Alton Augustus Adams: One of the Best-Known Musicians of the U. S. Virgin Islands

Article excerpt

In the spring of 1917, the United States was about to enter World War I. To prevent a German presence in the region, the United States purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million dollars.

Negotiations to sell the islands to the United States began in 1865, although they were not concluded until 1917. Indeed, the Danish government approved the sale of Saint Thomas and Saint John in 1867. However, the American U. S. Senate, caught up in the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, failed to ratify the treaty.1

After more negotiations, however, the official transfer of the entire Virgin Islands occurred on March 31, 1917. The islands were immediately placed under the jurisdiction and control of the United States Navy.

Alton Augustus Adams was born on the island of St. Thomas on November 4,1889, and was twenty-seven years old at the time of the transfer of the Virgin Islands from Denmark to the United States. The historic transfer of the islands and the presence of the U. S. Navy would have a tremendous impact on the life of this Virgin Islands musician.

Adams' interest in music began at a very young age when he taught himself to play the flageolet. He was fortunate to have studied and taken lessons with local musicians who taught him the flute and the basic rudiments of music. Eventually, he would learn to play the piccolo.

From an early age, Adams was influenced to music by listening to orchestral and band music, particularly the marches of John Philip Sousa. He read several music magazines and enrolled in a correspondence course to study harmony, counterpoint, and composition. Through his efforts, he received a diploma and learned more about music.

According to Floyd, "Adams earned the Mus. B. degree from the University Extension Conservatory of Music in Chicago. He also took courses from the School of Musical Theory of Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Academy of Music in London."2

Adams, because of his musicianship and leadership, was destined to become a bandleader. He organized a brass band at the age of fourteen and years later, organized another band, which became known as the St. Thomas Juvenile Band.

At the request of James Oliver, the naval governor, President Woodrow Wilson signed the directive that established the navy band of the United States Virgin Islands on June 2,1917. [This directive made] Adams' Juvenile Band the first black band in the U. S. Navy and Adams the navy's first black bandmaster.3

The navy band under the direction of Adams became an outstanding unit. They rehearsed frequently and gave many performances. The band's repertoire consisted of a variety of marches, orchestral transcriptions, waltzes, jazz, and "dance music (mainly the bamboula, a generic term for local dance music)."4

Adams' remarkable success with his first navy band was the impetus for the creation of two additional navy bands in the Virgin Islands. These bands, formed at the request of the Government, were established in the towns of Christiansted and Frederiksted on the island of St. Croix.

Clague states that "Adams' three bands were the first black ensembles in the United States Navy and the only ones until World War II. Adams was the first black to become a United States Navy bandmaster and, most likely, the first to be a chief petty officer in the navy. "5

Adams, as a composer, wrote many compositions. His most popular compositions include the Virgin Islands March, written in 1917 for Captain William Russell White of the U. S. S. Vixen; the Governor's Own, written in 1921 for Governor James C. Oman; and the Spirit of the United States Navy, written in 1924 for President Calvin Coolidge and the 1924 band tour.

"Adams greatly admired Sousa and learned how to compose, in part, by transcribing music from the instrumental parts of Sousa's works into full score."6 In his article, Floyd states that John Philip Sousa, whom Adams admired, wrote to him about the Virgin Islands March, stating that ". …