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 …

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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.

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.

Ridiculous? No! (a month of rare photos)

Every day this month, I’m posting to Instagram photos and memorabilia from Birmingham, Alabama’s extraordinary — and, for the most part, unknown — jazz history, the subject of my current book-in-progress. I’ve been cracking away at this book for a few years and am getting ready at last to try to find it a good home for publication. (Wish me luck.) In the meantime, consider these photos a preview of much more to come. Here are the first five days of Instagram posts; to see the rest, please follow along on Instagram or Facebook. Let me know your faves as the month unfolds.

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Dec. 31:
Every day for the month of January, I’ll be posting a photo, or some other memorabilia, from the history of Birmingham jazz. I’m starting a day early, with this one: a matchbook from Harlem’s Ubangi Club, where the ‘Bama State Collegians landed their breakout New York gig. The Collegians were a bunch of musicians out of Birmingham who enrolled for college at Alabama State in Montgomery. Their band helped the school survive the Depression as they traveled the South and beyond, raising money and recruiting new students for the college. Soon after the Ubangi gig—where they backed the cross dressing, outrageous and raunchy Gladys Bentley—the Collegians cut their ties to Alabama State and became the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, one of the most popular bands of the swing era. Many more images and history to come, all through January. Stay tuned.

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Jan. 1: Every day this month, I’m posting a photo from the history of Birmingham jazz. Here’s Ivory “Pops” Williams, grandfather to Birmingham’s historic jazz community. Regarded as the city’s first jazz musician, Pops (born in 1885) served as a crucial link between Birmingham and the larger world of music. He played with W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith, and the celebrated circus bandmaster, P.G. Lowery; he led the house band at Birmingham’s Hippodrome Theater; he co-founded the city’s first musicians union for African Americans (after being denied entry in the white local); and he served as mentor to Fess Whatley, Birmingham’s once legendary “Maker of Musicians.” Pops played violin, upright bass, tenor banjo, mandolin, cello, trumpet, trombone, and drums, and he was a great advocate for the use of stringed instruments—in classical music, in jazz, and in the classrooms of Birmingham’s segregated black schools. Like many musicians of his era, he played for the silent movies and, once sound came in and put him out of a job, he refused for the rest of his life to enter a movie theater. In the ‘40s her played the upright bass in Sun Ra’s Birmingham band; in the ‘50s and ‘60s he played with local bandleader Frank Adams at the Woodland Club and other local venues. He died in 1987, at the age of 102. He’s pictured here — courtesy the @alabamajazzhall of Fame — with his violin and two of his many dogs.

pops williams grave

Jan. 2: Every day this month I’m posting a photo from the history of Birmingham jazz. Here’s the grave of Ivory “Pops” Williams, who I wrote about yesterday, Birmingham’s first jazz musician and the grandfather to a fertile music community. Pops grew up with the city of Birmingham, witnessed the birth and development of jazz, and became a patriarch in his community. He lived to be 102. The words on his headstone (sadly, the stone is now broken): “His friends were his world.”

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Jan. 3: This is John T. “Fess” Whatley, the legendary “Maker of Musicians,” the man at the center of the city’s jazz tradition. From 1917 to 1964, Fess led the band at Industrial High School (renamed A.H. Parker High School in the ‘40s), and his band room trained scores of professional musicians. Whatley’s students played in all the major black bands of the swing era—Ellington’s, Basie’s, Louis Armstrong’s, Cab Calloway’s, and more—and Birmingham gained a reputation among the nation’s top bandleaders as a reliable reservoir of talent. Fess also led the city’s first jazz band, the Jazz Demons, and for decades he provided music for the majority of the city’s elite “society” dances, both black and white. Stay tuned every day this month for more from Birmingham’s unsung jazz history.

