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Nashville Scene Piano Forte

Adair's tastes extend beyond jazz

By Ron Wynn

AUGUST 10, 1998:  Eclectism isn't always applauded in the jazz universe. Some fans and critics feel that if a player isn't completely devoted to jazz, she's either selling out or eroding the music's traditions. But it's hard to subscribe to this kind of thinking, especially when it allows little room for talented players such as Nashville pianist Beegie Adair. As far as she's concerned, the crucial issue in jazz isn't one of stylistic purity it's about artistic satisfaction and personal preference.

"I grew up in a home where my father loved the Grand Ole Opry and my mother enjoyed everything else," Adair says. "During my childhood, television wasn't established yet, so the radio was the thing that everyone gathered around on weekends. Everyone had a piano, and you'd get together and sing. My mother had Ella Fitzgerald records and Patsy Cline ones. My father would listen to Ernest Tubb and Pee Wee King; I listened to pop and big bands."

Adair, who recently released The Nat "King" Cole Collection on the Nashville-based Green Hills label, has been immersed in music ever since those youthful days in Cave City, Ky. She subsequently attended Western Kentucky, where she earned a music degree and got her introduction to jazz technique. "There were a lot of excellent jazz musicians there, and they had a great band. It was a real small school in the late '50s, but it was wonderful training."

After teaching in Kentucky for a couple of years, Adair moved to Nashville in the early '60s, but she didn't gain immediate entry into the music business. First she worked as a secretary at Capitol Records, then held some other odd jobs before pinch-hitting as a pianist for WSM radio and television in '62. The sometime gig soon evolved into a job as a staff pianist, but by 1970, she'd embarked on a full-time career as a session and live player.

The list of luminaries Adair has accompanied ranges from such masterful jazz trombonists as Frank Rosolino, Slide Hampton, Urbie Green, Bill Watrous, and Kai Winding to vocalists such as Perry Como, Dinah Shore, J.J. Cale, Connie Francis, and Englebert Humperdink. Adair has also provided the musical backing for comedians Red Skelton, Steve Allen, and Rodney Dangerfield.

She's done pop, jazz, and country dates; she's toured with performers as diverse as country satirist Ray Stevens and hard-bop baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola; and she's been featured on soundtracks for the films Smokey and the Bandit, Every Which Way But Loose, The Villian, and the television shows Nashville 99 and Perfect World. Adair has even dabbled in the advertising world, having written jingles for McDonald's, United Airlines, and Allstate.

She discounts the difficulty of adjusting her style to different situations, saying that such gigs are always easy when they involve working for knowledgeable people. "Jerry Reed, for instance, is one of the most musical people that I've ever been around; he has lots of ideas, and it's a pleasure to work with someone like that. The same thing was true of Ray Stevens or J.J. Cale; I don't think so much about labels, because I love so many types of music."

Still, her own piano work reflects a strong mainstream jazz foundation. The songs on The Nat "King" Cole Collection are superbly played, from faster-paced tunes such as "Route 66" to the more impressionistic, shimmering ballads "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup" and "Mona Lisa." Backed by strong, steady bass support from Roger Spencer and unobtrusive, yet dynamic drumming by Chris Brown, Adair often displays a jubilant edge in her solos, while at other times she's tasteful and reflective. Tackling the catalog of an established giant like Nat "King" Cole poses problems for improvisers, since his versions of "Unforgettable" and "That Sunday, That Summer" are so definitive. But Adair's takes, while not as kinetic as Cole's, have their own pastoral charm.

Although Adair cites pianists Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, and Bill Evans as favorites, she says that singers have been more influential on her style. "I've listened to singers a lot. I really base my style on making sure what the melody of a song is all about, and putting that out front to the audience. There are also a lot of older piano players from the '50s who I love; I do listen to a lot of jazz, but I always listen closely for the melody."

Another of Adair's current projects also taps into her love for older songs and standards, not to mention her versatility and adaptability: She's a featured player on country singer Lorrie Morgan's new album of classic American tunes. She'll be among a handful of Nashville musicians accompanying Morgan on her upcoming promotional tour, which will make stops in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other cities.

The Nat "King" Cole Collection is Adair's second release for the Green Hills label. Her first, last year's The Frank Sinatra Collection, won the 1998 Nashville Music Award for Jazz Album of the Year. Her 1991 album Escape to New York has become something of a cult favorite in Europe, thanks to sales via the Internet.

When asked to look back over her career and cite some of her favorite musical experiences, Adair once again expresses her fondness for accompanying vocalists. "Perry Como was just the sweetest, nicest man. I'd loved his music since childhood, so it was a dream of mine to play with him, and it was wonderful. Dinah Shore is also an all-time favorite. Wayne Newton was extremely nice and really wonderful to work with; he treats his musicians extremely well."

For a while, during the early and mid-'90s, Adair also hosted a radio program. Improvised Thoughts, a mix of interviews and performances in somewhat the same vein as Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz, aired on WMOT-89.5FM from September 1991 to May '97. During that time, such established greats as Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson, Gerald Wilson, Benny Golson, Dr. Billy Taylor, and McPartland herself appeared on the program, as well as emerging stars Geri Allen, Mulgrew Miller, Diana Krall, and Kevin Mahogony. Interestingly, Adair herself was a guest on Piano Jazz in the early '90s, and she hopes she gets the opportunity to be on the show again.

Adair currently plays most Friday evenings at the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza, where she'll celebrate her sixth anniversary this September. She's also an adjunct lecturer in jazz studies at Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music. While she continues her love affair with jazz and popular music, Adair doesn't discount the importance of classical music something she emphasizes to her students. "They look at me like I'm the man in the moon when I tell them that to be a good jazz player, you also should know classical. But it's great training for learning how to express yourself as a musician."

As a local jazz veteran, Adair says the city's jazz tradition has always been underrated and underrecognized. "Jazz has always been here; the city has the best and largest number of top horn players in the nation. The main problem with jazz in Nashville now concerns venues. When I first started playing here, almost all the clubs in Printer's Alley were places you could go and hear jazz. [But] in the last 10 years, there have been fewer and fewer places.

"There used to be a wonderful place here, J.C.'s in Green Hills. The management was committed to jazz, they kept the piano tuned, they made sure the food was good, and they kept the audience down to a good size for jazz. There aren't many places like that here now, but there are a few."

Fortunately for Adair, the buzz about her new LP has extended beyond Music City: She'll be appearing for five nights at Seattle's Jazz Alley this September. In the meantime, she's already planning a third Green Hills release, possibly one devoted to Henry Mancini's music.

Beyond that, she still has a few things she'd like to do professionally. "Unfortunately I never got a chance to play with Frank Sinatra live, but I did get to meet Frank Jr. and give him a copy of the album. I'd love to work with Tony Bennett, and also take the trio to some bigger clubs around the country."

For now, though, Beegie Adair can be found at the Vanderbilt Plaza most Fridays, offering fans enjoyable, nicely played renditions of standards and jazz compositions. Nashvillians who've never taken the time to hear her play would do well to stop in one evening. Indeed, we should consider ourselves lucky to have a such a tasteful, seasoned player in our midst.

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