Part of the legacy of Birmingham jazz icon Frank Eaton “Doc” Adams may be that he continues to inspire art, as an exhibition this week at the Carver Theatre will demonstrate.
The “Mr. Painterman Semi-Annual Art Festival: Flowers, Butterflies and Jazz on Canvas, a Tribute to the Late, Great Doctor Frank Adams” will bring the late jazz man’s work back into view on Friday May 1 at the home of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. The show results from the deep affection for Adams by “Mr. Painterman,” the artist Java Lewis, and Leah Tucker, the executive director of the Hall of Fame.
Lewis described Adams as “a giant in the local music industry” who “has made a major impact on the lives of many in Birmingham.”
Adams has often inspired glowing tributes. His biographer, Burgin Matthews wrote, “As a clarinetist and alto sax man, he had a style that was unmistakable — a clear tone, and a phrasing that was at once sophisticated and playful — and he seemed only to get better with age.”
BirminghamWiki chronicles his 86 years with a brief 331-word highlight reel of his accomplishments: “He taught for 47 years in Birmingham City Schools and was a charter member and the second executive director of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame;” “He later joined a second big band put together by his former schoolmate, Sonny Blount (later known as “Sun Ra”);” “He enrolled at Howard University in Washington D. C. in 1945 and founded the Howard Swingmasters big band. From there he began playing for some of the giants of jazz, including Tiny Bradshaw, Lucky Millinder and Duke Ellington.”
Adams, who performed and taught until the week of his death in October 2014 according to Lewis, will be featured in the artwork of many of the artists at the festival. Lewis said he plans to show videos of Adams playing his saxophone.
When Lewis speaks of his late friend, his energy bubbles over and he talks faster, as if trying to catch up with his own thoughts. “He helped me get this show together almost 10 years ago,” Lewis said. “I’ve been doing this show, which has turned into a festival.”
Lewis noted that Adams supported him even when Lewis was a homeless young artist by purchasing paintings and performing live at Lewis’ art show. They had met outside the Carver Theater where Adams was a performer and educator.
“He told me a little bit about his life — how he had played with Duke Ellington and influenced a lot of musicians to play in that day,” Lewis said. “Big bands, Duke Ellington being the main person that he bragged on. He said he was a junior fifth in Duke Ellington’s band and he learned a lot from him. Well, Dr. Frank Adams worked his way on up, and he himself became a big man and had touched the lives of so many people including me.
“So what happened was, I was doing the show in the park outside across the street from the Carver Theater and — I didn’t that he would do it, such a big man like that — but the day that I told him my show was going to be [Adams played]. It was a success. … And the next time that I did the show, he introduced me to Mrs. Leah Tucker, the director of the Carver Theatre who I’ve known now for a long time. He introduced me to her, she liked my artwork and we developed a rapport.”
Lewis’ Painterman festivals have always incorporated live music, and he aims to keep the tradition going.
“There won’t be anybody to replace Dr. Adams, but I want to keep the music part of it going because people will come then because they knew Doc Adams was going to play,” Lewis said. “His name was always on the bill.”
This year, the art festival will include musical performances by Taylor Hollingsworth, Aretta Woodruff, Elnora Spencer, Krystal Kline and Bodile Balams.
Lewis said Adams lent his improvisational jazz skills to interpreting paintings during the festival.
“There was a nude picture that I did before and he really wouldn’t say the actual words,” Lewis said. “He would name the picture, he would say, ‘This is my interpretation of The Nude,’ and he would play a song to it. And I guess it’s left up to you, exactly when you hear the song then you would have to kind of put your own words and interpret it yourself.”
Adams was a mentor to Leah Tucker, even though she was technically his superior for 11 years at the Jazz Hall of Fame, she said.
“I was his boss, but, you know, Doc has his own routine,” Tucker said with a laugh. “You can’t really be Doc’s boss. You can give him suggestions, but Doc is going to do things his way. I never had to worry. If you gave Doc a project, he would follow it through to the end.”
Adams was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1978 and taught free jazz lessons every Saturday morning at the Carver.
“He was like a father figure, a mentor, a true professional,” Tucker said. “He performed constantly. … He didn’t think any performance was too big or too small. In fact, the last performance he did was for Java’s art show.”
“To keep jazz going, you need people like that,” Tucker continued. “It’s got to be in your blood, and Doc was a true jazz man. It’s in his blood.”
If Adams’ blood is made of jazz, Tucker’s is made of performance and visual art.
“That’s one reason we started letting Java have his show here,” she said. “Because Java had a vision, and he’s dedicated to his vision. … We stick with Java because we know anybody with a vision who has the heart and soul to do their art, I’m going to be behind you.”
Flowers, Butterflies and Jazz on Canvas: A Tribute to the Late, Great Doctor Frank Adams will be held at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in the Carver Theater Friday, May 1, 6–8 p.m. For more information, visit jazzhall.com.