Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man (Excerpt) by Frank “Doc” Adams and Burgin Mathews

Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, released this fall from the University of Alabama Press, chronicles the life of Dr. Frank Adams, a local jazz icon and a ceaseless and inspiring educator. Drawn from more than two years of interviews with collaborator Burgin Mathews, the book presents Doc’s incredible story in his own words, telling along the way, too, the often overlooked story of jazz in Birmingham.

In this excerpt, Adams recalls his experiences playing with trumpeter Joe Guy at a spot, well on the outskirts of Birmingham, called the Woodland Club. A figure largely unsung in the history of jazz, Guy had performed and recorded with Coleman Hawkins’ influential orchestra; he had helped comprise, with pianist Thelonious Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke, the house band at Minton’s Playhouse, the after-hours New York nightspot that witnessed the birth of bebop; he had been involved, professionally and romantically, with Billie Holiday, whose band he briefly led. In 1947, in a raid on their New York hotel room, Guy and Holiday were busted for narcotic possession. In the trial that followed, Holiday was sentenced to a year and a day in a federal reformatory; Guy was acquitted, broke his ties with Holiday, and slipped back home to Birmingham. Today, Joe Guy most often appears as a footnote in the history of jazz, a promising player whose career was cut short by addiction and whose story ends with his severance from the legendary “Lady Day.” According to one of Holiday’s biographers, Guy “permanently dropped out of music” after the trial and split; in the words of another, he “faded back down South where he was born.”

Back in Birmingham, Guy teamed up with Frank Adams, who had just begun his decades-long career in education and was putting together his own band for what would become a fourteen-year weekly run at the Woodland Club. In Adams’s reminiscences, Guy emerges as a warm if eccentric mentor and friend; a master musician, even after his fall from the jazz elite; a good man and a powerful artist haunted by the demons of his addiction. Guy passed away in 1962, at forty-one years of age. Eighty-four at this writing, Frank Adams remains today a tireless and inspiring performer, teacher, and storyteller.

The following excerpt is printed with permission from the University of Alabama Press.

I had some of the best years of my life when Joe came back home, with all his experience and all these things he would tell me. We would be playing. And you know how people like to collect memorabilia, or they want to be related to some great artist or something. You run into these kinds of folk: they want to impress you that they’ve been there. This guy would come in the club and he would say, “Listen.” Said, “Joe, I know Billie Holiday. And I know you had some problems. I’m so sorry that you and Lady Day had to break up.” Said, “I’m going back to New York tomorrow, and I’m going to see her.”

Joe’s sitting there. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, I’m going. What do you want me to tell her?”

He thought a minute. We were listening.

“Just tell her . . . a little dog says: bow-wow.”

Joe worked for me for years and years at the Woodland Club, and he would often have to go to Lexington, Kentucky, for a cure. I remember one time, which was probably prophetic, he came to the home and we were sitting on the porch–he had just gotten back from Lexington–and I said, “Joe, we missed you.” I said, “Look how wonderful you look,” and I talked about what we were going to do together–he said, “Well, we can do some things, but it won’t last.”

“What do you mean, it won’t last?”

He said, “It just won’t last. I’ll be back out there again.”

I said, “No–look at you! You’ve picked up some weight, and you’re thinking good, and your skin looks good–”

So he told me something I never will forget. He said: “Once a junkie, always a junkie.”

He said, “You just can’t cure it.” And he said, “If I ever see you try it, I’m going to kill you.”

I remember Art Pepper, the saxophone player, said that the first time he got high off of heroin, he knew that that was his life; he didn’t want anything else. He just did it ’til he died. Joe was like that. And even though I was a mature man–he wasn’t much older than I was–he was very protective of me. He was like a brother: “Don’t you ever, ever try it. I’d come from anywhere and kill you–because you don’t have to do that.”

I remember that, and I always have a soft spot with Joe.

