When Teddy Adams was a young pup, jazz was in full swing in Savannah. In the ‘50s there were several full–time bands in town, and a jumpin’ spot called the Flamingo Club, on the corner of West Gwinnett Street and Stiles Avenue, where they had steady gigs. Every Christmas, musicians black, white and everything in between would jam there until the wee hours. The place was always packed.
After two decades in the Air Force, including a lengthy period living in Japan and working as a professional musician, trombonist Adams returned to his hometown to discover that jazz — like a lot of things in the fallow 1970s — was pretty much dead here.
Immediately, Adams fell in with bassist Ben Tucker, who’d written several jazz classics (including “Comin’ Home Baby”), toured and recorded with many of the greats, and had “settled” in town to run radio station WSOK–AM.
These two musical giants rekindled jazz in Savannah, and have kept the fire going through the efforts of their Coastal Jazz Association.
It’s had its ups and its downs — as you’ll read — but the CJA remains the only viable outlet for professional jazz in our area. The group holds monthly concerts, with an amazing array of players, and is responsible for the late–summer Savannah Jazz Festival in Forsyth Park.
On Christmas Day, Adams, Tucker, vocalist Huxie Scott, Quentin Baxter (drums), Eric Jones (piano) and others will perform a set at the CJA’s holiday concert, Jazz Yule Love.
Thirty–seven Christmases ago, it was Teddy Adams’ idea to bring back the holiday jams that had so thrilled him in his younger days.
The 2012 concert — with Christmas jam — is No. 37. They have not missed a single year since Teddy got back home.
That’s dedication to the art.
Had the two of you ever met before you both found yourselves in Savannah?
Teddy Adams: Briefly, in the late ‘60s. I was living in Tokyo, and Ben came over with Art Blakey, doing a show. I went to the concert. We spoke briefly, and had no idea that we would encounter each other again in 1976.
Ben Tucker: Teddy was over there, and I was so busy ripping and running. They had me running all over the place, going all the way up to the top of Japan. I wish I could go back there again.
When did you come to Savannah?
Ben Tucker: We bought the radio station in 1971 and took it over on Jan. 5, 1972. We became the 15th African American–owned radio station in America, out of 9,000 back then. I wanted to play jazz music here in Savannah, but I’d be losing my ratings if I did. It was a gospel station, but I took the gospel out and cleaned all that up, R&B, cleaned all that up. We had black classical music. And you lose ratings when you play that kind of music. But we were No. 1 in the market from ’72 to ’84.
When you were doing this, were you still touring?
Teddy Adams: His bass was in storage!
Ben Tucker: [laughing] Actually, it was in the shop, being repaired. It took quite a while to repair — 10, 12 years. I have a bass violin that is very precious. I love it to death.
How did the jazz association in Savannah start?
Ben Tucker: Ken Palmer was here, playing piano, great musician and a great human being. He and Teddy were involved in this with a bunch of guys. Then we decided to take this music to Savannah State, where they were having a class called “Illustrations in Jazz.” I had a class, I invited Teddy to come by. He’d work with me, help me, we’d improvise to show how we each improvised on the same stuff — Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington or whoever the case may be. And Teddy was very sharp and very smart. He helped me to pull this thing off. And out of that grew this Coastal Jazz Association.
Teddy Adams: The idea came about as a result of the class. Some people said “Look, you’ve enlightened us with this jazz thing, why don’t we just start a listening group? We’ll sit around and share records and talk about the music.” A year later, we were non–profit, and gave our first small jazz concert at Grayson Stadium.
That year, we were able to get 10 national musicians for $1,000, if you can imagine that. These guys had just played Atlanta and needed something else.
You two have different opinions as to what you want the future of the organization to be ...
Ben Tucker: I don’t care who I play to, as long as you can sit there and listen, and appreciate, understand what I’m playing. Teddy, on the other hand, wants to deal with the younger set and continue to create a new audience. If I could get SCAD to come in, I would love it, I would love to push that segment of the audience out there. But they’re into something else, that’s beyond me. I’m in another world.
Teddy Adams: If you come to the festival in Forsyth Park, it’s a combination of everybody — demographically, racially, economically. If you come to one of our concerts, it’s older people. Mostly white.
Why does that bother you?
Teddy Adams: Firstly, that means that we have a limited audience, and it shouldn’t be that way. The audience should be inclusive. And what bothers me the most is the fact that, historically and creatively, blacks have been very involved in the art of jazz. Therefore, to look out there and not see a supportive number of black faces, that bothers me. As much as not seeing a supportive number of young faces. You know, we want this music to reach everybody.
Do you think the CJA has a PR problem? Do people know what you do?
Ben Tucker: We have a major problem, telling the people who we are, what we are, what we have going on .... Do you realize we haven’t raised the dues of the Coastal Jazz Association in 30 years? That’s ridiculous! How can we function on nickels and dimes? Comparatively.
It takes money to make this situation work. We need a director. We need somebody to pick up the ball and help us, to manage, to run on a day–to–day operation. What Coastal Jazz really needs, we need sponsors. We need someone, a major corporation, to walk up to the plate and say “Here’s $50,000, $100,000,” and get us out of the position of looking for free money.
Tell us about the Christmas show.
Teddy Adams: We’re gonna revisit the Telfair Jazz Society, which was what it was called pre–CJA. Right now, Huxie Scott, Ben, myself and Val Davis are the only remaining living members.
And at Christmastime, musicians come home to Savannah knowing that concert’s happening. So they’re looking forward to it. They want to come there and play. And this time, there’ll be four of my former students, who’ve gone and gotten their Masters in jazz studies, living in New York and doing very, very well.
And Charles Dourghtey, a saxophonist who lives in New York but comes home to visit his mother, will be our special guest.
Jazz Yule Love
Holiday concert and jam session
Where: Westin Harbor Savannah, 1 Resort Drive (Hutchinson Island)
When: At 5 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 25
Tickets: $15 advance, $20 at the door