Jazz and the Magic City

An Alabama Diaspora

Burgin Matthews

“From the heyday of swing through the dawn of bop, wherever there was jazz, there was some piece of Birmingham.”

This is the story of jazz in Birmingham, and of Birmingham in jazz—of how Alabama’s “Magic City” helped create some of the nation’s most swinging and celestial sounds, and of how that city, in the process, came to create itself.

Histories of jazz tend to map a predictable geography in which a handful of places loom large: New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, New York. But since the very beginnings of jazz, local communities of players developed their own variations on the music; their own repertoires, conventions, and traditions; their own homegrown heroes and scenes. For much of the twentieth century, the city of Birmingham was home to one of jazz music’s essential unsung communities, a thriving network of musicians whose lives helped shape the culture and sound of jazz as we know it. Nurtured in the social institutions of Birmingham’s Black middle class, these musicians carved out a distinctive identity, forging an active tradition at home and sending out ripples all over the world.

One reason Birmingham has been so long overlooked is because its musicians tended to exert their influence from the margins and behind the scenes: as sidemen, arrangers, businesspeople, mentors, and teachers. To make their careers, most of them left their home, taking their Birmingham training on the road and into the nation’s jazz capitals. By the mid-1920s, a steady stream of homegrown talent had already joined the tide of the larger Great Migration, fanning out across the country in search of opportunity. Through the 1930s and ’40s—from the heyday of swing through the dawn of bop—wherever there was jazz, there was some piece of Birmingham. The musicians carried the city with them everywhere they went: no matter where they traveled, their mutual roots made for a portable community, a permanent sense of family and home reconstituted any place the musicians might meet on the road.1

If Birmingham helped make the world of jazz, so too did jazz help to make Birmingham. In an era of pervasive segregation, the music would play an important role in the development of the city’s Black community, contributing to a culture of racial and regional pride and helping define Black Birmingham’s sense of identity and possibility. In the 1960s, this community famously took to the streets and commanded the attention of the nation, marching, boycotting, and facing down the firehouses and dogs of the brutal white law. But Birmingham’s quest for freedom did not spring fully formed from the climactic events of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Decades before that movement took shape, a vibrant, independent, and forward-looking Black middle class took root in Birmingham. Its members built a rich web of churches, social clubs, and schools; established an active, self-contained commercial district; and nurtured proud, tight-knit residential communities. They advocated for progress, self-determination, and uplift. The city’s jazz musicians helped shape this world, stylizing and reflecting back to it its own values and ambitions, projecting vital images of African American success in the heart of the segregated South.2

The musicians also linked Birmingham to the broader world. Those who left home for larger stages always came back heroes. With their fresh tuxedos, their golden horns and glistening conks, these players were possibility made manifest, the embodiments of sophistication, accomplishment, adventure, and style. Their examples fueled the dreams, especially, of young Black musicians in Birmingham, setting a standard and laying a path for the next generations to follow.

It all started in the schools. 

Fess Whatley with student musician Richard "Dickie" Clarke. Clarke worked with bandleader Benny Carter, Billie Holiday, and others, before coming home to teach music in Birmingham area schools. Courtesy of the Birmingham, Ala., Public Library Archives.

An Industrial Education

Birmingham’s jazz tradition was born out of its segregated Black schools, where a community of innovative and exacting educators created from the restrictions of Jim Crow a distinctive, flourishing musical culture. At the heart of it all was John T. “Fess” (for “professor”) Whatley, a teacher, trumpeter, and bandleader known as Birmingham’s “Maker of Musicians.” Born in rural Tuscaloosa County in 1894, Whatley enrolled for his schooling at Birmingham’s Tuggle Institute, a boarding school for poor and orphaned African American youth. Whatley’s mother belonged to Tuggle’s board of trustees and was friends with the school’s founder; those connections offered a better education than any options the Whatleys could find close to home, so the family sent him some fifty miles east to Birmingham. At Tuggle, Whatley fell under the spell of cornet player and bandmaster Sam “High C” Foster, the first instrumental music teacher at any Black school in Birmingham. Another family friend, the multi-instrumentalist Ivory “Pops” Williams, had assured the Whatleys he’d look out for their son, and in unexpected ways he made good on that promise: Williams played music in local late-night taverns and, hoping to introduce Whatley to the music business, he helped him slip in and out of his dormitory window, bringing him along for the gigs.3

In 1917, Whatley joined the faculty of Industrial High School (later renamed A. H. Parker High, after its first principal), where he served as printing instructor and—unofficially—bandmaster for nearly half a century, until his retirement in 1964. Birmingham’s first public high school for Black students was rooted in Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of industrial education, preparing its students for what school leaders called “the work of life.” Principal Parker insisted that “our boys and girls should be taught in the schools how to do thoroughly and well the everyday duties that they find right around them”—casting down their buckets, as Washington so famously put it, exactly where they were. Each student specialized in one manual discipline or another: carpentry, tailoring, shoe repair, printing, millinery, automotive repair. “They know that [they’re] going to have to work with brooms as well as books,” Parker explained.4

