Sun Ra in Birmingham: A Few Ear(th)ly Artifacts

One hundred and six years ago today, in the Magic City of Birmingham, a spaceways composer and bandleader arrived for the first time on Earth.

All his life, Sun Ra claimed to have come from outer space. He spoke of abstract other-worlds and alternate planes of existence, offering through his music a portal to other realities. For decades, he built around himself a personal mythology that rejected any earthly attachments. He may have grown up in that Alabama city of Birmingham, but he hadn’t been born there, he’d insist: he’d “arrived,” “combusted,” or “appeared,” sent from the cosmos to teach new truths to humankind. He left the city in 1946 and, as far as we know, didn’t return for decades. The place, it seemed, was irrelevant to his music and his mission.

His sister, Mary Blount Jenkins, balked at her brother’s refusal to acknowledge any earthly family or home. “He was born at my mother’s aunt’s house,” she told The Birmingham News in 1992, “over there by the train station. I know, ‘cause I got on my knees and peeped through the keyhole.

“He’s not,” she said, “from no Mars.”

For all his otherworldliness, Sun Ra was steeped in and shaped by the culture of his hometown. Herman “Sonny” Blount grew up in a fertile local jazz scene, a protégé of bandmaster John T. “Fess” Whatley, Industrial High School’s celebrated “Maker of Musicians.” By the time he graduated high school, in the spring of 1934, he was already leading his own band. Soon the Sonny Blount Orchestra was drawing acclaim across the Southeast.

Birmingham was full of musicians, many of whom would make significant marks on the sound and culture of jazz. Sun Ra’s generation of Birmingham players included the trumpeter-bandleader Erskine Hawkins and most members of his popular dance band; drummer Jo Jones, whose work with Count Basie remade the very rhythm and shimmer of swing; bandleader and businessman Teddy Hill, who turned Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem into the epicenter of the developing bebop sound. Other Birmingham instrumentalists worked in the bands of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Cab Calloway, Benny Carter, Billie Holiday. To make their careers in music, they left the South to find work in the jazz capitals of the nation—Chicago, New York, Kansas City—but all of them, even Sun Ra, were shaped first in the same thriving music scene back home.

Local newspaper clippings from Sonny Blount’s years in Birmingham offer fascinating glimpses into the ear(th)ly roots of an enduring jazz icon. Below are several discoveries from my ongoing research into this history, presented in celebration of Sonny’s “arrival day” today. I’ve divided the post into two sections: first, a couple of rare early photos, and a look at Sonny’s vocal quartet, the Rhythm Four; then, a very brief survey of some of the venues and events where Sonny honed his role as bandleader in the early 1940s.

Together, these snatches of information help flesh out a portrait of the man who would become Sun Ra.

Part One: The Rhythm Four — Making a Name in Radio World 

Sonny Blount and Ripple Rhyth,

To my knowledge, this photo from October, 1940—and a similar photo from the same session, below—are the earliest known images of Sun Ra. That’s him, second from left, in a quartet called the Rhythm (or Ripple Rhythm) Four. Between 1939 and 1943, the group broadcast five days a week over radio station WSGN, their fifteen-minute midday segments squeezed into a crowded, diverse line-up of news programs, “hillbilly” bands, society dance orchestras, and more. They were sponsored first by R. C. Cola, then by the Ripple tobacco company—hence the “Ripple” that was sometimes added to their name. I first discovered this image above while scrolling through old microfilmed issues of the Birmingham World, a local African American newspaper, archived on the third floor of Birmingham’s central library. The same photo appears, around the same time, in the Weekly Review, an entertainment weekly that served the city’s black community for a few years in the ‘40s. The photo below presents the band in another pose; again Sonny is second from left.

Ripple Rhythm Four photo 2

The quartet first appeared on the airwaves in the spring of 1939. On April 9th, an ad in the Birmingham News, the city’s leading white paper, announced that “Another outstanding local-live-talent program makes its debut over WSGN tomorrow…. The Rhythm Four, a Negro quartet, is one of the finest singing organizations in the South. Their blended harmonies are applied to currently popular ballads and Negro spirituals.” Another ad from the same paper, below, promises “Sparkling Rhythms!” and “Scintillating Harmonies!” in the group’s “distinctively-styled arrangements of popular ballads and folk songs.”

Great Rhythm Four ad 1939

Sonny’s contributions were central to the sound and success of the quartet, and his involvement with the group was only one part of his active creative output. The Weekly Review identified Sonny as “a composer and arranger of no little talent,” adding that “When he’s not working with the Ripple Rhythm Four, Blount leads his own orchestra.” By October of 1940, when the photographs above were published, the Review already considered the Four “Birmingham’s favorite quartet”—a bold statement in a town flush with quartets, and a sentiment echoed in advertisements that appeared in the Birmingham News (below). The group’s recurring appearances in both black and white local papers suggests the reach of their appeal.

Rhythm Four fave quartet ad 1942

Some context: for decades, Birmingham was a hotbed of African American a cappella gospel quartets, a history that’s been chronicled in depth by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff. The Rhythm Four, while more secular in its orientation, would have been unavoidably influenced by this distinctive homegrown tradition. In fact, bass singer and guitarist Clarence Driskell, pictured above, also belonged to a local gospel quartet, The Heavenly Four. According to Abbott and Seroff, singer Jimmy Ricks—“one of the most beloved figures in gospel quartet history”—had a brief tenure with the Rhythm Four as well, before moving to Detroit in 1941. After leaving Birmingham himself, Sonny settled for fifteen years in Chicago, where he legally changed his name to Le Sony’ra and, in addition to forming his own band, found regular work as a composer, arranger, manager, and producer for a variety of groups—including experimental vocal harmony acts like the Nu-Sounds and the Cosmic Rays. His work with the Rhythm Four would have inevitably informed those later efforts.

Rhythm Four narrow 39 ad

No known recordings exist, however, of the Birmingham quartet, and their photos raise several questions about the group’s repertoire and sound. The presence of two guitars, including a resophonic guitar, is intriguing: most Birmingham gospel quartets performed without instrumentation, and acoustic guitars are hardly associated with Sun Ra’s later work. A notice in the Birmingham News compares the Rhythm Four favorably to the nationally popular Ink Spots; the guitars and white dinner jackets reinforce that connection, hinting at the group’s possible sound. According to descriptions in the local press, Sonny’s piano (not pictured in the publicity shots, most likely for practical reasons) was a core feature of the group’s sound, along with the vocal harmonies and guitar accompaniment.