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Jan. 4: Ridiculous? No! Every day this month I’m posting a photo from the history of Birmingham jazz. Huntington “Big Joe” Alexander was a powerful tenor sax player who left Birmingham to study at the Detroit Conservatory of Music and landed, in the mid-1950s, in Cleveland, where he became an icon in the local scene. Mostly forgotten today, he was a member of Sonny Blount’s (Sun Ra’s) innovative Birmingham band in the 1940s (it was Sun Ra who moved him from the alto sax to the tenor, to give him a “bigger” sound), and he’s considered a likely early influence on John Coltrane, with whom he played as members of Gay Crosse’s Good Humor Six. This standing $500 reward for any sax player who could “outblow” him drew many competitors to Rip’s Shangri La in Cleveland, where Big Joe played a long-running gig, but no challenger every succeeded in taking the money. Joe recorded his only album as bandleader, “Blue Jubilee,” in 1960. He died in 1970, at the age of 41, after a struggle with a debilitating heart condition. A jazz funeral was held in his honor.

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Remember to follow my radio show, The Lost Child, on Instagram and/or Facebook for more photos, all this month. For all other sorts of updates — and for new writing, musings and music, plus occasional drawings — keep following this blog.

Also, please know you can support the next book by supporting the last book: Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man was just issued in paperback by the University of Alabama Press. At $19.99, it’s a cool $15 cheaper than it used to be, which is great. And it contains personal reflections on all the musicians listed above: Doc Adams played with Fess Whatley, Sun Ra, Pops Williams, Erskine Hawkins, and Big Joe Alexander (his cousin). You can get the book online or, better yet, from your local book dealer. If you’re in Birmingham, join us for the paperback release party next Thursday night (January 10) at the Little Professor Bookcenter.

Happy new year. See you soon.

“Kiss June”: Johnny Cash’s To-Do List

I am out of touch. A few days ago, CMT (Country Music Television) posted an article: “Country Stars Reveal Their Top New Year’s Resolutions for Songwriting.” Thirteen stars in all, and I hadn’t heard of one of them. (Dan + Shay? LANCO? Hardy? What even are those?) Perhaps I am missing out.    

But Johnny Cash — a country star if ever there was one — wrote a “To Do” list once that offers its own kind of resolutions, and this is a list I can get behind. It tends to get passed around, this time of year, as people scramble to make their own ambitious lists. Cash’s day is straightforward:

Johnny Cash list

I like the honesty of these to-do’s:

  1. Worry.

A few years ago, Cash’s to-do list went up for auction and sold for $6,400.

A bit better known is Woody Guthrie’s “New Year’s Rulins” from 1943. This one makes the internet rounds a lot — I posted it on this blog a couple years ago, myself — but it’s worth frequent re-readings, so here it is once again:

Happy New Year, everybody. Here’s a real early record from Sun Ra. Hope to see you in the new year, soon.

P. S. Speaking of Sun Ra, starting tomorrow I’m posting to Instagram, every day for a month, a different photo from the history of Birmingham jazz. If you’re an Instagrammer, follow along @lostchildradio, and be on the lookout for some pretty fascinating lost history, re-found.

Jazz Demons!

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

Jazz Demons, Book of Ancestors

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.

Finally, a beginning.

So,

I’ve been working on this one book for the last few years, and most of the time it seems like it’s never going to end. Some chapters and sentences have undergone ten and twenty and almost certainly thirty drafts, and when I reread them for the hundred-and-fiftieth time all I see is “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I imagine a curious Glory leafing through the huge stacks of pages that are scattered around our house and discovering with horror the same familiar text repeated ad infinitum. (Don’t worry, The Shining analogy ends there, but it’s enough already to be terrible: the discovery that our hero has long forgotten how to write anything at all, has lost his mind in the process, and has spent all this damn time doing nothing — all of that is horror enough.)

Much to most of the book exists by now in draft form, but I’ve put off writing the intro(!) all this time, painfully aware that I don’t have a book — and can’t sell a book, either — until I have a beginning.

And then today, when I least expected it, a breakthrough! 

I don’t want to give too much of it away: but the first two paragraphs of this thing will take place in Tuxedo Junction, Alabama, in the summer of 1985. And the next two paragraphs will take place at — of all places — Birmingham’s The Nick, in the summer of 1988.

After that, and a few more introductory remarks, the book proceeds as planned all along: rewinding to the close of the 19th century and proceeding forward to the close of the 20th.

The new opening scenes make explicit, too, the most essential of the book’s themes: more even than music or race or Birmingham or education or segregation or jazz or any other thing that this book is also about, it’s above all a book about home: about what “home” means, and doesn’t mean, and might mean.

I couldn’t be happier to have finally found my beginning.

Stay tuned;

and thanks.

