Obituary: George Adams

George Rufus Adams, tenor saxophonist, band leader, born Covington Georgia 29 April 1942, died New York City 14 November 1992.

DURING ONE of the less appealing chapters of American history following the Second World War the blues singers Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy and Huddie Ledbetter were called before the House Un-American Activities committee to answer for the lyrics of some of their 'freedom' songs. Not surprisingly, the three - honest and comparatively unsophisticated men - were intimidated and, in a bizarre compromise with the committee, agreed to add nationalist pro-American songs to their programmes. Thus Josh White followed 'Strange Fruit', a harrowing song about lynching in the Deep South, with 'The House I Live In', a paean to American virtues. Largely unaware of the hollow bargain, their audiences had difficulty in reconciling the two apparent attitudes.

The tenor saxophonist George Adams was a young child when all that happened, but he grew to be a man with a strong sense of justice and a fearsome mien which seemed to result from his pride in being black. It came as a surprise when, in 1990, he recorded an album entitled America which, apart from 'America The Beautiful', 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and a collection of Mom's-apple-pie-type songs, included one of his original compositions called 'Have You Thanked America?' This seemed to be a send-up, particularly when one considered some of Adams's lyrics:

Have you thanked America for all her gentleness and kindness and her everlasting love?

Have you thanked America for all her music and the culture and her games of sport and play?

From the Atlantic to the Pacific she's quite terrific.

From the Great Lakes to the Gulf you can never get quite enough.

'I believe in what I wrote in that tune,' he said. 'The producers (who were Japanese) thought the album would create better relations between the US and Japan. You know, send it to the President as an example of how Toshiba/ EMI is working towards that end.'

America seemed to be tame stuff indeed when compared with the ferocious and commanding authority of his earlier musical diatribes. Additionally, the Japanese producers had, in a 1988 album for Blue Note, caused Adams to try to improvise on songs like 'Bridge Over Troubled Waters' and 'Moon River', hardly suitable structures for jazz invention. For good measure they threw in 'Old Man River' and 'What A Wonderful World'. This could only be seen as an attempt to corral Adams's iconoclastic approach to make it more accessible to the album-buying public.

The thrust of Adams's tenor playing was such as to make him one of the most eloquent soloists of his times. His most palpable achievement was in the quartet he led for many years with the pianist Don Pullen, but he will be remembered as an indispensable voice in the orchestral sounds of Gil Evans and Charlie Mingus.

Only Duke Ellington and Gil Evans were able to provide a platform for a great soloist which would guarantee to make that soloist transcend his normal performances. Adams, taken like Billy Harper, Johnny Coles, Jimmy Knepper and Miles Davis himself into Evans's thrall, responded as Evans knew he would, providing a hard-as-teak, dark sound and logical but convoluted improvisations which became one of the principal colours in the Evans orchestra. Among Adams's performances of greatest magnitude on record are 'The Meaning of the Blues' and 'Orange Was the Colour of Her Dress, Then Silk Blue' done with the Evans Orchestra.

But perhaps Adams can best be measured in the context of the quartet he co-led with Pullen, for here he expounded at length in directions of his own choosing. His lengthy solos rubbed bare some of his roots in the work of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, but he was capable of more cohesion and swing than either of his late forebears and his main inspiration must have been in the playing of Sonny Rollins. Adams had a unique ability to control his instrument in its higher reaches, and his well-developed technique enabled him to produce very high notes with full tonal quality.

An unusual facet of Adams's music, unrelated to the rest of his work, was his individualistic and accomplished blues singing. Adams was opaque about the start of his singing career. 'We were sharing a bill with Manhattan Transfer in a club. On the last set Mingus plays a blues and says, 'Come on George, sing some.' '

Like so many good jazz musicians (Pullen included) Adams began his career playing for popular blues and vocal groups. He studied music at Clark College, Atlanta, where his tutor was Wayman Carver, the first jazz flautist and a veteran of the Chick Webb band of the Thirties.

Adams settled in New York in 1968 and worked from then until 1973 for the much-respected drummer Roy Haynes. After the mandatory spell as one of Art Blakey's young men, in 1973 he joined Mingus, where his combative abilities in the ensembles made him a vital component of Mingus's iron-fisted messages. He worked concurrently with Evans from 1975 to 1978, before joining the group propelled by the hard-driven music of its leader pianist, McCoy Tyner - once again Adams had found his metier.

It was in Mingus's band that he first met Don Pullen and the drummer Dannie Richmond who were, after the death of Mingus in 1979, to form with Adams and the bassist Cameron Brown the Adams-Pullen Quartet. This meeting of like minds proved to be a remarkably stable one, and the group stayed together for 10 years with only one change incurred by the death of Richmond in 1988. 'It was a fiery band,' said Pullen. 'Fire was its middle name because we had Dannie there.'

Adams recorded copiously (including two concert albums with Gil Evans at the Festival Hall, in London, in 1978) across the world and with many of his greatest contemporaries. In 1986 he formed a group to tour Europe with the radical guitarist James 'Blood' Ulmer which they called Phalanx.

His last years were spent working with Mingus Dynasty, a group dedicated to the recreation of Mingus's work and nominally led by the trombonist Jimmy Knepper. When Mingus's three-hour work 'Epitaph' was reassembled and burnished by Gunther Schuller, and brought across the Atlantic last year for European performances, Adams was one of the prime soloists. The London performance confirmed however that 'Epitaph' was not amongst Mingus's most dynamic works.

'He had been ill for a year and had breathing difficulties,' Charles Mingus's widow, Sue Mingus, said, 'but he worked with Mingus Dynasty regularly until July and last played with it a month before his death.'

Adams was able to make a substantial contribution to jazz because so much of what he played was with a high degree of inspiration. It is fortunate that so much of it was captured on record.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention