The following is a guest post by Burgin Mathews, author of Magic City: How the Birmingham Jazz Tradition Shaped the Sound of America which is now available wherever books are sold.
For much of the twentieth century, the city of Birmingham, Alabama, was home to one of American music’s most essential unsung communities, a thriving network of musicians whose lives helped shape the sound and soul of jazz as we know it. Nurtured in the social institutions of the city’s Black middle class, these musicians carved out a distinctive identity, forging an active tradition at home and sending out ripples all over the world. My new book Magic City presents this long-untold story, tracing the music’s journey from Birmingham’s segregated school band rooms, fraternal dancehalls, and traveling tent shows into the nation’s glitziest ballrooms and beyond.
To celebrate the book’s release, I’ve made many of my original research materials available online at the Southern Music Research Center’s digital archive (www.southernmusicresearch.org). My hope is that these materials will serve as an extension of the book, providing visitors a variety of ways to access Birmingham’s jazz history. For this blog post, I’ve outlined many of those resources and I invite readers to click any of the links below to start digging in.
Every good music book needs a soundtrack, so I’ve assembled two hour-long playlists featuring sounds from the book. (There’s a Spotify playlist, too, but for the fuller experience I recommend the Southern Music Research Center soundtrack, which includes brief interview segments and other material not available on Spotify.)
Discover many of the story’s key players in this extensive collection of Birmingham jazz photos.
Previously unissued live recordings, radio broadcasts, and other audio artifacts from the local jazz community. Highlights include pianist Walter Miller (a veteran of the Sun Ra, Ray Charles, and Lionel Hampton bands) broadcasting live from Birmingham’s Joe Bar in 1989; singer Laura Washington (herself a veteran of the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra) performing in the same era at Grundy’s Music Room; and Frank and Dot Adams onstage at the Woodland Club in the 1960s.
I was first introduced to Birmingham’s jazz legacy by the beloved local musician and educator Dr. Frank “Doc” Adams (1928-2014). In 2009 I set out to write an article about Adams’ life in music, but our first interview led to another, then another—and after a year and a half of weekly recorded interviews, we published a book, Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man. Drawing from our mountain of interview transcripts, that book presented Adams’ life story in Adams’ own words; it also set the wheels in motion for Magic City, a broader exploration of Birmingham’s jazz heritage, a project for which Adams remained an essential inspiration and advisor.
It is a special pleasure to make available, now, extensive audio excerpts from my original interviews with Adams, presented in the SMRC’s Frank “Doc” Adams Oral History Collection. In the coming months, I will be adding interviews with additional musicians from the Birmingham jazz community, providing further perspectives on this history.
Chapter Twenty-Two of Magic City presents the story of Birmingham’s Patrick Cather, highlighting Cather’s unlikely efforts—as a white teenager in the heart of the civil rights era South—to document and promote local blues and jazz artists. The SMRC archive includes a special exhibit devoted to Cather’s legacy, featuring several of Cather’s original music publications, previously unissued recordings, and more.
A collection of newspaper advertisements and other clippings from Birmingham’s jazz history reflects a thriving musical culture in the early and mid-twentieth century. Newspaper ads promote frequent appearances by touring national acts as well as performances by the city’s homegrown bandleaders. Of particular interest are this collection’s insights into the early career of Birmingham’s Sonny Blount, the cosmic bandleader-philosopher who later became famous as Sun Ra. Also significant are these advertisements’ reflection of the city’s deep-seated culture of segregation.
Other artifacts and ephemera appear in collections across the archive. The SMRC’s “In Memoriam” Collection of funeral programs and other print tributes celebrates the memory of southern musicians, both unsung and sung—including multiple members of the Birmingham jazz scene. A collection of miscellaneous pamphlets, programs, and magazines includes historic local coverage of Birmingham’s Black nightlife scene; tributes to bandleader John T. “Fess” Whatley; and more. Finally, an introductory Magic City exhibit offers a quick map of these resources, across the archive.
I look forward to adding more material to these collections in the future, in an effort to more fully document and celebrate this extraordinary, influential, and long overlooked music community.
Note: Founded in 2023, the Southern Music Research Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit devoted to the documentation and preservation of the American South’s many diverse forms of musical expression and experience. The real center of the Center is its website, a public archive of rescued recordings, rare photos, oral history interviews, and other music-related artifacts and ephemera. To explore the SMRC’s ever-growing holdings—from Birmingham jazz to old-time fiddlers and state-fair punk, from juke joint blues to flea market hymns—visit www.southernmusicresearch.org.