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.

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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.”

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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

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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.

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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:

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“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.

“As Ever Your Lady Billie Holiday”: Love Letters from Prison

“Then, the way you always do, I met someone.”

This is how Billie Holiday tells it in Lady Sings the Blues, her 1956 memoir.

“He was a young boy, fresh up from the South—Alabama or Georgia. He played trumpet and his name was Joseph Luke Guy. He was new on the scene, just getting started as a musician. And he could be a big help to me.”

Joe Guy had come north to Harlem from Birmingham as a teenager, playing trumpet with the Rev. George Wilson Becton’s Gospel Feast Party, a jazz-fueled religious revival famous for its youthful band of “swinging apostles.” By the time he met Holiday he’d already been making his name as a forward-thinking, energetic jazz soloist. He was only five years Holiday’s junior, but the difference seemed greater: she was certainly more famous and was already wearier of the world. But Joe Guy was young and handsome and full of ideas, and his playing anticipated a new, modern era for jazz. He became Holiday’s trumpeter, her bandleader, her husband, and her drug runner.

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Joe Guy & Billie Holiday

Holiday and Guy met sometime in the early 1940s; a few years later, they were exchanging heartrending love letters from separate prison cells.

More on those letters in a minute. First, a little more about Guy.

Joe Guy appears in histories of jazz, when he appears at all, as a kind of footnote: at key moments in the music he pops up, horn in hand, then disappears. Dizzy Gillespie helped champion his career and borrowed from his playing. Miles Davis admired and learned from his solos. With Thelonious Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke, Guy belonged to the house band at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, the legendary nightspot whose late-night jam sessions laid down the groundwork for bop. You can hear Guy’s trumpet backing Coleman Hawkins on Hawkins’s seminal records, “Body and Soul” and “Stardust” and others; in his work with the Cootie Williams orchestra, you can hear him helping nudge the sound of swing into the future. He’s on Holiday’s records from 1945 and ’46, and for a while he led her touring band. The couple married, or said they did (they likely never got a license). And then he was gone.

Guy hasn’t fared well in the historical treatment of Holiday. In her biographies he’s often cast as villain, another bad man in a string of bad men, all more or less interchangeable. Ken Burns’s Jazz series narrates Holiday’s downfall in crisp prose and a portentous delivery, a series of short sentence-bursts suggesting a straightforward cause and effect. “In 1941,” the narration intones:

     … she married a sometime marijuana dealer named Jimmy Monroe and began smoking opium.

     Then she moved in with a good-looking trumpet player named Joe Guy.

     He was addicted to heroin.

     Soon she would be using it, too.

Really it’s not so cut and dry as that, and historians have quibbled over whose heroin habit came first. “He may have done things he shouldn’t,” Holiday herself once said to DownBeat magazine, “but I did them of my own accord too.… Joe didn’t make it any easier for me at times—but then I haven’t been any easy gal either.” One way or another, the couple was hooked, and their self destructions became wrapped up together. Under the influence, Guy’s playing became increasingly erratic, his reputation less and less reliable. Meanwhile, federal authorities were closing in on the couple. Jimmy Fletcher, a black narcotics agent, was assigned their case and closely monitored their movements (in the process he befriended, and very likely fell in love with, Holiday; what he considered his betrayal of her would haunt him for the rest of his life). The couple was creative in their evasion of the law, even recruiting into their service Holiday’s boxer, Mister. Fletcher later recalled that every day Joe Guy procured some new drugs from a connection in the city. Then he “walked the dog from way down on Morningside Drive up to 125th on Eighth and told the dog to go ahead. The dog would walk right in the Braddock Hotel … and the elevator operator was waiting for him.”

Mister would ride up the elevator, then walk down the hall to Billie’s door. Secured behind his collar was the day’s ounce of heroin.

Billie Joe Guy hairdresser
Joe Guy, Billie Holiday, and Holiday’s hairdresser (name unidentified)

Joe Guy gets half a chapter in my book, Doc, the life story of Alabama jazz man Frank “Doc” Adams, who played with Guy in the 1950s and very early ’60s. For my current book, a history of Birmingham jazz, I’m digging a little deeper into Guy’s story. And that brings me back to those letters.

