Whatley, John Fess John Tuggle “Fess” Whatley (c. 1895–1972) was one of the most influential and well-known educators in American jazz music during the 1920s and 1930s. Teaching primarily in the Birmingham, Jefferson County, area, Whatley served as a mentor for generations of music students. An accomplished trumpeter, arranger, and bandleader, Whatley made Birmingham a notable tour stop for groups looking to hire well-trained and professional musicians.
John Lewis Whatley was born in rural Tuscaloosa County. One of seven siblings of Samuel and Lucy Whatley, John’s early interest in music was sparked by the sounds of the Ringling Bros. Circus band and by his father’s hunting horn, the instrument used to give signals during hunts. In 1906, the Whatley family moved to Birmingham so that John and his brother Edward could attend the Tuggle Normal and Industrial Institute in Enon Ridge.
The Tuggle Institute was originally conceived by John and Carrie A. Tuggle as a school and residence to teach printing, woodworking, and other industrial arts to African American orphans and youthful offenders. It was later expanded and opened to all African Americans because most public schools were closed to blacks during the Jim Crow era. Sometime between 1905 and 1910, Carrie Tuggle hired trumpeter Sam “High C” Foster to start a band program. One of the first instrumental music programs for African Americans in the Birmingham area, Foster’s curriculum provided students with the opportunity for formal musical training, and over the next few years, as the reputation of Foster’s program grew, it attracted students throughout the state, including Whatley. While at the institute, Whatley studied printing, plumbing, and electrical engineering and learned to read music; according to archival materials, he sold scrap iron to buy his first trumpet. Originally born John Lewis, Whatley later changed his middle name to Tuggle in honor of Carrie’s husband, John. After graduating from the institute in 1913, Whatley replaced Foster as the bandmaster, a position he held for approximately four years. Two years later, Whatley married his childhood sweetheart, Alice Daniels.
In 1917, Whatley left the institute to teach printmaking at Birmingham’s Industrial High School (present-day A. H. Parker High School). In addition to his duties as a printing teacher, Whatley organized and directed several extracurricular music ensembles, including a parade band, a concert band, and later a dance band. It was during his early teaching career that he became known as “Fess,” which was short for “Professor.” Whatley was a strict disciplinarian and demanding bandleader who required his students to read music fluently, regardless of style. In doing so, he created one of the finest band programs to be found at any school within the region and established his reputation as an important music educator.
Whatley formed Birmingham’s first African American dance orchestra, The Jazz Demons, in 1922. Consisting mostly of current and former students, Whatley’s ensemble travelled throughout the country performing at both African American and white social events. In 1925, in an attempt to keep up with the ever-changing sound of jazz, Whatley formed the Sax-o-Society Orchestra. Featuring an expanded horn section, the ensemble was considered the epitome of the 1920s big band sound; the group was renamed the Vibra-Cathedral Orchestra in the mid-to-late 1930s.
Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame Museum Exhibit Whatley strongly believed that music could be the path to success for African Americans. At the request of Harper Councill Trenholm, president of Alabama State Teachers College in Montgomery (present-day Alabama State University), Whatley and fellow music educator and bandleader Len Bowden helped a student at the college, Paul Bascomb, establish the ‘Bama State Collegians band in 1929. A friend of Trenholm, Whatley encouraged many of his students to attend Alabama State and apply for scholarships. (Although Whatley’s obituary states he attended ASU, archival materials fail to corroborate that claim.) Led by such notable musicians and Whatley protégés as Tommy Stewart and Erskine Hawkins, the ‘Bama State Collegians toured extensively and quickly gained a reputation as one of the finest college jazz bands in the country. Considered better than the other two Alabama State bands—the Revellers and the Cavaliers—the Collegians attracted students from throughout the United States. In addition to providing numerous performance opportunities for young and talented musicians, the music program at Alabama State was also one of the first college programs to offer members of the jazz band academic course credit.
Whatley also became known as “the maker of musicians” and “the dean of Birmingham jazz.” Many of his pupils at Industrial High School went on to form their own ensembles and perform with some of the leading big bands of the 1920s and 1930s, including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith. Among his famous students were Herman Blount (Sun Ra), Sammy Lowe, Cleveland Eaton, James L. Lowe, Herman Grimes, Murray Harper, C. Julian Parrish, Walter H. Blythe, Wilson Driver, J. B. Sims, and Edward A. Brown.
During an era of harsh segregationist policies and practices, Whatley was an outspoken critic of Jim Crow laws. In 1939, Whatley addressed the delegates at the 44th Annual Convention of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) in Kansas City, Missouri. He informed them that members of his band were not allowed to join the musicians’ union in Birmingham simply because of the color of their skin. After the convention, Whatley organized a local chapter of the AFM for black musicians, Local 733, which later merged with the white union in 1969.
In tribute to Whatley’s 45 years of dedicated service as a music educator in the Birmingham area, the John T. Whatley K-8 School opened in the North Avondale Community in 1960. In 1962, Whatley received the Distinguished Service Award from Miles College in Fairfield, Jefferson County, and in 1963, he retired from teaching at A. H. Parker High School (renamed from Birmingham Industrial High School in 1939). A year later, Whatley received a Citation of Merit from the Alabama State Teachers Association for his service as an educator. Whatley died on January 12, 1972, and was buried in New Grace Hill Cemetery in Birmingham. In 1978, he was inducted as a charter member of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and in 1991 was the recipient of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame’s Lifework Award for Non-Performing Achievement.
The Birmingham Public Library houses the John T. Whatley Scrapbook, which includes many documents and archival materials related to the life and career of Whatley and his students. Although no recordings of Whatley’s bands are known to exist, his legacy lives on through the great contributions he made to music education and American jazz music.
Callins, Jothan McKinley. “The Birmingham Jazz Community: the Role and Contributions of Afro-Americans (up to 1940).” M.A. thesis, University of Pittsburgh, 1982.
Demusy, Bertrand. “John Tuggle ‘Fess’ Whatley: A Maker of Musicians.” Jazz Monthly 12 (May 1966): 6-9.
Fernett, Gene. Swing Out: Great Negro Dance Bands. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 1993.
John T. “Fess” Whatley Scrapbook, Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts, Birmingham, Alabama.
Szwed, John F. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 1998.