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.”

sax-o-society ad (photo)

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.

A New Zine! (Get It!)

Here’s something!

For next Saturday’s radio show, I created an exclusive illustrated playlist, in the form of a full-color, 16-page, pocket-sized zine. I decided not to announce the song titles and artists on air as I play them next week, but instead to make available this little guide you can use to follow along at home.

The best part: all this can be yours(!!) for a donation of $5 or more to The Lost Child.

Just shoot five bucks, via PayPal, to burgin@bhammountainradio.com. Or, if you like, email me at that address for other payment options. I’ll get it in the mail to you ASAP. Your $5 covers the cost of printing and shipping and handling; any dollars over those first five will be considered a generous donation to this radio show and will help support further endeavors like this.

If you use PayPal, be sure to include your name and address in the notes.

The illustrated show began as a playlist of unaccompanied ballad singing and other sorts of a cappella song; but I started breaking it up with a few soft instrumental ditties and other odds and ends to mix up the flow of things. One highlight: a Galician immigrant to the U. S. — a badchen, or wedding entertainer, recorded in the 1950s by folklorist Ruth Rubin — performs a series of wedding tunes on the fiddle, songs he’d brought with him from the old country. And a Polish immigrant to the states, also recorded by Rubin, sings a beautiful, wordless Chassidic tune. Another favorite moment in the mix: a Puerto Rican immigrant to New York, recorded by Tony Schwartz in the ’50s, translates into English the lyrics of a jukebox lament — a record about the Puerto Rican experience in New York, no less — while the song plays in the background.  There’s also preaching by Brother Claude Ely, hokum by Peg Leg Bates, and a lonesome field holler by Livingston, Alabama’s Annie Grace Horn Downson. Plus ballads, spirituals, and lullabies from North Carolina, Alabama, West Virginia, Tennessee, and more. And for just five dollars American, it’s all illustrated and annotated for your own eyes and ears.

(To hear the show, tune in Saturday, November 17, to Birmingham Mountain Radio, from 9 to 10 a.m. (Central). It will rebroadcast Tuesday, November 20, from eleven to midnight. You can listen in Birmingham at 107.3 FM or stream it online anywhere at www.bhammountainradio.com. After that, I’ll post it on The Lost Child’s Mixcloud site, where you can stream it anytime.)

Before I sign off for today, here’s a little tribute I just made to the Delmore Brothers, Alton and Rabon, for my ongoing “Book of Ancestors.”

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The Delmores had a great signature tune called “The Brown’s Ferry Blues,” which included such lyrics as this — “Hard luck poppa, counting his toes, you can smell his feet wherever he goes” — and which also offered this sad testimony: “Early to bed and early to rise, and your girl goes out with other guys … If you don’t believe me try it yourself; I tried it, and I got left.” The Delmores were born to a family of tenant farmers in Elkmont, Alabama, and they grew up to pioneer first a trendsetting style of soft country vocal harmonies and then a rollicking brand of amplified “hillbilly boogie” guitar. They spent their youths down the road from Brown’s Ferry, Alabama, and as members of the Grand Ole Opry they formed the Brown’s Ferry Four with country superstars Merle Travis and Grandpa Jones. Today the spot their music memorialized is home to the Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Power Point.

Someone should write a song about that.

Thanks for following along with this blog. See you next time.

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.

Lynn Hope, bar walk 1

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.

Book of Ancestors: William Levi Dawson

William Levi Dawson, the latest from my Book of Ancestors, a work in progress:

William L Dawson framed

I started the
Book of Ancestors  a few months ago. It’s divided into three sections — “Family,” “Music,” and “Movement” — and will feature tributes to a range of “ancestors,” both literal and figurative, all from my home state of Alabama. (The “Movement” subtitle refers not only to figures from the Civil Rights Movement, but to a range of social movers whose lives represent numerous sorts of momentum, progress, and positive change.) I plan to be working at this off and on for a good little while, and thought I may as well post occasional developments here.

I made this tribute to Dawson last night while listening to his Negro Folk Symphony and to performances of the Tuskegee University Choir, recorded under his direction. I’d never heard of Dawson until very recently. A few weeks ago I came across this description in the WPA’s Alabama guidebook, first published in the 1930s:

William Levi Dawson, director of the School of Music and the choir at Tuskegee Institute, is probably the State’s leading contemporary composer. Born in Anniston in 1899, Dawson has written in all forms and won the Rodman Wanamaker contest for composition in 1930 and 1931. Among his works are Negro Folk Symphony No. 1, first performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra in 1934, “Out in the Fields,” and “Ain’-a That Good News,” a cappella choruses, and “Break, Break, Break,” a choral with orchestra. Maude Cuney-Hare, in Negro Musicians and Their Music, estimates that Dawson is the first among “present cultivated Negro composers of whom much may be expected in the way of producing what will be the future American music.”

Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony was a huge deal when it was first performed. It was lauded by Alain Locke, one of the principal architects of the Harlem Renaissance, singled out as both a masterwork in itself and as a harbinger of great things to come. The original Philadelphia audience broke custom by erupting into applause more than once before the first performance was finished; when it was over the crowd called Dawson out for multiple bows. Performances followed at Carnegie Hall, whose crowds were similarly enthusiastic and unrestrained. Listeners across the country tuned in to hear the piece performed live over the radio waves. “One is eager to hear it again and yet again,” cheered a critic for the New York World-Tribune. A review in the New York American newspaper declared it “the most distinctive and promising American symphonic proclamation which has been so far achieved.” It was 1934, and Dawson was a black man from Alabama; his achievement was an historic one.

In the original program notes, Dawson wrote this:

“This Symphony is based entirely upon Negro folk-music. The themes are taken from what are popularly known as Negro spirituals, and the practiced ear will recognize the recurrence of characteristic themes throughout the composition… . In this composition the composer has employed three themes taken from typical melodies over which he has brooded since childhood, having learned them at his mother’s knee.”

Two years before the symphony’s debut, Dawson had explained his ambitions to a reporter for the Associated Press. “I’ve not tried,” he said, “to imitate Beethoven or Brahams, Franck or Ravel — but to be just myself, a Negro. To me, the finest compliment that could be paid my symphony when it has its premiere is that it unmistakably is not the work of a white man. I want the audience to say: ‘Only a Negro could have written that.”

Regrettably, in the years since its debut, Dawson’s landmark work has faded into obscurity. Dawson remained a respected public figure for years to come, but not for his orchestral compositions: under Dawson’s direction the Tuskegee University Choir gained international renown, touring and broadcasting widely and performing for the likes of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. Dawson emerged as an influential choral arranger and composer, and many of his spiritual arrangements have became American staples. He revisited and revised his original symphony several times in the years after its debut, but his attentions no longer centered on orchestral composition. In recent years, a few scholars have wondered over the gradual neglect of Dawson’s symphony and have advocated for its place in the American canon (see, for example, Gwynne Kuhner Brown’s “Whatever Happened to William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony?” or John Andrew Johnson’s “William Dawson, ‘The New Negro,’ and His Folk Idiom”). While many of Dawson’s choral arrangements are still performed today — his most active lingering legacy — the name William Levi Dawson has been largely, and unjustly, forgotten.

So here he is, in my growing Book of Ancestors.

More to come.

Stay tuned.

William Levi Dawson scan

P. S. Want to see more things like this? Stay in the loop by following the blog: you can sign up on the top, righthand side of this page (or scroll to the bottom, if you’re viewing on a phone) to receive new posts in your email inbox. You can also follow @lostchildradio on Instagram and “like” my book and/or radio show on Facebook. You can also(!!) purchase my book with Alabama jazzman “Doc” Adams online or at your local bookstore. Heartfelt thanks, sincerely, for any / all of the above.

Baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby

A year or two ago my family and I watched for the first time together Little Shop of Horrors — easily my favorite musical, and a great movie, too, from director Frank Oz. You may remember there’s a kind of doo-wop Greek chorus in it, inspired by the “girl groups” of the sixties; watching the movie inspired me, later that night, to draw a couple of those original groups. After that I put them aside until this just week, as I scrambled to get together some works for my art show, which opens this(!!) Saturday. I added the Chiffons to the two groups I already had (the Ronettes and the Crystals — I had to throw out a kind of disastrous Supremes, saving them for another project, some other time), and I fashioned them all together into a single tribute. Here’s the week’s progress and final result:

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I’m excited to have my first-ever public showing of my drawings, something I thought I’d never do; I’m only doing it now thanks to the encouragement of some very fine friends. And I’m delighted to show these drawings alongside the photography of Jared Ragland, an artist whose work I very much admire. If you’re in Birmingham, I hope you’ll come to the opening: it’s at The Jaybird this Saturday, August 11, from 7 to 9. We’ll have music provided by djcasequarter (the illustrious Kevin Nutt), and a short set too from Tiny Montgomery. We’ve got the ingredients for a very fine night.

(For more drawings, see this previous post, or this one.)

P.S. Usually I write here about the outsides of empty cardboard boxes — but stay tuned in the next week or two for a post about the insides of this cardboard box, which arrived at our house yesterday — and about whose contents I’m positively giddy.

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P. S., also: For the last thirty days I’ve been posting to Instagram daily photos I’ve taken over the years of boiled peanut stands and boiled peanut signs. Today marked the last day in the series, with this portrait of the artist, a photo taken in Florida a few years back by Susan Shoemaker. To see the whole set — as well as additional drawings not seen on this blog, and posts about my radio show and the roots of American music — check out @lostchildradio. Thanks, everybody.

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