After the Jazz Demons came Fess Whatley’s Vibra-Cathedral Orchestra and his Sax-o-Society Orchestra. I love this newspaper ad for Sax-o-Society: “a real jazz orchestra,” it promises — “but not that ‘ear-splitting,’ ‘nerve-racking’ kind.”

sax-o-society ad (photo)

One of Fess Whatley’s many talented students was Herman “Sonny” Blount, the pianist and composer who soon enough would become Sun Ra, one of jazz music’s most extraordinary iconoclasts. Sun Ra always claimed to come from outer space, but his real roots were very much in Birmingham, as the ad below demonstrates. Sonny’s band was one of several student bands Whatley sponsored over the years; this ad, from October 1935, promotes an upcoming show presented by Whatley at Kingsport, Tennessee’s Floral Casino.

Whatley presents Sonny

Incidentally, some great, good news: Doc, my book with another Birmingham jazz hero, Frank “Doc” Adams, will be released in its first paperback edition in just a few weeks. Look for it as of December 18, its official release date, though it’s likely to be available to order within the next few days. Both Fess Whatley and Sun Ra figure prominently into the book; Doc played in both of their bands.

I’m pretty excited for a new round of readers to encounter Doc Adams through this new edition of our book. I hope you’ll get your hands around a copy as soon as you can. Thanks.