— Burgin

 

Traveling the Spaceways: Writing, Radio, Research, & Art

Today, May 22, marks the 103rd anniversary of Sun Ra’s arrival to earth.

Sun Ra never spoke of birthdays, and he never claimed Birmingham as a birthplace. He arrived in Birmingham from outer space, he said, on May 22, 1914.

I’ve spent a lot of the last decade researching and writing about Sun Ra. I’m especially interested in his Birmingham roots, and in the way the city helped shape his music and persona. My book in progress, a history of Birmingham jazz, goes pretty far into all this, expanding on some of what I’ve written and released in various forms and forums so far. For now, for today’s anniversary, I thought I’d share or re-share the following:

+ excerpts from my book Doc, with Frank “Doc” Adams

+ brief footage of Doc Adams playing tribute to Sun Ra at Birmingham’s Bottletree Café

+ links to my series on Sun Ra’s Birmingham roots, published in the newsweekly Weld on the occasion of Sun Ra’s centennial

+ my radio interview with Robert Mugge, director of the landmark documentary film, SUN RA: A JOYFUL NOISE

+ promotional materials for a series of Sun Ra Celebrations I hosted at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame

+ and a few other odds and ends

First, an excerpt from Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, my book with the late & beloved Dr. Frank Adams (University of Alabama Press, 2012). Doc played in Sun Ra’s (Sonny Blount’s) early Birmingham band, back in the 1940s, and a chapter of our book together—Chapter Five, “Outer Space”—deals with those days. In the two quick excerpts here, Doc describes a few impressions of the bandleader:

Sun Ra lived across the street from the old Terminal Station in this rickety, raggedy house: I mean, it was terrible.  But when you got in there, he was so full of what he was doing.  He really believed in this outer space thing, and he talked about it all the time.  He would say this was this and this was that, and he rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed, till his band was just a jewel—I mean, it was just a jewel—and he had people in his band that weren’t great readers of music, but they could catch on quick.  They had this complete musicianship about them.

I first heard, like most people in Birmingham, that there was this weird guy—there was always some talk about this fellow that lived near the Terminal Station, in this old, broken-down house.  That’s back in the early thirties, my elementary school days.  Nobody would say he was crazy, he just had a reputation for being different.  In certain neighborhoods they knew he had a tremendous band, and he was a bandleader that nobody knew where he came from.  He was just there.

In those days he was called Herman Blount, or “Sonny”: Sonny Blount.  And you just couldn’t figure him out.   Did he have a mother, or did he have a brother?  Everything was a mystery about him.  And we never heard of him eating any food—he survived on grapefruit.  He would go to Mr. Forbes’ music store, the biggest music store in town, and look through all the new music that would come out.  He would probably be eating on a grapefruit, and he’d take his pen out and a piece of manuscript paper and copy the music.  He’d stand there for maybe an hour, and drip grapefruit juice on the music and write it out in hand—he never would buy the music.  People would be standing back, waiting to be waited on, and, no, he wouldn’t move.  Mr. Forbes would stand and watch him.  When he finally got his music, he would say “Thank you” to the wall or something, and go on out.  And everybody understood that.

You would say, because it’s segregation and everything, “Why don’t they stop you from going in the store?”

He’d say, “They like me.”

“Why would they like you, when you’re messing everything up?”

“They understand.  That I’m a power.  And really,” he said, “we are friends.”

He thought about white people that way.  He said, “They are my brothers.  They are my brothers, but some of them don’t know it yet.”

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Blount’s band was real unique.  Everybody in there couldn’t read music real well, but he could put them together: I admire Sonny for being able to mold his musicians together to do things that he did.  His orchestra would consist of maybe three trombones or five, it didn’t make any difference—he wanted to know how you sounded and how you sounded, and all that kind of thing.  If two bass players showed up, they were both on the job: he’d have two.  Some of the musicians might have complained, because they’d have to split the money more ways, but Sonny wanted to hear what each one of them could do: how it all sounded together.

As I said, he lived in this rickety old house, and his whole world was in that place.  It was a wooden frame building.  As far as we got, and anybody got, was the front room, and that was where he had his bed and where he rehearsed.  I think he took his meals in there.  We understand that he had a sister or somebody, but nobody ever saw anybody there in the house.  He would always be there, and he had these records stacked about five feet off the ground, these [78] records and all of those kinds of things, and he had his piano in there.  I remember that the hallway was about to fall in—you could step down in a hole or something if you weren’t careful—and the furniture was in shoddy shape.

Always it was very crowded.  I remember that whenever we had a singer, after he set the drums up, the singer would have to be out in the hallway, and he would call that person in whenever they would do a vocal number.  The saxophones would be up against the wall over here, and the trumpets would be somewhere back in there.  But you didn’t think about it.  There was never any talk about anything but the music.  He had a wire tape recorder, and he had a shortwave radio—I don’t know how he got it—and he could get music out of New York, like from the Savoy.  He would have all these wild players on there like Don Stovall or something, man.  They were playing bop before bop was even heard about!  He’d listen at night to that, and he’d play that back for you.  It was the craziest music, but he would say, “That man’s not crazy.  You just aren’t able to understand it yet.  He’s trying to tell you something, but you don’t know what to do.  He’s just trying to tell you he’s free—okay?  So listen at it.”  And if you listened long enough, you’d get it.

He would say he came from outer space—and, “I was born with x-ray ears; I can hear all these things you humans can’t hear yet.”

… For more, please check out our book, Doc.

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Next, here’s a brief clip of Doc Adams at Spaceship Saturn’s tribute to Sun Ra at Birmingham’s Bottletree Cafe in 2013. Doc spoke briefly about his time with Sun Ra, then played the strangest solo set I ever heard him play. Finally he was joined onstage by SI Reasoning, LaDonna Smith, and Davey Williams, all seen here. Doc was utterly enchanted by the Bottletree that night.

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Next, from 2014, my four-part series on Sun Ra’s Birmingham roots. “The Magic Citizen” was published in the local weekly Weld and is still available online at the links below.

Part One: Sun Ra in Birmingham

Part Two: Sonny Rising

Part Three: First Steps in Outer Space

Part Four: The Voyager Returns

This project developed out of my work with Doc Adams, and anticipates the book I’m working on now. One of the greatest thrills of writing this new book—which I swear is getting close to finished—is the chance to expand on this story and uncover important pieces of Sun Ra’s early years. So stay tuned.

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From 2012 to 2014 I organized, with the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, an annual Sun Ra Celebration. The events were a mix of film, poetry, reminiscence, and live music. In 2013 we showed the great film, SUN RA: A JOYFUL NOISE, and I had the opportunity to interview the filmmaker, Robert Mugge, on my radio show, The Lost Child. Mugge gave a gracious, funny, and eye-opening interview, which I still remember very fondly. This episode of The Lost Child includes, besides our interview, a few short audio excerpts from the film, plus excerpts from Sun Ra’s 1988 show at Birmingham’s The Nick.

You can hear the episode here. (And find more of Robert Mugge’s work here.)

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While I’m add it, I thought too that I’d dig up for today’s post some of the drawings, posters, and postcards I put together for those three events at the Jazz Hall of Fame.

So:

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Drawing, 2014
Sun Ra Celebration 1 copy
Postcard, 2012
Sun Ra Celebration 2
Postcard, 2012
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Poster, 2014
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Poster, 2014. Production photo still courtesy Robert Mugge (SUN RA: A JOYFUL NOISE)
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Poster, 2014

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Finally, the following items may be of some interest to Sun Ra fans and followers:

+ In 1989, Sun Ra came back to the Magic City to play Birmingham’s first City Stages festival. While in town he also played a show at Southern Dance Works. You can download the audio of this festive performance here. I recommend it.

+  Backing up: as a teenager, Sonny Blount played in the Ethel Harper orchestra. Harper was a teacher at Birmingham’s Industrial High School; when she left Birmingham to pursue her own career in entertainment, Sonny Blount took over the band. Recently on this blog I sought to shed some light on Ethel Harper’s story, drawing from her papers at the Morristown, New Jersey, library, and other sources. You can read part one of that story here. 

+ And here’s a couple of intriguing newspaper advertisements from Sonny Blount’s Birmingham years:

Okay, that’s it for now. But also this: as I compile these links I’m happily and heartily reminded of the many friends, artists, scholars, fans, concert-goers, filmmakers, musicians, writers, bootleggers, and others who’ve contributed a great deal to my own ongoing understanding of Sun Ra, his music, his mythos, and his bio. Thanks to one and all.

