John “Fess” Whatley — The Giant of Birmingham Jazz Education

John “Fess” Whatley, image from Birmingham Public Library Archives

My first encounter with the legacy of Birmingham music educator John “Fess” Whatley happened during my junior year of college. I went to the Birmingham Public Library to dig through their archive collections to find material for a research project, and I encountered a box full of newspaper clippings, musical programs, and a scrapbook of photos all having to do with the lives and careers of John Whatley and his students. I didn’t end up writing about Whatley that semester, but that paper trail left an impression on me. Whatley taught many famous Birmingham jazz musicians in his public school classroom, from Erskine Hawkins and many of his band members to Sun Ra, the eccentric and talented artist on whom much of my research focuses today. I plan to share some of my work on Sun Ra in later posts, but before I do that, I wanted to give an introduction into the world Sun Ra grew up in by introducing his music teacher, John “Fess” Whatley, and his classmates at Industrial High School in Birmingham, Alabama.

Whatley’s Early Life

John “Fess” Whatley was born in 1895 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. At the age of four, Whatley was playing under his house when he came across a metal spring that made musical sounds when he stretched it out. He pulled the spring tight across an empty wooden cigar box and made a makeshift guitar. When his father was not home, young Whatley would borrow his father’s hunting horn, which he later called his “first trumpet.” After attending the Ringling Brothers Circus when they visited Tuscaloosa, Whatley was inspired to make his own band. With other children in his neighborhood, Whatley would carry his father’s hunting horn and lead a make-shift parade through the streets. Later, Whatley moved to Birmingham to begin school at the Carrie A. Tuggle Institute, where he joined the band on the cornet and quickly became the band leader.

Whatley’s later passion for music education should be understood through the context of his own path as a musician. The Carrie A. Tuggle Institute, which provided free education for underprivileged Black children in Birmingham, was founded by Carrie Tuggle in 1903. Tuggle, a former slave herself, was a passionate advocate for Black children’s education. The school came into being when in her years as a social worker, Tuggle pled with a judge to allow two juvenile delinquents to stay at her home for rehabilitation rather than go to prison. She changed the lives of many young Black students, including notable figures like Birmingham businessman and activist A.G. Gaston. Her encouragement of her students is evident in this excerpt from Gaston’s book Green Power:

Next [Tuggle] called John [Whatley] and predicted “He’s going to be a great musician.” John stood grinning at the audience with his cornet stuck under his arm. He had a lip and he could blow. He was going to be a great musician. Then he threw his cornet to his mouth and blasted out the first bars of “The Saints Come Marching In.” We all picked it up, and I admired the flash of my cymbals under the hot spotlight. The muscles in John’s neck stood out as he hit a high one. It was fun. It was always good, with Granny Tuggle telling them that you would be great and the blare of the band.

Tuggle was adept at garnering the financial support of white philanthropists in the city. Through her own fundraising efforts and support from Black and white Birmingham citizens, Tuggle created a curriculum that integrated academic and industrial education components, including training in nursing, music, and character education. Tondra L. Loder-Jackson writes about Tuggle’s school in her book Schoolhouse Activists: African American Educators and the Long Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Tuggle’s adept ability to gain support for her program was beneficial after a fire in 1919 that destroyed the school. Black and white citizens alike worked together to raise the funds to rebuild the school. Tuggle’s educational approach shifted over the years, and eventually she adopted a purely industrial curriculum. Her philosophy so closely mirrored Booker T. Washington’s that the Birmingham News described her as the “female Booker T. Washington” when she died.

The educational role model of Carrie Tuggle may have been Whatley’s inspiration for his own career path later in life. In many ways, Whatley’s music education philosophy mirrored Tuggle’s passion and impact on the Black community in Birmingham. It gave young Black students the skills and tools to be successful in a society prejudiced against them by using music to become financially stable and participate, although in a segregated way, in white functions and society. Some of his students eventually used those musical talents to leave the south. However, the vast majority of his students remained in the south and reinvested in Black communities and public education.

In 1917, Whatley became the first band director at Industrial High School in Birmingham. At the time, Industrial High was an all-Black, segregated school. A.G. Gaston wrote, “When Whatley started at Industrial High (now Parker) there was not one Band instrument there. Whatley carried the cornet with him and started the first music students with his instrument.” Whatley incessantly supported his students, often securing grants to buy them instruments. As a teacher, Whatley often encountered students with innate talents. Whatley’s goal was to refine those talents and turn his students into professional musicians. His slogan was “I did not make you come to the Bandroom, but damn if I am not going to make you learn.”

The Students of John “Fess” Whatley

One of his most successful students, trumpeter Johnny Grimes, learned how to read the “score as is” under Whatley’s instruction. During his time in Birmingham, Grimes was the “undisputed champion of Birmingham trumpet players.” After a stint in the navy, Grimes moved to New York City. He played with the Erskine Hawkins band before the band broke up. Afterwards, he played regularly with the Reuben Phillips Apollo Theater Band. He was a prolific recording artist with trumpet credits on tracks like James Brown’s 1964 Out of Sight sessions.