Sonny Blount Xmas 1940

By Christmas of 1940, Sonny had added a new feature to the Rhythm Four’s sound. The Solovox, introduced earlier that year, was an electric attachment that added synthesized effects to an acoustic piano or organ. It became a trademark of all of Sonny’s Birmingham groups and reflects his early forays into new technologies. Years before synthesized sounds entered the mainstream of jazz—or of popular music, more broadly—Sonny Blount in Birmingham was experimenting with their potential, even in the quartet setting.

Clearly, this was no ordinary quartet.

The Rhythm Four remained active in Birmingham through at least September of 1943. They were featured at a wide range of events, including society dances and charitable fundraisers in Birmingham’s black community. They performed for white audiences in variety shows at the Lyric and Alabama Theaters and in retail exhibitions at the Pizitz department store. All the while, their broadcasts over WSGN remained their steadiest gig, helping establish their reach in both the local black and white communities.

Rhythm Four at Lyric 2Rhythm Four at Lyric

Here’s one more shot of the Rhythm Four, from July of 1943. If this is Sonny, he’d again be second from left—but this time, I’m not so sure it’s him. Turnover was not uncommon in groups like this, the resemblance here is less clear, and no names are mentioned in the caption. Despite Sonny’s key role in the quartet from at least 1939 to 1942, it’s possible that by now he’d moved on, his hands too full with his orchestra work. Then again, it might be him. Sooner or later, I hope to confirm this detail in one direction or the other.

Either way, it’s a compelling glimpse into Sonny’s world. And the headline—“They Do Jive Differently”—is fitting hint of things to come.

Rhythm Four 4 (Sonny??)

Part Two: Live Wire Entertainment — Swing Sensation Sonny Blount

For all its popularity, the Rhythm Four was never Sonny Blount’s primary focus. What mattered most, above all, was his band. And local ads reflect the movements of a bandleader on the rise.

The Sun Ra of later years turned every live performance into a full-fledged spectacle, a musical happening replete with costumes, pageantry, dancing, parading, and audience interaction. In the early 1940s, Sonny’s standing gigs at Birmingham area nightclubs provided a kind of warm-up for those later events. Sonny was a popular regular performer at spots like Fourth Avenue’s “Colored” Masonic Temple and Eighth Avenue’s Elks Rest, where the most elite members of the local black community hosted lavish society dances. But at the Grand Terrace and Club Congo—two late-night clubs on the outskirts of town—his band could participate in spectacles more raucous. Night after night, Sonny Blount’s orchestra was central attraction in wild and wide-ranging line-ups that included not only musicians and singers but tap dancers, shake dancers, comedians, and female impersonators. An advertisement for Club Congo from July of 1942 promised “a Variety Show of Live Wire Entertainment Each SATURDAY and SUNDAY NITE.” Three times a night (at 9:30, 11:30, and 1:30) for 40 cents admission, Sonny Blount’s “Solo Vox Band” was joined by “Ace Comedian” Jazzbo Williams; Chick, “The Prince of Rug Cutters”; an “Exotic Shake Dancer” named Madame Sonja; and others.

Sonny Blount Club Congo 1942

A year later, Sonny was fronting similar line-ups at the Grand Terrace Café, located between Birmingham and Bessemer. Named for the famous Chicago ballroom, this Grand Terrace offered dining and dancing, a golf course and outdoor garden. Sonny Blount “and his New Rhythm Style Band” played Friday and Sunday nights in events whose casts included singer Fletcher “Hootie” Myatt (nicknamed for his signature performance of Jay McShann’s “Hootie Blues”); the shake-dancing “Madame Twannie”; Lillian Harris, a “Mammy Blues Singer”; and the “Fast Stepping Floorshow” of “Mess Around” Brown. Identified earlier as “Prince of Rug Cutters,” Chick—a staple of these shows—is identified now as a “famous female impersonator.” “Entertainers and band will play your request numbers,” the ads promise. On Sundays, dancing—prohibited during the day—commenced at midnight and continued until 2:30. Admission was fifty cents.

Recurring ads in the Weekly Review (see below, at right) included photos not of the entertainers themselves but of the Grand Terrace’s typical weekly crowds, urging readers to come out and join the scene.

Sonny’s band also appeared at other popular events of the day, the much-hyped “Jazz Battles” — fierce if friendly cutting contests which pit one group against the next, each trying to outplay the other. Some contests, like the one advertised below, doubled as fundraisers for important local causes. Here (from December, 1943), Sonny and his high school mentor Fess Whatley faced off—along with a third band, the Bob Harris orchestra—in a benefit for the Negro T. B. Association. This “Battle of Music” was one of many events designed to combat the spread of tuberculosis in the black community.

Sonny v Fess TB Battle

Finally, two advertisements from 1945—featuring one more early photo—reveal another kind of performance for the Sonny Blount band.

Fourth Avenue’s Masonic Temple was a central hub for Birmingham’s black social life in the age of Jim Crow. Its second-story ballroom hosted frequent appearances by local groups like Fess Whatley’s and Sonny Blount’s, and it brought to town major touring acts, including the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras. Occasionally, the temple hosted special events for white audiences. This advertisement in The Birmingham News, from March of 1945, promotes such an event, a “Nine O’ Clock Barn Dance” and “Jitterbug Special Introducing the New Swing Sensation: Sonny Blount And His Orchestra.” Sonny had been well known for a decade already to black music lovers in Birmingham, and many white listeners would have heard his broadcasts with the Rhythm Four, even if they did not remember his name. Given the nature of segregation in Birmingham, Sonny likely remained a “new” phenomenon, indeed, to readers of the Birmingham News.

Sonny Blount Barn Dance 1945

The above ad’s instructions—“Come early, be patriotic, obey the curfew”—refer to the wartime policy instituted nationwide that February, which demanded all entertainment venues close their doors at midnight. In September, the second world war came to a close, and the Masonic Temple invited white Birmingham revelers to another performance by Sonny Blount, this one billed as a “Victory Jubilee Dance.” This time, the event lasted “until.” The curfew had been lifted.

Sonny Blount Victory Dance 1945

Readers of Space is the Place, John Szwed’s eye-opening Sun Ra biography, will remember the trauma and transformation the war years created for Sonny. That will have to be a story for another time — sorry! — but, suffice to say, Sonny’s feelings about patriotic victory dances must have been complicated. So were his feelings about Birmingham itself. Sonny left the city in January, 1946, a few months after that Victory Jubilee Dance.

He would create a new future for himself, and a new past.