In the spring of 1947, the feds finally caught up with Holiday and Guy, busting them for narcotics possession in their room in New  York’s Hotel Grampion. Holiday was sentenced to a year and a day in the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, West Virginia, while Guy awaited his own trial in a Pennsylvania prison cell. The couple sent letters back and forth from their cells; in recent years two of Holiday’s letters have surfaced and sold in auctions (they brought in around $6,000 apiece). The letters offer a poignant look into the heart of one of American music’s most beloved, most tragic figures—and they suggest a more tender and complex relationship than most biographers have allowed Holiday and Guy.

It’s a shame we don’t have more of the exchange—if any of Guy’s letters have survived, I haven’t seen them—but Holiday’s two surviving letters are compelling, aching documents. The first is dated July 6, 1947, and begins, “Joe Darling … I have read your letter so Many times, I know it by heart.” Friends are helping Joe get access to money and a lawyer, it seems, and Holiday frets that there’s nothing she can do, herself: “I Wish to God I could do anything to help you,” she writes, “but as you know both My hands are tied.” She worries, too, about her own career–“Maybe My public won’t forget me after all,” she hopes, “but a year and a day is a long time”–but she takes some comfort in news from New York that her friends and fans still ask about her and play her records on the airwaves. The letter continues (I’ve left the original punctuation, capitalization, and spelling as Holiday wrote them):

all this makes me happy but then it leaves Me Very sad all I think about is you My Work and Will I ever get straight and get started again in a Way I’m glad Mamas dead because this Would Just about killed her Darling there was a Mag that came out called Holiday My picture was in it I cut it out to send to you so you don’t forget What I look like (smirk) Bobbys sister Janey send a small picture of Mister so you Will be able to at least look at your family oh I Wish I had a picture of you please tell Bama [trumpeter Carl “Bama” Warwick] or Jimmy [Joe’s brother Jimmy Guy] or somebody to get one and send it to Me oh Joe Sweetheart you know I love you so it hurts you are all I ever think about please Write Me a long letter as soon as you can I can’t Write your Mother and Dad as I can only Write a few people But tell them I love them also and if they Write to me I Will answer I love you love you Will never stop

As Ever Your
Billie Holiday.

A few days later, in a letter dated July 12, she writes, just before bed: “I am going to try so hard to dream of you,” and quickly admonishes: “Don’t laugh. Sometimes I am lucky and can.” The prison had screened a movie that night, Sister Kenny with Rosalind Russell: “It was a very good picture but it made me kind of sad thinking about the last show we seen together odd man out” (James Mason’s 1947 noir, Odd Man Out). Lights out cuts Holiday’s writing short, but the next night she picks up her pencil again:

Well darling its night again. After I got thru my work today I just couldn’t write. I cried for the first time. Oh darling I love you so much I am so sorry you have to stay there in Phila. It must be awfully hot. Yes baby I gained nine pounds and I am getting biger all the time gee you wont love me fat (smile) But you must look wonderful. Youer so tall and you needed some weight. So thank heavens for that and what ever happens at your trial sweetheart keep your chin up don’t let nothing get you down. It won’t be long before were together agian. My lights has been out every since I last saw you. But they will go on agian for us all over the world. Write to me Joe as soon as you can. Ill always love you as ever your Lady Billie Holiday.

In her own trial, Holiday had blamed Joe for her addiction. When his trial came up in September, her testimony now exonerated him. The drugs had all been hers, she said—Guy didn’t even know where they came from. The jury deliberated for an hour, and Guy was released. “Billie Holiday’s Mate Freed,” the headlines read: “Word From Blues Singer Would Have Landed Joe Guy in Pen.” But Billie had spared him.

The next March, Holiday returned to New York—she was released two months early, for good behavior—but her prison time, and her unshakable habit, haunted her career. As a felon, she was forbidden by New York law to work anywhere liquor was sold, a restriction that cut her off from the night clubs and cabarets that were a jazz singer’s lifeblood. Almost immediately, she was using heroin again.

