Salute to Freedom ’63

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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