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Newspaper ads and write-ups offer invaluable hints about the past, but they only tell part of the story. For a more personal look at Sonny Blount’s Birmingham years, please check out my book, Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, an oral history of saxophonist and educator Frank “Doc” Adams, who played in Sonny’s band in the 1940s. In that book, in his own words, Doc Adams provides firsthand reflections of Sun Ra’s early days, helping fill in some blanks with intimate and visceral detail.

Earlier this month, I spoke about Sun Ra’s Birmingham years in a long interview with the Sun Ra Arkive. You can stream that conversation here for a deeper dive into Sun Ra history. Thanks to Christopher Eddy for hosting; I had a great time.

Meanwhile, I’m neck deep in wrapping up my second book, more than a decade in the making: a narrative history of Birmingham jazz, the culmination of all these years of researching and interviewing and writing and digging. It’s a great and important story, of which Sonny Blount is just one fascinating piece. You can follow this blog to stay in the loop—and you can support this next book by buying that last book (see above). Thanks.

Several posts on this blog have addressed Sonny Blount’s early years in Birmingham. You can scroll through all of them here. For further window’s into Sonny’s world, I recommend the stories about Sonny’s early bandleader, Ethel Harper, and about the popular Fourth Avenue venue Bob’s Savoy.

Two final notes: all Sun Ra researchers remain indebted to biographer John Swzed, whose groundbreaking Space is the Place was just reissued, a few weeks ago, with a new introduction by the author. That’s a great place to start if you want more on Sun Ra (including the story of his wartime clash with Uncle Sam). For Birmingham’s gospel quartet history, please see the extraordinary work of Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff—in particular their book To Do This, You Must Know How: Music Pedagogy in the Black Gospel Quartet Tradition.

(The book links above, by the way, are to bookshop.org, an excellent alternative to Amazon. Bookshop.org gives a significant chunk of its proceeds to independent, local bookstores across the country and even allows you to pick which favorite bookstores you want to support. Of course, you can get all these books through Amazon, too. Support working writers however you can—but whenever possible, please support local booksellers in the process.)

Remembering Mamie Brown Mason (1930-2020)

Earlier this year, we lost an icon. Mamie Brown Mason, one of Birmingham’s true civil rights heroes, died on March 17 at the age of 90.

I’ve just uploaded to The Lost Child’s occasional online archives the radio tribute I broadcast the week after her death. It’s now streamable anytime.

Mason was a founder of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir, which led the music that fueled the mass meetings and marches in Birmingham. She was among the first in this city (along with Martin Luther King and other members of the choir) to be jailed for defiance of the segregationist law. Her signature song, “On My Way to Freedom Land,” became a civil rights anthem. And she remained fiercely committed, all her life, to the cause of civil rights — and to the preservation of the movement’s history and music.

Speaking of that history — yesterday, May 2, marked the fifty-seventh anniversary of what was called D-Day: the day masses of Birmingham schoolchildren began to march in the streets, nonviolently protesting segregation. Hundreds were arrested. May 3, 1963 — fifty-seven years ago, today — was Double D-Day. This time, the children were met by firehoses and police dogs. Hundreds more were crammed into jail. And that night America witnessed the spectacle on TV, in images that would galvanize the nation. The Children’s Crusade continued through May 10, its eight days marking a turning point in the movement; what happened in Birmingham would lead directly to the passage, in 1964, of the Civil Rights Act.

In Birmingham, we’re still surrounded by many of the Civil Rights Movement’s unsung heroes, though we seem to lose a few more each year. I’m especially, eternally grateful to have gotten to know Mamie Brown Mason in recent years. Hosting her and the rest of the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir on a 2016 episode of The Lost Child will always remain one of the greatest honors of my life. The radio tribute below, which aired after Mason’s death in March, includes an excerpt from that original show, plus excerpts from two interviews she and I recorded in her home. Also included are some inspiring recordings from 1963, from the front lines of the movement. I hope you’ll honor this history and this hero by giving it a listen.

Thank you, Mrs. Mason, for everything.

A Fire No Water Could Put Out (Memphis, 1968; Birmingham, 1963)

Here’s Martin Luther King, speaking in Memphis, 1968, about Birmingham, the power of song, and the unique “transphysics” of the Civil Rights Movement:

I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round.” Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we know about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water.

That couldn’t stop us. And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing “Over my head I see freedom in the air.” And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, “Take them off,” and they did; and we would just go in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.” And every now and then we’d get in the jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham…

That comes from my favorite of King’s speeches, the one he delivered the night before he was killed, the one commonly known, now, as the “Mountaintop” speech or “I Have Seen the Promised Land.” I often share with my students the last couple or so pages of that printed speech. Almost none of them have heard it before: usually the only of King’s writings they’ve been exposed to is the “I Have a Dream” speech and, even then, most only know those four words, I have a dream, and just a little bit of their context.

In one of my college freshman classes, we were encouraged to buy our own copies of the massive A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King. I don’t know if any other book I’ve read had such an impact on me; I encourage my own students and now also you to get their (your) hands on a copy, to read (for starters) the rest of this extraordinary final speech, and to encounter, in page after page, Martin Luther King not only as icon but as philosopher and theologian, as poet, radical, and chronicler of his time.

Here’s the very end of that “Mountaintop” speech, but you need to find the whole thing:

And speaking of Birmingham and jail and Bull Connor and song:

Here’s something local singer-activist-hero Mamie Brown Mason told me a few years ago, recalling her own time in the Birmingham jail. In 1959, Fred Shuttlesworth recruited her and another singer, Nims “Bo” Gay, to lead the music for the mass meetings that fueled the growing Birmingham movement; they created the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir, which would soon find a prolific songwriter and dynamic director in Carlton Reese. Members of that choir were among the first protestors arrested in Birmingham (in May of ’63, the jail would be flooded with marching schoolchildren), and Mason remembers singing freedom songs and leading prayers in the jail cells all day and night. On Sundays, prisoners were allowed to worship in the chapel, where there was a piano and where the foot soldiers, as they often did, remade an old song to fit the specifics of their movement. Here’s how Mamie Mason tells the story:

I said, “Carlton” — Carlton was in jail also — I said, “Carlton, that’s a nice piano.” He went to the piano. And the chaplain used to always ask one of the regular prisoners to lead the songs. She started leading the song “I Shall Not Be Moved”: “Just like a tree planted by the water.” So I took it from her and said, “Go and tell Bull Connor, we shall not be moved” — and I was making that up right then. Making a song about Bull Connor — in his jail!

“We sang to him a lot,” Mason says of Bull Connor, and laughs. “What else can he do? We’re in jail! What else can he do to me for singing about it?”

 

Jumping for Joy at Bob’s Savoy

A couple of weeks ago I got my hands around this great little artifact: a drinking glass from Bob’s Savoy, for many years the beating heart of Birmingham’s Fourth Avenue North.

