Oklahoma's Jazz and Juke Joint History
Enjoy the sights and sounds of Oklahoma's rich rhythm and blues culture and discover the Sooner State's history as a jazz mecca.
|Photo: Angela Fetty|
Oklahoma has a rich African American music culture that has nurtured both rhythm and blues greats and legendary jazz pioneers. Visit the former haunts of these musical giants and revel in the places where famous artists such as Charlie Christian, Jimmy Rushing and the Oklahoma City Blue Devils let loose.
The Deep Deuce area of Oklahoma City carries tremendous historical significance as a metropolitan center for jazz music and African American culture and commerce. In the 1940s, Deep Deuce was one of the largest African American neighborhoods in Oklahoma City, and was home to legendary jazz musicians such as Charlie Christian and Jimmy Rushing. The area also welcomed timeless performers such as Billie Holiday, Jackie Robinson and Nat King Cole during its heyday.
Jimmy Rushing, a popular blues shouter and swing jazz singer from Oklahoma City, performed lead vocals for Walter Page’s Blue Devils, the Bennie Moten Band and the Count Basie Orchestra from the 1920s to 1950s throughout Deep Deuce. Today, Oklahoma City’s Deep Deuce Grill operates in a two-story brick structure built by Jimmy Rushing’s father, Andrew, in the early 1900s. Stop in for lunch or dinner and hang around for dancing or a game of pool in one of the neighborhood’s original buildings.
Another Deep Deuce resident, guitar great Charlie Christian, spent countless hours perfecting his musical skills on the street corners and commercial establishments in the Deep Deuce area. Make sure to stop at WSKY Lounge, housed in a historical building where Charlie Christian cut a rug and elevated the electric guitar to a respected jazz-era solo instrument. Relax and have a cocktail while listening to local jazz musicians emulate Christian’s legacy. Another haunt of Charlie’s was Ruby’s Grill, a historic live music venue that attracted a variety of jazz greats from Oklahoma City and beyond. Today, visitors will find Urban Roots where Ruby’s once stood. This communal art space and restaurant serves a jazz brunch on the first Sunday of each month.
The Deep Deuce area is adjacent to Oklahoma City's Bricktown Entertainment District with a wide variety of restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. While in the Bricktown area, head to the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark where six History of Bricktown mosaic murals can be found including one dedicated to the historic Deep Deuce area and Charlie Christian. Visit the American Banjo Museum in Bricktown to trace the history of the banjo from its introduction to America by African slaves to its jazz heyday in the 1920s and 30s, and stop at Jazmoz’s Bourbon Street Café at night for live jazz and tasty Cajun cuisine along the canal.
Tulsa’s Greenwood District, once a hotbed for jazz and blues, is known as the site where Count Basie first encountered big-band jazz.
Greenwood Historical District
Tulsa’s Greenwood District, once a hotbed for jazz and blues, is known as the site where Count Basie first encountered big-band jazz. From the early 1900s through the 1940s, North Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa was known as “Black Wall Street,” since the African American community that lived there developed a profoundly successful and enviable infrastructure along the avenue. Prior to 1921, the 36-square-block area encompassed hundreds of businesses and approximately 11,000 people. There were 21 churches, 212 restaurants, two movie theaters and more than 400 businesses, including a variety of jazz clubs, in north Tulsa at that time.
The main thoroughfare was Greenwood Avenue, which was intersected by Archer and Pine Streets. The famous Tulsa R&B group The GAP Band actually took its name from the famous Greenwood, Archer and Pine intersection, using the first letters in each of the street names as inspiration. After the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 destroyed much of the district, the community rebuilt. Today, the Greenwood Historical District showcases its heritage and history through the Greenwood Cultural Center and the Mabel B. Little Heritage House.
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, housed in the historic Tulsa Union Depot, features exhibits devoted to gospel, jazz and blues musicians. The on-site music library holds video, audio and photographic materials about featured artists. Photographs of jazz greats including Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, J.J. Cale and Duke Ellington line the walls and an art gallery, which features sculptures depicting musical themes and performers, completes the museum. New inductees are added to the already sterling list of jazz superstars each year.
Jazz Across the State
Jazz in June is one the state’s biggest and longest running annual music festivals focusing specifically on the genre. Spanning an entire weekend, locally and nationally recognized jazz and blues acts come together for an amazing line up in Norman.
The NSU Jazz Lab in Tahlequah has welcomed famous jazz artists including Ray Brown and Diana Krall, the Cedar Street Blues & Jazz Festival brings jazz lovers to the small town of Wewoka and the SWOSU Jazz Festival in Weatherford has been preserving the genre for decades. Legendary West Coast jazz trumpeter Chet Baker was also born in the small Oklahoma town of Yale.