See you around.

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Outer space is a pleasant place
A place that’s really free
There’s no limit to the things that you can do
There’s no limit to the things that you can be
Your thought is real
And your life is worthwhile

— Sun Ra, “Space is the Place”

A Legacy Unsung: The Ethel Harper Story, Part Two

I promised to deliver Part Two of my Ethel Harper story last week but for a few days got derailed. Mostly I found myself wanting to dig deeper into Harper’s story than I already had, and my research and writing kept growing. I’m grateful to the staff of the Morristown and Morris Township Library for some last minute, long-distance help in going through Ethel Harper’s papers; with their help I was able to access some pages of Harper’s autobiography which I hadn’t thought to copy on my own trip to the archive a few years ago.

Ethel Ernestine Harper was a remarkable woman in every respect, and her story certainly needs to be told. It’s a story full of surprising turns, from Sun Ra to Broadway to Aunt Jemima, from pancakes and publicity stunts to social work and racial uplift. The Jemima connection—which this post explores at some length—is a fascinating and complicated one: late in life, Harper took great pride in her identification as Jemima, even as she worked with passion as an activist and advocate for issues of civil rights. In this and in other aspects of her career, the details of Ethel Harper’s experience defied expectation and over-simple classification.

If you missed Part One—which explores her Birmingham years, her Sun Ra connection, and her “Singing Schoolteacher” debut—you can read it here.  

Here, now, is Part Two.

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After her Apollo debut, Ethel Harper moved from one stage to the next. She joined a traveling revue, Connie’s Hot Chocolates of ’37, performing in a vocal harmony trio, the Melody Maids; it was in this group that she discovered a passion for harmony singing, and over the next few years Ethel Harper assembled, trained, and performed in a series of vocal trios. She appeared, too, in a string of Broadway productions, beginning with 1939’s Hot Mikado—a swing reworking of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, starring dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and an all-black cast. Later that year came Swingin’ the Dream, a similarly jazzed Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was an ambitious project with a remarkable cast: Benny Goodman wrote and directed the music; Lionel Hampton performed in the band; actress Butterfly McQueen starred as Puck; Louis Armstrong played the part of Bottom. It must have been, one historian writes, “one of the most fascinating bombs of all time”—the play was trounced by critics (it was, several said, more “nightmare” than dream) and it closed within two weeks of its opening.

Harper took the ups and downs of the stage life in stride. She continued to perform as a soloist, in harmony groups, and in lavish ensemble stage shows (the New York census in those days listed her as “singer—night club and theatre”). In 1942 came another big production, Harlem Cavalcade, an old-school vaudeville showcase produced by Ed Sullivan and one of the grand elders of Broadway’s jazz world, the composer Noble Sissle. That show introduced Harper’s most successful vocal group, the Four Ginger Snaps, who for the next five years toured the country, performed onstage and over the airwaves, entertained U. S. servicemen at dozens of benefit shows, and waxed a handful of records for the Victor label. When the group disbanded in 1947, Harper decided to seek a lifestyle more stable, if less glamorous: she put in the closet her wardrobe of high-fashion stage costumes and gowns and took a job as a waitress, singing for diners at the end of her weekend shifts and hiring a vocal coach, in the meantime, to help keep her voice in shape—just in case some other shot at the spotlight came her way.

Ethel Harper Melody Girls
The Melody Trio. Ethel Harper is on the left.
Ginger Snaps
The Four Ginger Snaps. Ethel Harper is on the right, in the back.

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It was sheer chance that Ethel Harper found her way to Italy. One afternoon in 1954, she ran into an agent, Sam Gordon, walking down Broadway, “and out of a blue sky he asked me if I wanted to go to Europe.” Harper said yes, and two weeks later she was on the S. S. Homeland, bound for Italy, the female lead in the Negro Follies, a musical troupe of twenty-five singers and dancers. For two years she performed overseas, first with the Follies company, and then as her own solo act.

