Teddy Adams has a cold (but he’s still got chops).
On the mend from a bad cold, Teddy Adams is heroically unhurried as he answers the door and invites a magazine writer and photographer into his Ardsley Park home. Moments later the trio is standing in Adams’ cozy music studio. He moves a chair to the center of the room and takes a seat. “Remind me again—what would you like to talk about?” he asks.
It’s a fair question. Adams is a world-class jazz trombonist, a music teacher and an Air Force veteran. He revitalized Savannah’s jazz culture and led the band at Savannah State University. All the while for more than 25 years—he worked for the city, ultimately becoming head of the street-cleaning department. He has three children, four grandchildren and five academic degrees. He’s been presented with a key to the city and had an official holiday declared in his name (September 23, 1995). In 2017, he published a memoir, and the book’s chapter titles (“Events and Places,” “Bands and Organizations”) echo his straightforward manner of speech. Despite his big life, Adams is not a splashy storyteller, not into name-dropping or hyperbole. He’s thorough, meticulous, exact. After all, he’s a jazz man.
Every tune starts somewhere, and Adams’ song began in Savannah, in 1941, where Gordon Lane meets East Broad. His father was a laborer who played harmonica and jaw harp to unwind. When his older brother picked up the saxophone, Adams tagged along for a few years, but sharing an instrument proved to be impractical. He doesn’t recall why he chose the trombone. From that point on, music was everything.
In the late 1950s, West Broad Street, now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, was Savannah’s place for jazz. There were jam sessions during the day, and shows every night. The local scene was rich in talent: Trummy Young, Ben Riley, Irene Reid, Sahib Shihab, James Moody, Jabbo Smith, and of course, Johnny Mercer, whose compositions gave jazz much of its canon. Adams likes to say that even in the midst of tensions that gave way to the Civil Rights movement, the bandstand was always shared. The Dunbar Hotel was the city’s only black hotel, often hosting black musicians who came to play. “That’s where they hung out, so that’s where I hung out,” Adams recalls. “It was like another world to me.”
After graduating from Beach High School in 1959, Adams turned down a music scholarship to Florida A&M and joined the Air Force. He was stationed in Charleston, Saigon and Washington, DC before moving to Tokyo, where he played in military bands and eventually earned a degree from a Japanese conservatory. (“The Japanese are great emulators,” he says. “Then they embarrass you with your own invention.”) Unbelievably, it was in Tokyo, in 1967, that Adams met fellow Savannah native and renowned jazz bassist Ben Tucker for the first time. Tucker was on tour with Art Blakey, and Adams’ eyes shine as he rattles off the name of every musician in the all-star lineup that night: Blakey, Tucker, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter and Jimmy Owens.
Adams stayed abroad for more than a decade, and by the time he returned to Savannah in 1976, the vibrant scene he knew so well was all but gone. “The musicians were still here but the music was not being played,” he says. “It became my passion to restore what I grew up with.” He started by persuading Ben Tucker to retrieve his bass from storage in New York, and together they founded the Telfair Jazz Society, then the Coastal Jazz Association. In 1983, they launched the Savannah Jazz Festival, which ran for two years at Grayson Stadium and has filled Forsyth Park for a week every September since. For 20 years, he taught a course on the history of jazz at Savannah State University through a continuing education program then known as Elderhostel.
Adams knows jazz is sometimes perceived by the general public as arty and esoteric, but what he cannot allow is the idea that it is random. “Jazz is based on the theory of music,” he says. “These are chord changes and progressions and principles known to any musician.” Yet as opposed to, say, classical music, where the intent of the performer is to faithfully interpret and recreate original compositions, Adams sees jazz as infinitely fresh. “The sky is always the limit,” he says. “You’re always reaching. You go on stage with the intent of creating something you haven’t done before. That’s the beauty of jazz. It’s spontaneous creativity.”
Though his children, all musicians in their youth, still appreciate jazz, none of them are fanatics—“not like me,” he says. His son is in the medical field in Atlanta, and his daughters both work in media in New York. When he visits the girls, he plans his jazz itinerary in advance—he has things to do, shows to catch, people to see. Several of Adams’ former students now live in New York as professional musicians, an accomplishment by any measure and one that makes Adams exceedingly proud. “I’m glad I’ve been able to impart to young people the importance of jazz,” he says, “to share what I’ve learned, to ensure that they carry on.”
Adams’ next act brings him back into the spotlight: He’s booking musicians for Good Times Jazz Bar, which hosts live jazz six nights a week. “Good Times is the best thing that’s happened to Savannah since Hard Hearted Hannah’s,” he says, naming the beloved club run by Ben Tucker from 1985 to 1993. Visitors can expect to find Adams himself on stage from time to time. “It keeps you young,” he says. “When other things are limited, music makes you free as a bird.”
Admittedly, the modern trajectory for jazz musicians is a far cry from the self-taught musicianship that dominated the scene when he was coming up. “Formal training is the new approach,” he says. “The average jazz musician today has a master’s degree in jazz studies, so it’s become almost academic. But don’t misunderstand me—if you don’t have an innateness for the music, all the school in the world isn’t gonna do you any good.”
So how can Adams tell that he’s sharing a room or a stage with the genuine article? He thinks a long time before answering. “Some of the greatest musicians in the jazz arena couldn’t even read music,” he says. “It’s a gift, it’s inherent, either you got it or you don’t have it. When you hear a great player, you will know.”
Teddy Adams’ memoir, The Up of the Down Beat, is available at Amazon.com.