Beginnings: An Excerpt From “Magic City”

The following is an excerpt from Magic City: How the Birmingham Jazz Tradition Shaped the Sound of America by Burgin Mathews, available now wherever books are sold.

Magic City is the story of one of American music’s essential unsung places: Birmingham, Alabama, birthplace of a distinctive and influential jazz heritage. Blending deep archival research and original interviews with living elders of the Birmingham scene, Mathews elevates the stories of figures like John T. “Fess” Whatley, the pioneering teacher-bandleader who emphasized instrumental training as a means of upward mobility and community pride.


The city of Birmingham seemed to erupt out of nowhere, an industrial boomtown in the depths of the agrarian South. It began as a monument to what was called the New South, a region refashioned in the wake of civil war to better meet the needs of the future. To the city’s founders, its potential seemed limitless. Jones Valley, where Birmingham was built, was uniquely equipped for the new economy: the region boasted rich deposits of limestone, iron ore, and coal, the three ingredients essential to the making of steel. The arrival in 1870 of two intersecting railroad lines made the spot ripe for development, and a year later, the city incorporated. Migrant laborers, Black and white, arrived to fill the new steel mills and mines. The population swelled. Touting this sudden, remarkable growth, local boosters declared the place the “Magic City.”

Central to all this growth was the influx of African Americans from all over the state. In 1870, Birmingham’s Jefferson County was home to 2,500 Black residents, roughly 20 percent of the total population. By 1900, the number had shot to 56,917, some 40 percent of the county’s inhabitants. Birmingham and the smaller mining and mill communities that grew up around it drew a new class of laborers who exchanged grueling and dangerous work for the lowest possible wages. Years later, Jothan Callins would describe the contributions of Birmingham’s Black workers to the city’s earliest development: “They wielded axes, sledge hammers, spades, hoes, shucked and husked, loaded and unloaded ships, rowed boats, dug ditches, lined railroad tracks, picked crops, poured steel, and mined the ore.” They raised families and put down roots. In the new century they would build their own businesses, banks, social clubs, churches, and schools.

The population swelled. Touting this sudden, remarkable growth, local boosters declared the place the “Magic City.”

They also made music. Out of Birmingham’s Black community emerged a rich tradition of musicianship and, in the century to come, a powerful jazz heritage. In the dance halls and the schools, in stage shows and street parades, Birmingham musicians would help shape the culture of the city. And all over the country, in big bands and nightclubs, over the airwaves and on records, they would help shape the world of jazz.

From the beginning, there was money in Birmingham for hardworking musicians, a living sometimes more substantial than could be eked out of the plants, mills, and mines. The city’s earliest musicians, Black and white, found employment in a nightlife culture well known for its lawlessness. On Second Avenue North, around Fifteenth and Sixteenth Streets, was the Scratch Ankle District, home to gambling houses and boardinghouses, crowded bordellos and raucous saloons. A culture of drink, gambling, dance, and sex thrived in places whose names made a poetry of vice: the Rabbit’s Foot Saloon, the Slide-Off, the Hole in the Wall, the Bucket of Blood, Bear Mash, Dry Branch, Buzzard’s Roost, Pigeon’s Roost, the Big Four, the Gambribrus. Segregation did not yet dictate all arenas of social life in Birmingham; Black and white workers intermingled, after their shifts, in many of the city’s dives. Music was always in demand. A solo player might pound the piano, strum a guitar, saw a fiddle, or pick the banjo. A cappella vocal groups harmonized on pop songs. There were string bands and brass bands and little combos made up of whatever instruments were available: a cornet and a drum, perhaps, or a mandolin, string bass, and rusted trombone. Musicians played a mix of sounds: marching band staples, parlor songs, country dance tunes, and the earliest blues. Popular by the turn of the century were pianists and combos steeped in the new sensation of ragtime, the syncopated dance sound that prefigured the growth of jazz.

Out of Birmingham’s Black community emerged a rich tradition of musicianship and, in the century to come, a powerful jazz heritage.

Vaudeville singer and comedian Coot Grant grew up in one of Birmingham’s honky-tonks; her father ran the place, and it left its stamp on her memory. “I guess I was kind of smart for my age,” she said, “because when I was eight years old—that would be 1901—I had already cut a peephole in the wall so I could watch the dancers in the back room. . . . They did everything,” Grant said of her father’s customers, recalling the dances of the day: “I remember the Slow Drag, of course, that was very popular—hanging on each other and just barely moving. Then they did the Fanny Bump, Buzzard Lope, Fish Tail, Eagle Rock, Itch, Shimmy, Squat, Grind, Mooche, Funky Butt, and a million others. And I watched and imitated all of them.” One dancer stood out in Grant’s memory, six decades later: “a tall, powerful woman” named Sue “who worked in the mills pulling coke from a furnace—a man’s job. . . . When Sue arrived at my father’s tonk, people would yell ‘Here come Big Sue! Do the Funky Butt, Baby!’ As soon as she got high and happy, that’s what she’d do, pulling up her skirts and grinding her rear end like an alligator crawling up a bank.”

Later generations of Birmingham musicians would hone their crafts in venues more refined—by the 1920s the city’s jazz scene would be shaped by the genteel soirees of the social elite—but in Birmingham’s earliest years, musicians found work where they could. In the late 1880s, the “Magic City” earned a less congratulatory nickname, “Bad Birmingham,” and by the turn of the century it could claim a higher murder rate than any American city its size. Local reformers and churches railed against the saloons, where prostitution, crime, and deadly violence flourished. Certainly, the mixing of the races, both socially and sexually, confirmed for many whites the undesirability of the spots. More than once, music was caught up in debates over the city’s reform. At least one group of reformers argued, unsuccessfully, for outlawing music in the saloons. Cutting the “social feature” from these places, they hoped, would make them less-appealing destinations: simply abolish entertainment, and the drinking and crime would dry up, too. On one occasion, the Anti-Saloon League held a downtown parade in its push for Prohibition. The leaguers hired a ragtime band for the event, but opponents of Prohibition also showed up with a band of their own, and the two groups squared off in the street, each side doing its best to drown out the other.

The papers failed to record which band outplayed which, the temperance group’s or the drinkers’. But the saloons stayed open.