All along, for all her successes, one nagging thought dogged her: she knew she’d abandoned the classroom—and, she was sure, her true calling—for a path she deep down thought superficial and selfish. Harper had a passion for the theatre, and surely her voice could bring people joy; but her connection with children, she thought, was a gift straight from God, and she knew she’d cast that gift aside, abandoned the path the world had laid out for her. She could have returned to Birmingham to teach, but she’d fallen in love with New York, and she didn’t have the credentials to teach in New York schools. Still, every job she took out of the classroom—whether waiting tables or going on tour—brought back a familiar wave of anxiety. “I suppose it might be classified an attack of conscience,” she wrote: “I was fully aware of the fact that I should have remained in the teaching profession.”

It would take some time, but eventually she’d return to her original path. Midway through her memoir she interrupts the flow of chronology with this parenthetical aside: “I pledge my future,” she promises, “to the youth of today, because in their hands lies the heart of tomorrow’s world. I am deeply proud of the fact,” she adds, “that I did not stray too far from my chartered course; that of serving the youth.”

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Harper arrived back in the U. S. with no clear plan for the future. But, once again, a chance encounter opened up a new and utterly unexpected chapter of her career.

She’d only been back in New York for two days when she ran into an old friend and mentor from the Hot Chocolates days, Edith Wilson, who was passing through town en route to an engagement. Wilson was a seasoned veteran of the stage, a blues and vaudeville singer and actress, a recording artist and radio star; she’d cut her first record, with Johnny Dunn’s Original Jazz Hounds, in 1921, she’d toured much of the globe and sung in Broadway revues and road shows. She was “one of the girls,” Harper wrote, “who went to Europe along with Josephine Baker and made quite a name of herself in the theatre, but decided after many years in the show business to cast her lot with the Quaker Oats Company.” Now Wilson was playing the role she’d keep for nearly two decades, a role she thought was perfect, too, for Harper.

That role was Aunt Jemima.

For decades, Quaker Oats had hired black women to play the part of Jemima, the popular pancake box mascot: in 1893 Nancy Green, a former slave, had made her debut in the role at the World’s Columbian Expedition in Chicago. Green and her successors traveled the country, making and selling pancakes, singing old spirituals and the latest vaudeville tunes, and speaking to children and housewives; they dressed in the mythic garb of the plantation “mammy”—red-and-white checked hoopskirt, apron, and headrag—and announced their arrival, wherever they went, with Jemima’s trademark catchphrase: “I’s in town, honey!”

When she ran into Ethel Harper in New York, Wilson was en route to a Jemima promotion in Norwalk, Connecticut, and she convinced Harper to come along. Wilson had been one of the company’s most successful Jemimas, and she’d mentioned to job to Harper more than once before: as an educator and an entertainer, she’d said, Harper was ideally suited to the work. On previous occasions, Harper hadn’t paid much attention to Wilson’s pitch: but now, she wrote, “I was out of a job. This time I listened with an interested ear.”

Wilson outlined Jemima’s duties for Harper, took her shopping, bought her some clothes, and finally introduced her to the Quaker management. Harper watched Wilson in the role, and then she auditioned herself. She got the job.

But, Harper wrote, “There was one aspect which had me in a quandary—the Aunt Jemima costume. First, I had quite an investment in glamourous costumes; and second, I had some inhibitions about wearing a bandana on my head, which gave me quite a bit of uneasiness. This was due to the general attitude of my race toward the character of Aunt Jemima.” By the time Harper took the role, the Jemima character had been blasted by civil rights groups for the stereotypes it helped entrench in the popular imagination. Jemima’s history as an icon had been marked by a host of plantation-era clichés, by cartoonish dialect (“Here’s a Temptilatin’ Lunch Chilluns Love,” a typical ad proclaimed), and by plenty of romanticized Old South nostalgia; the character, critics complained, was demeaning, degrading, and essentially unredeemable.

Harper, meanwhile, was a woman who would come to take pride in both her work as Jemima and her work for civil rights. In the 1960s and ‘70s she’d defend Quaker Oats and Jemima against their detractors: the Quaker Jemima, she contended, transcended the clichés (in large part, indeed, thanks to Edith Wilson’s and her own performances). Living Jemimas like Harper addressed service organizations and civic clubs and raised many thousands of charity dollars. They did good work, Harper believed, and they could be played with dignity. Harper herself was glamourous, intelligent, and strong-willed, a woman of regal bearing; it’s impossible to imagine her “Jemima” as inarticulate and subservient.

