Bama State Collegians
The Bama State Collegians is a college jazz orchestra based at Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama. This well known ensemble has a rich and impressive history, and played an important role in the history of jazz in Alabama.
A look at the development of jazz in Birmingham would be incomplete without recognizing the role which Birmingham musicians played in the development of the Alabama State Collegians, popularly known as the "Bama State Collegians." During the 1920's, Mr. Fess Whatley, music instructor at Birmingham Industrial High School, was instrumental in obtaining scholarships for many of his outstanding music students, through his relationship with Dr. H. Council Trenholm, the President of Alabama State College, a predominantly black institution of higher education located in Montgomery, Alabama. Birmingham students who received scolarships included Amos Gordon, J. L. Lowe, Erskine Hawkins, Haywood Henry, Dud Bascomb, J.B. Simms, Wilbur Hollins, Jimmy Mitchell, Richard Sanford and Joseph Sanford, among others. Mr. William Lawrence James, director of the Collegians during the 1930's, worked with Dr. Trenholm in recruiting students for the band. Birmingham musicians formed the neucleus of the band, and the band gained a reputation as one of, if not the best, college bands of the era.
National reputation of the Collegians
The reputation of the Collegians, coupled with the high quality of the music program at Alabama State, attracted students from all over the country. For example:
- Curtis Love, saxophonist from California, played in Lionel Hampton's big band.
- Julian Dash, saxophonist from South Carolina, played in Erskine Hawkins' band along with other bands in New York during the late 1930's and 1940s.
- Rheuben Phillips, saxophonist, from Indianapolis, Indiana, became the musical director of the Appollo Theatre in New York City, considered the mecca of Afro-American musical entertainment.
The jazz band program at Alabama State, in fact, became so successful and popular that it was necessary to have three bands: 1) The Bama State Collegians (the top band), 2) The Revellers (the second band), and 3) The Cavaliers (not to be confused with the Cavaliers dance band at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa). These bands performed for dances and other affairs for organizations throughout the state.
During the mid-30s, when the college experienced severe financial problems, these bands were able to generate enough funds to help save the institution from closing permanently. They played concerts, dances, and other events. Each week after living and traveling expenses were deducted, the remainder of the money earned was forwarded to Dr. Trenholm to help pay bills, salaries, and whatever else that was necessary to keep Alabama State College afloat. It is important in jazz history that a jazz band played a principal role in the continued existence of a major institution of higher education, and that the music had the kind of appeal and acceptance by a wide audience to enable it to raise large sums of money.
One of the most famous directors of the Bama State Collegians was noted trumpeter Erskine Hawkins from Birmingham. During the period 1936-1940, the personnel of the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra consisted of former members of the Bama State Collegians. The Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, headquartered in New York City, worked the top dance and jazz spots throughout the country. The band's members were outstanding instrumentalists, arrangers, composers, and soloists.
- "The Birmingham Jazz Community: The Role and Contributions of Afro-Americans (up to 1940)"
by Jothan McKinley Callins