Guitarist Scott Keeton has a simple way of describing JJ’s Saloon at 2525 N.W. 10th: “Cool people, cold drinks, hot music.”
“It’s still one of the best rooms around to see a band because you have the balcony and the dance floor,” said Keeton, a veteran blues rocker who first played the music venue in the mid-1990s. “It’s a great bar. No place else combines that divey-ness with the ability to pull off a great show and not get botulism.”
Keeton still plays the saloon every month or two, and he is one of a few connections that tie the bar’s lively past to its new head honcho, Jeff Rodgers of Bricktown JJ’s Alley fame.
“In 1968, the concrete building at 10th and Villa that is now JJ’s Saloon was the hull of a transmission repair shop,” Rodgers said. “It was converted into The Apartment Key Club, which moved there from the old Sieber Hotel downtown.”
The bar’s name changed many times in the 1970s. It took on its current Western motif and was called Cowgirls at one point before becoming The Crazy Horse, a favorite haunt for American Indians during the Red Earth Festival. In 1997, the two-story bar became Danny’s Blues Saloon, and in 2012, it became JJ’s Saloon.
“Music is the centerpiece,” Rodgers said of the bar’s past and its future. “A 60-year-old can enjoy the same music performance that a 25-year-old can.”
But as any lifelong musician could tell you, all melodies have their ups and downs, and Rodgers is banking on the saloon hitting another upswing.
In 2000, local musician Mike Hosty set up his trademark chair and drum kit on the venue’s carpeted stage. He had heard about its big crowds and popular Sunday blues jams, and he was excited to play there. He played, but for only 20 minutes.
Three songs in, someone requested the Waylon Jennings ballad “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).” As a showman who prided himself on the lost art of interacting with audiences, Hosty tried to oblige. Suddenly, the bar’s proprietor — a man named Danny — approached the stage.
“You’re done!” he growled. “I said only the blues!” A mere 13 years later, Hosty remains one of the metro’s most popular pickers and grinners, and he’s still proud of his response.
“I said, ‘If you don’t think Waylon plays the blues, then I am done,’” Hosty said. “I was never considered part of those blues things at all, about as much as I’m not considered part of the Red Dirt thing now.”
However he might be defined, Hosty returned to the saloon in late 2012 at the request of Rodgers. When he did, Hosty started his first set right in the middle of “Luckenbach, Texas.”
“I always said I was going to finish that song,” the bespectacled guitarist joked. “This is the cradle of the Oklahoma blues scene. Acoustically, this is one of the most incredible-sounding rooms in Oklahoma City.”
The more things change...
Depending on who you ask, some people, many in their 20s, would compliment the bar’s new name, new murals, new toilets and the new influx of music and music-lovers.
But after the death of renowned Sunday saloon jam leader Speedy West Jr. in 2011, some people want things to quit changing.
What longtime saloon players like Keeton want is for the bar — and its music – to thrive.
“It’s always the air around the note that makes the note sound good, not the note itself,” said Keeton, who spins that riddle into the minds of Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma (ACM@UCO) students. “It’s the same for a stage. The saloon has the vibe; it has the air.”
Keeton and others swear the saloon was a music destination just 10 years ago.
“For about five years there, they had the baddest deal on Sunday nights,” recalls Keeton, a former Sunday jam host himself. “Guys who were the best around played the saloon. You’d have 200 or 300 people on a Sunday night. For a long time, it was a very fertile place.”
But Oklahoma City’s demographics are more different than ever, and the revitalization of Bricktown, Midtown, the Plaza District and the Paseo Arts District have pulled crowds in different in directions.
“People fear change,” Keeton said of those skeptical of the bar’s new name and changing demographics. “The place needs hip people, not John Q. Dumbass. Bricktown, as great as that all is, that’s where you go as Johnny Dumbass when you don’t know where the saloon is or where the HiLo is or whatever.
“If you are a music junky, if you love live music, if you love the people who love live music, this is the kind of place for you. This is a much more artistic place.”
Right place, right time
John Jeffrey Rodgers was a civil attorney in 2008 while learning guitar and booking his first gig at a friend’s bar, D’s Pub on Sheridan in Bricktown. About a year later, Jeff bought the pub from his friend and renamed it JJ’s Alley.
“I love music,” Rodgers said. “I was never looking to get into the bar business. Probably all of us have thought, ‘Man, it would be cool to have your own bar.’ But it was only because I was in the right place at the right time.”
Rodgers won’t say it unless you ask him, but in 2012, he was in the right place at the right time to become involved with the old Blues Saloon on 10th. The once-packed venue had seen large drops in attendance when Jeff was approached about bringing the JJ’s name to the saloon.
“I love blues music,” he said. “I book blues bands, but it’s no longer Danny’s Blues Saloon. It’s JJ’s Saloon.”