Joe Guy, meanwhile, was gone. According to the New York Amsterdam News, “The guys on the street intimated that … Guy, who was exonerated of dope charges, had recently taken an apartment in the 200 block of 129th St., but nobody could quite agree on the exact house.” As far as Holiday’s biographers are concerned, Joe Guy’s story ends there, with a vanishing act no one seemed too much to mourn. In the words of one writer, Guy “permanently dropped out of music” and “died in obscurity”; according to another, he “faded back down South where he was born.” For most historians, Guy simply disappears from the stream of history, his brilliant future—widely predicted, less than a decade before—evaporated.

Guy wound up back in his hometown of Birmingham, playing local clubs and mentoring younger players, who he emphatically urged to keep away from dope. Sometimes, friends and admirers said, his original brilliance still came through in his solos, and local musicians revered his playing. But his personal demons never left him alone.

Billie Holiday died in New York in 1959, at the age of 44. Guy died two years later in Birmingham. It had been more than a decade since the world had passed him by. He was 41 years old.

Fig17 copy
Back in Birmingham. Joe Guy with Charles “Chuck” Clarke (saxophone), Mary Alice Clarke (piano), and Jesse Evans (vocals). Photo courtesy Roberta Lowe.

P. S. Earlier this week I announced a giveaway for my book Doc. (There are several good Joe Guy stories in it.) Thanks for all who entered the drawing by signing up to follow this blog, and congrats to phil-bond for the win. Hope you like it. Let me know.

Another P. S. What prompted me to write this post in the first place was a phone call, a few days ago, with Guy’s nephew Bernith, who lovingly recalls his uncle’s last days. I’m grateful for the added insight into Guy’s life, death, personality, and family, and I look forward to telling more of the story in the next book. Please stay tuned.

Meanwhile, here’s an interesting musical analysis of Guy’s career, including a complete, annotated discography.

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!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Back to the Future & boxes of books

When Back to the Future begins, it’s 1985 and George McFly is in every sense a loser. Then his son Marty travels thirty years into the past and sets off a chain of events that rewrites forever the whole family’s reality. When the movie ends, it’s 1985 again, but it’s a different 1985, one in which George McFly is no longer a loser at all. He’s a writer. And in the last minutes of the movie a box arrives in the mail, full of the first copies of his first book. The family opens up the box and it’s stacked with hardback copies of A Match Made in Space, a novel, with George McFly’s picture on the back.

I loved that movie when I was a kid — I still love it now — and that little moment thrilled me every single time I saw it. Because even then (I guess I was eight or nine), I wanted to write books. And so that tiny, unlikely moment at the end of Back to the Future became for me, for a few decades and running, what I imagined it must look like to be a writer. You were just a sort of regular guy (a little nerdy, maybe, but no loser), but  then sometimes a box would show up on your doorstep, full of the books you’d created. I never could imagine much in the world that might be better than opening up that box.

Usually the way something looks in the movies isn’t much like it looks it real life. So when my book Doc first came out, I was surprised and delighted when it happened just like it did in Back to the Future, in that scene that was still so much in the back of my mind. A box arrived on my porch, and my heart raced, and I opened it.

I’m working on another, brand new book now — an outgrowth and kind of sequel to the first one — and I can’t wait for the day its first copies arrive on my doorstep. But in the meantime another happy milestone happened today: Doc has just come out in its first paperback edition, and this afternoon I got a box full of the things.

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I’ll admit, the delivery this time was a bit anticlimactic: the release date was yesterday, but there was a glitch with the distributor. A release party and reading, scheduled for last night, had to be postponed at the very last minute, so we pushed it all into the new year. (If you’re in Birmingham, mark your calendars — it will be on Thursday, January 10, at the Little Professor Bookcenter in Homewood, come hell or high water.) But still it was satisfying to open that box. I’m very happy that this book is out at last in paperback. I hope it’ll get Doc Adams’s important and inspiring story out to a new world of readers. And it’s $15 cheaper than it was before, which is no small thing in itself.

In 1955, Marty McFly tells his future dad, George: “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

Later, in 1985, George McFly opens up a box of books, hands one of them to Marty, and tells him the same thing.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Jazz Demons!

The latest, from my ongoing Book of Ancestors: Fess Whatley’s Jazz Demons.

