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 www.ladymuleskinnerpress.com. 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.

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“Don’t Tell” by Donna Thomas

I don’t know why the memory has started to surface after all this time. But it’s here and grows stronger and stronger each day. I also don’t know why I never told anyone. It just seemed easier to tuck the incident neatly away in the trunk of “don’t-tell” memories, lock it and lose the key.


Friday, September 4, 1970, my sixteenth birthday. My mother was taking me to get my driver’s license. I was so excited. I no longer had to look at my brother’s sullen face when Momma made him take me to school events or to visit my friends. By the end of the day, I would be able to do these things for myself. Of course Momma had already informed me I would have to take my little sister along. That was OK, as long as I got my driver’s license in return.

The day was hot. Summer showed no signs of surrendering to fall. The sky was clear and bright blue. I can’t recall what the air smelled like, but I chose to remember the scent of freshness seeping from the ground after a summer rain. I wore my fitted bell-bottom blue jeans and a short-sleeveless-waist-length top with a vee-neck. My mother wore a pair of not tight but fitted pants, and she also wore a sleeveless top. I think hers was a vee-neck also. I remember how young and pretty she looked that day. She was so excited for me. I would be the first girl in the family to get her license at sixteen. My mother and my aunts didn’t get theirs until they were in their twenties. And my cousin who was one year older still didn’t have hers.

Back in 1970 you went to Kelley Ingram Park, the center for Civil Rights congregations, to take the road test. You parked your car along Sixteenth Street and waited for a police officer or a pig, the name for police officers in those days, to take you for the road test. I had passed the written test on the first try. This also made my momma proud. Back then, little things made Negro parents proud since the city of Birmingham was fresh from it’s failed resistance of civil rights.

I remember his uniform was khaki colored. A silver badge was pinned on the left side of his shirt. He was a large-bellied, tall, red-complexioned man with close-cropped blond hair. His face was round. However, there were pockets of flesh protruding from the circle. His lips were thin, almost none existent; and his eyes were slight and dark blue. His small pudgy nose was perfectly centered. In the left hand he carried a clipboard with some papers attached, and in the right he carried a pencil. I heard my name called, “Deena Gossett.” I raised my hand.

The pig came toward Momma and me. He told me he would be giving me my test today. Mother pointed to our 1965 lavender Chevy Impala. I left the safety zone beside my momma and went with him. When we were secured in the car, I was instructed to make a u-turn and drive the few feet to our starting point, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. As soon as we were safely away from my mother and the group of other young hopefuls waiting to take the test, he started.

“Drive to the next intersection and make a right.” His voice was firm and direct.

I did as I was instructed.

“Keep driving, I’ll tell you when to turn.” Then his voice changed to friendly and familiar.

“Now tell me young lady, do you have a boyfriend?” I smiled and said. “No sir.”

“I bet a pretty girl like you has a boyfriend?” I assumed he wanted to calm my nerves.

He probably used the “boyfriend” line with all the girls.

“No sir.” I replied.

“Turn right at the next intersection. Do you let him touch you?”

“No!”

“Do you let him touch your breast?” I don’t recall taking my eyes off the road; however, I must have.

“Don’t look at me. Keep your eyes on the road. Make a left at the light”

I kept driving, doing as I was told.

“Do you let him touch you between your legs?” His voice was now suggestive and condescending. The joy of getting my license exited the opened windows of the car and bolted through the shotgun houses that lined the driving trail. Into the car came a thief not only taking my joy, but also my youthful innocence. I was sixteen-years-old, still a virgin, and knew nothing of sex. My mother hadn’t told me about what happens between a girl and a boy. Momma was a strict Catholic. She raised me to be a strict Catholic. To her, sex came after marriage. I still had the once-upon-a-time, love-ever-after idea of romance and sex. The pig sitting next to me was definitely not Prince Charming.

As filth poured from his mouth, he continued to make marks on his pad. He looked straight ahead so that to anyone watching all seemed normal.

“Do you let him lick you? I bet you do?”