Something I often think about: you had these guys in the music business that had these wonderful minds, and you wonder–what could have happened to them if they hadn’t gotten hooked on drugs?

I found out–one reason that musicians turn to narcotics–they hear this music in their head. I do. You probably do. You hear these things in your head, but you never, never can produce exactly what you hear. It’s critical to musicians. You get a guy who hears these demons in his ears–you hear him playing and you say, “That was magnificent.” But he says, “I didn’t do what I wanted to, man.” He hears something else. He could be sitting down, trying to work it out, and he can get some of it–but just when he gets that, before he finishes it, here comes something else. So he says, “Maybe if I can get a little taste of something, to make me relax, I can reproduce it”–but that drives him further away from it. He goes back again: “Maybe this time I can do it.”

It’s like searching for the Holy Grail. You can’t find it. And a lot of musicians lose their sanity.

Some people, like Ellington and other great musicians, had sense enough to say: development comes in time. Duke Ellington would say, “Wait ’til next year.” And Sun Ra: he made a decision that he would hear these things from outer space, but he would take his time in dealing with them. But the anxious say, “Hey, I hear it, I hear it; up here I hear it, man. So let me get something to make me cool down and do it.”

It’s like Shakespeare said: some people can succeed, but they have that one damn spot. That one damn spot. That no matter what you do, that thing’s going to come and get you. You step on the worm, but the worm’s going to eat you in the end. That’s the kind of thing some people have. We all have our frailties.

Some of the things that Joe Guy played were beautiful–most of them were–but there were nights that Joe would be sickening, because he’d hear these things in his head and he’s got to go and get a fix to make it come out. He would try to get something that could make him climb to a level that wasn’t natural for him to climb at that time.

I noticed Joe’s behavior could be bizarre.

He lived not too far from me, and we’d take him home. I remember one night, we got home real late–it was just before day in the morning–and Joe said, “Can I come in a minute?” I said, “Sure.” I thought he needed to use the restroom.

My sweet mother was in there, asleep. Joe went back to Mom’s refrigerator and started cracking all these eggs and swallowing them: just cracking eggs, cracking eggs, and swallowing them. Mom got up: “What in the world are you doing?” She had never seen anything like that. To the day she died, she would say, “What was wrong with that boy, eating up all my eggs?”

Joe had two trumpet mouthpieces. Both of them were old. He would take a mouthpiece, and he’d play something, like “Winter Wonderland by Night.” If he missed a note, he’d take that mouthpiece and slap it–“You’re no good!”–and put it back and get the other one. In about an hour, he’d slap that one: “You’re no good, you rascal.”

He would say–what was the word?–“Shuckaluckaduck.” Shuckaluckaduck. He would say these things, and we didn’t know what they meant, but we knew he was happy when he’d say that.

Shuckaluckaduck. Joe Guy.

Joe was another one who opened me up to a lot of things. We would play together, and he said, “Turn your back; your back to my back.” We’d put our backs together and play–and we could really hear each other. I had never thought of that.

He’d say, “Anytime you pop your eye.”

“What are you talking about?”

He said, “I’ve watched you, and when you pop your eye a little bit”–I didn’t know I was doing it–he said, “then you’re really playing, man!”

Joe’s thing was, he wished I could be in “fast company.” That I could have been another Charlie Parker if I had been around fast company. But he said sometimes I’d be playing and I’d pop my eye–and then the real Frank Adams would come out.

I remember, we’d be at the Woodland Club, and we’d have somebody come and sit in with the band. They’d come after hours, after we’d played our regular set, and they’d bring music for us to read. All the young arrangers, some of the well-known white composers—they’d come with their little pieces: “Play this,” and “Play this”; “Play this,” and “Play this.” Joe would sit there like a soldier, in this militaristic pose he always had. He’d have his horn in his lap, straight up, like a rifle–he wasn’t going to play anything.

They’d say, “Let’s have a jam session.” You’d get ready to play, and Joe would hit you: “Don’t play nothing. They’ll steal everything you’ve got.”

