Fess Whatley


The story of Birmingham jazz begins, in many ways, with educator and bandleader John T. "Fess" Whatley, the city's celebrated "Maker of Musicians." The longtime printing instructor at Industrial High School (later renamed Parker High School), Whatley instituted and developed a thriving instrumental music program at the school, adapting Booker T. Washington's philosophy of industrial education to the teaching of music as a professional trade.

Through the swing era and beyond, Whatley's students would populate the bands of Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Dizzy Gillespie, and other nationial bandleaders. Other Whatley students became influential music teachers themselves; directed the band programs at prestigious HBCU's; performed with U. S. Armed Services bands; and developed their own popular regional acts. 


Whatley's own professional dance bands — Whatley's Jazz Demons, Vibra-Cathedral Orchestra, and Sax-o-Society Orchestra — became longtime fixutures of Birmingham's local musical culture, performing regularly from the start of the 1920s into the 1960s. 

The Southern Music Research Center archive includes a wealth of material reflecting Whatley's long and influential career. Our photo collection includes images of Whatley, his student and professional bands, and numerous graduates of the Whatley training. Our newspaper file of Birmingham jazz advertisements (like this one, from 1921) reflects the bandleader's prominent role in the life and culture of his community. In the Frank "Doc" Adams Oral History Collection, one of Whatley's students reflects on the larger-than-life persona of his former teacher. 

Our collections of pamphlets and programs includes two programs from Whatley Elementary School, named for the educator in 1960.

To explore all the Whatley-related material in our archive, use the search bar to search "Fess Whatley."

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Fess Whatley