Text by Meghan McEneaney
Clifford Adams, the world class trombonist, educator, and cherished friend to many, wasn’t just an artist. He was an inspiration. Adams, a Trenton native, had been suffering with medical issues for about a year and had no health insurance to cover medical expenses. After a battle with liver cancer, he passed away in January, 2015. Adams, commemorated as a “national resource,” lived a life rich with music. In an interview with Anwar Salandy, Adams said himself, “Music kind of found me.”
Born in Trenton, NJ, Adams was a graduate of Trenton Central High School. He recalled that in 9th grade his band teacher asked if anyone would volunteer to play the trombone, as the number of trombonists in the band at his school were lacking. Because of this, he offered to play, and picked up the trombone for the first time. “I did things kind of in a reverse, where usually you learn to play the instrument, then you join the band. I had to learn songs and learn how to play the instrument at the same time, simultaneously”, Adams said.
Shortly after graduating from Trenton Central High School, he went on tour with Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles in 1970. After returning from that tour, he traveled and recorded with the great jazz organist, Charles Earland. It was in 1971 when he made his recording debut on Earland’s album, Soul Story. He continued his musical journey alongside New Jersey horn players, Larry Gittons and long time friend trumpeter, Michael Ray. Together, they spent years perfecting their craft playing on the jazz circuit. Hot on the jazz scene, He played with legends; Thaddeus Joseph Jones, Charles Mingus, and Sonny Rollins, just to name a few.
Adams playing with Thad Jones Mel Lewis Live at the Domicile Munich in 1976
The 80’s hits you hear today all contain that very special mix of horns: Ronald Bell on tenor sax, Dennis Thomas on alto sax, Michael Ray and Robert “Spike” Mickens both on trumpet, and of course Adams on the trombone. In 1984, Adams collaborated with Claydes Charles Smith to produce the Kool & the Gang song, “Joanna”. His prolific trombone solo is featured in this hit song. He provided part of the melody and chordal structure of the tune, and also came up with the title. “The whole bridge was a solo, and what they did was take part of my solo and put lyrics to it,” said Adams in an interview with Kevin L. Carter from US 1., “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.”
His influence in the song, “Joanna” truly represents his unparalleled and invaluable importance in Kool & the Gang. He was truly an integral member of the group. When performing this song, He was not only serenading the crowd with his trombone, but he was dancing, singing, and exuding the music from his soul. “Compositions come to me in a spiritual way,” he had said, “and not through the intellect alone. At times, I am the conduit. Sometimes I hear the whole band playing. I then open up and channel the music for others to hear.”
Clifford Adam’s live Trombone solo in Joanna
“Joanna” hit No. 2 on the Billboard charts. Also in 1984, according to music licensing firm, Broadcast Music Incorporated, “Joanna” was the most heavily played song on radio. “I have a BMI Award, most played song of the year,” said 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.”
As a trombonist, arranger and composer, he’s won multiple awards (including a Music of Black Origin award and several Grammy, American Music and Soul Train Awards), he earned platinum plaques with Kool & the Gang. Along with his countless musical achievements as a member of Kool & the Gang, He was involved in many successful jazz recording sessions of his own. He produced solo albums such as The Master Power, Cliff Notes, and I Feel Your Spirit.
Adams also taught master classes at institutions such as Princeton, Yale, Rutgers, Lawrenceville Prep, The College of New Jersey, Hartford, and Duke University. He was particularly dedicated to the Thomas Grice Music Academy, founded by his mentor. He credited his success with his own musical education, including simultaneous training as a vocalist and instrumentalist.
Musically, one of the most spectacular things about him was that he had never lost his dedication and passion for jazz. He never lost his jazz chops. No matter where he was or who he was with, he would always find a way to keep the music alive. Even in his later years, he would often perform at venues locally in his hometown of Trenton, New Jersey, to, as he said, “keep the music goin’ on”.
Adams certainly made his mark in his hometown of Trenton by spreading his love for the art of jazz. He was endlessly passionate about maintaining the classical jazz appreciation in the Trenton area. “What most people don’t realize is how good he was at playing jazz” said Tom Littwin, a music student studying string bass at The College of New Jersey (Adams’ Alma Mater) who remembers Adams as his mentor. “When playing jazz you could really see Clifford’s personality. His passion and love for the music was clear.” Mr. Littwin said, “He helped me with my career by giving me advice and by giving me opportunities to play with new people and at new places. He also influenced my music. Just by listening to him play and playing his original compositions I felt like I gained so much knowledge.”
Adams influenced many musicians in his time. He was an incredibly humble, kind, person who lived to spread an infectious appreciation for life and music. His charity and passion for the arts truly speaks to the generosity of his spirit, and represents how much spreading music really meant to him. What a blessing he was to those who met him, listened to his music, and especially to the musicians and the jazz community he influenced. He was an immensely talented musician whose pure soul will continue to bring joy to music fans for years to come.