Clifford Adams’ trombone and a multi-decade gig in the horn section of the long-time pop-funk band Kool and the Gang has taken him through the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa, but if you spend some time talking to him you find that his musical heart remains close to his native Trenton.
Adams, 61, is home from the road for now and will perform with his jazz trio at the Record Collector in Bordentown on Wednesday, November 27.
He lives in Ewing with his wife of 10 years, Marcia. “She loves jazz,” Adams says. “Her record collection is the same as mine. She plays the piano. She understands the music. She’s also a writer and tai chi master.” Between the two they have four children — his wife’s son and daughter (both of whom played music) and his two sons from a previous marriage.
Adams links one of his three sisters, Gwen Green, an elementary school teacher in Columbus, to music. “My sister was my main source of musical inspiration, between my mother’s collection of eclectic music, primarily jazz, and my sister. I used to sit there and watch her play piano.” Another sister, Lori — now a teacher in Maryland — went to school with Trenton-native jazz pianist Orrin Evans. Other siblings include Harold at McMasters and Carr in Robbinsville and Yvonne with ETS in Lawrence.
But there other influences, including his parents, who separated 50 years ago. Clifford Sr. played clarinet and saxophone in the Trenton High School band (he also owned Adams Auto Service on Seward Avenue, once the second oldest black-owned business in Trenton), and his mother, Evelyn Adams, a New Jersey Department of Labor employee, “supported my interest as a musician, taking me to the clubs. She loved the music, so she always had a good time.”
Adams’ story has tantalizing elements that recall an era when Trenton was known for attracting — and producing — talented musicians who were able to establish themselves in rewarding careers where they could rely on their artistic ability and not necessarily need a “day job.”
He is quick to add that his story also unites several important influences, from that of his mother’s collection of jazz LPs to Thomas Gryce, a music teacher in Trenton schools. Gryce’s brother was regarded alto saxophonist and recording artist GiGi Gryce, represented in Art Kane’s famed 1958 Esquire Magazine photo of jazz innovators, “A Great in Harlem.”
In 1965 Tommy Gryce was teaching music in Trenton schools and handed a trombone to a young Adams just as students at Trenton’s Junior 5 High School were first trying out their embouchures. Adams says that was an era that has left Trenton schools behind, and a goal of his is to reinvigorate a school music program that has languished in Trenton’s school system in recent years. “I wouldn’t be playing today if it wasn’t for Tommy Gryce and if there hadn’t been a music program in the schools. He put the trombone in my hand.”
In the late 1960s Adams took his trombone and began performing in Trenton High School’s Battle of the Bands competitions, which attracted groups from as far as Jersey City, from where the embryonic Kool and the Gang came.
“Summer of ’68 they played at our high school auditorium,” Adams says. “So we’d be in the back getting changed and we’d be talking because we all played jazz. We were backing up different singing groups. It was all instrumental music. Back then instrumental music was popular. Now you can hardly get noticed playing instrumental music.”
Shortly afterward Adams got his professional start in the horn section of a Trenton band called the VSQs (named for the “Very Special Quality” designation on Cognac bottles. “’69 was the second year I was playing with the VSQs, and they (Kool and the Gang) already had a record out. They were doing original music. We were doing covers of James Brown, and they were doing their own music. We connected. That’s how it happened back then. The drummer might leave and you bring in someone else good. You have different configurations of people, and that creates energy. With Kool and the Gang it became international.”
Adams’ start also calls upon another bygone Trenton tradition, when the city once had numerous active clubs featuring regular venues for jazz musicians that he visited with his mother. “They had a lot of clubs in Trenton. Jazz was going on in every little bar. There was the Candlelight Lounge, the Tuxedo Club, there was a place called the Park View. And they had little clubs that would pop up for a little while and then, you know, they would kind of disappear. The first gig I played was at the War Memorial Building. Then I played at the Carver Y, which is sandwiched over there near Bellevue. They always had some kind of dance. There were a lot of places to play. There was no shortage of places to play back then.
The Fantasy Lounge on Chambers Street introduced Adams to a Who’s Who of great jazz musicians. “The summer of ’71 I would go down to the Fantasy Lounge. I got to play with (tenor saxophonist) Gene Ammonds, I got to play with (be-bop era saxophonist) Sonny Stitt, (trombonist) Freddie Hubbard. Back then they played two sets, and in one set they would let the younger musicians sit in. So I got to play with everyone.”
