Greg Adams: The Arrangement

Leave it to a jazz legend to provide teenage Greg Adams with lasting advice.

Greg Adams, whose 10-piece East Bay Soul ensemble provided the second in the 2017 Blue Jay Jazz Festival‘s three-concert series, says he has “probably done over 1,000 recording sessions in my career, and on most of them I’ve been the arranger.”
In fact, he has been arranging since he entered high school in Daly City, California. By his junior year, he served as the jazz band’s first trumpet and the band director’s substitute overseer.

“I was about 17 I guess, which meant I was a junior in high school,” he told Blue Jay Jazz in a phone interview some months before the 2017 Festival. “Our jazz band was really good. My band director would say, ‘You know Greg, why don’t you just take over the jazz band? Write for it and I’ll just sit in my office and do paperwork and if you need me, let me know.’”

Within two years he would graduate from filling in for his teacher to standing in the five-piece horn section of the fledgling Bay Area-bred Tower of Power. He would continue to learn the arranger’s craft and help TOP, led by Emilio Castillo and Steve Kupka, attain the top rank of history’s great soul-funk bands. Within a decade the band would be charting with cuts like “So Very hard to Go,” “You’re Still a Young Man” and “What is Hip, ” and doing session work for Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, and many, many more.
Now, from the standpoint of someone who has worked as an arranger or session player with The Eurythmics, Rod Stewart, Lyle Lovett, Luther Vandross, Aaron Neville, The Brothers Johnson, Little Feat, Wilson Pickett, Huey Lewis and the News, Al Green, Quincy Jones, B.B. King, Chicago, Bonnie Raitt, Dionne Warwick, Ray Charles, Peter Frampton, Billy Preston, Josh Groban, Madonna, The Rolling Stones and Celine Dion, the advice and encouragement he cites as most important, came back in those school days. But, it came completely out of the blue from a jazz legend.


But back in 1968, at 16, Adams was living at home with his parents, both officers in the Salvation Army and musicians, although not professionals. His mother was “a real good pianist and a vocalist and my dad played coronet,” he said. Among their circle of friends were many jazz aficionados. One couple in particular, had taken an interest in Adams’ achievements with the high school band and offered to make arrangements for him to join them for an upcoming appearance by Duke Ellington at Basin Street West.

“They knew that I was doing well in high school and leading my high school band at that time,” Adams said. “So, the friends of my parents said, ‘Say, listen, Duke Ellington is in town, playing at Basin Street West next week. Can we take Greg to see the band?’
“This was the band,” Adams explained. “Cat Anderson on lead trumpet, Johnny Hodges on alto, Pepper Adams on baritone: the band. And so we went. It was a two-drink minimum, so I sat there with my two Cokes, just amazed. I was all eyes and ears wide open, amazed by this band and that whole routine that Duke Ellington did, where he’d snap his fingers on 2 and 4, and drop his head to the left on 1 and 3 to educate the audience on how to be hip listening to his music.

“They finished the first set and the band goes back in the dressing room and our friend Abbie says to me, “Hey Greg, would you like to meet Duke?” And I said, ‘Well, sure.’ So they take me backstage and there’s Duke Ellington. They know him. It turned out they’re friends of his. I never knew that. And they’d known each other for years.

“So we walk in the dressing room, and there’s Duke, laying on his back with his feet up, bare-chested with a cold, wet towel on his chest, his hair was really long and kind of wild. So, Abbie says hello, and he got up and he gave her a hug. He was all wet, but it was okay, it was Duke Ellington! ‘We have a friend here,’ she said. ‘Greg: he’s a budding arranger and trumpet player. Do you have any advice for him?’

“And I’m just completely awestruck. And he says, ‘Just keep doing it kid. One day you’ll get it right.’

“Especially coming from him,” Adams said, “that was some of the most inspiring words that I ever heard in my life.”

Photo: Greg Adams now (right)and then, as a member of Tower of Power in the 1970s