Harper took the job clear-eyed about its challenges. “With the initial excitement over,” she wrote, “and my contract signed, I had to now get down to the business of conditioning my thoughts and my heart to give to this job the necessary dignity and interpretation of which I first could be proud— and, hopefully—those members of my race who had qualms about anyone who played this character could also be proud. This was not easy but, thank God, I was able to do just this with His help.”

Exactly how Harper pulled this off would “clearly be depicted,” she wrote, “in the following chapter” of her memoir. But there’s one problem: that next chapter is missing. I’ve seen only one copy of the book, the copy housed in the archive of the Morristown library, and its pages jump from 85 to 90, with all but two brief paragraphs of the promised chapter omitted. Whether all copies of the book lack these pages, or whether it’s a sad glitch in the one copy I’ve seen, I don’t know. But for now this intriguing and important piece of Harper’s story—and of Aunt Jemima’s—is lost.

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Luckily the later pages of Harper’s book do include some descriptions of her day-to-day work as Jemima. “Aunt Jemima’s activities,” Harper explained, “centered around the following: singing, appearing on radio and television, in-person appearances in schools, homes for the aged and mentally retarded, working various county fairs, and serving on their panels of judges, for various competitions.” As Jemima, Harper worked with the Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary clubs and other civic organizations. She spoke to school children about nutrition and manners. And everywhere she went, she did what she’d always done, albeit now as Jemima: she sang. (On some occasions, she performed duets with a white actor who portrayed another grocery aisle icon, the Quaker Oats man.) For the illustrators who depicted Aunt Jemima on boxes of pancake mix, in advertisements, and elsewhere, Harper served as model. To children—who had seen her face on their breakfast tables, at the supermarket, in magazines, and on TV—Harper (whose real name, of course, the children never knew) was a full-fledged celebrity. They wrote her letters, and Harper—who still considered her rapport with children her greatest, most important gift—took pride in writing each child back by hand. She’d include a glossy photo signed, with love: “Aunt Jemima.”

Harper kept a strenuous schedule as Jemima. A few times a year she appeared at large-scale promotional events lasting up to six days, events designed to showcase a range of products by Quaker and other companies. Every time she was a star. On the first day of these promotions, she wrote, “Aunt Jemima would reign supreme. The day was declared Pancake Day and much excitement ensued.” Jemima’s arrival in a new town was hyped in advance, and locals took part in a contest to guess her precise means of transportation to their community. Jemima’s entrances were dramatic affairs, and her mode of arrival was different each time: she might come in a helicopter or riding a fire engine, might arrive by sea plane, by train, or by motor scooter. “The weirdest of all,” she wrote, “was being sealed in a cardboard box and carted by American Express. After arrival,” wherever she went, “there was a huge parade during which Aunt Jemima was welcomed by the Mayor and presented with the key to the city.”

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An aside: searching the internet for more about Harper, I came across a fascinating blog post—written, years later, by one of the children who’d seen her perform, all those years ago.

Randy Bowles was a third-grader in Yakima, Washington, when Ethel Harper paid a visit to his all-white elementary school. The experience made a lasting impression on him, and in 2015—more than half a century later—he described the encounter in a detailed, illuminating, and heartfelt essay. He remembered that Harper—whose real name he learned much later—appeared as a celebrity, larger than life: a “remarkable woman” who took the schoolhouse stage “to thunderous applause” and “had us in the palm of her hand in no time, with her sweet, gentle, wise ways…. Obviously,” he’d later come to understand, “Aunt Jemima’s character was based on the racist stereotype of the docile, always-smiling ‘mammy.’ However, I didn’t see that at the time. I was only eight. What I perceived was an amazing human being.”

The complexity and contradiction of the Jemima legacy—and of Ethel Harper herself—was something Bowles only discovered as an adult. “Although Ms. Harper was a college graduate who had been a school teacher as well as a singer and entertainer, and had appeared on the Broadway stage, she was not dressed as a professional person for our visit. She was dressed as a plantation cook, wearing a red scarf and white apron. I recall she talked about eating a good breakfast, about always being good students, about displaying good manners, and minding our parents. I believe she sang a song or two.” After the performance, children were allowed to speak to Harper’s Jemima; and “I remember very clearly, how she gave me a big hug. I was so happy. I truly felt like she loved me—a little boy whom she had never before cast eyes on.” Bowles never got over it.

