I can't imagine Indianapolis radio without Ralph Adams. I feel like I've been listening to the Chicago-born DJ my entire life - and I probably have.
"I'm celebrating 35 years of jazz broadcasting this year," Adams said to me one evening this month.
Adams' weekly Sunday jazz show on 88.7 WICR-FM is one of the best music programs on Indianapolis radio. As a music selector, Adams has perfect taste, always finding the right balance between the classic and contemporary, while presenting the most eclectic mix of music found on the dial. Never afraid to dig deep into his collection, Adams might follow a classic cut from Coleman Hawkins with an obscure track from avant-garde pioneer Sun Ra.
Over the years I've heard Adams consistently spin records other DJs are too conservative to touch, from Roland Kirk's vocal reinvention of "Giant Steps," to Eddie Jefferson's off-the-wall take on "Night in Tunisia."
But ultimately, it's Adams and his free-spirited broadcast style that have become the show's trademark.
"Sometimes I think the only reason folks tune in is to see how silly I can be," Adams said.
He's notorious for laughing uproariously at his own jokes while comically struggling with the station's equipment. There are poignant moments, too, though, like his tearful goodbye to Indianapolis jazz legend J.J. Johnson after the trombonist's death in 2001.
Music is a labor of love for Adams. When he's not on air, he's promoting concerts and developing unique ways to educate the public about jazz. One of these educational initiatives is the Ralph Adams Lifetime Achievement Award. Adams will honor singer Tad Robinson for his contributions to blues music on Thursday, June 21.
I spoke with Adams about the award that bears his name and his career in radio.
NUVO: Can you tell me a little about your musical background and your entry into radio?
Ralph Adams: I grew up in Chicago. My uncle was a pianist. He and Nat King Cole were very good friends; they played the club circuit together. He tried to teach me how to be a pianist. I studied piano for a little bit, but that really wasn't my calling. I also tried playing the drums for awhile, but eventually I fell into blowing a reed instrument. I played the alto and tenor in high school.
I always thought I wanted to be a musician, but somehow the radio bug crept into me. I had a good friend that was a DJ in Chicago. After I got out of high school, he introduced me to broadcasting. This was in the '60s, during the beginning of FM radio and we got a thirty-minute program. I was into jazz and we used my record collection for the program.
I left Chicago in the '70s and came to Indianapolis. When I got here, I started knocking on all the radio stations' doors. I worked at a number of stations before getting hired at WICR in 1985. I've been there ever since.
NUVO: I'm curious why you picked Wes Montgomery's "People" as the theme song for your show.
Adams: That's off an old vinyl called Movin' Wes. Being from the old school, I was looking for a theme song. All the old school DJs used to have a theme. It just captured the feeling I was looking for. I use it for my intro and outro. Folks call me and complain that I always cut it off before it gets to the good part. But give me a break; I got to get out of the studio sometime!
NUVO: How do you put playlists together for your radio show?
Ralph Adams: I don't have a playlist. I never did. I sit and look through my albums and ask "hmmmm, what can I find that nobody knows about in this town?" I look for things that don't get played on radio here and I know they haven't been played, because I've been here long enough to know (laughs)! That's my kick. I get a chance to dig that stuff out, throw it on the radio and let you hear it. It's just a spur of the moment decision.
NUVO: Can you tell me the story behind the Ralph Adams Lifetime Achievement Award?
Adams: I developed the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. The first recipient was Ramsey Lewis' drummer Red Holt. I brought him to Indy for a gig and I wanted to do something to honor him. It was just really just a thank you for his contribution to jazz, there was no other concept behind it. It was just a onetime thing and I was going to leave it at that.
For some reason I decided I would do it again. The second time the award went to Roy Meriwether.
After that, I wasn't going to do it anymore. But I was approached by Mark Sheldon, the photographer who started the Great Day in Indy project and he said, "Ralph, I want to work with you." So we started working together and the Lifetime Achievement Award was off and running with the cooperation of Great Day in Indy.
Originally the concept of the award was to honor both jazz and blues players. But this year I decided to split them up and do a separate blues award.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. In honor of Ralph Adams, this week's selection features a mix of jazz-heavy sounds.
1. Classica Orchestra Afrobeat - Water Get No Enemy (Sidecar, 2012)
2. Michael Kiwanuka - Tell Me A Tale (Interscope, 2012)
3. Afro Latin Vintage Orchestra - Onze De France (Ubiquity, 2012)
4. Samuel Yirga - I Am the Black Gold of the Sun (Real World, 2012)
5. Robert Glasper Experiment w/ Eryka Badu - Afro Blue (Blue Note, 2012)
6. BADBADNOTGOOD - CMYK (self released, 2012)
7. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Pluto (Honest Jon's, 2011)
8. Gregory Porter - 1960 What (Motema, 2010)
9. Jose James - Strange Fruit for Trayvon Martin (unreleased, 2012)