From all accounts, Memphis-born Frank Barham should be dead. The accomplished actor, dancer and jazz musician survived the terrible automobile accident and spinal cord injury that changed his life in an instant at the age of 25. That was more than 30 years ago. Funny how things work out. At the time of the accident he was none of these things. He was a young man in a very dark place. In fact, the accident may have been a subconscious death wish.
Eight years earlier, Barham, his father, and a couple of friends were engaging in horseplay around a swimming pool. In the spirit of fun, Barham tossed his father in the pool, never imagining it would break his father’s neck, but it did. As a quadriparetic, his dad would need a wheelchair for mobility. Even so, he quickly forgave his devastated 17-year-old son.
Not that it mattered. For the next eight years, Barham’s feelings of guilt simmered under the surface. Though his father had forgiven him, the son could not forgive himself. Still, life went on. He was accepted to the University of North Carolina. A basketball player in high school, he pursued the sport in college with the chance to play for legendary UNC coach Dean Smith. The powerful, well-built freshman walk-on made every cut and, to his amazement, landed a spot on the team. His father was genuinely proud, even though his son had only made it to the freshman bench.
Barham graduated college with a degree in political science, but his ever-growing remorse was affecting all aspects of his being. The guilt and the grief over his father’s situation and the impact on his family totally consumed him. It almost destroyed the life he had. A few unfulfilled years later, in 1980, it happened.
“I was coming home from a party one night. I was drunk. I saw a policeman turn on his blue lights behind me. Instead of stopping, I took off, lost control of the car and crashed. I broke everything in my upper body. Everything,” says Barham, an L1-2 para due to the accident. He was in a horrible mental state before the wreck, and now, the unimaginable had become real.
Barham was lying in a hospital bed when his dad wheeled into the room. “He looked at me, and I had to look back at both of us, and I said, ‘My God. This is my fault.’”
What was his fault would also be his salvation, but he didn’t know it at the time. Barham was stunned by his circumstances and the way people now looked at him. He wouldn’t be grooving to the song “Happy Days are Here Again” anytime soon. That would take some time — and practice.
Taking a Tune for the Better
As a person in a wheelchair, Barham was definitely on the road less traveled — relearning how to do the simplest things, knowing there were some things he’d never be able to do, and discovering how the world perceived people in wheelchairs. He lost friends because he was now an “inconvenience.” He also bought into what people who had never experienced life in a wheelchair told him he wouldn’t be able to do. He applied for jobs for which he was more than qualified, only to be eliminated as a candidate when he rolled into the interview. They never explicitly said it, but he could tell by their reaction. Once, he was told, “Someone in a wheelchair does not project the image we want to project in the marketplace.” This was pre-Equal Employment Opportunity and Americans with Disabilities Act. So, along with everything else, he had to figure out how he would support himself — and how to love himself again.
While he was figuring it all out, his diversion was music.
When Barham was growing up, his dad owned a few albums by jazz trumpet virtuoso Al Hirt. Impressed with the music, he took up the trumpet. In high school, he was into rock ’n’ roll, but it was the blues-tinged rock he really loved. “I was crazy about the Allman Brothers. I still have their Fillmore East album in my collection,” says Barham. “They had a lot of blues and jazz influences in their sound. The blues were a big deal for me. I was chasing blues.”
Then he discovered jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker in college — and promptly became a jazz snob, believing that, if it wasn’t Charlie Parker or Miles Davis, it wasn’t worth listening to. In time, Barham broadened his musical taste. He read voraciously about jazz and the history of jazz. He also listened to John Lee Hooker and Paul Butterfield, a blues harmonica player. “There was an incredible passion, risk and artistry in the blues,” he says. “They had to have all the technical capability of a classical musician — and then be able to go somewhere else with it and utilize it.”
When his doctor walked into his hospital room after the accident and said, “Well, what are you going to do with your life now?” Barham said, “I think I want to learn how to play the harmonica.”
The Brotherhood of Bebop
Just out of the hospital, and seemingly rudderless, Barham spent his time digging the jazz at various venues. His first friends after the accident were jazz musicians. But not just any jazz musicians — these guys were pioneers who had been around at the birth of bebop and had later migrated to the Durham scene. Some had even played with Charlie Parker and incomparable jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. It almost seemed like divine intervention. There was a commonality that was inescapable.
These musicians were blacks long dealing with civil rights issues and the struggle for acceptance and equality. Barham, also searching for acceptance and equality, was just beginning. They understood what he was going through, and they helped him go through it.
