Magic City

How the Birmingham Jazz Tradition Shaped the Sound of America

By Burgin Mathews

352 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 29 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7688-3
    Published: November 2023
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7687-6
    Published: November 2023
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7689-0
    Published: November 2023

American Music: New Roots

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Magic City is the story of one of American music's essential unsung places: Birmingham, Alabama, birthplace of a distinctive and influential jazz heritage. In a telling replete with colorful characters, iconic artists, and unheralded masters, Burgin Mathews reveals how Birmingham was the cradle and training ground for such luminaries as big band leader Erskine Hawkins, cosmic outsider Sun Ra, and a long list of sidemen, soloists, and arrangers. He also celebrates the contributions of local educators, club owners, and civic leaders who nurtured a vital culture of Black expression in one of the country's most notoriously segregated cities. In Birmingham, jazz was more than entertainment: long before the city emerged as a focal point in the national civil rights movement, its homegrown jazz heroes helped set the stage, crafting a unique tradition of independence, innovation, achievement, and empowerment.

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. Along the way, he takes readers into the high school band rooms, fraternal ballrooms, vaudeville houses, and circus tent shows that shaped a musical movement, revealing a community of players whose influence spread throughout the world.

About the Author

Burgin Mathews is a writer, a radio host, and the founding director of the nonprofit Southern Music Research Center.
For more information about Burgin Mathews, visit the Author Page.


"Fascinating and rewarding."—Jazz Journal

"An indispensable source for jazz aficionados and anyone interested in Birmingham history."—Alabama Writers’ Forum

"Magic City is impressively researched and gracefully written by an author who clearly loves his topic. . . . [It] will be of interest to readers hoping to learn more about jazz and the wider history of music in America, but also readers who want to learn more about the communities and individuals who made Black Birmingham a vibrant and innovative place."—BirminghamWatch

"A fascinating history."—WICN

"Magic City is destined to become a crucial book in jazz history, African American cultural politics, the sonic geographies of cities, and the history of the South."—Charles L. Hughes, author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South

"Birmingham, Alabama may seem an unlikely cradle of jazz. And yet Sun Ra was born there, and music teacher John T. "Fess" Whatley trained generations of Birmingham musicians who went on to make enormous contributions working alongside the likes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and more. Magic City tells an essential story of American music."--David Menconi, author of Oh, Didn't They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music