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.
1978 Charter Inductees
Frank E. Adams, Sr.
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.
Amos Gordon received his first saxophone at the age of thirteen, a birthday gift from his mother. He studied music under Lincoln Elementary’s Benjamin Smith and Industrial High School’s “Fess” Whatley, performing also in Whatley’s Vibra-Cathedral Orchestra, then Birmingham’s leading dance band. As a student at Alabama State Teachers College, Gordon became the newest leader of the celebrated ‘Bama State Collegians (that group’s original line-up had just relocated to New York City, turning professional as the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra). Upon graduation from Alabama State, Gordon returned to Birmingham to lead the band and teach social studies at Tuggle Elementary. World War II, however, would cut his time there short: on his first day of work—September 1, 1939—the news came that Hitler had invaded Poland. In 1943 Gordon was drafted and assigned to the 313th Army Air Force Band at Tuskegee Air Base.Read More
As a member, also, of the Air Force’s Imperial Wings of Rhythm, Gordon entertained troops and officers throughout the wartime. In that capacity he was able to back such major figures as Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne; his reputation grew among bandleaders, and upon his discharge in 1946 he joined Louis Armstrong’s big band, serving as the group’s arranger. His stint with the Armstrong orchestra included his appearance in the feature film, New Orleans, starring, among others, Armstrong and Billie Holiday.
Gordon’s career as a sideman also included work with the Lucky Millinder and Andy Kirk orchestras, two popular groups of the day; by 1948, however, Gordon had tired of the grueling life of the road musician, and that year he returned to Birmingham for good, settling into his long career as an educator. One of the region’s most influential music teachers, Gordon (nicknamed “Flash” by his students) taught first at Councill School before making his greatest mark in the band room at Jackson Olin High School, where he taught for 23 years.
In 1976, Gordon became arranger and conductor of the Birmingham Heritage Band, an “all-star” group of local talent, designed to represent and continue the city’s rich jazz legacy. For many years, Gordon also taught new generations of players, offering free lessons from the back room of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame’s modest, earliest office on 17th Street North. Gordon’s work as a musician, arranger, and teacher continued until his death.
Nicknamed the “Twentieth Century Gabriel” for his exuberant, high-note hitting trumpet style, Erskine Hawkins led one of the longest running and most popular dance bands of the swing era. The house band for many years at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra recorded and broadcast extensively and, between New York residencies, toured the country in long strings of widely acclaimed one-night stands. The group’s signature theme, “Tuxedo Junction,” took its name from the spot in Ensley, Alabama, just outside of Birmingham, where Hawkins and other members of the group had gained some of their first professional playing experience. The song, covered by Glenn Miller and many others, became an anthem of the World War II years and remains an enduring piece of Birmingham’s unique jazz heritage.Read More
Hawkins received his first musical instruction at Birmingham’s Tuggle Institute, studying under Sam “High C” Foster, whose impressive facility with the high notes proved influential in the development of Hawkins’ own style. Hawkins started out on drums and worked his way through a number of instruments before settling, like his teacher, on the trumpet. At Alabama State Teachers College in Montgomery, Hawkins became a leader in the college’s popular ‘Bama State Collegians, a band consisting primarily of Birmingham musicians. In the years of the Great Depression, the Collegians traveled the South and beyond, raising crucial money for the financially struggling school. In 1934 the group landed in New York and—swayed by the enthusiastic reception of audiences, venue owners, and older musicians—decided to stay: turning professional, the ‘Bama State Collegians became the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, with their high-note trumpeter at the helm.
Most of the group’s musicians had played together since college, some since elementary and high school, and the resulting bond gave the group its unique family feeling, a deep-rooted sense of loyalty among its players. Members included Hawkins, Dud Bascomb, and Sammy Lowe on trumpet; Paul Bascomb and Julian Dash on tenor sax; Haywood Henry on baritone; and Avery Parrish, piano. The band held together from swing music’s heyday through its declining years; Hawkins finally broke the band down in the early 1950s, though the group reconnected in later years for occasional reunions. In 1967 Hawkins, as leader of a small combo, took up a residency at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills, where he remained for more than two decades. He returned frequently to Birmingham in his later years, hailed as a hometown hero in annual birthday celebrations held in his honor.
A longtime member of the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, Hawood Henry was one of the big band era’s most outstanding, if often overlooked, baritone sax players. A student of Benjamin Jones at Lincoln Elementary and of “Fess” Whatley at Industrial High School, Henry enrolled at Alabama Teachers College in 1930, joining first that college’s ‘Bama State Revelers and then its premier orchestra, the ‘Bama State Collegians. Henry left Alabama State before graduation, joining the musical entourage of evangelist George Wilson Becton, touring with Becton’s “Gospel Feast” revival and settling in New York City. When his former bandmates from ‘Bama State arrived in the city he rejoined the group, which recreated itself as the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra—soon becoming one of the most popular dance groups of the swing era.Read More
Henry was an adept and distinctive soloist on the baritone sax, an instrument usually relegated to the margins of jazz. Besides his extensive work with Hawkins, Henry worked on occasion with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, filling in for Ellington’s own celebrated baritone player, Harry Carney. Following his long tenure with the Hawkins orchestra, Henry continued to perform prolifically, if often anonymously: throughout the 1950s and ‘60s he appeared, often uncredited, on well over a thousand rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll records, and he played for such Braodway shows as Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Annie, Get Your Gun. A solo album¬ released in 1983 revealed Henry’s ability to hold his own, center stage; the album’s title, The Gentle Monster, reflected the combination of grace and power which had long been a trademark of Henry’s sound.
Throughout his long tenure with the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, trumpeter, composer, and arranger Sammy Lowe proved a key architect of that group’s sound; as the big band era waned, Lowe made the transition to rock and roll and rhythm and blues with enormous success, arranging numerous popular hits for a wide range of acts. His earliest performance experience came in grammar school, as a member—with brother J.L. and sister Leatha—of the Lowe Family Band, a homegrown dance “orchestra” charging its dancers 25 cents a piece.Read More
His passion for writing and arranging began one rainy day at Industrial High School, when band director George Hudson taught the students about chords; barely a teenager, he began writing prolifically, often selling his arrangements to “Fess” Whatley for a couple of dollars a piece. Lowe played in Whatley’s band and in the Black and Tan Syncopaters, a group composed of young Birmingham players. With Birmingham brothers Paul and Dud Bascomb, he toured with bandleader Jean Calloway, gaining his first experience on the road.
While most members of the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra had been students and band mates together at Alabama State, Lowe attended Tennessee State College instead, arranging and touring with the Tennessee State Collegians on a music scholarship. In 1935, before the end of his first year at the school, he received an invitation from New York to join his friends in the Hawkins band. In the years that followed, he arranged many of the group’s most popular songs. Years after Hawkins broke down his big band, Lowe organized reunions of the group, one of which resulted in a 1971 album that brought together most of the original members. Lowe’s work in the popular field included arrangements for James Brown’s (“It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and others), Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, the Platters, and many more. Lowe’s final years were spent in Birmingham, where he was active as arranger and conductor for the Birmingham Heritage Band, collaborating with Amos Gordon the create the group’s fitting anthem: “Birmingham Is My Home.”
John T. “Fess” Whatley
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.