One O'clock Jump: The Unforgettable History of the Oklahoma Blue Devils.
Joining the recent spate of monographs documenting the connections between location and the development of black arts traditions, Douglas Henry Daniels' One O'clock Jump, traces the development of Kansas City Jazz back to its roots in the black community of Oklahoma City. Through clusters of stories--biographies of musicians, descriptions of black communities, and the evolution of jazz bands--Daniels details the history of an innovative jazz band, the Blue Devils, formed and disbanded between 1923 and 1933. A regional band with national aspirations, the Blue Devils melded musical traditions drawn from the freed people, Exodusters, and black homesteaders from Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana who settled in Oklahoma City after the turn of the century. Representing the public collaborative nature of African American communities in the Jim Crow era, the band was community centered, performing at events sponsored by local fraternities, civic organizations, and churches with which individual members had affiliations. As a commonwealth band, with no leader, the Blue Devils split earnings among the members equally after deducting expenses. When they traveled, however, members were unable to use white accommodations; and when they played for white audiences, they often faced harassment from local white authorities, especially police.
From individual origins in terms of location and family histories, Blue Devils members brought, learned, traded, and formed compositions, styles, and arrangements that emerged in the big clubs of Chicago, New York, and Boston in the late 1930s. They played with some of the greatest bands of the period, among them, Jimmy Lunceford, Nobel Sissel, Bennie Moton, and Count Basie. A contemporary of Duke Ellington, Count Basie had joined the Blue Devils in the late 1920s; and the Blue Devil's most prominent members ended up in the renowned Count Basle Orchestra. Basie's music had roots in Jim Crow where black workers looked to weekends and music for entertainment. Whereas the elite and elegant Ellington played "for the suave and sophisticated who liked pretty melodies and harmonies along with their swing," Basie played "for the down to earth swing fans and dancers who loved the blues first, second, and last" (167). Accordingly, Ellington's fans were "society folks: doctors, lawyers, professors, fraternity and sorority members." Basle was favored by "high rollers, the plumbers, maids, chauffeurs, and domestic workers" as well as professionals. Ellington was preferred by the longtime urbanites; the new migrants to New York, Chicago, Boston, and St. Louis reverberated with Basie.
One O'clock Jump is shaped from oral history interviews "through which we grasp [the Blue Devil's] significance as a remarkable band that stayed alive more in the memory of old timers than in published histories of music" (15). The author admits that The Blue Devils "never made it to the big time" (16). He shares his oral history journey with the reader who joins in discovering the import of the band's crisscrossing the performance circuit, changing members, and producing stars. At one time bluesman Henry "Buster" Smith and trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" were Blue Devils. Richard Wright, author of Invisible Man, sat in on rehearsals when he was a school boy, absorbing the jazz that later infused his novel. Daniels used the interviews with jazz greats housed at the Institute of Jazz Studies Oral History Project (Rutgers University), and for corroboration, with cross-referenced newspaper reports and census data (in manuscript). Jazz fans, especially experts in big band music, will enjoy the book's store of biographical and performance information. Practitioners of oral history will find Daniels' use of interviews exacting. Stringing together dates, places, members, and performances over time, Daniels can point to exact places where individuals, performances, and musical styles and trends intersect. By demonstrating competition between bands, Daniels documents how musical innovations traversed camps.
One O'Clock Jump argues that that the Blue Devils "represent the longevity, the vitality, and the legitimacy of the early swing tradition" (224). Yet, the group was not a permanent entity, rather a reincorporation, remaking itself perpetually, "a phoenix ... repeatedly reformed after disbanding and started over again with a slightly different name--but always the Blue Devils, either Walter Page's Blue Devils or the Thirteen Original Blue Devils"(18). But perpetual transformation was exactly the process that made the Blue Devils special: it attracted and sent forth a surprising array of talent, a shifting collective of musicians from diverse backgrounds. Through its memory we trace another black musical tradition, the jazzy swing of the big band sound.
Washington University, St. Louis
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|Publication:||The Oral History Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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