Established in 1978, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame began with the induction of six charter members. Since then, more than 100 musicians have been honored with Hall of Fame status.
Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame Charter Inductees
In 1978, the newly established Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame inducted its six charter members: Frank E. Adams, Amos Gordon, Erskine Hawkins, Haywood Henry, Sammy Lowe, and (inducted posthumously) John T. “Fess” Whatley. Since that date, over 100 musicians have been inducted.
1978 Charter Inductees
Frank E. Adams, Sr. (1928-2014)
Dr. Frank E. Adams, Sr. – remembered affectionately as “Doc” – received his first, informal musical instruction from his older brother, Oscar Adams, Jr. His formal education began at Lincoln Elementary, where he studied under band director William Wise Handy, and continued at Industrial High School under the direction of John T. “Fess” Whatley. As a teenager, Adams played in Fess Whatley’s professional dance orchestra, as well as in the more experimental group led by Herman “Sonny” Blount, the eccentric and visionary bandleader who would later become famous as Sun Ra.Read More
A gifted soloist on alto sax and clarinet, Adams was both consummate musician and tireless educator, whose influence reached countless local players. A student at Howard University in the late 1940s, Adams performed with the Howard Swingmasters while also picking up work with a wide variety of bands, including the Duke Ellington Orchestra. In 1950 he returned to Birmingham, where he began his long career as an educator in the Birmingham city school system. For five decades Adams served Birmingham City Schools, first as teacher at Lincoln Elementary (he filled the position left by his own mentor, W.W. Handy) and next as the director of the district’s music programs. Adams’s achievements as an educator and community leader include the founding of Birmingham City Schools’ All City Marching Band Festival and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame’s Student Jazz Band Festival, as well as the implementation of a successful system-wide strings program in Birmingham City Schools. In the meantime, Adams continued to create his own music: his own band—fronted by his wife, vocalist “Dot” Adams—performed weekly at the local Woodland Club for 14 years, and Adams was a key member of the Birmingham Heritage Band for over three decades. In 1978, Adams was the youngest of the charter inductees to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. He later served the Hall of Fame as its Executive Director (1997-2001) and he remained active there until his death in 2014, fulfilling a variety of roles: serving as its Director of Education, Emeritus; teaching weekly free lessons; organizing the annual Student Jazz Band Festival; and offering wonderfully intimate tours of the Hall of Fame’s museum.
Adams’s life story is the subject of the book Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, published in 2012 by the University of Alabama Press. For a remembrance of Frank Adams by his collaborator, Burgin Mathews, click here.
John T. “Fess” Whatley (c. 1895-1972)
J.L. Lowe, founder of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, often described the jazz hall as a kind of shrine to “Fess” Whatley, the musical mentor whose influence as educator, bandleader, and community leader proved critical to Birmingham’s unique music history. Born in Tuscaloosa at the close of the 19th century, Whatley’s earliest instruments included a guitar he made from a cigar box and wires. With his father’s hunting horn as a makeshift trumpet, the young Whatley led neighborhood playmates around the block, pretending to be his idol, P.G. Lowery, trumpeter and bandleader with the Ringling Brothers and other circuses.Read More
Whatley attended Tuggle Institute in Birmingham, taken in under the wing of the school’s founder, family friend Carrie Ann Tuggle (later Whatley would himself adopt the middle name of Tuggle, in honor of “Granny Tuggle” and her husband, John). At the school, Whatley received instruction from Sam B. “High C” Foster, in the meantime gaining his first professional experience playing locally with another family friend and mentor, Ivory Williams.
In 1917, Whatley joined the faculty at Industrial (later Parker) High School, and until his retirement from that school in 1963 he taught countless musicians, many of whom went on to careers as professional musicians. Though his primary position at the school was as its printing instructor, Whatley also developed the school’s highly successful band program, leading students in concert, parade, and dance bands. In 1923 he organized the city’s first dance orchestra, the Jazz Demons, a group made up of Whatley’s own former and current students. In its later incarnations—as the Sax-o-Society Orchestra and the Vibra-Cathedral Orhcestra—Whatley’s group became the most sought-after band in Birmingham, performing for black and white audiences alike in a constant stream of engagements.
Legendary as a strict and uncompromising disciplinarian, Whatley ingrained in his players the virtues of punctuality, professionalism, and musical precision: he was known to strike with a paddle or stick students who blew a wrong note in practice, and he fined his players for any number of infractions, from arriving late to eating peanuts in the car. Above all Whatley emphasized the reading of music, insisting his players understand musical notation and stick closely to the printed score. As the big band tradition developed, Whatley’s emphasis on reading proved beneficial: because the larger bands required written arrangements, Whatley-trained musicians had a distinct advantage over players unable to read the score. Though he himself remained in Birmingham, Whatley gained the reputation across the country as the producer of first-rate, reliable, musically literate musicians, and among the nation’s leading bandleaders Birmingham, synonymous with the Whatley training, became a dependable resource for outstanding sidemen. In the heyday of the big bands, Whatley musicians populated the orchestras of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, and others. Similarly, during World War II, the nation’s Army, Navy, and Air Force bands drew steadily from Whatley musicians. In addition to his influence as an educator and a bandleader, Whatley helped shape the region’s musical culture in other ways. With his own mentor, Ivory “Pop” Williams, he founded the state’s first musicians union for blacks, and he was a leader, nationally, in the American Federation of Musicians.
Late in his life, Whatley began to receive some attention for his impact on music. In 1960, Whatley Elementary School was named in his honor. Whatley’s retirement from Parker High School in 1963 was met with accolades from musicians across the country, Birmingham-bred players who had been groomed under Whatley. In 1966, Jazz Monthly magazine heralded Whatley as the “maker of musicians” whose role in jazz history had gone unappreciated by listeners and historians. A scrapbook Whatley compiled, documenting the musicians he’d taught, became the basis of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame’s archive and museum. Six years after his death in 1972, Whatley was inducted posthumously into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame’s inaugural class.