The Blue Devils are one Oklahoma City act you might not know, but there’s no escaping their importance and influence

The sound of East Oklahoma City was inescapable in the 1920s.

For a time, Second Street ” an area dubbed “Deep Deuce” and “Deep Second” by locals and those in the know ” was held in the same regard as New Orleans’s Bourbon Street and Central Avenue in Los Angeles.

“Music was everywhere on the east side,” Douglas Henry Daniels, a history and black studies professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, wrote in “One O’clock Jump.”

Roving cattlemen left the city’s Stockyards with heavy pockets. Thirsty for drink and all manner of vice, they were also hungry for entertainment. Among the rows of shops, restaurants and boarding houses were nightclubs and house parties, and live music was a big deal.

The Blue Devils were one of the first jazz bands in Oklahoma City, and one that should be remembered as “one of the very best in the Southwest,” Daniels wrote.

Among the ranks of the Blue Devils was a litany of legendary jazz musicians, including Buster Smith, Lester “Prez” Young, Oran “Hot Lips” Page and celebrated author ” and then trumpeter ” Ralph Ellison. Legendary bandleader and member  William “Count” Basie took the Devils’ sound, and many of its musicians, with him to Kansas City, Mo., and adopted it into his legendary swing sound.

The lineup was somewhat loose early on, and tracing details on the band’s founding is limited, according to Daniels, who found the earliest mention of the act in Oklahoma Black Dispatch, which wrote about a performance at a birthday party for Billy King, who led a road show.

The Devils’ ranks swelled at around 10, and despite the myth that many early jazz musicians were untrained, Daniels wrote that the original members were far from “musical illiterates.”

“By the same token, neither were they rootless individuals, devoid of social ties to the community in which they lived,” he wrote. “Their band was also a veritable school for untutored musicians.”

The group welcomed any occasion to perform, including social and community events led by black leaders or white audiences at Ritz Ballroom.

New York native Bruce Ricker highlighted the band in 1979’s “The Last of the Blue Devils: The Kansas City Jazz Story,” a documentary that explored Basie and Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra. He said the Devils’ importance extended beyond the music and into how the band handled its business.

“The key to the Oklahoma City Blue Devils was that they were the first band to be commonwealth,” Ricker said. “They were actually a socialist band. Walter Page got twice the money. Lester Young and Buster Smith and everyone else divided up everything equally.”

The name was born from the war between the cattlemen and the ranchers, said Ricker. Legend has it that the act’s moniker was taken from a brand of Blue Devils brand wire-cutters used by outlaw cattlemen to snip ranchers’ barbed-wire fences. The name might also have come from the 19th century, when being stricken with “the blue devils” described depression, he said.

In many ways, Oklahoma City in the ’20s was what Las Vegas became in the ’30s and ’40s, he said. It was the right time and place for the Devils, and when city officials started cracking down on vice and crime, they cleaned up much of the city’s jazz culture.

“It ultimately only existed in that time frame when you had (“Boss” Tom) Pendergast in Kansas City, and the patrons and a hundred night clubs,” Ricker said. “The key was when you had the cattle people coming in after the cattle drives ” they had to spend money.”

As Deep Deuce matched the importance influential music districts in better-known jazz towns, it mirrored their fall, too, Daniels said.

“Deep Deuce’s decline was matched by that of 52nd Street in New York City and Central Avenue in Los Angeles,” he said. If Oklahoma City was anything like L.A. or NYC, Daniels said much of the music left as “police were cracking down on ‘drug fiends’ and interracial couples.” “Joe Wertz

Joe Wertz

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