“Magic City: How the Birmingham Jazz Tradition Shaped the Sound of America” (University of North Carolina Press, 2023) by Burgin Mathews
Mathews will speak and sign copies of “Magic City” at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame on Saturday, 5-7 p.m., and at the Birmingham Historical Society on Sunday, 3-5 p.m.
Birmingham has been waiting for this book for a very long time. In my 30 years as an archivist, I directed many local students and out-of-town tourists to the site of Tuxedo Junction and shook my head no when asked, “Isn’t there a good book on jazz in Birmingham?”
Now there is, “Magic City: How the Birmingham Jazz Tradition Shaped the Sound of America.”
Written by Burgin Mathews, a former high school teacher, founder of the nonprofit Southern Music Research Center and co-author of the earlier book “Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man,” “Magic City” builds on Mathew’s earlier work and tells the story of the musicians and music teachers who created Birmingham jazz and made it a powerful influence on American music.
While jazz is most often associated with much larger cities, Birmingham, Mathews writes, “was home to one of the music’s most essential unsung communities, a thriving network of musicians whose lives helped shape the culture and sound of jazz as we know it.”
Birmingham jazz emerged and flourished during the era of racial segregation. Jim Crow was designed to oppress and compress African Americans, to keep Black people from prospering and thriving and to keep them confined to as little space as possible. But in the same way that diamonds are formed deep in the earth and then rise to the surface, Black Birmingham pushed against and found ways to rise above white supremacist oppression.
Music teachers in Birmingham’s all-Black schools, especially John T. “Fess” Whatley and Frank “Doc” Adams, were a major force in the creation of Birmingham jazz. “The history of jazz,” Mathews writes, “rests on the shoulders of Black teachers.” Whatley, Adams and others identified promising young musicians, trained them, inspired them and sent them into the world to form bands and orchestras, to serve as band directors at HBCUs. And then these teachers sent later generations of students to play for the students who had gone before.
Birmingham produced many talented jazz musicians and two national celebrities, Erskine Hawkins and Sun Ra. The two men were born in the same year and died in the same year. In between, Hawkins wrote the jazz standard “Tuxedo Junction,” hosted a radio show and played clubs and gymnasiums from Birmingham to the Catskills. He was debonair, “tuxedoed,” Mathews writes, “his hair conked, a carnation in his lapel.” Sun Ra was, well, Sun Ra, a self-proclaimed “alien” and proud son of the planet Saturn who pushed the limits of authority and American music. The two men, Mathews argues, “seemed to have come from different worlds,” but both were sons of Birmingham and Birmingham’s jazz tradition.
Hawkins and Sun Ra are the best known of Birmingham’s jazz performers, but Mathews shares the stories of many men and women who crafted this American musical form and took it to the world. Like any good music history, “Magic City” includes tales of travel, the making and remaking of musical groups, the crafting of songs, and remarkable performances.
“Magic City” is impressively researched and gracefully written by an author who clearly loves his topic. This book joins Andre Millard’s “Magic City Nights: Birmingham’s Rock and Roll Years” as, by far, the two best books on music in Birmingham. “Magic City” will be of interest to readers hoping to learn more about jazz and the wider history of music in America, but also readers who want to learn more about the communities and individuals who made Black Birmingham a vibrant and innovative place.
James L. Baggett is a writer and historian. From 1997 until his retirement in 2023, he served as archivist for the Birmingham Public Library and archivist for the city of Birmingham. He lives with his family in Birmingham and Mentone and can be reached at BirminghamBaggett@gmail.com.