An analysis of the complexities of the growth and influence of Birmingham jazz would be incomplete without some account of the role Birmingham musicians played in the development of the Alabama State Collegians, popularly known as the "Bama State Collegians." During the 1920's, Fess Whatley, music instructor at Birmingham Industrial High School, developed a friendship with Dr. H. Council Trenholm, the President of Alabama State College, a predominantly black institution of higher education located in Montgomery, Alabama. Because of their mutual concern for the education of Alabama youth, many of Whatley's top music students were awarded scholarships to the college. Some of the alumni were Amos Gordon, J.L. Lowe, Erskine Hawkins, Haywood Henry, Dud Bascomb, J.B. Simms, Wilbur Hollins, Jimmy Mitchell, Richard Sanford, Joseph Sanford, among others. The band director of the Collegians during the 1930's was Mr. William Lawrence James. He worked with Dr. Trenholm in recruiting students for the band. With a nucleus of Birmingham musicians, the band program grew and gained a reputation as one of, if not the best, college bands of the era. The positive reputation, along with the high quality of the music program at Alabama State attracted students from all over the country. For example:

  • Curtis Love, saxophonist from California, played in Lionel Hampton's big band.
  • Julian Dash, saxophonist from South Carolina, played in Erskine Hawkins' band along with other bands in New York during the late 1930's and 1940''s.
  • Rheuben Phillips, saxophonist, from Indianapolis, Indiana, became the musical director of the Appollo Theatre in New York City, considered the mecca of Afro-American musical entertainment.

In fact, the jazz band program at Alabama State was so successful and popular that it became necessary to have three bands. The top band was the Bama State Collegians, the second band was the Revellers, and the third band was the Cavaliers. These bands were hired to perform for dances and other affairs for organizations throughout the state.

The proficiency of the Bama State Collegians was so high that during the mid-30s when the college experienced severe financial problems, they were able to generate enough funds to help save the institution from closing permanently. The story goes that President Trenholm gave the school bus and a driver to go on the road to earn money for the college. They were booked for concerts, dances, and other events. Each week after living and traveling expenses were deducted, the remainder of the money earned was forwarded to Dr. Trenholm to help pay bills, salaries, and whatever else that was necessary to keep Alabama State College afloat. It is important in jazz history that a jazz band played a principal role in the continued existence of a major institution of higher education, and that the music had the kind of appeal and acceptance by a wide audience to enable it to raise large sums of money.

During the period 1936-1940, which marked the early years, the personnel of the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra consisted of former members of the Bama State Collegians. The fact that this band was known as one of the best traveling collegiate jazz bands, provided Hawkins with a built in advance promotional asset. With New York City as its headquarters, the band worked the top dance and jazz spots throughout the country. The band's members were outstanding instrumentalists, arrangers, composers, and soloists.

Excerpt from a paper titled  "The Birmingham Jazz Community: The Role and Contributions of Afro-Americans (up to 1940)
by Jothan McKinley Callins

Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame


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