Whatley’s arrival constituted a quiet revolution. Right away he advocated for the introduction of band, not as an extracurricular “add-on” but as an industrial discipline in itself. Music, Whatley said, was a trade just like any other, to be plied with one’s hands; a practical, technical skill that with the proper training could ensure a livelihood after graduation. Indeed, Whatley’s training meant more than just livelihood: it was a pathway to dignity and to middle-class dreams, even sometimes to celebrity. It was a means of surviving, even thriving, in a world that seemed bent on holding African Americans back.5

With so much at stake, Whatley led his band with a fierce rigidity that became legendary, holding students to the highest musical and personal standards. He demanded precision, not only in performance but in dress and demeanor. His students memorized his “Golden Dozen Traits of Character” and adhered to his standards of unbending professionalism, punctuality, and sobriety—an all-encompassing lifestyle that Whatley reinforced with punitive fines and swift whacks across the knuckles or bottom anytime his students stepped out of line.6

Along the way, Whatley built a brand that became recognizable to bandleaders across the country. If you were trained by Whatley, Birmingham musicians bragged, you didn’t even have to audition: the Whatley stamp was all you needed to ensure the job. Through the swing years, Whatley musicians populated the sidelines of all the major Black bands—Duke Ellington’s, Louis Armstrong’s, Cab Calloway’s, and others—as a diaspora of Birmingham musicians scattered across the country to shape the sound of jazz. By 1934, the Chicago Defender could report that “In the East, West and South, wherever you go, you can find musicians who are musicians because of Fess Whatley.” Thirty years later, a writer for the British magazine Jazz Monthly wondered why Whatley’s name wasn’t better known to jazz fans and historians. “It is difficult to think of any major band,” jazz historian Bertrand Demeusy insisted, “that at one time or another has not had a former pupil of Mr. Whatley among its members.” Certainly the musicians—Black musicians, that is—knew Whatley’s name: “Everybody was talking about him,” Dizzy Gillespie recalled.7

The first hallmark of the Whatley training was its firm foundation in sight-reading, an essential skill for the rising swing era with its big bands and complex orchestrations. Reading wasn’t merely a technical skill: mastery of the printed score indicated literacy, discipline, and class. Whatley’s students were expected also to double on a second instrument, further enhancing their employability, and many of them distinguished themselves as composers and arrangers. Finally, Whatley’s strict character training ensured that any product of his classroom would prove motivated, respectable, and responsible in the workplace.

Even as he sent his musicians all over the country, Whatley proved tirelessly devoted to nurturing Birmingham’s own music scene. Soon after his arrival at Industrial, he formed the city’s first jazz band, the ten-piece Jazz Demons. Band members were all Whatley’s own former students, freshly graduated and working now as teachers themselves in Birmingham’s Black schools. Across the country, the Black press made much of this novelty: “Whatley’s band is in its make-up probably the most unusual band in the country,” the Chicago Defender announced. “Every man in the band is an artist, and something more, each man is an instructor in some particular branch of learning in high schools in Birmingham.” Other local groups—the Midnight Serenaders, the Black and Tan Syncopators, the Society Troubadours—sprouted up, built on the Whatley mold. With his own mentor, “Pops” Williams, Fess formalized the growing culture of professionalism, organizing Local 733, the city’s first Black musicians’ union. Rejected by the existing white local, Whatley and Williams created for musicians of color their own institutional network and infrastructure, and for decades to come union membership would be an essential prerequisite for Birmingham’s jazz players. Whatley served as delegate to the national conventions, where he addressed the mostly white body of attendees, outlining the vital contributions of African Americans to the whole of American music.8

In the 1930s Whatley’s Jazz Demons gave way to the fifteen-piece Vibra–Cathedral Orchestra, rebranded in the forties as the Sax-O-Society Orchestra, both later iterations reflecting the popular big band sound. Whatley’s band prided itself on both its stylistic diversity and its polished, genteel professionalism; an advertisement for the Sax-O-Society Orchestra declared the group “A REAL JAZZ ORCHESTRA—BUT NOT THAT ‘EAR-SPLITTING,’ ‘NERVE-WRACKING’ KIND.” Catering to the upper crust of Black and white Birmingham, Whatley’s repertoire tended toward sweet, poppy sounds, but Whatley and his men could “get hot,” too, when the situation demanded. In staged “jazz battles” with other Black bands across the state, Whatley reigned as unshakable champion.9