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Fess Whatley was nicknamed the “Maker of Musicians,” thanks to the legions of professional jazzmen he trained at Industrial (later Parker) High School in Birmingham. He started the city’s first jazz band — the Jazz Demons, seen here — and for years he led one of the Southeast’s premiere “society” dance bands. After the Jazz Demons came Fess Whatley’s Vibra-Cathedral Orchestra and his Sax-o-Society Orchestra. I love this newspaper ad for Sax-o-Society: “a real jazz orchestra,” it promises — “but not that ‘ear-splitting,’ ‘nerve-racking’ kind.”

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One of Fess Whatley’s many talented students was Herman “Sonny” Blount, the pianist and composer who soon enough would become Sun Ra, one of jazz music’s most extraordinary iconoclasts. Sun Ra always claimed to come from outer space, but his real roots were very much in Birmingham, as the ad below demonstrates. Sonny’s band was one of several student bands Whatley sponsored over the years; this ad, from October 1935, promotes an upcoming show presented by Whatley at Kingsport, Tennessee’s Floral Casino.

Whatley presents Sonny

Incidentally, some great, good news: Doc, my book with another Birmingham jazz hero, Frank “Doc” Adams, will be released in its first paperback edition in just a few weeks. Look for it as of December 18, its official release date, though it’s likely to be available to order within the next few days. Both Fess Whatley and Sun Ra figure prominently into the book; Doc played in both of their bands.

I’m pretty excited for a new round of readers to encounter Doc Adams through this new edition of our book. I hope you’ll get your hands around a copy as soon as you can. Thanks.

Blow, Lynn, Blow! (The Lynn Hope Story)

I’m really happy to be wrapping up a long article, and probably a zine, about Lynn Hope (Al Hajj Abdullah Rasheed Ahmad), a  man whose story — which, inexplicably, the world has for the most part forgotten — I sincerely believe everyone needs to know. I’ll share the whole thing later, once it’s done. But for now, here’s a quick preview:

Lynn Hope was one of the “screamers,” the wild r&b saxophone honkers whose horns helped beget rock and roll. He strode up and down bar tops blowing his horn, bent over backwards and wailed, jumped from the bandstand and paraded through his crowd, worked each room he played until it was ready to explode.

He was also, in the late 1940s into the ‘50s, one of black America’s most prominent Muslims. He twice pilgrimaged to Mecca and traveled all over the Middle East, led prayers at a Philadelphia mosque, taught classes on the Koran and the Arabic language, and he brought hundreds of new converts to the faith. Fans and the media loved his jeweled turbans and his long Egyptian robes, embracing the exotic novelty of his performance and persona. But when Hope spoke out against American racism he found himself the subject of smears, blacklisted from the clubs where he’d once been a star. In the 1960s, Hope suffered a series of setbacks — personal, financial, and political — and he struggled to stay relevant in a shifting cultural and musical landscape. By the end of the decade, he had faded into obscurity.

The story would be remarkable enough if it ended there, with Hope’s disappearance from the public eye. But Hope’s records resurfaced in Jamaica, where they became touchstones of the emerging sound system culture and served as an important influence in the development of ska. Hope cropped up, too, in the fiction of Amiri Baraka, whose short story “The Screamers” cast the musician and his horn as catalysts for a new, ecstatic enactment of freedom and community. Hope himself, as Al Hajj Abdullah Rasheed Ahmad, lived quietly into the 1990s, immersing himself in his family and his faith, never returning to the public stage.

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Lynn Hope, incidentally, came from Birmingham, Alabama, and he first learned music from this town’s legendary “Maker of Musicians,” the bandleader and teacher Fess Whatley, whose classroom launched the careers of many scores of jazz players.  Hope’s story is loaded with fascinating details and unexpected turns — and, of course, it comes with a great soundtrack. Check out Hope’s smoldering take on “Summertime”:

Incidentally, I’m still seeking more information about Hope’s / Ahmad’s family life, his role in the Philadelphia-area Muslim community, and his life in general from the late ’60s to his death in 1993. If any readers of this post have first-hand knowledge of these topics, I would love very much to hear from you — please send me an email at burgin@bhammountainradio.com. I’m sincerely grateful for any details that can help flesh out a detailed, rounded, and accurate portrait of this important, overlooked figure.