Just don’t touch me. Please God, don’t let him touch me. Hail Mary, full of grace

Then he instructed me that it was now time to parallel park. That meant looking in his direction. I had to acknowledge him. I had to look right into the face of my robber. I tried to look past him and concentrate on parking the car. However, I still could see his clammy red tongue slide throw his lips and ease from side to side. The devil blue of his eyes roamed my breast and hips like a hungry animal. He took every advantage of our eye contact to spew sewage. “You sure are pretty. Boys like to do it with pretty girls. Do you let him do it to you?”

When I finished parallel parking we sat for what seemed like hours, although I’m sure it was only seconds. The pig continued to spill garbage. I continued to look straight ahead. I guess when he realized he wasn’t going to get a reaction from me: I wasn’t going to cry, I wasn’t going to act shocked, (at least not visibly), I wasn’t going to curse, and I surely wasn’t going to give him any encouragement; he instructed me to return to Kelly Ingram Park.

I saw my mother as we approached the end of the test. She was smiling and waiting for me. Nothing seemed out of the normal. Mr. Pig was good at what he did. I got out of the car and quickly returned to the safety zone beside my mother. The pig got out of the car and told my mother I was a good driver. He awarded me my license.

I had just driven the path where Dr. King had marched for our freedom. Where a church had been bombed. Where four little Negro girls had died. Where water hoses and dogs had been unleashed on Negroes who fought for our civil rights. Where I had been violated as if none of it mattered.


I graduated from John Carroll Catholic High School. I went to Auburn University. I married my college sweetheart. I raised two children. I watched my mother die of cancer. I divorced after thirty-four years of marriage. And I never told.

Thirty-nine years later, my sister and I were having a “remember when” conversation. I don’t know why. I really don’t. But the memory unlocked itself, escaped from the trunk and spilled from my mouth like sour vomit. It was out! It was finally being told. My sister was so angry. Not with the pig, she was angry with me.

“Why didn’t you tell?”

“I don’t know.”

“You should have told someone. You don’t keep stuff like that.”

“I saw Momma. She was so happy and proud.”

“Deena, you can’t protect everybody.”

“I know. I think I’m finally learning that lesson. But what were they going to do? We were fresh from civil rights. It was a white policeman. No one would have believed me. Daddy was already having a hard time on his job for marching and picketing. ”

“You still should have told.”

But I didn’t.

I honestly don’t remember if he touched me. That memory is still buried deep inside my subconscious, and I don’t think I ever want it to surface.

I did what most girls did back then and what most girls continue to do today when they are raped verbally or physically.

Don’t tell.


Donna Gossom Thomas, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, has a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama in Birmingham. She is a retired telecommunications worker chasing her dream. Her work has appeared in The Birmingham Newsand PMS magazine. 

“Off the Highway West of Birmingham” by Tobi Cogswell

Shelby once thought that Frontage Road
was the longest two-lane in the state,
now she knows it’s a stepping-off
place for truck stops and smoke breaks,
coffee breaks, pee breaks,
her ass frozen on metal seats
so shiny she can see her reflection
between her legs which is all there
is in these huts with no mirrors
and water so cold, the Arctic
would be a summer vacation; a reflection
just like she was looking at all the beers
twinkling through a glass case
at the Circle K, they taunt her while she thinks
it’s 5 o’clock somewhere and why the hell
wouldn’t a Rolling Rock between her knees
be just as satisfying as the worn out, stale java,
steaming her glasses, making her wonder
just how long it would take to drive anywhere
that the coffee didn’t peel her insides,
and what about that handsome
red-shirted, mustached, delicious-looking
man who doesn’t have a ring and doesn’t
have a friend, who’s looking at the
small bottles of milk, a roll of Tums
in one hand, a pack of Kools in the other –
smoke breaks, coffee breaks, pee breaks
and man breaks, this Frontage Road, all
the adventures just waiting to be grabbed,
north to south and back, just like
Shelby and her new-found man.


Tobi Cogswell is a two-time Pushcart nominee. Publication credits include Illya’s Honey, REAL, Red River Review, Inkspill (UK), Iodine Poetry Journal, The Smoking Poet, Slipstream, Chiron Review, Blinking Cursor (UK), Untitled Country Review, and Hawai’i Pacific Review among others, and are forthcoming in, Paper Nautilus, North Chicago Review, The Linnet’s Wings (Ireland), StepAway (UK), Ballard Street Poetry Journal, Compass Rose, Front Porch Review, Alligator Stew (UK) and Pale House – Letters to Los Angeles. Her latest chapbook is Surface Effects in Winter Wind, (Kindred Spirit Press). She is the co-editor of San Pedro River Review (www.sprreview.com).