In Birmingham as elsewhere, the jazz scene was overwhelmingly male, the product of strict gender conventions and restrictions. Whatley refused to allow girls into the school band, saying they’d be a distraction to the boys. In Birmingham’s Black middle-class community, parents and teachers steered girls toward voice and piano lessons, and several private music schools equipped generations of Birmingham girls with a rigorous classical training. (Many boys, meanwhile, gave up the piano—thought to be a “girl’s instrument.”) Very few women proved exceptions to the rule. Mary Alice Clarke, longtime organist at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, was the only woman ever to play in Whatley’s professional band, where for years she did triple duty on piano, vibraphone, and accordion. Singer Ethel Harper, an Industrial High teacher, fronted her own band of students, Ethel Harper’s Rhythm Boys—but the image of a glamorous, unmarried teacher appearing onstage in an evening gown with a group of teenaged boys proved more than school leaders could bear. Harper was asked to quit teaching or quit the band. She went to Harlem, appeared at the Apollo Theater and on Broadway, and enjoyed success with the Ginger Snaps vocal group.10

Meanwhile, from all over the country—even across the globe—Birmingham musicians sent home to Fess Whatley postcards and letters, their latest glossy headshots, and an annual flood of birthday greetings, which Whatley proudly showed off to his latest batch of students. Saxophonist Cass McCord toured the world with Louis Armstrong and other bandleaders, led his own band in Paris, and wrote to Birmingham from the pyramids—”Hello Fess, I am still going strong. Am here in Egypt”—asking his teacher to write him in Bombay: “I’ll be there next week for six months, and then to China, Java, etc. Regards to the boys.”11

“The boys” in Whatley’s classroom listened enraptured as Fess recounted his old pupils’ adventures. Sammy Lowe, whose own horn would also take him all over the world, recalled, “We would dream of the time people would be talking about us playing some place.”12

“Fourth Avenue Stomp”

“Birmingham’s Harlem Is a City Apart,” blared a 1936 headline in the white-owned Birmingham News. Segregation had relegated local Black businesses to a single stretch of Fourth Avenue North, from Fifteenth to Eighteenth Street, and for much of the twentieth century, the area stood as Black Birmingham’s self-contained economic and cultural hub. Octavus Roy Cohen, dean of white Birmingham’s literary world, presumed to know the district well enough to make it (or something like it) the setting for his hugely successful “Darktown Birmingham” series in the Saturday Evening Post. Throughout the twenties, Cohen’s “Darktown” stories, which spawned a series of novels and film shorts, mined their characters from racist stereotypes and took a special delight in sending up what Cohen perceived as the pretensions of the Black elite class that dominated Fourth Avenue’s social scene. Cohen’s characters wore ill-fitting tuxedos, dusty top hats and gowns, spoke in thick dialects, and danced to the “saxophonious” blaring of “Perfesser” Alex Champagne’s Jazzphony Orchestra. “That was what people who were seriously trying to get information about Fourth Avenue were confronted with,” remembered J. L. Lowe, a saxophonist, educator, Whatley disciple, and founder of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. “They were confronted with the laziness of Blacks and their inability to speak the English language.” The reality, of course, was something much different. “What we did have,” said Lowe: “Fourth Avenue was able, in terms of our money, to rival any section in Birmingham.” There were Black-owned hotels, newspapers, a library, doctors, dentists, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists. And at the heart of it all was a thriving musical culture.13

Central to that Fourth Avenue scene was a host of Black fraternal orders, sister societies, and civic clubs whose endless calendars of meetings, luncheons, and gala dances reflected the political and social aspirations of Birmingham’s Black middle class. Since the late nineteenth century, these organizations had helped shape and empower Black communities across the country. They were also critical in supporting the development of the culture of jazz, in Birmingham as elsewhere. Budding musicians, as early as elementary school, honed their skills in a steady stream of afternoon teas and fraternal parades, then graduated to play the glitzy balls of the local Black elite. Black-owned newspapers like the Birmingham Reporter chronicled a constant whirl of events in their society columns, while local correspondents submitted their reports to the national pages of the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier. A typical announcement from 1934 described the Coterie Club’s latest “brilliant dance,” in which “500 invited guests jammed the Masonic temple,” moving “to the soft strains of Whatley’s society orchestra.” At 11:20 a.m., the lights were extinguished, and “only the soft glow from the modernistic central decoration” lit the way for the dancers. Ladies in attendance were decked in “beautiful new creations,” the report continued, and drummer-emcee “Wilson L. Driver presented each member as they glided across the dance floor . . . Special song hits were rendered by the orchestra members.” At such events, music was always a central feature.14