IMG_2887

Under segregation, Fourth Avenue, between 15th and 18th Streets, was a thriving business and entertainment center for African Americans in the Magic City. It was home to restaurants, barbershops, beauty parlors, funeral parlors, hotels, poolrooms, and theaters, along with the offices of Birmingham’s most elite black professionals. The seven-story “Colored” Masonic Temple stood at the corner of Fourth and 17th Street, housing meeting spaces, hotel rooms, and a library, and hosting in its second-story ballroom a steady stream of swanky gala dances.

No place was more central to the scene than the Little Savoy Cafe, or Bob’s Savoy, located just across the street from the stately Masonic lodge. Its remarkable cast of characters ranged, through the years, from Sun Ra to Willie Mays, and its tables served as setting for impassioned political conversations that helped lay the groundwork for the city’s civil rights movement.

Bob was Bob Williams, one of Fourth Avenue’s most prominent and popular figures (“We know of no guy in town who has more honest-to-goodness friends than Bob,” remarked local columnist J. B. Sims in 1944). He cut an imposing figure, dressed in tuxedos and (often) a Shriner’s fez, cigar clamped almost permanently in his mouth. He was a tireless promoter of Birmingham’s black businesses and fraternal societies, an avid champion of local sports, a chief patron of the city’s distinctive jazz scene. Bob was a well-known advocate for African American rights in the city, a civic pioneer who condemned legal segregation and devoted himself with passion to black opportunity and community.

Bob’s Savoy sold chicken dinners, its specialty, for 35 cents; a bowl of beans or stew for 15 cents; and steak for 75. In a single year, reported Birmingham’s Weekly Review,  Bob supplied his diners with more than four tons of chicken — not to mention all the other menu items or the constant flood of drinks. (“The atmosphere will soothe you. The drinks will groove you,” the ads ran; one customer claimed the Savoy sold more alcohol, in a given year, than any other Alabama business.) “Special cut rate meals” were available for students and office employees. And out of the back of the place a woman called “Messy Bessie” ran a sort of bootleg operation: “Anything you needed,” the musician Frank Adams laughed, whether strictly legal or not, “you could send for Messy Bessie and get it.”

*

In 1974, two decades after Bob’s shut its doors, an article in Black Enterprise magazine recalled that “Not all the black restaurants and nightspots of those years were as unpretentious and inexpensive as the Little Savoy, or as truly black.” Every year, Bob hosted more than one hundred banquets and meetings for any number of causes, hosting black business leaders and civil rights groups, along with an array of sports and entertainment celebrities. Visitors of all social classes found their way to the Little Savoy. A writer for the Chicago Defender marveled at the scene in 1943: “It’s the only place we have ever been into where people walk up to your table and say ‘We’ll give you six-bits or a dollar on your bill if you’ll save your table for us.'”

Hailing Bob’s as the “Largest Negro owned cafe” in Birmingham “and without doubt one of the finest in the nation,” another of the Defender‘s correspondents outlined the namesake restauranteur’s climb to fame. “Bob’s rise in the business world is almost like [a] fairy story,” writer David Kellum began. In 1932, Williams had arrived “penniless” from Chicago [other sources say New York]: he’d come South for an aunt’s funeral but stuck around. “For four years he worked for $10 a week at the Elks club, then one day an idea struck him. He had observed that the Negroes of Birmingham did not eat after 10 o’clock in the evening and so with a partner he opened the Little Savoy where he featured Southern fried chicken.”

That initial effort faltered, and Bob — whose connections stretched in all directions — appealed to “Chief of Police Brown, whose friendship he had acquired over a period of years. Brown paid his rent and gave him sufficient money [with] which to re-open his business.” (The specifics of that arrangement are not entirely clear, but other observers noted that Birmingham police ate free at the Savoy, anytime they wanted.)

“Bob’s business grew by leaps and bounds until his chicken bill alone averaged $1,000 a month,” Kellum continued. Today [in 1948] Bob’s Savoy does a gross business of $125,000 yearly.”

Robert Bob Williams, Ch Defender
Bob Williams, pictured in the Chicago Defender

*

The Little Savoy served, too, as headquarters and hangout for the Birmingham Black Barons, the city’s Negro Leagues baseball team. The Black Barons conducted their business, celebrated their victories, mourned their losses, picked up their mail, and gathered for carpools at the Savoy. Williams made the cafe into an all-purpose hub for black Birmingham’s sports culture: he sponsored amateur basketball, football, and baseball teams and sold tickets for all the big games. He hosted packed-out after-parties for every local championship and promised local boxers free chicken dinners for scoring knock-outs in their first round. His place became hangout for every black celebrity athlete who lived in or came through town: Satchel Paige, Joe Louis, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson.

And then there was the music.

Frank Adams played at Bob’s as a teenager in the early 1940s, a member of Fess Whatley’s celebrated local band. In our 2012 book, Doc, Adams remembered: “Bob’s Savoy had international recognition. It was a huge place. They had beer and alcohol in there, and usually they would have a band. People would get off on Friday night, and they’d come in there — Friday, Saturday — they’d stay in there and drink beer and beer and beer. From all parts of Birmingham — Fairfield, Bessemer — they would come into town.

“See,” Adams continued, “this was the town. Fourth Avenue was just the heart of everything. You had all these barbershops; you had all the poolrooms and everything; and Bob’s Savoy was just the center. It was the centerpiece where everyone would go to be entertained. Any time at night, you’d see people crowding into Bob’s Savoy. Bob was a popular person and people always liked him. We would play in there sometimes in Professor Whatley’s band, and of course you couldn’t hear, because of the beer bottles and everything. But they always tried to have some kind of a band in there.”

Another band that played the Savoy was Sonny Blount’s group. In a few years, Sonny would leave Birmingham and become Sun Ra, one of jazz music’s most original, iconoclastic visionaries; in the early ’40s, he was an innovative, unpredictable favorite of Birmingham’s own homegrown jazz scene. In the summer of 1944, J. B. Sims’s column predicted big things for Sonny:

“One of the finest features I’ve ever seen exhibited in our town,” Sims wrote (a strong statement, coming from a popular ex-bandleader, himself, and a constant chronicler of the local scene) “was the very swelegant dinner given at BOB’S SAVOY last Monday night, by [promoter] J. B. BARKER on occasion of the first anniversary of the SONNY BLOUNT dance crew. We repeat, that we think that Sonny has one of the finest dance bands in the country and they should really go places. More power to ’em. . .”