Digital Art by Scott Thigpen

Rollin’ Derdy

Storyteller

Slossosaurus

Vulcan


Scott Thigpen is a graphic designer whose clients have included Modern Bride, Coca Cola, Dreamworks, The Wall Street Journal, The American Bar Association, Snapple, Gillette, Harlequin Romance Novels, and The Chicago Bears to name a few. Thanks to his success in commercial art, he now has the ability to pursue fine art—his true passion—and get his work exhibited in galleries. Scott Thigpen’s work is created digitally and then reproduced on museum-quality giclee prints. His work can be purchased from Naked Art Gallery in Birmingham, Alabama.

Three Poems by Kathy Gilbert

These poems are dedicated to the memory of Luther Freeman, Jr.  (1944-2004)

The Most Integrated Room in the House

Tuscumbia, Alabama 1883

The girls are in the kitchen
Martha age six, Helen age three
playing with scraps from the pie crust
the  cook, Martha’s mother,  is making for dessert.
They knead dough balls to throw after they cut paper dolls
on the porch. Martha’s corkscrew braids and Helen’s blond curls touch.

The girls have sixty kitchen signs.
A language they cooked up between them.
                                            Double hands on the ground means let’s go
                                            hunt for guinea fowl eggs in the long grass.

Hosea Hudson & Birmingham Tankas

In school  ate his shirt-
calico waist grandma made -
nibbled on it, bit holes ;
hungry, didn’t learn to read.
sang Nearer My God To Thee 

Heard Camp Hill shoot out
with sharecropper union dead
Molded Stockham’s gray iron
Left seven shape note quartet
To organize plant workers

Radicalized
Stagger system: rob you blind
Scottsboro Boys’ case
System clear-  Jim Crow, frame up
Lynching. Joined Party, kept date,

Like birthday, special.
Taught blacks, poor whites, how to read
Franchise  exercise.
Targeted unemployment,
War, as people’s enemy

Bull Connor’s umbrage
Forced Hosea’s exile
North for forty years.
Birmingham proclamation
His heroic odyssey.

The 3 Bs

Our first conversations were about steel
Me: Buffalo & Bethlehem
You: Birmingham & Bethlehem
                       The statue of Vulcan
                       Roman god of fire

Luther Sr.  ‘Buster’ had seven sons
                    You were  Jr. called Skip
You told me Buster was the best steel molder
                 In  Birmingham
( With the aside: ‘We called it Bombingham’)

That he was a little man who ate six sandwiches for lunch
In his spare time at the mill he made small cast iron skillets
              For you and your brothers to cook birds
                    He had you shoot with slingshots     

In Greek myth poor Pelops was cooked in a stew
         Demeter ate his shoulder she was   distracted unaware.
         Vulcan’s Greek counterpart fashioned a  prosthesis for the boy
                                 Pindar said that’s all a lie!
Greek gods are not barbarians  who eat their children
                                    They are like you and I 

Bethlehem spewed Buffalo’s sky orange at noon
Workers said it was hotter than hell
Where they made uranium rods for the A bomb
buried the residue in the Tonawandas after the war
Leukemic children were as common as those with the flu

                               What would Pindar say?

A former bus driver and bureaucrat, Kathy Gilbert is now a MFA student in poetry at San Francisco State University.

Photography by Molly Hand

ISMPB

The Ian Sturrock Memorial Pipe Band is named to honor the memory of Ian Sturrock of Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland, the first to teach bagpipes in the state of Alabama and is considered by many to be the source of Birmingham's proud Piping tradition.

Birchfields

Burchfields peanuts, a southern tradition since 1937. Photo taken at the Collinsville Trade Day.

On a Wire

Photo taken while wandering the streets of Birmingham.

Molly Hand, a native of Birmingham, Alabama is a photographer and mixed media artist. With more than ten years Irish dancing experience, she is also the Director of the Alabama Academy of Irish Dance.  The focus of her photos generally revolves around capturing the rich diversity of life and culture in Alabama.