The same Masonic Temple—Fourth Avenue’s grand, seven-story anchor—also linked Birmingham musicians to national trends in jazz, playing host to major acts from across the country. A 1933 appearance there by Duke Ellington and his band became legendary for inspiring so many young musicians to devote themselves more fully to their craft. As a boy, Birmingham trumpeter Erskine Hawkins caught what bands he could, scaling the temple walls to peek through the second-floor ballroom’s windows. Before he became Sun Ra, Herman “Sonny” Blount similarly soaked in the scene. “The Black people were very oppressed and were made to feel like they weren’t anything,” he later said of life in the South; “so the only thing they had was the big bands.” Bands like Ellington’s or Whatley’s enacted the values championed in the abstract by groups like the Colored Masons: friendship, cooperation, solidarity, refinement, achievement. “Unity,” Sun Ra continued, “showed that the Black man could join together and dress nicely, do something nice, and that was all they had. So it was important for us to hear big bands.”15

Fourth Avenue’s theaters, both vaudeville and movie houses, provided another source of music. In the days before the movies could talk, instrumentalists like Pops Williams and Wilson Driver provided live accompaniment to the pictures flickering onscreen. Visitors to the Famous Theater often came more for Driver’s drumming than for the films themselves; Driver’s young protégé Jo Jones absorbed from his mentor all the movie house tricks he could before leaving Birmingham on a series of road shows. Later, Jones would emerge as a national sensation with the Count Basie Orchestra: his cymbal-driven, time-keeping innovations would make him one of jazz music’s most influential drummers and would help define the shimmering, propulsive sound at the heart of swing. For his own part, Driver would relocate in the 1940s to Harlem, where his apartment became a frequent gathering spot for Birmingham transplants to the New York jazz scene. Driver’s daughter, poet Sonia Sanchez, would come to incorporate her father’s rhythms into her own distinctive poetry, building in new ways on Birmingham’s musical legacy.16

On the stages and in the pits of Fourth Avenue’s vaudeville houses, still other musicians made their marks. Blues queen Bessie Smith played the Frolic Theater at the start of her 1924–25 tour, and she hired the entire house band—ten recent Industrial grads led by pianist Fred Longshaw—for the rest of the tour. Longshaw stayed on as Smith’s music director and accompanist (and, for a while, her lover). He’s the third performer on Smith’s classic collaboration with Louis Armstrong, 1925’s “St. Louis Blues.” One of that record’s distinctive features is its unlikely backing sound. Longshaw accompanies Smith and Armstrong on the harmonium, a small pump organ typical of old country churches, and that unconventional choice helps establish the memorable, unusual feel of the entire proceedings. Longshaw’s contribution is indicative of the role Birmingham musicians would play throughout history. Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, the “St. Louis Blues”—all these are famous, with good reason. But there’s something else—someone—there, too, audible and essential but anonymous, invisible. Underneath it all, laying down the rhythm and setting the stage, just outside the spotlight’s glare, is Fred Longshaw and Fourth Avenue.

If you know how to listen, you can hear Birmingham breathing through the grooves.

Opportunities for women were limited in Birmingham's jazz community, but Mary Alice Clarke—longtime organist at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and an influential piano teacher—proved the exception, playing for years in Fess Whatley's band. Courtesy of the Birmingham, Ala., Public Library Archives.

“Right Back Where I Belong”

No musicians embodied the spirit and success of the Birmingham jazz community so much as Erskine Hawkins and the members of his celebrated orchestra. The group was full of Birmingham players, many of whom had made music together as far back as grade school. As boys, Hawkins and company played their first gigs out at Tuxedo Junction, a bustling block of dance spots in the little steel town of Ensley, just north of Birmingham. (The place got its name from the junction of two streetcar lines—and from the shop, just beneath one of the venues, where workers rented tuxedos each weekend for the dances.) They’d gone to Alabama State Teachers College in Montgomery, where they’d formed the Bama State Collegians, touring the country in the name of the school—during the Depression, their tours raised crucial dollars for the college—before striking out on their own. Settling in Harlem, they became house band for the lavish Savoy Ballroom, grand temple of American swing. Trumpeter Hawkins was the band’s nominal leader, thanks to the show-stopping theatrics of his high-note frenzies, but the group was really an ensemble of stars. Another trumpeter, the more nuanced Dud Bascomb, crafted solos that Miles Davis and other budding moderns would mimic note for note, while pianist Avery Parrish adapted an old Birmingham blues riff into the instrumental “After Hours,” a hit so ubiquitous some dubbed it the new “Negro National Anthem.”17

In 1939, the Hawkins group scored their greatest hit with “Tuxedo Junction,” an infectious number they named for their hometown scene. As America entered the Second World War, Glenn Miller’s cover of the tune became a million-selling hit and wartime anthem. For some listeners, the popularity of Miller’s “Junction” highlighted the financial disparities between Black and white swing bands. A much-debated 1940 article in DownBeat accused white bandleaders of getting rich off the backs of Black artists, whose repertoires and arrangements they plundered—just as white rock-and-rollers would later build their own careers from the innovations of Black musicians. “Tuxedo Junction” was only the latest evidence of the trend, but Hawkins himself downplayed the controversy. “A lot of people thought that Glenn Miller had taken my number, stolen it,” he said. “But there was no truth in that.” Not only had Miller sought out Hawkins’s blessings to record the tune; royalties from Miller’s and subsequent covers provided a welcome revenue stream for the rest of Hawkins’s life.18

