Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame
Southern Cultural Treasures
Year of Award
Grant or Fellowship
Southern Cultural Treasures
The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame seeks to document, celebrate, and further Alabama’s unique jazz heritage through its museum exhibits and tours, live performances, and educational programs for all ages. The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame provides a vital link between the past and the future of jazz, honoring and preserving the achievements of historic Alabama musicians while empowering new generations to contribute to music’s future. Recognizing the essential connection between music and community, the Hall of Fame strives to educate, entertain, strengthen, and enrich community through the universal language of jazz.
Located in Birmingham’s historic Carver Theatre, this renovated museum and vibrant community institution honors the many great jazz artists with deep roots in the state of Alabama. Since its first induction ceremony in 1978, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame has inducted more than two hundred men and women whose contributions have helped shape both the musical culture of our own state and the larger sound and style of jazz all over the world. Visitors to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame’s Museum can explore the music and legacy of Erskine Hawkins and Tuxedo Junction; the boogie-woogie piano of Clarence “Pine Top” Smith; the teachings and influence of Birmingham’s legendary “Maker of Musicians,” John T. “Fess” Whatley; the internationally renowned achievements of “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy; the spaceways travels of avant-garde pioneer Sun Ra; and much more.
The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame was conceived in 1978 as an effort to honor, preserve, and perpetuate Birmingham’s unique jazz heritage, celebrating its most notable artists while encouraging new generations of younger musicians. Founder J.L. Lowe teamed with the National Black Cultural Society, Richard Arrington, and other civic leaders to organize an annual induction program that would celebrate the city’s jazz legacy and bring attention to Alabama’s larger contributions to the jazz world.
The first induction ceremony, held in October of 1978, honored five of the city’s local jazz heroes: John T. “Fess” Whatley (inducted posthumously), the legendary music educator and bandleader who trained legions of local players for success on the national stage; Erskine Hawkins, Alabama’s most celebrated jazz bandleader, whose “Tuxedo Junction” immortalized a local nightspot; Sammy Lowe, a longtime member of the Hawkins orchestra and a prolific arranger and composer in his own right; Amos Gordon, teacher, saxophonist, conductor and composer, for many years the arranger for Louis Armstrong’s orchestra; Haywood Henry, woodwind virtuoso and another veteran of the Hawkins organization; and Frank Adams, the youngest of the group, another tireless educator and consummate musician whose professional credentials included work with Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and many more. In the years to follow, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame has expanded to honor musicians from across the state, inducting over 245 musicians since its first ceremony.
In its early years, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame made its headquarters in a modest space located on 16th Street North. J.L. Lowe decorated a front room with pictures of Birmingham musicians, taken from a scrapbook compiled years before by his mentor, “Fess” Whatley; in the back rooms, Amos Gordon taught music lessons. In 1993, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame found a permanent home in the newly renovated and expanded Carver Theatre. Located in Birmingham’s Civil Rights District—just a short walk from the Civil Rights Institute, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and Kelly Ingram Park—the newly renovated museum offers visitors a chance to immerse themselves in the state’s rich musical heritage.
Leadership - Leah Tucker
Leah Tucker has gone the distance, — from volunteering at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame to becoming the executive director herself, in 2004.Over the past 18 years she has kept up the momentum, enabling this organization, to serve as a cultural touchstone, sustaining many invaluable programs.
Among Tucker’s accomplishments: expanding the AJHF’s annual Student Jazz Band Festival from one day to three days to attract middle school, high school, and collegiate attendees from across the southeast to play before noted professional adjudicators. A “recycling program” getting donated instruments in the hands of students in need. Developing performances and workshops for highschoolers, managing the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, and guiding the Carver Performing Arts Center, through a $4.3 million renovation. In 2018, she presided over the AJHF’s acquisition of WAJH-FM, the “Voice of Jazz for Alabama,” the area’s only jazz-exclusive nonprofit radio station. Since then, she’s secured additional funding to outfit the newly renovated Carver with a broadcast studio.
In 2020, Tucker was awarded the title of “Jazz Hero” from the Jazz Journalists Association for her continued notable works like, tuition-free jazz lessons for young people, run weekly since 1999, and monthly jam sessions. After her graduate studies, she served on the board of directors for the Selma and Dallas County Arts Council, helping to develop a fledgling arts community in the poorest counties of the state, and assisting with the Selma Bridge Festival to showcase regional talent. She’s been on the strategic planning team for the Alabama School of Fine Arts, designing its curriculum and mission statement. In 2018 she was appointed by the Governor to the Alabama Course of Study for Arts Education, working to build a state-wide curriculum for the public schools, and in 2019 she was elected president of the board of directors for the nonprofit Taste of 4th Ave., Inc., to expand the Fourth Ave. Jazz Festival, launched by the AJHF in 2003.
Southern Cultural Treasures is a program of South Arts and made possible with support from the Ford Foundation.