Sonny at Bob's Savoy
Also notable: The waitresses at Bob’s Savoy have organized themselves into a social and savings club … 

National acts played the Savoy, too: Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie. Some nights they’d play the Masonic Temple across the street, then head to Bob’s and play a second show upstairs.

In the early 1950s, trumpeter George Washington was a budding musician in Frank Adams’s Lincoln School band room; today he’s a veteran musician of the longstanding Birmingham Heritage Band. In those early school days, he worked across the street from Bob’s Savoy at Brock’s Drug Store. “I must have been twelve or thirteen,” he told me in 2016. “I was the delivery fellow. And I rode a bicycle all over Birmingham delivering medicine. But because I worked at the store, they knew me around here, so I could go in the Savoy. I’d sneak in when the big bands come — like B.B. King, Louis Jordan — you know, I’d sneak in … until they catched me, and they put me out. Dr. Adams played round there. And that was, I mean — that was the spot.”

The Savoy catered to all classes, but within its walls social distinctions nonetheless prevailed. As historian John Klima observes, the Little Savoy was “in every way an exact replica of the caste system that existed within Birmingham’s black populace”: steel workers and coal miners crowded the first floor, while visiting celebrities, athletes, and the social elite gathered upstairs amid more upscale accommodations. On occasion, touring black bands performed at Bob’s to exclusively white audiences. Willie Patterson of the Black Barons described the arrangement to historian Chris Fullerton: on those nights, he said, “The whites had to go upstairs … the Negroes came downstairs.”

One Sunday in May of 1951, a fire ravaged the Little Savoy. Many believed the fire was a racially motivated attack: the next day, in nearby Fairfield, another fire broke out, and the homes of four hundred black families were laid to waste — while, in the words of the New York Amsterdam News, “a whole company of Birmingham firemen stood idly by, less than 200 yards away.” The fire department refused to help until they’d received word from their boss: police commissioner, fire chief, and “arrogant exponent of white supremacy,” Eugene “Bull” Connor. Word from Connor never came, and for four hours the firemen watched black homes burn. (“I don’t know nothin’ about it,” Connor spat at reporters, while the fire raged on.)

Whether or not the two fires — the one in Fairfield, and the one at Bob’s — were connected, no one ever determined. The Amsterdam News simply added that, in the last two years, “There have been 9 bombings of Negro homes” in Birmingham. Given the Savoy’s significance to the black community, it wasn’t a great stretch to suspect arson.

The Little Savoy suffered $25,000 in damages but rebuilt and quickly reopened.

*

In 1952, singer Del Thorne recorded for Nashville’s Excello record label a jumping little tribute to the Fourth Avenue scene. “Down South in Birmingham” was a musical postcard whose refrain exclaimed that “All the joints are jammed, down South in Birmingham.” Thorne encouraged outsiders to venture South, and she even gave a plug, specifically, to the Little Savoy:

  Now, don’t go South and take the boys for fools,
  ‘Cause all of those cats have been to jive school
  You just walk in and fall in line
  And grab yourself a gal and have a good time

  All the joints are jammed
  All the joints are jammed
  All the joints are jammed
  Down South in Birmingham

   Now, don’t get drunk, take everybody for your friend
  ‘Cause if you mess up that might be your end
  Just drink enough to jump for joy
  You’ll buy all kinds of drinks at Little Bob’s Savoy 

The South, Thorne’s record proclaimed—and Birmingham in particular—was hipper than you’d think. At least, hip had its outposts there. Certainly, things could be worse:

  When you get back, tell them the fun you had
  The South ain’t the worst, and it’s not so bad
  Every place you go, the joints were jammed
  In the great Magic City called Birmingham

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Another fire struck in 1958. This time, the Little Savoy closed its doors for good, and Bob moved on to other endeavors — in Detroit, in Philadelphia, and in Monrovia, Liberia, where he opened his own hotel. He exported to Liberia a piece of the Birmingham jazz scene, bringing with him in 1964 several local music stalwarts, including Newman Terrell, Melvin Caswell, and Walter Miller. All had been regulars at the old Savoy. Terrell and Caswell had belonged to Fess Whatley’s band before leading groups of their own. Before and after the Liberia gig, Walter Miller toured and recorded with Ray Charles — and he collaborated often, over the years, with Sun Ra, who he’d known since those first Birmingham days.

Caswell et al ads
The Savoy set the standard, but it wasn’t the only game in town. This page from the Huntsville Mirror, 1953, promotes several popular Birmingham musicians, including Caswell, Terrell, and John L. Bell (see below). Laura Washington, a former vocalist with the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, recorded the hit “I’ve Got a Right to Cry” in 1946 and had since then come back home to Birmingham.

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One more artifact: here’s an image from the J. L. Lowe collection of Birmingham jazz photos, housed in the archives of the Birmingham Public Library:

Joe Guy Cat Summerfield etc
“Cats Band.” Birmingham, Ala., Public Library Archives.

Left to right, that’s pianist John L. Bell, once known as “Birmingham’s Fats Waller”; Joe Guy, the great and tragic bebop trumpeter (he’d been both bandleader and lover to Billie Holiday and he played the house band, with Thelonious Monk, at the famous Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem); Chuck Clarke, a favorite local saxophonist and member of one of the city’s most prominent musical families; and drummer Cat Summerville. Summerville lived in the Masonic Temple’s fraternal hotel and played the burlesque shows upstairs in 18th Street’s Pythian lodge. Frank Adams remembered him as the city’s “champion drummer” and recalled that “He had a huge cat drawn on his drum”; George Washington also remembered, from his boyhood, Cat’s “huge, huge bass drum” and — on Cat’s head — the first conk, or chemically straightened hairstyle, he’d ever seen. In this photo, Cat’s drum skin features a drawing of Bob Williams’s Little Savoy.

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I’m grateful to David from Manitou Supply Co. for spotting that glass from Bob’s somewhere in Pelham, Alabama, and thinking of me. He asked if “Bob’s Savoy” rang a bell, and I was thrilled to say it did. I’d scored a glass just like this several years ago on eBay, and I gave it to Doc Adams as a Christmas present. Ever since, I’d been hunting one for myself, even setting up a Google alert for Bob’s Savoy, hoping another would crop up for purchase.

No luck, until that message from David. So I’m happy, at last, to toast Bob Williams tonight from one of his very own glasses.

Bottoms up.

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P. S. If you’ve got any personal or family stories (or memorabilia!) from Bob’s Savoy, let me know — I’m always on the lookout for more. And anybody know more about singer Del Thorne?