For countless wartime Americans, black and white, “Tuxedo Junction” came to represent home—”right back,” its lyrics said, “where I belong”—a direct counterpoint, geographically and emotionally, to that other world “over there.” But in Birmingham’s Black community, where marching bands blasted the tune at football halftimes and jukeboxes ran the record ragged, the connection was even more explicit, and the tune’s opening riff became a statement of profoundest pride. A columnist for the Atlanta Daily World visited the city in 1940 and reported that the tune “sounds greener and endlessly more pertinent in the Birmingham atmosphere,” where its constant play “seems to swoon one to sleep.” And “Tuxedo Junction” wasn’t the only Hawkins title that nodded to the folks back home. “Dolomite” and “Down in Titusville” namechecked small towns just north of the city; “Bear Mash Blues” referenced the seedy Southside neighborhood famous for the deadly alcoholic concoction brewed there; “Nona” was for Nona’s, a Montgomery whorehouse not far from Alabama State. “This was sort of like a code,” said Frank Adams, a high school musician during the Hawkins band’s heyday: “If you lived out in California, you wouldn’t know what in the world bear mash is. And if you lived in New York, you wouldn’t know where ‘Dolomite’ was. That was a little code that endeared Erskine to his home . . . You knew about it,” Adams beamed, “and it was a hit.”19

For young men like Frank Adams, those Hawkins men were larger-than-life heroes, reflections of their own best selves magnified into giants. When the band came home for a gig, they gave a free concert first to the high school. They donated handwritten scores of their latest hits to Fess Whatley, who taught his students straight from those original pages. How many high school bands could make a claim like that?

The Birmingham Heritage Band. Conductor Amos Gordon, in black, worked as Louis Armstrong's arranger before returning for a long career teaching music in Birmingham schools. The band's founder, J. L. Lowe, is at far left with saxophone. Courtesy of the Birmingham, Ala., Public Library Archives.

“Up on Teddy’s Hill”

Another of Birmingham’s transplants to Harlem was Teddy Hill, a bandleader and businessman whose career helped foster the shift from swing into the modern era. An alum of both the Fess Whatley and Fred Longshaw bands, Hill was handsome, hip, and buoyantly good-natured. Like his mentor Whatley, he was a fastidious dresser, a strict professional (the entertainment columns admired his compulsive punctuality), and, above all, a master businessman. He’d landed in New York and launched his own Teddy Hill Orchestra in 1934, and his cross-country radio broadcasts brought to nbc Studios a steady stream of fan mail. Industrial High’s Principal Parker visited New York in 1935 and made a public presentation to Hill, lauding him for his achievements. “The Industrial High bandleader, John Whatley,” reported the New York Amsterdam News, “has set Teddy up before the students as a model young man who has achieved the kind of success other Industrial High graduates should go after.” Back in Birmingham, Hill’s picture hung on the band room wall.20

Teddy Hill played a fine alto sax, but his greatest gift lay in his ability to spot and foster fresh talent. His band helped launch the careers of some of the era’s most respected soloists, including trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie, both of whom made their recording debuts with Hill’s band. As a teenager in Cheraw, South Carolina, Gillespie picked up Hill’s broadcasts on a neighbor’s radio and dreamed he’d someday play with the band. Soon enough, his dream came true: he worked his way to Harlem and joined the group just in time for its 1937 European tour.21

Hill’s band went over big in Paris and London (“Hi Fess,” the maestro wrote from the London Palladium, “having a fine time here”), but when they got back to the States, the momentum faltered. Tensions within the group anticipated changes that would remake the landscape of jazz, as young players like Gillespie clashed against the orchestra’s older, more conventional musicians. Meanwhile, Hill butted his own head with white promoters whom he believed were exploiting Black talent. One columnist applauded Teddy’s “modern Negro leadership,” noting that Hill had “just returned from abroad, where he was not only paid well but also treated like a grown-up gentleman” and wouldn’t stand, anymore, for less. Finally, in 1939, Hill broke up the band—but it was Hill’s next move that truly shook up the jazz world.22

