When most people think of places associated with the development of jazz, the short list of cities is easy: New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, New York, maybe Havana and Los Angeles. After that, even many experts would have a hard time figuring out where to go on the map.
Professor Douglas Henry Daniels teaches black studies and history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has written books about tenor saxophonist Lester Young and a history of African Americans in San Francisco. Now, in looking over the geography of jazz, Professor Daniels has found a band and a city that, for a decade, was a home – or at least a waiting room – for much of the jazz talent to come out of the Midwest in the 20s and 30s.
Daniels’s new book – One O’Clock Jump: The Unforgettable History of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils – tells the complicated story of a legendary band that for a time was a home for musicians Oran “Hot Lips” Page, Lester Young, Eddie Durham, Buster Smith, Jimmy Rushing, and, most famous of them all, Count Basie.
The Blue Devils played, with various formations of exceptional musicians, from 1923 to 1933, providing dance music for black and white audiences both inside and outside the borders of Oklahoma. The Blue Devils were a “commonwealth band,” meaning that much of the time the musical collective was more important than any one player or leader. They shared their pay equally and made decisions as a group.
For musicians in the Blue Devils, the lure of Kansas City’s big group, Bennie Moten’s orchestra, was too much. Over the years, Moten raided the Blue Devils for talent – most significantly when he lured Bill Basie away in 1929. Basie, still to become the Count, would take over the Kansas City when Moten died in 1935 from a botched tonsillectomy.
Professor Daniels’s book presents a number of arguments, all well –supported through interviews and exhaustive print research. He wants readers to understand that in Oklahoma City there was (and is) a well-established and prosperous black middle-class. He wants readers to know that great musicians are more often products of cultural education and hard work than some mysterious force known as native genius. He wants us to know that black entertainers can work together and are not all out to be solitary superstars. He wants us to know that jazz was born as much in places like Oklahoma and Texas as it was in New Orleans and Chicago. Daniels writes against the currents of history’s assumptions, and his arguments are solid and rooted. One O’Clock Jump succeeds as a work of history.
Where Daniel’s book falls short is as a story. The author has chosen a somewhat haphazard plan of organization for his chapters. Some are focused on community, some on character, and few on chronology. What this history of the Blue Devils needed was a more clear narrative line – quite clearly the development of and changes in the band from 1923 to 1933. Instead, too often Daniels takes too topical an approach, and we jump from 1922 to 1937 to 1926 to 1942 in the space of a single paragraph. Then we do it again in the next paragraph.
All in all, One O’Clock Jump is a useful book: meticulous, historically sound, and proper in its emphasis. It suffers only because, in a book about a group of musicians for whom the band always came first, the story of that band is overlooked.
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