P. P. S. Sources for this history include multiple articles from the papers named above, as well as my many conversations with Frank “Doc” Adams. My interview with George Washington was conducted as part of the Alabama Folklife Association’s “Alabama Makers” project in 2016, with funding from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Any history of the Birmingham Black Barons baseball team (or its players) includes details of Bob’s Savoy: I consulted Alan Barra’s Rickwood Field and Mickey and Willie, as well as John Klima’s Willie’s Boys.

P. P. P. S. Ever since I wrote that book with Doc, I’ve been working on a fuller history of the Birmingham jazz scene, and this blog serves (among other things) as a place to share some of the outtakes and asides from the writing process. Some related posts include this birthday remembrance of Doc Adams, one of my early interviews with Doc, and this excerpt from our book together. There are brief biographies of bandleader and singer Ethel Harper (parts one and two), bebop trumpeter Joe Guy, and saxophone screamer Lynn Hope, plus a variety of Sun Ra-related resources. (Stay tuned, in the next few weeks, for some more cool Sun Ra stuff.) There are rare photos from Birmingham’s jazz historylinks to more(!) photos, and a little Fess Whatley-inspired art. There’s a short write-up on 1963’s star-studded “Salute to Freedom” civil rights concert in Birmingham. And there are glimpses into the writing process itself: an old table of contents, a moment of despair, an occasional breakthrough. Some stories just don’t fit the book’s design as it evolves, and creating a space for them here allows me to let them go; on other occasions the blog becomes an excuse to think through some cluster of details that I just don’t know what to do with. Sometimes I just come here looking for help (what can you tell me or show me, that I might not already know, about Bob Williams and his Little Savoy? Or, again, that Del Thorne record?)

At any rate, thanks for coming along.

Oh / and / also — in the latest issue of the journal Southern Cultures, there’s an article I wrote about all this Birmingham jazz. Check it out, stay tuned, and thanks.

Tell me what you think.

Okay, friends and strangers, I could use your feedback.

Here’s a short, working synopsis of my book in progress. I invite your input (on content, style, or any nitpicking details) in the comment section below. To chime in, you need zero prior knowledge of the subject matter, just an honest gut reaction. I’d like to know what works for you here and what doesn’t, and what could work better—anything you think might better persuade a person to pick up and read this book.

Thanks for taking a look.

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Magic City Bounce and Swing tells the story of one of American music’s most essential unsung communities.

In an era of pervasive segregation, African American educators in Birmingham, Alabama, created a pioneering high school music program that offered students a life outside the local mills and mines. After graduation, students trained under John T. “Fess” Whatley and other Birmingham bandmasters fanned out all over the country, joining the nation’s top jazz bands. They backed Bessie Smith on stage and on record and populated the bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and others. The Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, an ensemble full of Birmingham players, became one of the swing era’s most popular and enduring dance bands, and their biggest hit—“Tuxedo Junction,” a tribute to their hometown scene—became an American anthem. When the country went to war, other Birmingham jazzmen filled the ranks of the Army, Navy, and Air Force bands that provided a soundtrack for the cause.

Often making their mark from the sidelines or behind the scenes—as composers and arrangers, sidemen, businessmen, mentors and teachers—Birmingham musicians exerted a broad influence on the popular culture of the nation. Drummer Jo Jones pioneered the shimmering, propulsive rhythm that came to define the sound of swing. Bandleader Teddy Hill helped launch the careers of some of the giants of modern jazz and, as manager of Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, became a catalyst for the bebop revolution. Sun Ra—one of American music’s most inventive, iconoclastic originals—pushed the jazz tradition to its furthest-out, most exploratory fringes, communicating a new music for the cosmos. Other players remained in Birmingham, shaping the local scene and passing the tradition to new generations. The contributions of these musicians and others meant more than mere entertainment: long before Birmingham emerged as battleground in the struggle for civil rights, its homegrown jazz heroes helped set the stage, crafting a unique tradition of achievement, independence, innovation, and empowerment.

Drawing on troves of previously untapped sources—interviews, news reports, home recordings, and more—Magic City Bounce and Swing reveals, for the first time, the story of this remarkable community. Tracing the intersecting lives of its unforgettable cast of characters, the story crisscrosses an America that’s been largely forgotten: from segregated high school band rooms to the swanky gala dances of the South’s black elite, from jazz-fueled religious revivals to smoky urban night clubs, from touring vaudeville tent shows to the world’s most glittering ballrooms. What emerges is nothing less than a secret history of jazz—and a joyful exploration into the hidden roots of America’s popular culture.

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That’s it. Thoughts? 

P. S. Thanks for reading (and commenting)! If you’re curious about the book above, please in the meantime check out my previous book, Doc, which was just reissued in paperback. If you’d like to see more of this blog, look for the “Follow” option at the top of this page. If you want more music-related stuff, please check out my radio show. And if you just want to say hello, just say hello!

Salute to Freedom ’63

For Martin Luther King Day, an excerpt from my book in progress: the story of Birmingham’s “Salute to Freedom ’63” concert, a star-studded, integrated fundraiser from the height of the Civil Rights Movement…

salute to freedom

In August of 1963, just weeks before the Sixteenth Street bombing, Birmingham played host to a special variety show, the “Salute to Freedom ’63.” Organized by the American Guild of Variety Artists and its president, Jewish comedian Joey Adams, the event was an unprecedented gathering for the city, presenting an integrated stage of artists to an integrated audience, with all proceeds going to the efforts of the movement. The line-up included an impressive variety: headliners included Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, the Shirelles, and Johnny Mathis, along with author James Baldwin, comedian Dick Gregory, and former heavyweight champion Joe Louis. There were dancers, comedy, speeches—even a magician. The entire Apollo Theatre orchestra came down from Harlem, and Birmingham’s own civil rights singers, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir, led the audience in freedom songs. Under the direction of singer-composer Carlton Reese, the choir had become by now a rallying force in Birmingham’s mass meetings and marches, and the group’s signature songs—“I’m On My Way To Freedom Land,” “We’ve Got a Job,” and more—gave powerful voice to the struggle. The entire event was funded by donations and fueled by volunteers; with production costs all but eliminated, proceeds went to the upcoming March on Washington.

From the get-go, city officials attempted to undermine the event. The concert had been scheduled for Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium (the same site, a few years earlier, of the attack on Nat King Cole), but at the last minute the auditorium canceled, offering an unconvincing excuse: thanks to a double-booking “error,” the space had been scheduled to be repainted on the very day of the concert. The paint job, apparently a matter of some urgency, could simply not be postponed. Organizers regrouped, and the concert relocated to Miles College in Fairfield, just five miles from downtown Birmingham. Volunteers scrambled to ready the space: in 98 degree heat a plywood bandstand was erected and lit on the football field. Audience members paid $5 admission and brought their own seating from home, many traveling several miles on foot for the show, folding chairs in hand. Some 20,000 attended.