By the start of 1940, Teddy Hill had reemerged as manager of Minton’s Playhouse, a stagnant Harlem nightclub that he transformed into one of jazz music’s most iconic landmarks. On Monday nights, Hill invited musicians to Minton’s for free down-home cooking and drinks, and he encouraged the rising heroes of modern jazz—Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker—to sit in with the house band. The after-hours jam sessions that resulted helped birth the bebop movement, as experiments with rhythm, harmony, chord changes, and tempo set the standard for a new kind of music. For Minton’s house band, Hill hired a then-unknown Thelonious Monk on piano, along with two alums of his own old orchestra: the pioneering modern drummer Kenny Clarke and another product of Birmingham, a progressive young trumpeter named Joe Guy. With Hill at the helm, Minton’s Playhouse would be lionized as one of jazz music’s most sacred spaces: “the house that built bop,” pianist Mary Lou Williams called it.23

But if Birmingham helped usher in the modern jazz era, it was another of the city’s sons who pushed the music to its furthest-out fringes. While other players linked their Alabama home to glittering far-off locales, Sun Ra reached for other universes entirely.

The Industrial High School Band, 1930–1931. Fess Whatley stands at far right. Courtesy of the Birmingham, Ala., Public Library Archives.

The Magic Citizen

Sun Ra—pianist, composer, spaceways philosopher, and hero to the avant-garde—was clear about his mission: he sought to communicate through his music new truths from the cosmos, to transcend this earthly condition through otherworldly melodies and the pageantry of performance. He even claimed, all his life, to have come from outer space. And yet, for all that, he was fundamentally shaped by the Birmingham of his youth.

Herman “Sonny” Blount was born in Birmingham—or, he’d insist, he arrived there—in 1914, and he grew up immersed in the world of Fess Whatley and Fourth Avenue. His family lived downtown, just across the street from the Terminal train station, where a giant sign welcomed travelers to “The Magic City,” the nickname bestowed on Birmingham by its optimistic founders. As a teenager, he played in both Whatley’s Industrial band and in Ethel Harper’s Rhythm Boys. When Harper left Birmingham, the other musicians voted him the band’s new leader. Soon after Sonny’s high school graduation, Fess Whatley sponsored the Sonny Blount Orchestra on its first southeastern tour, and before long the group was a regional hit. Sun Ra later spoke of the difference between Birmingham’s scene and the cities he’d later play. Birmingham, he said, “was sort of like an aristocratic center; it was really society. In fact, while I was there, I never did play in what you call a tavern. I played for social clubs—Black ones who had their social clubs, and they’d be together and they’d rent a place, and every week you had a social thing . . . and that’s what it was, it was another kind of society. It [wasn’t the] white world, but it was some people that was together, and they were very beautiful.” The bands he heard in high school, he once wrote, “never made hit records, but they were truly natural Black beauty”; their music was “fresh and courageous; daring, sincere, unfettered.” The experience of it all ingrained in him a lifelong love for big band music and for what he considered the inherent beauty of Black culture.24

By the time he left Birmingham, Sonny was already pushing musical boundaries. He explored new technologies, including an electric synthesizer called the Solovox, and he built a reputation for novelty, pushing his musicians to improvise and experiment with their own distinct sounds. In 1946, he relocated to Chicago, where he changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra—Sun Ra, for short—and formed his long-running band, the Arkestra. He may have moved far from Birmingham society, but even at its most otherworldly extremes his music always harkened back home. A typical Arkestra performance brought together the entire history of jazz, incorporating blues and swing, mixing standards with the wildly experimental, and linking the past to the future in an expression of what Sun Ra considered a kind of musical infinity. This all-encompassing approach looked back in some ways to Whatley, whose stylistic diversity and wide-ranging stock of songs Sun Ra admired. “He had a huge repertoire,” Sun Ra always remembered of Fess: “That’s the reason I know about standards, because he had everything all the way back to the stomp, Dixieland. We played everything.” The dazzle of the early bands also served as launching pad for Sun Ra’s own exaggerated sense of spectacle. “Musicians back there,” he said of the bands of his youth, “they dressed . . . they were wearing things that put another image out there, and they were successful.” Sun Ra abandoned the tuxes and ties but expanded on the principle, crafting for the Arkestra an outrageous wardrobe that evoked both ancient Egypt and sci-fi otherworlds. Like his own early idols, he could offer “another image”—not through music alone but through the full packaging of a musical event—providing Black audiences, in particular, with a glimpse of alternate realities and possibilities. For decades he developed a complex philosophy of what he called “Myth-Science,” “Black Infinity,” or “Astro-Black Mythology,” imagining a Black tomorrow that looked (and sounded) unlike any future so far dreamed up on Earth. “Since everything that’s possible has been tried,” he said, “we need to try the impossible.”25

Nowhere did Sun Ra pursue his vision more boldly than on a landmark 1964 recording that stretched both his players and listeners to their furthest limits. In a sprawling, twenty-seven minute, free jazz epic, Sun Ra sketched out a cosmic soundscape that one biographer called “a miracle of musical invention.” Band member John Gilmore declared the performance “unreproducible, a tapestry of sound.”26

Sun Ra called the piece “The Magic City.”

