Nestled in the middle of a 60-piece orchestra sits a burly, white-haired man with a clarinet. His unassuming face is hidden under a thick white beard and heavy glasses that seem to bury his rugged features. Nothing about him seems to command attention — until he picks up his horn. Jim Adair’s interpretation of the first clarinet solo from the Unfinished Symphony flows with such seamless expertise that it could make Franz Schubert cry. The solo sounds more like a lyrical underwater dance than air forced through heavy wood and metal. When he finishes, he quietly lowers his instrument as if nothing spectacular happened.
“Ooh, I seemed to be rushing that,” Adair later said of his performance.
For almost 50 years, Adair has been his strongest music critic. He has to. He lives for music. Adair’s musical world is like a one-man circus where the performer never stops. He juggles three jobs while walking a tightrope between being a committed musician an obsessive one.” You really do have to be a bit crazy to stay with this,” Adair chuckled. “This is a noble calling that I don’t necessarily call on anyone.”
A history of harmony
He started playing the clarinet when he was 9 years old at the urging of his mother, who was a former clarinet player.
“Once I picked it up, I was cooking,” Adair said. “It just sort of came to me.”
Adair was thrust into the spotlight early in his career as a member of the Quincy (Ill.) High School band, one of the top high school bands in the country where even last-chair performers study with notable musicians. There he became the principal clarinetist — a title he would become more familiar with over the next four decades.
He was the first-chair clarinetist in the Quincy Symphony Orchestra. He later played the baritone saxophone in the Hannibal Community Big Band.
Today, Adair is known for his dry wit and serious attitude as the lead clarinetist for the Columbia Civic Orchestra. When he’s not rehearsing or performing with the orchestra, he’s giving private clarinet lessons. When he’s not giving lessons, he’s practicing his own horn. And when he’s not practicing his own horn, he’s fixing other people’s horns.
As a boy, Adair used to play around with the multitude of silver keys and screws on his intermediate clarinet just to see how it all worked.
“I was fascinated by every part of the music-making process,” he said.
That fascination led to Adair’s “other” job as a music repairman at Brook Mays Music, where he treats sick flutes, piccolos and trumpets.
In any given week, Adair spends about 50 hours fulfilling all his musical responsibilities. He performed in the Columbia Community Band for about eight years before realizing even he was overcommitting himself.
“It was just too much,” said Adair, whose hands and lips show the wear of constant performing. “I was playing in both groups with the E-flat, A and B clarinets in the band and orchestra. It was time to slow down.”
Despite his decades of studying music, there’s still one concept Adair doesn’t understand: Why is popular music popular?
“There are no subtleties, nothing complicated at all,” he said. “They use the same minor key and two chords over and over again. It’s basically a guy screaming at the microphone, and the drummer always has his shirt off.”
Adair said classical music has lost its appeal with younger people, but they can’t take all the blame.
“There’s more distractions. There’s more on the tube,” he said. “You’ve got MTV to promote images now.”
But it’s not just the kids blasting their souped-up car audio systems who are losing interest. Adair said most people are becoming less knowledgeable of classical music, and smart orchestras, including the Columbia Civic, are capitalizing on this by garnishing their repertoires with less complicated music.
Adair still laments the time before he came to Columbia when he had to play what he calls “The Sound of Boring,” known to most people as “The Sound of Music.” But he’s willing to make a personal sacrifice to entertain the audience.
“I am an advocate of ‘junk’ music music being played once in a while,” he said. “You can call that ‘popularistic’ music. People love it; it makes the total makeup of things less stressful. And then you play real music.”
But even traditional music has its problems.
As a clarinetist, Adair said composers and arrangers sometimes treat wind instruments like the black sheep of the orchestra. Because stringed instruments are the foundation of orchestral music, arrangers often choose to take music for strings and rewrite it for wind instruments — despite out-of-range notes, abnormal key signatures and near-impossible jumps.” Now here’s a stupid piece — Stars and Stripes in the key of E,” Adair mumbled. “You spend 30 years playing this part right, then you get this sucker and the key doesn’t make sense. It’s just written this way so the strings can play it.”
The consequences of string-tailored music is the inevitable “squeaky and horrible” sounds from the clarinets.
“You can almost tell that’s music,” Adair says after hitting a double-high A-flat, a note out of the clarinet’s natural range. “You have to have excellent pitch determination to hear if that’s a note or a squeak.”
The squawking duel between man and music continues throught a few more valiant attempts to hit the note in tune before Adair retreats and offers a compromise: “I may go for an octave lower,” he says.
But he can’t have everything his way. Part of the beauty that comes from performing in a group of 60 is an opportunity to blend with 60 different harmonies. But with the slightest blemish or misdirection, the symphony has the potential to turn into cacophony 60 times over. That means obeying the conductor’s direction is paramount, and any disobedience can result in a harsh glare.
“Each conductor has his own sense of humor about how something should be performed,” Adair said. “You don’t want to get ‘the look.’”
Adair is visibly uncomfortable talking about “the look” that cancome from a conductor. He’d rather continue practicing to try to avoid it.
Pass the clarinet
Only two desires come close to rivaling Adair’s passion for teaching: cooking out and drinking beer. He has given private lessons from his home since he was in high school and still gets a kick out of helping students learn how to jump over the break or belt out those high notes.
He teaches students ages 17 to 67 and consistently produces all-state and first-chair performers in school bands. He even enlisted his stepson, Brian, in music at the age of 6.
Today, Brian, 29, is a U.S. Army sergeant playing clarinet in Iraq. Brian spends “half his time protecting civilians, and half the time playing clarinet in the Army band,” Adair said. “That’s what he loves doing.”
Perhaps one day Adair might find enough time away from music to take a spin on one of the two motorcycles that he says have been collecting dust in his basement garage. But he doesn’t think that will happen anytime soon.
“There’s always something to learn, and there’s always something to teach, so until my teeth fall out or my fingers stop working I’ll keep playing.”