A.D. King—brother to Martin Luther King, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ensley, and one of the event’s principal organizers—declared the production “the first integrated show and audience in the history of Birmingham.” On stage, James Baldwin underscored the historical import of the moment: “This is a living, visible view of the breakdown of a hundred years of slavery,” he told the crowd; “it means that white man and black man can work and live together. History is forcing people of Birmingham to stop victimizing each other.” Martin Luther King sat beside the stage, leaning forward intently to hear the Shirelles and other acts perform. Even purely apolitical pop tunes—the Shirelles’ biggest hits included “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Mama Said (There’ll Be Days Like This),” and “Dedicated to the One I Love”—became charged with social significance when performed for the cause of freedom. All night long, the threat of violence hung over the event: organizers had received warnings of attack, and the city police force refused requests for protection. During Johnny Mathis’s performance, a section of the makeshift stage collapsed, severing an electric line, and the whole field went suddenly dark. For a moment, performers and spectators imagined they’d been bombed—the city had seen so many bombings already—but inspection revealed no other culprit than shaky construction. In the uneasy darkness, the movement choir broke into a freedom song, and the audience joined in, thousands of voices filling the air like they’d filled the churches, streets, and jails of Birmingham all through the past spring and summer. In half an hour the show resumed, the stage repaired and the lights re-connected. Salute to Freedom ’63 continued without further incident, the music and speeches lasting until well past midnight.

Notes:

Grey Villet, a LIFE magazine photographer, captured some extraordinary images from the concert, but they were never published. Fortunately, you can see them now, here. I strongly encourage you to check them out. 

This excerpt belongs to my book in progress, on the history of Birmingham jazz. The chapter at hand looks at the role jazz musicians and other performers played in Birmingham’s civil rights struggle. More to come. 

Every day this month, I am posting to Instagram and Facebook images from Birmingham’s important and unsung jazz history. Every day this MLK weekend, I’m posting images from the intersecting histories of Birmingham, jazz, and the Civil Rights Movement. 

Some related listening from The Lost Child radio show:
>  Music for Martin Luther King  (Lost Child episode 44)
 > “We’re in the Same Boat, Brother” (Lost Child episode 216)

Some related reading from this blog:
 > “Singing for Freedom, Singing for Change”
>  Juliette Morgan Hampton, unsung civil rights pioneer
>  Picturing Birmingham Jazz (including the Nat King Cole attack)
Make America American Again

Picturing Birmingham Jazz

Every day this month I’ve been posting to Instagram and Facebook a new, old photo from Birmingham, Alabama’s rich and significant, unsung jazz history. You can see the first five posts here. Here are ten more …

frank adams, selena mealing jpeg

January 5. This is Frank Adams and his band, sometime in the 1950s. L to R: Ivory “Pops” Williams (on bass, face obscured by mic), Selena Mealing, Frank Adams, and Martin Barnett. Adams had come back to Birmingham after studying at Howard University and picking up short-term work with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five, and other groups. Inspired by the high energy, humor, and movement of the Jordan group, he insisted his own band incorporate choreographed dance moves to liven up a local scene that had grown pretty stiff and staid. Fess Whatley–Birmingham’s “Maker of Musicians” and one of Adams’s mentors–called small combos like this one “bobtail bands” (because “they had their tails cut off”) and complained that they took work away from the larger dance orchestras. Frank Adams–in later years, he’d be affectionately nicknamed “Doc”–became a fixture of the Birmingham jazz scene and one of the city’s last links to its early jazz roots. Check out my book with Adams (Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man), now available in paperback from the University of Alabama Press, and stay tuned all this month for more history and rare photos.

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January 6. Nat King Cole addresses the crowd at Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium, just after being attacked onstage. Every day this month I’m posting a photo from Birmingham’s jazz history. Singer and pianist Nat King Cole (a native of Montgomery, AL, and a national star) was only three songs into his April, 1956 performance, when three assailants rushed the stage and knocked the singer to the ground. Cole was rushed backstage and, after a flurry of confusion, the attackers were arrested. The men belonged to the virulently segregationist North Alabama Citizen’s Council, founded by Klansman Asa Carter. In a few years, Carter would work as speechwriter for George Wallace and pen the governor’s famous pledge: “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” But first, in the 1950s, Carter was railing publicly against jazz, rock-and-roll, and any other form of “Negro music,” which he warned was “Communistic,” “animalistic,” and would “mongrelize America.” In Nat Cole, he found a symbolic target for his fury. After the night’s initial chaos subsided, King stepped briefly back onstage: “I just came here to entertain,” he told the crowd. “I thought that was what you wanted.” He quickly left the stage, and the state. Swipe left to see Cole backstage after the incident, and an editorial in Billboard. (First photo: Detroit Public Library. Second photo: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive.)

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January 7. Every day this month I’m posting a photo from Birmingham, Alabama’s jazz history. Here’s tenor sax player Paul Bascomb (voted Most Handsome Boy in his first year at Alabama State Teachers College in Montgomery—now Alabama State University.) Bascomb arrived at the school in 1928 and started the first jazz band on campus. Recognizing the group’s immediate popularity and potential—and facing the deep financial woes of the Great Depression—the school’s president, H. Councill Trenholm, recruited Bascomb’s band into the service of the college. As the ‘Bama State Collegians, the group traveled the South, raising money for the college; their earnings helped Alabama State stay afloat through the depression, helping pay basic utilities and salaries. Meanwhile, the ‘Bama State Collegians grew into the southeast’s most popular African American dance band. Almost the entire group came from Birmingham, having learned music at Industrial High School or the Tuggle Institute. Soon trumpeter Erskine Hawkins would emerge as leader, and the group would go professional as the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra. This photo is included in Gadsden, Alabama, trumpeter Tommy Stewart’s unpublished history of the ‘Bama State Collegians; a later alum of that band, Stewart has amassed a rich trove of materials related to the group’s history.