Bebop pioneers at Minton's, in a famous 1947 photo by William Gottlieb. Left to right are Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge, and Teddy Hill. Courtesy of Getty Images.

“Where You Going, Daddy?”

Like a lot of migration stories, this one comes full circle. By the last decades of the twentieth century, many of the musicians who’d left Birmingham to make their careers came back home to the place they’d started. Some became teachers: saxophonists Amos Gordon and Frank Adams, fresh from gigs in the Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington bands, began long and influential careers in Birmingham band rooms. J. L. Lowe, another educator-musician, dedicated himself to celebrating and preserving the local tradition, championing the legacies of Fess Whatley and other pioneers. Not only had Birmingham been critical to the development of jazz, Lowe maintained; the distinctive local heritage was one of the city’s most vital resources, and—as Birmingham recovered from the legacies of segregation and civil rights struggle—the music could offer opportunities for reconciliation and civic pride. When Whatley died in 1972, he left Lowe an enormous scrapbook of photos, letters, and notes he’d compiled through the years, documenting the successes of his students. In Lowe’s hands, that scrapbook became the foundations of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. With the support of community leaders, Lowe launched the hall of fame in 1978 to honor and further the city’s musical heritage; what began as an annual induction ceremony would grow to include a museum, free classroom, and performing arts center. In 1979, Lowe spearheaded the Birmingham Heritage Band, a supergroup of local talent, linking veteran musicians with a new generation of up-and-coming players.

All the same, the once thriving tradition inevitably faded. The end of legal segregation, and the economic struggles of downtowns everywhere, saw Fourth Avenue’s decline as a concentrated hub. In Ensley, the steel mills closed, and Tuxedo Junction’s last clubs shuttered their doors. In the schools, music lost its role as a vital means for survival. In Birmingham as elsewhere, jazz simply wasn’t the popular music it had been in the days when swing had swept the country and hip, tuxedoed giants reigned supreme.

Still, a few echoes of the past linger even now. The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame continues its mission right on Fourth Avenue, offering free jazz classes, live performances, and an annual student band competition. At weekly jam sessions around town, a small contingent of musicians, young and old, swap solos. And, forty years after its founding, the latest incarnation of the Birmingham Heritage Band continues to soldier on in the big band style, swinging out “Tuxedo Junction,” then launching into a Heritage Band original, “Birmingham Is My Home.” The musicians stand together for the chorus, some stooped a little with age, and they sway from side to side and sing:

Birmingham is my home!

Birmingham is my home!

Where you going, daddy?
I don’t want to roam.”27

This essay was first published in the Here/Away issue (vol. 25, no. 4: Winter 2019).

