OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — When you think of the great American jazz cities, your mind easily and understandably goes to New Orleans, New York, and Kansas City, but make no mistake, Oklahoma City belongs on that list as well.
With such claims to jazz fame as being the home of the legendary Charlie Christian and boasting the (original, pre-gentrification) Deep Deuce area that served as an important stop on the pre-integration touring circuit for black musicians, OKC has a rich and monumental jazz legacy that is often overshadowed by the better-known histories of our Country and Indie Rock scenes.
Luckily, there is a new generation of jazz players that has taken up the torch and begun to make this city a serious destination for great jazz of all styles, and they’re being aided in that quest by a number of like-minded bars and venues that are using weekly “jazz nights” as a way of turning modern audiences onto the energetic and cathartic elements of live, improvised jazz.
With its relaxed, library-style atmosphere, and its strictly wine-focused menu, The Study in Film Row seems like it was designed and built with jazz in mind. (see feature photo)
And that’s because it was.
Co-owners Megan and John Allen also comprise one half of the local jazz outfit A Perfect Body, and they worked closely with their partners at The Study to create a spot that could host musicians in an exceptionally relaxed and casual atmosphere.
“It’s definitely becoming a more appreciated art form,” Megan said. “The last couple of years, it seems like there’s been a lot more interest and appreciation of jazz from audiences around here.”
Obviously, the bar has become something of a home base for A Perfect Body, but they are also adamant about providing a venue for other local jazz artists of all styles, ages, and levels, in an environment that invites audiences to pay attention and to enjoy the music rather than just creating background noise for a night out.
“Jazz Nights have actually become some of our biggest nights,” she explained, “and it definitely appears that everyone is there for the music.”
Of course, the size and capabilities of the space are always a factor. There really isn’t room for a drummer or for a large ensemble of players, so Allen says that she focuses more on the kind of duos and trios that fit perfectly into the bar, such as Kyle Reid and Johnny Carlton or the Savoy Trio (who, much to Allen’s delight, boast a local following of dancers that will often show up for their performances.)
“It’s all just about finding the musicians and players that you know you can trust and that you know will work well in the room,” she says of what she looks for in the acts she books and the rotating selection of players that come through The Study. “Aside from that, it just has to be jazz.”
The Study hosts jazz every week during their Wine Down Wednesdays. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram @thestudyokc and at their official site thestudyokc.com.
Skirvin Hotel / Park Avenue Grill / Red Piano Lounge
When you’re talking about jazz in OKC, few venues have the history and pedigree of the Skirvin Hilton, and few organizers have the profile and respect of Christian Pearson.
Pearson, himself one of the preeminent jazz players in the state, has been booking and organizing the Skirvin Jazz Club for years at both of the hotel’s jazz venues: Park Avenue Grill, which accommodates a full-sized band perfect for large-scale jazz programs (and frequented more often by an older, and generally wealthier crowd,) and the much more intimate and casual Red Piano Lounge, where Pearson himself often sits in to provide soft piano atmospheres.
“I just think about the room and think about what kind of people go there,” Pearson says about booking artists in the different spaces. “I would say if I do something, and it’s ticketed, I’m trying to create a show situation, almost like a dinner theater, where people are putting most of their attention into what’s happening. And then when I just play, or if I sit in with a band or something, then it’s more like a jazz club where we’re just setting an atmosphere.”
Pearson isn’t just one of the best and most popular performers in the city’s jazz scene, he’s also one of its biggest supporters, having originally founded and launched the Saints Sessions series of showcases and open jams in The Plaza before founding OKSessions.com as a resource for news, info, and insight for the city’s up-and-coming musicians.
“I think in the last couple months, I’ve been invited to be a part of three other venues that wanted to get a jazz night going,” he said, clearly excited by how much jazz has been resurging recently. “I just think it’s important to know where the jazz community is, and it’s really good for the scene to have at least one night a week where there’s a really good jam.”
Skirvin Jazz Club doesn’t currently have much online presence, but rest assured that Red Piano Lounge hosts happy hour jazz throughout the week, and late-night jazz every Friday night, and Park Avenue Grill hosts larger jazz events on weekends, including the upcoming Christmas program on December 17th.
51st St. Speakeasy
That really good jam that Pearson speaks of is, without a doubt, Wednesday nights at 51st St. Speakeasy.
Speakeasy’s jazz night is led and organized by pianist Kendrik McKinney but is the spiritual successor to the currently defunct Saints Sessions. At only 26 years old, McKinney is one of the leading lights of the young, twenty-something jazz community that has been cropping up and making itself known around the city.
“Right now there’s a lot of the jazz community that is merging with the hip-hop community,” he explained when asked about the rising interest in jazz from younger artists and audiences. “Younger people are listening to artists like Thundercat, who is deeply rooted in jazz, and that’s bringing these kids over to it.”
It’s those younger jazz-minded listeners that are forming a major part of Speakeasy’s Wednesday night audience.
With a full stage and one of the city’s best sound systems, Speakeasy puts no restrictions on volume or intensity, instead encouraging jazz players of all stripes to step up, give everything they’ve got, and hone their chops in front of a rapt crowd of listeners with an incomparable band of mainstays backing them up.
“We play from 8 to 9ish and then take a break,” McKinney says of him and his core group that form the weekly house band, often joined by a special guest or two. “Then we come back and from there until midnight, it’s an open jam. Anyone can come and bring their horn or whatever and just play.”
For McKinney and his regular players Rei Wang, David Bowen, and Mitch Bell, the goal is not just to blow off steam and provide a comfortable (and free) place to get good, full-volume jazz, but also to openly encourage and foster that younger community.
“We want to make an environment where you can, like, fail and be okay,” he says. “That’s the way you get better.”
51st St Speakeasy presents their Jazz Night and Open Jam every Wednesday night starting at 8:00pm. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram for schedule and information.
Last Updated November 12, 2021, 8:19 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor