Jazz, Blues & Nightlife in Birmingham’s Tuxedo Junction

The Bama Street Collegians led by Erskine Hawkins got their start performing at Tuxedo Junction before hitting it big in New York City. Photo courtesy of Birmingham Public Library.

The Magic City is home to countless cultural influences that contribute to our city’s vibrant culture. In the 1920s and 1930s, Tuxedo Junction stood within the Ensley neighborhood. Its dance halls brimmed with the latest jazz music and dances—including the Jive Dance which originated there.

By night it was the heart of the black community’s social paradise, and it will always be immortalized by Erskine Hawkins’ famous jazz tune “Tuxedo Junction”.

So what was the nightlife like?🌃

Downtown Ensley during the time of Tuxedo Junction’s glory days. Photo courtesy of Alabama Heritage.

Settled between two busy streetcar lines, Tuxedo Junction was conveniently located for those who worked around the community at the ironworks, steel mills, and lumber mills to get together after a long day’s work. Locals simply referred to it as “The Junction”.

During this time, The Junction was the black community’s only scene for live music, dancing, shopping, and the most savory food in Birmingham. As its popularity continued to thrive, it became the city’s hotspot as club-goers would dress to the nines to dance the night away in their suits and sparkly dresses.

Jazzy in The Junction 🎷🎼

A landmark located in Ensley at the building of what was the most happening nightclub in Tuxedo Junction’s heyday. Photo by Grace Howe.

The whole district was filled with locals’ favorite eats including fried chicken wings, burgers, pig ear sandwiches, red beans and neck bones, and chitterlings.  

The second floor of the Belcher-Nixon building located in Ensley was the dance hall and center of all The Junction happenings. Many talented performers hailing from Birmingham got their beginnings by entertaining there.

Among these was the acclaimed musician and performer Erskine Hawkins. In 1939, Hawkins released the Birmingham favorite “Tuxedo Junction” in honor of his hometown. He writes about the magical place that he can count on to raise his spirits, where he can lose himself by dancing the jive all night to his favorite jazz.

“Way down South, in Birmingham

I mean South, in Alabam’

‘Ans old place

Where people go to dance the night away

They all drive or walk for miles

To get blues – that southern style,

So blue – it’ll make you want to dance the night away

Tuxedo Junction – where I want to be”

Erskine Hawkins, Tuxedo Junction

Following its original release, the tune has been covered by many artists throughout the years and helped launch the careers of household names like Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King & Nat King Cole! Listen to Hawkins’ original version here:

The Junction Today

Nixon Building

The Nixon building is shown above. It’s second floor once held the dance hall, a hotspot for all the jazz and jiving within The Junction.

As the scene died down, the majority of the area was demolished in the 1950s for an urban renewal project. A housing community was then constructed to become what is now Tuxedo Terrace. What remains within the Junction is one final standing structure, the Nixon building. It serves as a landmark of what used to be a cultural epicenter for the city’s black community.

The jazzy festivities continue to fill the streets each year. In 1985, residents of Ensley decided to celebrate the culture of Tuxedo Junction by creating the annual Tuxedo Function in the Junction Jazz Festival. Hawkins’ attended each celebration until his death in 1993. The festival continues and it is the longest-running music festival in Birmingham, reminding the community of its vibrant roots.

Now Birmingham, what are your favorite historical spots around the city? Tag us on social @bhamnow and let us know!