He also got his break there when he met the organist and band leader Charles Earland. “Back then he sold 100,000 copies of a jazz album and that was unheard of,” Adams says. “So he took me on the road and my first stop was the Club Barron in Harlem. He had to finish an album so I played on the second half. So at 17 I played on a jazz album and it was a great thrill. So I told all my friends to come down to the Fantasy Lounge and learn from the masters. I’ve always said the best way to learn is on the bandstand.”
After tours in the early 1970s — first Patti LaBelle and then the Stylistics — doors continued to open for Adams. He went on a two-year tour with the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Big Band, joined Duke Ellington’s Orchestra (led by Mercer Ellington), toured Europe with the legendary drummer Max Roach, and then formally joined Kool and the Gang.
“I was doing fairly well. I wasn’t gone a lot; it worked out. I got my diploma,” Adams says. He also went to Trenton State College to study trombone.
Recognition came several years later with the Clifford Adams trombone solo on Kool and the Gang’s song “Joanna,” recipient of the 1984 BMI award for radio’s most played song. “That meant a lot to me because I helped on the writing,” Adams says. “They turned part of my trombone solo into the vocal.”
In 1998 Adams released his debut solo project; a jazz CD titled “The Master Power,” which did well throughout Europe, home to an enormous Adams fan base.
His next CD, “Cliff Notes,” represents the first forum where Adams truly expresses his multi-faceted nature. Here fans can delight in Adams’ million-selling pop side featured in Stylistics and Kool & the Gang hits, but also showcase his classical jazz roots through the same notes.
“Kool and the Gang has taken me around the world a couple times,” he says. “Egypt, Tahiti, Moscow, Australia. We regularly hang-out with Prince Albert in Monte Carlo, Thailand, Morocco. The only place I haven’t played is Greece. I’ve been in the band 36 years. After all that, I don’t like to go anywhere. I’ve been on the road 43 years. If I have time off I just like to stay home.” Fortunately other Kool and the Gang projects include a recently released holiday CD and a new album coming out next year.
He is also planning a 2014 album of his own. “I plan on doing something new next year,” he says. “It’s time to get something else out. The music is written. I just have to get some players together and start working with a label. I’m just trying to keep things moving.”
Of his own work — including the 1998 CD “The Master Power” and the 2002 “I Feel Your Spirit” — he says, “I’ve been into meditation for a long time. I’ve been involved in this non-denominational group. I’ve kind of been involved with that since ‘76. Being a vegetarian is one of the components. I’ve been a vegetarian close to 40 years. It’s definitely been inspirational, songs come to me, and I’ve written them down and recorded them. A lot of the music on there was inspired by religious experiences. Spirituality has definitely been a major component in the music that is on those CDs.”
Adams — who remembers the era when a student could be in both band and choir through grade 12 and hear jazz in Trenton clubs — is also connected with a fledgling effort that is breathing new life into the Trenton Conservatory Mansion on East State Street, one of Trenton’s performing arts landmarks, which had its heyday before the Great Depression. The building is now being refurbished for a new generation of creative artists by the husband-wife team of Sterick and Jacqui Ivy.
“They’re working on it,” Adams says of the Ivys, “but in the meantime you have people like Roy Richardson. He’s a local musician (alto saxophonist), who came up through the Trenton school system. A lot of people are involved in raising the level of musicianship in the city. I see a lot of people coming together to work on the problem cooperatively.”
Adams sums up his time with Kool and the Gang pretty succinctly: “It’s been an amazing trip.”
Clifford Adams Trio, The Record Collector, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Wednesday, November 27, 7:30 p.m. $15 in advance, $18 at the door. Carl Bartlett Trio opens. 609-324-0880 or www.the-record-collector.com.
More Trombone: Clifford Adams joins jazz guitarist the Bob Smith Organ Trio, featuring former Trenton High School music instructor Tommy Pass, at Amici’s Restaurant, 600 Chestnut Avenue, Trenton, Thursday, December 5, 7 to 9:30 p.m. Free. 609- 396-6300.
Jazz trombonist, composer, and educator Conrad Herwig leads the Rutgers Jazz Ensemble A Tribute to Wayne Shorter, Monday, December 9, 7:30 p.m. Nicholas Music Center, 85 George Street, New Brunswick. $5 to $15. www.masongross.rutgers.edu/content/rutgers-jazz-ensemble.