Just what, Randy Bowles later wondered, was the purpose behind Aunt Jemima’s visit to Yakima? “Was it an assembly meant to help us learn about nutrition? Was it intended to show us a ‘real black person’?” Whatever it was, what stuck with him always was an awe for this woman, an awe that all the contradictions only made more powerful. “I wish Ethel Ernestine Harper were alive today,” his essay concludes, “so I could thank her for bringing her message of love to Yakima, all the way back in 1957. It was a sincere message I took to heart. But I’m very sorry she had to appear as a mammy. I guess, had she been dressed like our principal, or like our teacher, there would have been no assembly.”

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Ethel Harper finally settled in Morristown, New Jersey, where she became a leading contributor to civic life. She retired from the stage but drew from her lifetime of experience to affect change in a multitude of arenas. “As long as God has given me a voice,” she wrote in 1970, “I’ll use it to make a better world.”

Whoever Aunt Jemima might have been, Ethel Harper was a powerful personality, dignified, forward-thinking, and creative, opinionated and articulate. As Aunt Jemima, she’d preached a gospel of good nutrition, and the subject remained one of her concerns; she continued to present lectures on nutrition to groups of all ages. But in her retirement from performance she took on a number of responsibilities and concerns. She chaired the education committee of the local NAACP branch and the civil rights committee of the local League of Women Voters. For more than a decade she served as a field director to the Girl Scouts, the first black woman to serve locally in such a role. She re-entered the classroom at last—not as Jemima but as Ethel Harper, herself—teaching in public and parochial schools and in adult education programs. She developed and for a decade taught the county’s first curriculum in black history. And she coupled her service to the youth with an equal drive to serve the elderly: at sixty-nine, she became director of entertainment and outreach for Morris County senior citizens, and she served on the state’s advisory commission on aging. She delivered for Meals on Wheels and volunteered at area hospitals, and she conceived and moderated a topical talk radio show, “Youth Speaks Out; Age Speaks Out; Are You Listening?”

A few months before she died, she chartered out her achievements on a pie chart, the sections of her life arranged chronologically into slices spanning the years 1903 to 1978: “The Pie of My Life,” she called it, and it’s clear she took pride in each section. The final slice she labeled “Open for what lies ahead,” and in the space inside it she wrote just this: “Plan for future: Return to theatre as a monologist.”

Ethel Harper died in 1979. She left behind no spouse and no children of her own. She didn’t live to launch that theatrical return, but her legacy—particularly in the Morris County she’d made her home—was large. Newspapers around the country carried her obituary, all of them emphasizing in their headlines her career as Aunt Jemima. Most of the stories referenced also her work on Broadway and with the Ginger Snaps. None made mention of her role in Sun Ra’s career, and outside a reference to the Girl Scouts, few papers beyond New Jersey acknowledged her wide-ranging civic, social, and educational work.

Ethel Harper, meanwhile, had left behind a few characteristic parting instructions. “My final request,” she’d written in her will, “is that no one shall be overly burdened in my behalf.” Then, too, there was this: “I wish to be remembered for whatever good I have done; for whatever service I have rendered along the way.”

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Ethel Harper Pie
“The Pie of My Life,” 1978

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Notes & Further Reading:

All quotes from Ethel Harper, unless otherwise indicated, come from her self-published memoir, published in 1970 and housed among the Ethel Ernestine Harper Papers at the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center at the Morristown and Morris Township Library in Morristown, New Jersey. Click here to see the finding aid, which includes its own brief bio of Harper. 

For a more detailed overview of the Ginger Snaps, click here.

 Click here to read Randy Bowles’s full post on Ethel Harper’s visit to Yakima, Washington.

Much has been written about Aunt Jemima’s complicated legacy. Michele Norris, in 2010’s The Grace of Silence, addresses her own grandmother’s career as a traveling Jemima (and Birmingham readers, by the way, will take special interest also in this book’s look into some of our city’s forgotten history). For more on Jemima, check out the definitive Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima, by M. M. Manring (1998).

Ethel Harper Obit
Obituary, The Washington Post, April 1979.