Rolling history of an exemplary jazz band that incubated such legends as Count Basie and vocalist Jimmy Rushing.
With its ever-shifting membership, the Oklahoma City Blue Devils offered a hothouse environment in which musicians could show and develop their stuff, then step out the revolving door as new players stepped in. Daniels (Black Studies and History/Univ. of Calif., Santa Barbara) details the Devils’ ten years together, profiling a good number of the musicians, giving shape to their convictions and conveying a sense of what it was like to be a black artist playing in the strictly segregated South and West during the 1920s. Despite the frequent changes in personnel, Daniels asserts, the band had a strong social cohesiveness; through all its permutations, it remained a community-oriented group of stellar talent that fed on the grassroots. The players made sacrifices and bonded with each other—no small thing for a collection of restless lone wolves. And quite a company they were: In addition to Basie and Rushing, the Blue Devils included, at one time or another, songwriter/arranger Eddie Durham, multi-instrumentalist Henry “Buster” Smith, swing trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page, bass player Walter Page and saxophonist Lester “The Pres” Young. Smith, Rushing, Durham, Page and Basie get chapters of their own, in which Daniels charts their careers before, during and after the Blue Devils. (He already gave Young a nod with the 2002 bio Lester Leaps In.) The author also recognizes now-obscure talents like Leonard Chadwick, Snake Whyte, James Simpson and Abe Bolar. The band came to a sad end when the musicians got cheated out of their salaries and had to hitch rides home in a train’s coal car.
A sterling tribute to a group that certainly should be heading to the Jazz Hall of Fame.