The Oklahoma City Blue Devils began ca. 1923-24 in Kansas City as Billy King's Road Show, a traveling vaudeville troupe. While trombonist Ermir "Bucket" Coleman had nominal control of the band, Walter Page masterminded the musical arrangements. Page's credentials included study in 1920s Kansas City with Major N. Clark Smith and Charles Watts, who were numbered among that town's best instructors. When the Billy King Road Show disbanded in1925 in Oklahoma City, Page renamed the group; some say it became "Walter Page's Original Blue Devils," but others contend it was the "Oklahoma City Blue Devils." Once the Blue Devils were reorganized in Oklahoma City, Page persuaded a group of Oklahoma City businessmen to back the venture. The backing consisted of a little cash, a set of uniforms, a supply of meal tickets good at a restaurant owned by one of the sponsors, and the donation of a large hotel room (at the Littlepage Hotel in the "Deep Deuce" district, or Northeast Second Street).
From 1925 to 1933 they were among the finest bands in the region. The Blue Devils worked out of Oklahoma City's Ritz Ballroom in the winter months, playing there and also at venues in other Oklahoma towns. The fall and spring tour took the band to ballrooms scattered over a wide area that included Omaha, Houston, El Paso, and Little Rock. They also played dates in states further west and north.
Early members of the Blue Devils included Oran "Hot Lips" Page, Jimmy Lu Grand, Harry Youngblood, James Simpson (trumpets); Ermir Coleman, Eddie Durham, Druie Bess, and Dan Minor (trombones); Reuben Roddy, Ted Manning, Theodore Ross, and Buster Smith (reeds); Willie Lewis and Turk Thomas (piano); Reuben Lynch (guitar); Edward McNeil and Alvin Burroughs (drums); Walter Page (bass, tuba, and baritone saxophone); and Ernie Williams (vocals). Four native Oklahomans at one time or another sat in with the Blue Devils, including Abe Bolar (bass), Lemuel C. Johnson (clarinet/tenor saxophone), and Jimmy Rushing (vocals) from Oklahoma City, and Don Byas (tenor/alto saxophone) from Muskogee. During their heyday the Blue Devils added such luminary jazz artists as Lester Young (tenor saxophone) and William, later known as "Count," Basie (piano). The personnel included some of the finest musicians produced in two decades of jazz in the Southwest and Midwest. Several former Blue Devils, including "Lips" Page, Jimmy Rushing, Eddie Durham, and Walter Page, joined other soon-to-be legendary bands, including those of Bennie Moten and Count Basie. In 1929 in Kansas City the Blue Devils held their first and only recording session, on Vocalion 1463. The Blue Devils band was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2000.
BIBLIOGRAPHY:Nathan Pearson, Goin' to Kansas City (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987). Ross Russell, Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971). William W. Savage, Jr. Singing Cowboys and All That Jazz: A Short History of Popular Music in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983). Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).
George O. Carney
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