Fess Whatley

Dublin Core


Fess Whatley


Tuscaloosa County, Birmingham, Erskine Hawkins, Cleve Eaton, Sun Ra, Big Band, Jazz, Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Alabama State University


J.T. "Fess" Whatley (c. 1895 - January 12, 1972)

If Alabama's musical heritage were to have a conductor, a teacher, that person would have to be J.T. “Fess” Whatley. In his tutelage of musicians, first at The Tuggle Institute in Birmingham, of which he was also a graduate, then Industrial High School in Birmingham, Whatley was influential in the careers of many who went on to play with various bands and orchestras, including those of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong. Born John Lewis Whatley sometime around 1895 in rural Tuscaloosa County, Alabama (his exact date of birth is unknown), Whatley’s father moved the family to Birmingham in 1906 so that John and his brother might be able to attend the Tuggle Institute. Originally conceived to give orphaned African-Americans a place to live and learn, the school was eventually opened to all, as racial segregation closed off many public schools to blacks. John’s time at the school greatly influenced him, not only as a student, but as an educator and musician, so much so that he changed his middle name from Lewis to Tuggle. After graduating from the school in 1913, John became its band director in 1913, a position he held until he left in 1917 to teach at Industrial High School. It was here that John picked up the nickname of “Fess,” which was short for “Professor.” Strict in his discipline, he demanded that his music students learn to read music, believing that music was one of the few avenues of success that was open to African-Americans at the time. A former student of his, jazz drummer and Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame inductee Wilson Driver, said that he demanded this of his students, otherwise they couldn’t play in his band. However, as demanding as this seemed, it was also beneficial to the musicians, as Driver said that “When guys would get to New York, they’d say, ‘You from Birmingham? You one of them Fess Whatley men? Yeah? Okay, you can read.’” Whatley’s influence reached beyond the high school at which he taught, helping to establish the ‘Bama State Collegians band at Alabama State Teachers College (now Alabama State University) in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1929, which is still an active jazz orchestra at ASU. Whatley also was an outspoken opponent to segregation and Jim Crow laws, organizing a local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians union in Birmingham in 1939 because blacks were not allowed to join the union because of segregation. In 1969, Whatley witnessed the integration of the chapter he founded with the white chapter already in existence. Whatley’s belief that music was a path to success has been proven correct over the decades since he began his career in music. Former students of Whatley's include trumpeter and band leader Erskine Hawkins, jazz drummer Wilson Driver, jazz pianist Henry Blount, better known as Sun Ra, Cleveland Eaton, bassist for the Ramsey Lewis Trio and the Count Basie Orchestra, and trumpeter Sammy Lowe, just to name a few. All the aforementioned are members of various jazz, blues, and music halls of fame nationwide. Whatley himself was a charter inductee of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1978, and was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1991, joining his former student Erskine Hawkins (1989) as a member, and later joined by former students Cleveland Eaton (2008) and Sun Ra (2014). J.T. “Fess” Whatley died on January 12, 1972, in Birmingham, Alabama.


John Griffin, University of North Alabama


J.T. “Fess” Whatley: Alabama Music Hall of Fame http://alamhof.org/inductees/timeline/1991/j-t-fes-whatley/ Accessed December 5, 2016
Alabama Music Office: Whatley bio http://www.alabamamusicoffice.com/artists-a-z/w/1967-whatley-john-t-fess/ Accessed December 5, 2016
Encyclopedia of Alabama: Whatley bio http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-3240/ Accessed December 5, 2016
Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame: Carrie Tuggle http://www.awhf.org/tuggle.html/ Accessed December 5, 2016
Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame website http://www.jazzhall.com/index.htm/ Accessed December 5, 2016
"Fess Whatley's Saxo Society Orchestra" photo http://www.chipstern.com/chip_tribal_wilson.htm/ Accessed December 9, 2016.

All images courtesy of Mr. George Lair and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, unless otherwise noted.


Alabama Cultural Resource Survey




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