Life Stories

Band director taught much more than music

CORRESPONDENTMay 23, 2011 

As a young high school band director in the 1950s, Donald B. Adcock offered music lessons all summer to anyone interested in learning an instrument. An accomplished jazz flautist teaching in a 5,000-person ranching community in Deming, N.M., he offered these lessons every day, coaching individuals for upward of an hour - for free.

For Eugene Narmour, this generous offer would prove life changing. The summer after eighth grade, Adcock taught Narmour the trombone Monday through Friday - lessons that sparked a career in music for Narmour, who is now a music professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Adcock died this month at age 85, and Narmour, 71, is mourning the life of a man who taught him much more than music.

This seems to be the sentiment with most who knew Adcock.

His wife of 54 years, Betty Adcock, met her husband in Deming while accompanying a friend home from a boarding school in Texas.

During their courtship he repeatedly made the 700-mile drive to visit her, she said, and the two married when she was a year into college.

On their first date they discovered a mutual love of poetry, and on his final day at Hospice of Wake County, following a battle with pneumonia, she would read some favorite poems to him. .

Betty Adcock would become a distinguished poet herself, teaching at universities around the country. Among the many things she learned from her husband, appreciating music was at the top of the list. "We had classical in the mornings and jazz in the evenings," she said.

Adcock was born in Durham, where his family owned a restaurant, Adcock's, famous for its Brunswick stew.

For a child of the Depression, instruments were not easy to come by. But his father had bought a flute, and taught himself to play, as a younger man. So the flute was what was available to Adcock if he wanted to learn an instrument.

"He loved the flute with all his soul," his wife said. "It was perfect for him."

The flute would accompany Adcock to warships during his two tours of duty with the U.S. Navy, where he would play in the Navy band.

His first tour came straight out of high school on the USS Indiana during World War II. The second came during the Korean War.

His education was woven between these two wars. He earned a bachelor's degree from East Carolina University, then sandwiched his second tour between semesters, earning his doctorate in music education at Columbia University.

After marrying Betty, Adcock was able to move closer to home with a teaching position in Rockingham, where the couple welcomed a daughter, Sylvia Adcock.

22 years at NCSU

They eventually settled in Raleigh when Donald Adcock became the band director at N.C. State University in 1970. He held the position for 22 years.

He loved conducting marching bands, his wife said, and when the position became open at NCSU, it was a perfect opportunity. He also taught courses in music appreciation and history.

For countless students, Adcock became a mentor, someone who never seemed to run out of time or energy, who was always enthusiastic and encouraging. For many, his influence went well beyond the confines of the practice room - or in Adcock's case, the football field or basketball court.

His stage band entertained crowds at Reynolds Coliseum with far more than pep tunes and fight songs.

Adcock treated the marching band, orchestra, symphonic band and stage band as he would musicians at a conservatory program - expecting the best, drilling his charges repeatedly until it was done correctly.

And he was regarded as eternally patient and supportive, Narmour recalls.

"He was both friendly and fun to be around but he was extremely principled and very strict," Narmour said. "He had very high standards. He didn't let you get away with anything."

Throughout his career he taught privately, but when rheumatoid arthritis made conducting, and eventually performing too painful, Adcock had to retire and his private lessons became a key focus.

He did not mourn this diagnosis too heavily.

"Every time he lost something, he replaced it," his wife said. In addition to stepping up his private student lessons, he became an avid bird-watcher.

"My dad was fun," Sylvia Adcock said . "He was fun to be with."

Although she does not share his music talents (a year of oboe lessons made that clear), it did not get in the way of a relationship filled with humor, road trips and a constant trading of novels.

Improvising jazz and life

Donald Adcock frequented Quail Ridge Books & Music, which would lead him to the Jazz Loft Project, an effort supported by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University to document and preserve the work done by photographer and jazz enthusiast Eugene Smith.

Local writer Sam Stephenson, who wrote a book about the project, worked at the Raleigh bookstore in the 1990s, and played jazz music over the store's speakers. He recruited Adcock as a consultant after hearing him time and again identify not only what jazz piece was playing at Quail Ridge, but which musician was striking the keys or blowing the horn.

"Don knew every musician and every tune. He knew them by ear, and we needed that because the Jazz Loft Project was a detective story at core," Stephenson said.

Over the course of their friendship, Adcock sent Stephenson countless jazz recordings. Anytime he found something new, he had to share it.

Narmour also cherishes his collection of tapes sent by his old friend.

Narmour is dedicating his next book to Adcock and will give a eulogy at a memorial service this month.

"He liked to improvise life," Narmour said.

A jazz musician to the core.

eshestak@mac.com

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