Most people may not know the Trenton-born Ewing resident Clifford Adams as one of the top trombonists around, but the truth is that he is. Adams has been a member of the top-selling jazz/funk/soul/pop group Kool and the Gang since 1977, and he has had a hand in many of the band’s most important accomplishments.
It was Adams whose very brief but expressive trombone solo highlighted the smooth and loving “Joanna,” and he has also been in the middle of the mix playing the complex, funkier horn charts on earlier, rawer hits like “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging,” and “Open Sesame.” Adams has also been responsible for many of the band’s distinctive melodies and horn arrangements.
Now, Adams, 57, is adding philanthropy to his activities and accolades. On Saturday, July 31, Adams is headlining a free all-day show at Cadwalader Park in Trenton. He and Kool and the Gang bandmate Michael Ray, a trumpeter, will perform, as well as performers such as Grace Little, Dennis Rodgers, Instant Funk, Lady D, and others.
The show, and a fundraiser afterward, is to benefit Adams’ group, DRUMM (Developmental Roundtable for the Upward Mobility of Musicians).
“All these people who are participating all learned how to play music in Trenton,” Adams says in a phone interview from a Kool and the Gang tour stop in Dallas. “We are all playing music now because there were music programs in place in the schools when we were growing up. Now, in the middle schools and elementary schools there are no programs whatsoever. The only time the kids can begin learning how to play music is in high school.”
That, says Adams, is not a great situation. Kids do not have opportunities to learn to play instruments, and this is a hindrance in their development. “There was a band on every corner when I was coming up in Trenton. If you can get one band of young guys together in Trenton now, that would be a surprise. That’s the travesty of what’s going on right now.”
The goal of DRUMM, says Adams, is to develop a community-based music program that will be available to children from all across Trenton. “Somebody has to do something about it. We can all sit and talk about how bad things are, but that is not enough. Someone has to roll up their sleeves and do something about it. The whole community needs to get on board and do stuff.” New Mayor Tony Mack, says Adams, has pledged his support. “This is an excellent thing. We have to bring music back to the city for the young kids in the schools. There are lots of instruments in the schools, just sitting in lockers. We have to pull these instruments out and get them into the hands of these kids. We have to get the kids off the streets and give them something to do. Get them playing music. Instead of them having guns or drugs in hand, let them have instruments.”
More than 33 years after joining the band in 1977, Adams continues to tour on a regular basis, mostly abroad, with Kool and the Gang. The band recently performed with the San Diego Symphony, played in front of 10,000 in Israel, in front of 250,000 in Cuba in December, and appeared in many other international shows.
“We’re all over the place,” Adams says. “We were in Russia last year, Romania in November, we were in Singapore and Japan, in Tokyo and Osaka, sold out both places. We were in Bangkok and sold out there. Outside of the USA, we’re getting a great reception. Despite not having a hit for more than 20 years, we have a great body of work and we continue to get respect for that. Our music has survived the test of time. ‘Celebration’ is a really big song for us, that gets a great reception everywhere, so 30 years later, we’re still workin’ it.”
Whether the band is playing in Africa, Australia, Asia, or Europe, says Adams, the audiences feel the music. “Even if they don’t know the (English) language, they feel the actual music and the melodic content. It strikes people, and it’s become popular around the world.”
Four of the original members of the band — the Bell brothers (Robert “Kool” Bell and saxophonist Ronald Bell, from Jersey City), saxophonist Dennis Thomas, and drummer George Brown — continue to perform, as do Adams and later veteran additions such as trumpeter Michael Ray, keyboardist/trumpeter Larry Gittens, and pianist Curtis Williams.
Adams says the group’s experiences in Cuba were among his most memorable. In December several American groups performed in Havana, the first to perform there since the Obama administration relaxed restrictions of performers from America traveling to Cuba as well as Cuban performers playing the U.S.
“These people were crying,” says Adams. “They knew our music so well, but they never thought they’d get a chance to see Kool and the Gang live because of the embargo.”
Cubans, he says, know his band’s music very well, and are among the most musical people overall he has ever encountered. “I mean, this is a musical culture,” says Adams. “They have kids who go to school all day — 9 to 5, five days a week — and just play music. And they’re studying everything. Classical, salsa, jazz, I mean, all forms of music. They can read, their reading level is very high. So it’s a very musical place. They awarded us one of the highest musical honors down there. We had a ceremony, with the minister of culture, and they presented us with this award, and we went into the hospitals, donated supplies. It was a kind of goodwill mission we were on. As highlights of my career with Kool and the Gang go, it was one of the top experiences of my career.”
Kool and the Gang has been around since 1964, when the Bell brothers organized a jazz band with high school friends. By the time Adams joined the band in 1977, the group had already had a series of hits. Meanwhile, Adams, a native of Trenton, had grown up near what is now the Munoz Rivera School, then the Lincoln School, and later Junior High No. 5 on Montgomery Street. He had been playing trombone with some of the top R&B and jazz musicians since he was attending Trenton Central High, from which he graduated in 1970.
His father, Clifford Sr., was a mechanic and amateur clarinetist who owned an auto repair garage that had been opened by his own father. Adams Jr. says his family’s garage, Adams Auto Services, was the first black-owned auto shop in Trenton and one of the oldest African American businesses in the city. Clifford Adams Sr., now 86, sold the business and recently retired; his son says the elder Adams worked at the garage until a couple of years ago. Adams’ mother, Evelyn, now 85, worked for the state Department of Labor.
After graduating from Trenton Central, he was discovered at the Chambersburg club Fantasy Lounge by jazz organist Charles Earland. “I had only learned to play five years before, and suddenly I’m on the road and recording jazz albums,” Adams says. Three years later, Adams, Gittens, and Ray were on the road with the Stylistics, and later Adams went out again with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Max Roach before joining Kool and the Gang.
His work on “Joanna,” back in the early 1980s, was a shift in the emphasis of the band. Through the ‘70s, the group had found success with jazz (“Summer Madness”), funk (“Jungle Boogie,” “Spirit of the Boogie”), and disco (“Open Sesame”). By the following decade, however, Kool and the Gang had moved into a much more pop style, especially with the signing of vocalist J.T. Taylor.
In 1984 Adams had collaborated with Claydes Charles Smith on “Joanna,” providing some of the melody and chordal structure behind Smith’s tune as well as the title. “The whole bridge was a solo, and what they did was take part of my solo and put lyrics to it,” Adams says. “Instead of it being a trombone solo for eight bars, they split up part of my solo into vocals, and that melody was part of that solo I played.”
The song hit No. 2 on the Billboard charts. Also that year, according to music licensing firm BMI, “Joanna” was the most heavily played song on radio. “I have a BMI Award, most played song of the year,” says Adams. “So for that year, in America, more people listened to my solo than anything else. When I look back on that, I said, well, that’s a great accomplishment, to hear that I had recorded that song at 4 in the morning. So many other Kool songs had sax solos, and I figured, why not change it up a little with a trombone solo? It worked.”
Trenton Musicians Reunion and Health Extravaganza, Developmental Roundtable for the Upward Mobility of Musicians (DRUMM), Cadwalader Park, Trenton and Trenton Elks Lodge, 42 Decou Avenue, Ewing. Saturday, July 31, 11 a.m. Performers include Instant Funk, Clifford Adams, Mike Ray, Dennis Rodgers, Lady D, Trenton Jazz Ensemble, Good Company, Once Again, Sandstorm, Grace Little, and DRUMM Band from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Cabaret after party, 8 p.m. to midnight, $20 and cash bar. 443-801-8332..