Jaybird Coleman was a popular country blues harmonica player, guitarist, and vocalist. He played throughout Alabama and recorded numerous sides during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Coleman was born ‘Burl C. Coleman’ on May 20, 1896, and grew up in a family of sharecroppers in Alabama. At the age of 12, he began teaching himself how to play the harmonica. His parents encouraged him to hone his skill in hopes of keeping him from falling into the life of hard physical work. He often performed for dance halls and parties were to make some money.
In 1914, he joined the Army and was stationed at Fort McClellan. While serving in the Army, Coleman developed quite the reputation for being stubborn and often defiant to the Army’s strict code of conduct. He quickly earned the nickname ‘Jaybird’ which stayed with him for the rest of his life.
After serving his time in the Army, Coleman returned to Gainesville for a short while but eventually relocated along with his younger brother, Joe, to Bessemer, Alabama, where he started work as a full-time musician.
By 1922, Coleman was performing with guitarist Big Joe Williams in tours across Alabama. He traveled for two years with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, a popular tent show that made appearances throughout the South.
After returning to Bessemer, Coleman met and married a popular local singer, the two supported themselves traveling and performing as a duo. By 1926, he was recording with Black Patti Records and Gennett Records. In the 1930s, Coleman was loosely associated with the Birmingham Jug Band, a group he helped form, and recorded with them in sessions for OKeh Records and Columbia Records. In 1930, he recorded “Coffee Grinder Blues” for Columbia. Jaybird Coleman died on January 28, 1950.
Harmonicas, Harps and Heavy Breathers: The Evolution of the People’s Instrument
by Kim Field