Burgin Matthews is coauthor, with Frank “Doc” Adams, of Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man. His book in progress chronicles Birmingham’s unique jazz history, and his weekly radio show, The Lost Child, explores a wide range of southern music traditions. Find more at www.burginmathews.com.
  1. Frank “Doc” Adams and Burgin Mathews, Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012), 190–194; Jothan McKinley Callins, “The Birmingham Jazz Community: The Role and Contributions of Afro-Americans (up to 1940)” (master’s thesis, University of Pittsburgh, 1982); Sammy Lowe, “A Man from Tuxedo Junction (From Jazz to Swing to Rock to Soul): Diary of a Black Musician” (unpublished manuscript, n.d.), AR1137, Department of Archives and Manuscripts, Birmingham Public Library; John T. (Fess) Whatley / J. L. Lowe scrapbook, n.d., AR572, Department of Archives and Manuscripts, Birmingham Public Library. See also Carol P. Ealons, Tuxedo Junction: Right Back Where I Belong (Brownsboro, AL: Ardent Writer, 2013). My introductory overview also draws from conversations with Birmingham musicians, including Frank Adams, Tolton Rosser, and Tommy Stewart.
  2. See Lynne B. Feldman, A Sense of Place: Birmingham’s Black Middle-Class Community, 1890–1930 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999).
  3. Callins, “Birmingham Jazz Community,” 45–46, 60.
  4. A. H. Parker, A Dream That Came True: Autobiography of Arthur Harold Parker (Birmingham, AL: Industrial High School, 1932–1933), 35; James S. Childers, “Where Pupils Study Books and Brooms,” Birmingham News Age-Herald, May 28, 1933.
  5. Adams and Mathews, Doc, 54–56.
  6. Stories of Whatley’s discipline and pedagogical philosophy are legendary in Birmingham. See, for example, Adams and Mathews, Doc, 50–67; and Chip Stern, “Wilson Driver: Driver Man, Reflections of an Urban Griot,” Chipstern.com, February 1, 2019, http://www.chipstern.com/chip_tribal_wilson.htm.
  7. Bertrand Demeusy, “John Tuggle ‘Fess’ Whatley, a Maker of Musicians,” Jazz Monthly, August 1966, 6–9; “Fess Whatley’s Band to Make Tour of the Eastern States,” Chicago Defender, June 23, 1934, 9; Albert Murray, Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues, ed. Paul Devlin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 39.
  8. “Fess Whatley’s Band,” 9; Callins, “Birmingham Jazz Community,” 47.
  9. Newspaper advertisement, Birmingham World, n.d., author’s private collection.
  10. Lowe, “Tuxedo Junction,” 6–7; Adams and Mathews, Doc, 59; “Sun Ra, 03.05.1990, San Francisco, Birmingham years / musical destiny,” May 3, 1990, track 4 on Sun Ra, Sun Ra Research CD One, Sun Ra Research SRR001, 2004, compact disc.
  11. Whatley/Lowe scrapbook.
  12. Lowe, “Tuxedo Junction,” 44.
  13. “Birmingham’s Harlem Is a City Apart,” Birmingham News, 1936; Octavus Roy Cohen, Dark Days and Black Knights (New York: Mead, 1923), 12; Octavus Roy Cohen, Black and Blue (Boston: Little, Brown, 1926), 3; J. L. Lowe interview, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
  14. “Coterie Club Observes Its Anniversary,” Chicago Defender, April 28, 1934, 6.
  15. Erskine Hawkins, interview by Leonard Goines, 1982, Jazz Oral History Project, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ; Sun Ra, interview by Phil Schaap, December 12, 1988, WKCR, New York.
  16. Chip Stern, “Papa Jo Jones,” Modern Drummer, February 1, 2019, https://www.moderndrummer.com/article/january-1984-papa-jo-jones/; Burt Korall, Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz; The Bebop Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 118–120, 126–131; Stern, “Wilson Driver.” See also Papa Jo Jones and Albert Murray, Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones, ed. Paul Devlin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
  17. Thomas W. Stewart Jr., The Bama State Collegians, 1929–1934 (Gadsden, AL: Thomasina, 1993). For Bascomb’s influence on Davis and others, see Ira Gitler, Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 79.
  18. R. L. Larkin, “Are Colored Bands Doomed as Money Makers?,” DownBeat, December 1, 1940, 2; Lucky Millinder and Dan Burley, “Negro Bands Are Not Doomed Says Millinder,” New York Amsterdam News, December 21, 1940; Chip Deffaa, In the Mainstream: 18 Portraits in Jazz, Studies in Jazz (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1992), 145.
  19. Bill Bennett, “Tuxedo Junction, Ensley’s Corner with Theme Song, Is Reaping Nickel Harvest,” Birmingham Post, July 24, 1940; Ric Roberts, “‘Tuxedo Junction’ A Keener Number When One’s in Birmingham,” Atlanta Daily World, September 15, 1940, 8; Frank Adams, interview with the author, 2010.
  20. “Teddy Hill Honored by Birmingham, Ala. School,” New York Amsterdam News, July 13, 1935, 36.
  21. Dizzy Gillespie, To Be, Or Not . . . To Bop, with Al Fraser (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 32–33; Whatley/Lowe scrapbook; “Teddy Hill Honored,” 36.
  22. Whatley/Lowe scrapbook.
  23. Ralph Ellison, “The Golden Age, Time Past,” in Shadow and Act (London: Secker and Warburg, 1967), 199–212; Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It (New York: Dover, 1955), 335–358.
  24. Sun Ra, “An Interview with Sun Ra,” interview by Phil Schaap, WKCR, January–February 1989; Sun Ra, Sun Ra, The Immeasurable Equation: The Collected Poetry and Prose, comps. and eds. James L. Wolf and Hartmut Geerken (Wartaweil, Germany: Waitawhile, 2005), 476.
  25. Paul Youngquist, A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016), 189–197.
  26. Sun Ra, “Sun Ra: Interview,” interview by Bob Rusch, Cadence, June 1978, 5; “Sun Ra Interview: Remembers How Musicians Used to Dress,” disc 1, track 31 on Sun Ra, The Eternal Myth Revealed, vol. 1, Transparency 0316, 2011, compact disc; John F. Szwed, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (New York: Da Capo, 1998), 212–215; Youngquist, Solar World, 182.
  27. Tolton Rosser, interview with the author, April 19, 2016; “Birmingham Is My Home,” composed by Amos Gordon and Sammy Lowe, Heritage Records HR-100, 1984, 45 rpm. For more on the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame’s history and mission, see https://www.jazzhall.com; for more on the Lowe family’s legacy, see C. Marzette-Bolivar, Swing Lowe: A Family’s Dedication to Preserving Music in the Magic City (New York: Vantage, 2001).