The high-octane band that ruled the ’20s jazz scene.
In the 1920s, the Oklahoma City Blue Devils jazz band was the band to see and hear, and the one other bands wanted to be. The popular territory band played to crowds in hotel ballrooms, clubs and dance halls in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Muskogee, and across several surrounding states. Territory bands typically crisscrossed specific geographic areas, usually with one-night performances in towns along the way.
Often described as the premier American Southwest territory jazz band of the ’20s, the Blue Devils’ reputation was legendary, and its musicians were some of the most talented in the country. Significant members at one time or another included multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Walter Page, saxophonist Lester Young, trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page, trombonist and guitarist Eddie Durham, pianist Count Basie and Oklahoman singer Jimmy Rushing. A teenage Ralph Ellison even joined in occasionally on trumpet.
The band formed in 1923 as part of the Billy King Road Show, featuring music and vaudeville acts. When that show disbanded in Oklahoma City in 1925, Page reorganized the jazz group, renaming it Walter Page’s Blue Devils, though some contend it was named the Oklahoma City Blue Devils. The name, so one story goes, came from outlaw cattlemen who used to snip barbed-wire fences.
Recognizing the Blue Devils’ potential and talent, a determined Page secured sponsors, financial backing and a donation of a large hotel room at the Littlepage Hotel in Deep Deuce, a thriving commercial and entertainment district that would become an important part of Oklahoma City’s Black history. For the next eight years, the band played in the Ritz Ballroom and other state venues during winter months and traveled around the region, and sometimes beyond, in the fall and spring.
Though many recognize Page as the mastermind of the group, the Blue Devils were a band with no true leader. Members voted on every issue. It was about the music and the group, not the musicians’ egos. And it worked. A lead singer and rhythmic notes from guitars, trumpets, trombones and piano excited the crowd. Sounds filled a room without the help of amplifiers or a PA system.
Success followed for years, but as more jazz and blues bands formed, musicians came and went, often joining other successful groups. By the early 1930s, many of the Blue Devils’ principal players headed north for opportunities with pianist Bennie Moten’s larger Kansas City-based orchestra. Basie, for example, played with the Blue Devils from 1928 until 1929, when he joined Moten’s ensemble.
The Blue Devils dissolved in 1933 after traveling in Virginia and West Virginia, more than 1,000 miles away from their home crowds. When Moten died unexpectedly in 1935, Basie welcomed former Blue Devils players to join his new orchestra.
Basie had been impressed with the Blue Devils long before he joined the band. After hearing an early performance, he once said, “It was the greatest thing I ever heard in my life.”
The Blue Devils’ importance is often overlooked, but not by everyone. The book One O’ Clock Jump: The Unforgettable History of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils by Douglas Henry Daniels tells the story of the band, its members’ legacy and its connection to Black American history. The Last of the Blue Devils: The Kansas City Jazz Story, a 1979 film, also highlighted the band.
The Oklahoma City Blue Devils band was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame in 2013, well-deserved honors for a group that had only one recording session with two songs, but could fill a large ballroom and bring an audience to its feet all night long.