Related image

January 8. Every day this month I’m posting a photo from the history of Birmingham jazz. Here’s trumpeter Wilbur “Dud” Bascomb, a player who helped bridge the big band era with the advent of modern jazz. Miles Davis got his start memorizing Dud Bascomb’s solos note for note; so did Fats Navarro, Idrees Sulieman, and other bebop pioneers. Dizzy Gillespie called him “the most underrated trumpeter” and added: “He was playing stuff in Erskine Hawkins’ band back in 1939 that was way ahead of its time.” Bascomb played the definitive, much-copied trumpet solos on such Hawkins hits as “Tuxedo Junction”; since Hawkins was a trumpeter, too, many record buyers never knew it was Bascomb, not the bandleader, behind those classic solos. Soft-spoken and unassuming, Bascomb was content staying out of the spotlight. For a while he played with Duke Ellington (seen here) but he preferred the easy-going camaraderie of the Hawkins group — most of whose members had been friends since their childhoods in Birmingham. See yesterday’s post about Dud’s tenor-playing brother, Paul — and stay tuned for much more Birmingham jazz history all this month.

grand terrace

January 9. Souvenir photograph of guests at the Grand Terrace, just outside Birmingham on Highway 78. Every day this month I’m posting a photo from the history of Birmingham jazz. The Grand Terrace, named for the celebrated Chicago ballroom, was one of the premier entertainment and dance spots for African Americans in Birmingham in the 1940s and ‘50s. Owned by “Foots” Shelton, the venue hosted local bands like that of pianist John L. Bell and was a frequent stopping point for a young Ray Charles, B.B. King, Louis Jordan, and others. Many social savings clubs and other local black organizations held their regular gatherings in the Grand Terrace’s Rainbow Room, and radio station WJLD hosted occasional remote broadcasts from the venue. Wooden cabins behind the club put up traveling musicians for the night, and vacant cabins could be rented by patrons for quick sexual liaisons. Because of a discrete deal with the notorious Bull Connor, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, the Grand Terrace was one of the few places in town that sold liquor on Sunday nights. Thanks to Patrick Cather for this great photo.

 

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January 10. This one’s a little battered, but it’s a gem: here’s Frank Adams again, along with other local musicians at Birmingham’s Club 2728, backing a female impersonator, sometime in the 1950s. This photo’s included in my book “Doc,” which tells the life story of Frank Adams and celebrates its paperback release today. If you’re in Birmingham, join me at Little Professor tonight at 6 for the release celebration and a book talk; if you’re somewhere else, ask for it from your own book dealer, or else find it online. Every day this month I’m posting a photo from Birmingham’s jazz history. There’s a lot going on in this one.

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January 11. Sun Ra would never say he was born in Birmingham; he “arrived” there in 1914, but he’d really come from outer space. Birmingham had been created as an industrial hub for the South, and its founders and early boosters had declared it “The Magic City,” thanks to its sudden, near-overnight growth. A huge sign at the Terminal Station welcomed visitors to The MAGIC CITY, and Sun Ra—or Herman “Sonny” Blount, in those days—grew up right across the street from the sign. The phrase lodged in his imagination. His 1965 album, The Magic City, nodded to his roots while conjuring up an another world entirely. A landmark moment in Sun Ra’s career–with its title track stretching more than twenty-seven minutes—the album was the bandleader’s most ambitious, experimental release to date, a work that pushed his music and musicians into new territory and cemented his place as a cosmic visionary. Every day this month I’m posting a photo from the history of Birmingham jazz. Stay tuned for more—including some rarities from Sonny Blount’s early Birmingham days.

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January 12. Here are the first 5 inductees to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, founded in 1978 to honor Birmingham’s rich jazz legacy. From L to R: Sammy Lowe, composer & arranger; Erskine Hawkins, trumpeter & bandleader; Frank Adams, alto sax player & clarinetist; Amos Gordon, alto sax player & clarinetist; Haywood Henry, baritone sax player & clarinetist. John T. “Fess” Whatley, the father of the local jazz community, was also inducted posthumously that year. Lowe, Hawkins, and Henry were all key members of the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, and Lowe was a prolific arranger in the pop field of the 1950s and ‘60s. Adams, Gordon, and Whatley were influential music teachers as well as accomplished musicians. Later inductees to the hall of fame include Sun Ra, Jo Jones, Teddy Hill, “Pops” Williams, Paul & Dud Bascomb, and many others–stay tuned all this month, as I post more daily photos from the history of this remarkable, influential, and unsung jazz community.

hamp reese

January 13. If you’ve ever seen the B.B. King concert film “Live in Africa ’74,” you couldn’t have missed the stylish dude in the plaid jacket directing the band. That’s Hampton “Hamp” St. Paul Reese III, a product of Birmingham’s jazz scene — and a musician who became B.B. King’s right-hand-man. Reese was one of the many skilled arrangers and composers who came out of Fess Whatley’s Industrial/Parker High School classroom. Hamp was intellectual, hip, and one of a kind; he brought a new range to King and his music and became a favorite among King’s fans. In his autobiography, King called Reese “my overall tutor and teacher,” “my confidant and role model,” and “a brilliant arranger,” and he explained Hamp’s influence like this: “His thing was books, books, books. If you don’t know something, go to a book. Don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself; don’t feel inferior; pick yourself up, get to a library, find the book, and learn what you need to learn. Until Hamp, I really didn’t understand what research was all about. Didn’t know that there’s a world of information just waiting for you.” Under Reese’s influence, King learned to play some clarinet and violin and even how to fly a plane. Reese’s instructions, King explained, were as transformative as they were simple: “‘Study,’ said Hamp. And study I did.”

black birds

January 14. Every day this month, I’m posting a photo from Birmingham, Alabama’s rich and unsung jazz history. In the summer of 1927, the Gennett record label set up a makeshift recording studio on the third floor of the Starr Piano store in downtown Birmingham, inviting musicians from all over the state to record. For two months Gennett set to wax a wide range of blues, gospel, Sacred Harp singing, old-time fiddling, preaching, popular dance tunes, ragtime piano—and the first recordings of Alabama’s jazz bands. Frank Bunch and his Fuzzy Wuzzies put down “Fourth Avenue Stomp,” a tribute to Birmingham’s thriving black entertainment and business district, and the Black Birds of Paradise cut the tunes listed in this advertisement. The Black Birds were based in Montgomery and were, for the most part, recent grads of Tuskegee University. The group was known to put on a show—trombonist and bandleader William “Buddy” Howard could play trombone with his feet—and they engaged in friendly if fierce “cutting contests” with the state’s top jazz bands, including Fess Whatley’s Jazz Demons. During the Depression the band fell apart, a few of its members refiguring for a while as the Black Diamonds. In the 1960s, blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow tracked down the last surviving members in Montgomery: “We were a pretty good little juke band,” banjo player Tom Ivery told him, “even if I have to say so myself.”

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That’s it for now. I’ve got some more great photos coming up all this month, so please stay tuned. Follow my radio show, The Lost Child, on Instagram and Facebook for more. Thanks.