“Ninety percent of all of ‘Fess’ Whatley’s students received such thorough training until they were able to play any class of music,” A.G. Gaston wrote. “The first group of those trained in the first band was able, after finishing High School, to enter college on part scholarships. After finishing college, they went to the ‘big city’ to join the ‘named bands’ or ‘orchestras.’ Not one of them failed to pass the test when given one.” Whatley trained a generation of Black Birmingham jazz musicians who made their marks on the national jazz scene in the United States. Among other notable students were Murray Harper, a saxophonist who accompanied blues singer Bessie Smith and Odell Williams, a clarinetist and saxophonist who played with Cecil Scott’s band in New York City. Hampton “Hamp” St. Paul Reese III was a student of Whatley and a skilled arranger and composer who worked closely with B.B. King. Alton A. Davenport was the bandmaster at Tuskegee Institute.

One of Whatley’s most commercially successful students was Erskine Hawkins. Whatley formed his own bands of students that he hired out for gig opportunities in Birmingham. Hawkins played trumpet with Whatley’s band. After graduation, Hawkins and other students of Whatley’s attended Alabama State University. With Whatley’s guidance, the group formed the Bama State Collegians. Eventually, they became “Erskine Hawkins and his Orchestra.” These Whatley-trained musicians included Wilbur “Dud” Bascomb, Marcellus Green, and Sammy Lowe on trumpet; Paul Bascomb, Haywood Henry, and Jimmie Mitchell on sax; Avery Parrish on piano; and Robert Range and Edward Sims on trombone.

While he was not the most famous of Whatley’s students, trumpeter and arranger Sammy Lowe was a significant force in Hawkins’s band. Lowe was the first trumpeter for the Erskine Hawkins Band and also served as the band’s arranger. Lowe’s story is one of the easiest of these musicians to trace because of his unpublished autobiography, A Man From Tuxedo Junction (From Jazz to Swing to Rock to Soul): Diary of a Black Musician. Lowe’s account of his early years in Birmingham gives particular insight into the obstacles these young Black musicians faced under the pedagogy of John “Fess” Whatley.

Young Black Musicians in Segregated Birmingham

Sammy Lowe describes his life at home on the other side of the train tracks in Birmingham in a Black neighborhood. He had a happy childhood in a musical family. One of the first instances the reader sees on how segregation influenced Lowe was on November 11, 1927, when Lowe was only nine years old. That day, Birmingham threw an Armistice Day parade and invited school bands from all over the city to participate.

We joined the parade near the city park, in front of what is now the renowned 16th Street Baptist Church. As was the custom in the South at that time, the colored schools brought up the rear. We looked begrudgingly at the white bands with their bright-colored uniforms and shiny instruments as they filed by to start the parade; however, [my classmate] James Harris said aloud, “That’s all right: white folks got everything, but we gonna outplay ’em today!”

Even at such a young age, Lowe and his Black musician friends sensed the injustice, not only of segregation, but of the wealth inequality between Black and white schools in Birmingham. This inequality also manifested itself in the perception of Black musicians by their white patrons.

Lowe recounts one story in his biography of carnivals that came to town with “merry-go rounds, ferris wheels, and prize-winning games,” and often sideshows of “Negro entertainers.” Two of his classmates, James Bascomb and James Harris, picked up jobs as trumpeters in these carnivals in Birmingham. After white carnival-goers had tired of games where they threw small balls at a Black man’s face poking out of a hole in a canvas, they would drift over to a minstrel show, where Bascomb and Harris played while Black girls danced for the white audience. These instances of Black entertainment for whites show the humiliating context of another story a few pages later in Lowe’s biography:

Back in Birmingham, we played for what we thought was a rich white family party… What makes this job stand out in my memory was an incident that happened near closing. “You colored people sure have rhythm. Which one of you is going to dance for us?” asked the lady whom we were playing for. [The other players] as one pointed to me. I couldn’t dance, and they knew it: neither one of us could; but they could always think faster than I. Embarrassed, I blurted out, “I have to have a partner.” All of a sudden I heard, “I’ll dance with you.” It was the lady’s young daughter of about 10. There was a prolonged silence, broken by only the colored maid’s gasp. The young girl stood smiling, unaware of the no-no she had committed. Then the lady quickly changed the subject.

Despite the young musicians’ talents, white patrons saw them as shallow entertainers that would dance on a whim. This was all fun and games until the white daughter offered to participate. White patrons welcomed Black musicians into their homes as second-class citizens and entertainers. Black musicians, despite their talents and skills, were viewed in much the same way as the Black carnival entertainer who white people liked to throw balls at for a prize.

Whatley’s longevity and influence in Birmingham made him a force for good on behalf of his students. In some ways, however, Whatley white-washed the appearance of his Black students to make them more palatable to white audiences. One poster, featuring a photograph of nine Black students in tuxedos and holding their instruments, advertises the services of “Whatley’s Saxo-Soxiety Orchestra of Industrial High School.” The poster boasts that the ensemble is “a real jazz orchestra — but not that ‘ear splitting,’ ‘nerve racking’ kind” and calls them a “neat appearing group of men.” “Music for all occasions,” it advertises, “May we have the pleasure of playing your next affair?” Whatley advertised his students’ services in a way that separated them from common contemporary white perceptions of Black music. In making his Black band of highschoolers more palatable to white audiences, Whatley opened doors for them to integrate into white society — but only as second-class citizens, as Sammy Lowe recounted in his biography.

John “Fess” Whatley gave his students financial freedoms and mobility through musical training, but for one student in particular, this environment would be one reason to reject Birmingham as his origins and re-create his own identity in a particularly out-of-this world way. But, more on that in my next blog.

Apt. 6/8 is the work of Chloe Smith and Anna Williams, who are current graduate students studying musicology at Yale and Arizona State respectively.