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.
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|Photo: Angela Fetty|
Oklahoma has a rich African-American music culture that has nurtured both rhythm and blues greats and legendary jazz pioneers. It's still possible to visit the former haunts of some of these musical giants today and revel in the vibe that helped Charlie Christian elevate playing the electric guitar to an art form.
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.
Today, the Deep Deuce Grill operates in a two-story brick structure built by Jimmy Rushing’s father, Andrew, in the early 1900s. Jimmy Rushing performed lead vocals for Walter Page’s Blue Devils, the Bennie Moten Band and the Count Basie Orchestra from the 1920s to the 1950s. 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. The annual Charlie Christian International Music Festival, held in the Deep Deuce and Bricktown Entertainment District area, celebrates this heritage with jazz, blues and old-school gospel music.
Renowned author and resident, Ralph Ellison, wrote a poem about Deep Deuce in his book Trading Twelves. Other celebrities including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Jackie Robinson, Nat King Cole and Joe Louis all stayed and played in the Deep Deuce. The Deep Deuce area has rich civil rights significance as well. Calvary Baptist Church, located on the National Historic Registry, is best known for turning away a preacher who wanted to become its pastor because he was too young. That preacher was Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Deep Deuce area is adjacent to Oklahoma City's Bricktown Entertainment District where visitors will find a variety of restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. While in the Bricktown area head to the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark where six History of Bricktown murals can be found including one dedicated to the historic Deep Deuce area. Visit the American Banjo Museum in Bricktown to trace the history of the banjo from it's introduction to America by African slaves to its jazz heyday in the 1920s and 30s.
Langston, just north of Oklahoma City, was home to poet Melvin Tolson. If you have seen the movie The Great Debaters with Denzel Washington, then you will enjoy the Melvin B. Tolson Black Heritage Center dedicated to the American Modernist poet, educator, columnist and politician. Tolson taught at Langston University, a historically black college, for 17 years and served three terms as mayor of Langston. Poet Langston Hughes described him as “no highbrow. Students revere and love him, kids from the cotton fields like him and cow punchers understand him ... He’s a great talker.”
Of note, in 1974 entertainers Sammy Davis Jr., Redd Foxx and Flip Wilson were all named Chiefs of Police of the city of Langston, and all three have streets named in their honor.
Tulsa’s Greenwood District was once a hotbed for jazz and blues, and the site where Count Basie first encountered big-band jazz. From the early 1900s through the 1940s, North Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma was known as “Black Wall Street.” The discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws of the time limited shopping, commercial and land ownership by African-Americans to only the north side of Tulsa. As a result, the African-American community developed a profoundly successful and enviable infrastructure. Prior to 1921, the 36-square-block area known as “Little Africa” encompassed hundreds of businesses and approximately 11,000 people. Among these African-American residents were several PhDs, attorneys, doctors and many others who had earned advanced degrees. There were 21 churches, 212 restaurants, two movie theaters and more than 400 businesses in north Tulsa at that time. The main thoroughfare was Greenwood Avenue, and it was intersected by Archer and Pine Streets. From the first letters in each of those three street names, you get G.A.P. where the renowned Tulsa R&B music group the GAP Band got its name.
When the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 destroyed much of the district, the community rebuilt from the ashes. Today, the Greenwood Historical District showcases its heritage 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 line the walls and an art gallery completes the museum with sculptures depicting musical themes and performers.