Magic City

How the Birmingham Jazz Tradition Shaped the Sound of America

By Burgin Mathews

Magic City

Approx. 352 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 28 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7688-3
    Published: November 2023
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7687-6
    Published: November 2023

Paperback Available November 2023, but pre-order your copy today!

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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.


"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