One thing about Joe: he had class. He had been around classy people, and he had class. He knew exactly what to do, and he knew exactly how to do things. He did not put down any music. You might hear another fellow say, “I don’t play anything but bebop,” or “Those guys over there are dumb.” For example, the things that Louis Armstrong did back in 1920 were marvelous, but somebody would say, “Oh, that old crap–I don’t want to hear that old slavery-time music” or whatever: “Man, get hip, get modern.”

Joe never did that. He always found something good in music. And whatever he did wrong, he did to himself: it was his self-destruction.

Once we were playing at the Woodland Club–these are things I remember so vividly–and Mr. Red [the owner of the Woodland Club] was drinking heavily, as he would usually do. He had some of his cronies around the bar. I guess he wanted to show off. It was after one of those big University of Alabama games, and he was really inebriated.

At this time Joe was really himself: he hadn’t had any drugs or anything, he was just Joe Guy. He was doing fine.

Red was the one drinking. He stopped Joe at the bar, and his friends were there with their beers. He said, “Joe, they tell me that one time, according to DownBeat, you were the third greatest trumpet player in all the world!”

As I like to say, Joe was like a soldier. He had been through all of these things, and he was at home, nowhere to go. He’d wear this old blue suit–a lot of musicians have these blue suits, where they’ve worn it out, and the stripes break loose, and they shine and all.

He said, “That’s true, Mr. Hassler.”

Everybody was listening. “Now look at you. Man, you’re down here in my raggedy old place, playing out here with Frank Adams and all of them–you sure have fallen from grace. And they tell me you were the top of the line.”

We’re hearing this. Dot was getting angry. She said, “Why don’t you say something, they’re just insulting Joe like that?”

We knew Joe was a good guy. He’s dressed up in those shiny clothes, with this old, beat-up trumpet–but when we got married, the first telegram we got was from Joe. He was supposed to be such a down-and-out, but he had this class about him. I wasn’t getting disturbed, because I knew Joe could handle himself.

They were talking: “Yeah, Joe, you’re such a has-been, and washed out,” and all that kind of stuff. “What you got to say about it, Joe?”

Joe said, “Mr. Hassler, I’ll tell you one thing.” He said: “It’s better to be a has-been than a never-was.”

Boy, you could feel the climate in that club, and you could hear a pin fall.

He had this dignity about him. It’s like he said: “A little dog says, bow-wow.” When you reach the bottom, you’re at the bottom. How far do you want to deflate me? I’m a dog: bow-wow. Nothing I can do.

But better a has-been than a never-was.

That had a profound effect on Mr. Hassler, and it had a profound effect on the ones that were standing around. After that day, they still didn’t call him “Mr. Guy,” but you could see this respect coming from them. Before long Mr. Hassler was telling people, “I got the best musicians here. That’s Joe Guy.” And all those who would come down to the Woodland Club with their arrangements or to jam—they didn’t say it, but they knew that he was one of the greatest in the world.

That’s why they would come out there: after they got through playing their thing, they wanted to hear the real thing.

Burgin Mathews is a writer, teacher, and radio host in Birmingham. Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, his new book with Frank Adams, was published this fall by the University of Alabama Press. More of his writing, including the self-published Thirty Birmingham Songs, can be found at Burgin’s “downhome roots radio hour,” The Lost Child, streams online at Birmingham Mountain Radio every Saturday (9-10 a.m. CST) and Tuesday (9-10 p.m.).

Dr. Frank “Doc” Adams is a lifelong educator and a master musician whose credits include work with Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, Erskine Hawkins, and others. For five decades he served Birmingham City Schools, first as teacher and next as director of the district’s music programs. Inducted to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1978, Doc continues to teach free Saturday jazz lessons at the Hall of Fame, where he also offers deeply personal, informative and entertaining tours. Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, his new book with Burgin Mathews, was published this fall by the University of Alabama Press.