Clifford Adams, Kool & the Gang trombonist, succumbs to illness

If you recall the scene when Kool & the Gang walked into Joanna’s Diner in the 1983 video for the song “Joanna” to serenade the eponymous hostess with one of the decade’s most famous love songs, you’ve seen Clifford Adams. He’s the one in the gray suit playing the knowingly sly trombone solo.

Actually, if you’ve ever heard Kool & the Gang at all, the odds are pretty high that you’ve heard Adams’ smooth brass accompaniments. For decades, the native Trentonian and longtime Ewing resident played with Robert and Ronald Bell in the iconic jazz/R&B/soul/funk/disco band. In his later years, as an ambassador of music and good will, the notoriously modest Adams enjoyed a quiet life devoted to bringing music to Trenton’s younger school children.

All of this might give you the impression that Adams, who died of liver cancer on Jan. 12 at the age of 62, was wealthy. Comfortable, yes, but wealthy, no. Trombone players are not typically the high rollers of the music world. In fact, Adams’ oldest friend and Kool trumpeter Michael Ray once referred to the fact that Adams sent two children through college playing the trombone as a miracle.

Indeed, the trombonist’s road is not typically one paved with gold, and treatment for something as serious as cancer required assistance. And medical insurance.

Unfortunately, Adams succumbed to his illness before he could be helped by the insurance that he had only recently gotten through his wife, Marcia, effective Jan. 1.

In his last days, Adams became the focus of a campaign by Jazz Bridge, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit dedicated to assisting the greater Philadelphia Metro area jazz and blues musicians and vocalists, to raise money for his medical treatment, which included a liver transplant.

Suzanne Cloud, executive director and co-founder of Jazz Bridge, said her organization wanted to help the Adamses where lack of insurance failed. Adams, who spent half of December in a hospital with no liver specialist. If he had been covered at the time, he could have be transferred to a hospital with a liver specialist and the chance for a transplant. Cloud called the situation “our marvelous medical system at work.”

Marcia Adams could be reached for comment.

“Today is a sad day in the Bell family and Kool & the Gang family to learn of our brother and friend Clifford Adams untimely death,” said the Bells in a statement issued through the Kool & the Gang website. “What a privilege to have had one of the world’s best musicians and trombone players with us for over 30 years. His work will always be remembered. Our prayers and most sincere sympathy is with his wife Marcia, sons Rovi and Farid, his mother and sister, Yvonne, and all other family members. Clifford my brother you will surely be missed.”

Though she would not speak further on Adams specifically, Cloud painted a portrait of how a professional musician typically becomes hampered by lack of money, especially later in life. “Musicians work in a cash economy,” Cloud said. Unless you’re the credited writer of hit songs, the money made by musicians is a one-time payment for services with no 401k or pension plan in place. “When you’re a sideman you’re not getting paid the big bucks,” she said.

Jazz Bridge raised about $12,000, most of it before Adams’ death, to help with the bills. Marcia, Cloud said, called the agency and asked for its help. According to Aetna, an average day in a U.S. hospital costs about $1,700.

Prior to falling ill, Adams sought to bring music to Trenton’s youth through the school system. He donated many hours to playing for urban kids and co-founded the Developmental Roundtable for the Upward Mobility of Musicians, or DRUMM, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing music to Trenton youth.

In a 2010 article in U.S. 1, the Ewing Observer’s sister newspaper, Adams spoke of the need to bring music into the urban education scene.

“We are all playing music now because there were music programs in place in the schools when we were growing up,” he told U.S. 1 during a tour stop in Dallas. “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.”

When kids do not have opportunities to learn to play instruments, it hinders their development, he said. DRUMM was born of Adams’ desire to not just “sit and talk about how bad things are. 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,” he said.

Certainly, if Mercer County had to call on a brass-section ambassador to deliver the message of music’s importance and reach, it could hardly have found one with a better pedigree than Adams. Born in Trenton, where his mother, Evelyn, worked for the state Department of Labor and his father, Clifford Sr., owned Adams Auto Service (and played clarinet and saxophone in high school), Adams never had a path other than music in his future.

In the late 1960s Adams played his trombone in Trenton High School’s Battle of the Bands competitions. By the early 1970s, he was touring with Patti LaBelle and, later, the Stylistics. He joined Kool & the Gang during that band’s second iteration in 1977 and got a lot of notice for his “Joanna” trombone solo. After 20 years with Kool et. al., Adams released his first solo album, “The Master Power,” which resonated with a deep European fan base.

This fan base never forgot. Cloud said that when the call to help Adams went out to the world, European fans responded with vigor.

In the early 2000s Adams toured the world with numerous musicians, including a stop in Cuba during the same tour that stopped in Dallas in 210. The Cuba shows, made possible by relaxed restrictions after decades of sanctions, were, Adams said then, deeply moving. “These people were crying,” he said. “They knew our music so well, but they never thought they’d get a chance to see Kool & the Gang live because of the embargo.”

Wherever he went, and wherever his music will continue to go, Adams’s wordless melodies have reached people, no matter the language they speak. Maybe the best indicator comes from the messages the world sent to Jazz Bridge when the world heard of Adams’ plight. “Its very apparent from the messages that he touched a lot of people,” Cloud said.

In talking about his longtime friend, Ray described Adams as a loving and caring husband and father and a great friend.

“If you knew Cliff you knew his infectious smile and his strong spirit,” Ray said. “He was powered by family values and he was one of the baddest trombone players in all the planet.”