Born in Castlemaine, Victoria in October 1938, John studied classical piano there at St Gabriel’s College for 3 years. When he was about 15 he was impressed by Graeme Bell’s version of Black and White Rag, but it wasn’t until he moved to Melbourne in 1954 to work at the Commonwealth Bank that he really came into contact with jazz. One lunchtime when he was “fooling about” on the piano in the Bank’s auditorium, John Morey, a fellow bank employee, asked him if he would like to join a band that he was putting together. This comprised Lachie Thomson (clarinet), Graham Bennett (drums) and John Morey himself who played trumpet.
At this stage John knew nothing about playing jazz chords or the relationship of one chord to another. As far as jazz was concerned he was basically self-taught as are many jazz musicians, having picked things up from observing and listening to other musos and recordings. His first professional gig was in 1956 with John Morey’s group when they played for a party for one of the girls at work.
A stint with the Dave Rankin Band followed which led to other bookings including intermission piano at Nick Polites’ Melbourne New Orleans Jazz Band gigs at the Glen Iris RSL in 1957-58.
The 1960s was an exciting period for John as his growing reputation brought him opportunities to play in a wide range of styles and with a variety of high quality musicians. These included appearances on Channel 7’s Cool Cats Show with modern players such as Ted Vining (drums), Barry Buckley (bass) Alan Lee (vibes) and Graham Lyall (tenor sax); Bob Barnard’s Band; the Driftwood Jazz Band; the Kenn Jones Powerhouse Band; the John Foster Quartet on Channel 9’s In Melbourne Tonight; and various Storyville groups put together by Allan Leake with whom he maintained a musical connection for almost 20 years.
In 1990 John accepted Rex Swann’s invitation to join the Cathay Pacific Jazz Australia Band, a group presenting an eclectic mix of material to suit a wide ranging audience whilst playing good jazz. The band made a number of very successful visits to Hong Kong, Thailand and South Korea. He also visited Thailand with Allan Leake’s Storyville Allstars and The Storyville Jazztet.
Trio and small group playing were also an important feature of John’s musical career, including backing singers such as Beverley Sheehan and Patsy O’Neill. Other bands with which John played were the 8-piece “little big” orchestra Mainstem, The Melbourne Jazz Ensemble, The Jazz Buffs, The Alex Hutchinson/Alan Lee Quintet, The Syncopators, Stevenson’s Rockets, plus various small groups too numerous to mention. More recently he had a regular gig with Johnsy’s Red Hill Bakery Boys on the Mornington Peninsula.
John was also a very regular participant in the long-running Jazz Piano Lunches at the Rosstown Hotel in Carnegie where local jazz pianists who were available turned up to play for the delight of diners. Amongst these were such names as Graham Coyle, Rex Green, Kim Harris and Neville Turner. Here John plays Our Love is Here to Stay with saxophonist Barrie Boyes in September 2011.
In 1993 fourteen of Melbourne’s top jazz pianists got together for a marathon recording session as a fund-raising event for The Victorian Jazz Musicians’ Benefit Fund. The pianists played tunes of their own choice. John was one of the participants of course and one of his three choices was Billy Strayhorn’s beautifulLotus Blossom. Strayhorn was a pianist in Duke Ellington’s band, and this tune was one of the Duke’s favourites. In 2012 The Australian Jazz Museum (formerly The Victorian Jazz Archive) issued the session on a 2 CD set (VJAZZ020). Click on the photo of John to hear him play Lotus Blossom from that CD.
In a different jazz genre, John played with Barry Wratten’s Uptown Swing Band at the Victorian Jazz Club on St Patrick’s Day 2012 (exactly 3 years ago). Unfortunately you can only glimpse the top of his head and the occasional hand, but this is another example of his versatility. The lineup is Barry Wratten, clarinet; Ian Orr, trumpet; Les Fithall, trombone; Peter Baylor, guitar; John Adams, piano; Richard Mander, bass; Lynn Wallis, drums.
On a personal note, John played at a number of our birthday parties and at a special wedding. It was at my birthday party four and a half years ago that John told me that he had just been diagnosed with the cancer which finally overwhelmed him. During these final difficult years he continued to play beautiful piano and to smile his beutiful smile.
As a wonderful pianist Johnny Adams will be very sadly missed from the jazz scene. Equally as a joyful and gentlemanly presence. RIP John
John’s funeral will be held on Wednesday 18 March at St Christopher’s Church, 5 Doon Avenue, Syndal followed by a celebration and wake at The Whitehorse Club, 298 -336 Burwood Highway, East Burwood.