Two older jazz musicians, Brother Yusuf Salim and Bus Brown, took him under their wing and became his best friends. One night the three were out together. They stopped at the door of a music venue after discovering a long flight of stairs led to their destination. A person at the door looked directly at Barham and said, “People like you have to use the back door. You can’t come in this way.”
“As we headed to the back door, Brother Yusuf and Bus were laughing hysterically. Yusuf said, ‘See what I’m tellin’ you? You us!’ That was deep,” says Barham.
It was during those late night sessions with the music around Durham that Barham started to feel joy again. He focused on his harmonica, and, as his confidence grew, he gradually developed his “chops” in other parts of life. “I was going to find out if I could make life work this way. I was going to attack my fear, attack the obstacles, give it my best shot, and see what happens,” he says.
Finding His Groove
At age 57, he’s in it now and has been for a while. A pretty good juggler before his accident, Barham adapted the skill for his chair and performed at corporate events, including a special performance for an event hosted by Sara Lee in 1996 during the Atlanta Olympics. The medal-themed routine featured a juggler on a super-tall unicycle (gold), a juggler on a medium-sized unicycle (silver), and Barham in his wheelchair (bronze), all throwing pins at each other. Barham has also danced with the Atlanta Ballet and the Cleveland Ballet Wheelchair Dance company, and has acted in films (look for him in Warm Springs, a made-for-TV movie about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s polio rehabilitation in the therapeutic warm springs in a small Georgia town.)
All the while, his true passion was becoming masterful at the chromatic harmonica. Today his jazz quartet and his music keeps him spiritually and emotionally pumped — that, and the contented life he lives at home with his wife, Adriana, and their beloved black-labbish rescue mutt, Scooter.
Barham and Adriana met in a restaurant. It was his voice that first attracted Adriana, when he talked to the waitress. She glanced over for a look and saw a handsome face and a killer smile. Then she noticed “his powerful projection — as if sitting on a throne instead of a wheelchair.” In the end, she says it was his beautiful mind that captured her heart completely. And, of course, his music: “Its darkness and sweetness get you very deep inside your heart and touch your soul in such a precise way, that you can’t deny it.”
These days, on any given evening, you can find the Frank Barham Quartet entertaining fans at an Atlanta restaurant, jazz venue or special event. During the day he’s working on the quartet’s first CD for BeHip Records — a premiere jazz and live music record label — and, of course, perfecting his music through practice.
If you arrive before the first set, you’ll see him somewhere near the stage, tugging at his well-groomed soul patch as he peruses sheets of music. That’s where the notes are. But the sound comes from someplace else.
“I’m an improviser. I’m a jazz musician,” he says.
When the quartet plays at Big Tex Cantina in Decatur, a small city and hot spot for music just east of Atlanta, assistant general manager Tim Tintle spends the evening enjoying the music as much as the crowd. Tintle saw Barham play at another Atlanta venue a couple of years ago.
“His harmonica playing was great, but I was most impressed with the heart and soul he put into his performance,” says Tintle. “We had to get him in to play at Big Tex. He is an amazing harmonica player. He’s also a great spoken-word poet. Frank has developed a great fan base. He continues to draw more and more people at each show, and the folks at our bar also love hearing him play.”
Mike Jakob, owner of the Elliot Street Pub in Atlanta’s historic and distinctly hip Castleberry Hill, seconds Tintle’s regard for Barham: “Frank is a cool cat, period, and it comes out in his music. It’s fluid. He makes it sound like there is so much air coming out of the harmonica. The solos he takes have this incredible composition that I have never heard coming out of a harmonica — no matter who was playing it.”
Of his personal relationship with Barham, Jakob says, “He’s great company, great conversation and an inspiration to me to never forget that anything is possible no matter what life throws at you.”
The venues Barham’s quartet plays are ADA-accessible, so he gets everywhere he needs to be. And thanks to his reputation and the equally talented friends he’s made over the years, other high-profile jazz musicians and singers will jam with the group from time to time. Their regard for Barham is clear: Grammy-winning saxophonist Kebbi Williams loves his friend’s “fire to express music. His quartet has a freedom and spiritual feeling.”
Of his friend and band mate, jazz pianist James Schneider says, “I think Frank understands that there is no difference between praying and playing music.”
It’s his fans whose prayers are answered when they hear the quartet play. The crowd listens intently, knowing they’re hearing music that will never be played exactly the same way again and, perhaps, never understanding why the music — particularly the chromatic harmonica — has a vibrant, yet bittersweet quality to it, one they’ve never heard before. And it lifts them up.
“Through music,” says Barham, “I’ve discovered my purpose.”
Susan Hawkins is a writer and video producer for AMSVans.com, which sells and rents wheelchair vans and all types of adapted vehicles online nationwide.