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Feb 01, 2010 - Unity through music at Tulsa's Jazz Depot -Tulsa People

Jazz Depot

For years it reflected a divided community and separate societies. Water fountains and facilities labeled colored and water fountains and facilities for whites only. While it was a gateway to a community, it was also a statement of a segregated time and place.

Tulsa's Union Depot. Tulsa's train station. Today that building in the shadow of a reflection of another era, the Bank of Oklahoma Tower, is a gateway of a different kind and reflects not divisiveness but unity, as Tulsa's Jazz Depot.

The train depot opened in May 1931, a less-than-auspicious time. Only two months earlier the city slashed the payrolls of 10 departments and dismissed 45 employees because of diminished city revenue. But even in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, the Union Depot reflected the importance of rail travel. Ellen Sue Blakey summed it up well in the 1979 book The Tulsa Spirit: The grand opening of the Union Station depot ushered in the glory of the railroad age. The structure was a monument to the architecture of the day. Train travel was elaborate and luxurious. At one time, 36 daily passenger trains passed through the city. The first streamlined train, the Zephyr, drew tremendous crowds when it came through Tulsa.

Tulsans of all ages and backgrounds traveled via coach cars or stately Pullmans until highways and the automobile ended rail travel. On May 12, 1967, Tulsa's Union Depot closed. Eventually it became a haven for Tulsa's skid row denizens, and at one time was considered for demolition until The Williams Cos.' growth resulted in its revival and renovation as offices.

Today, thanks to a $4 million renovation from Vision 2025 funds, it is the home of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and a lively center for music and celebrations.

It's a fitting home for an organization with the goal of Unity Through Music. For, in its time, the Union Depot was not only a gateway to Tulsa but also a crossroads of cultural diversity that traveled through a young city, bringing new ideas as well as a diversity of musical influences that combined with local talent. For this was the city where a young Bill Basie, a piano player with a traveling vaudeville show staying in a Greenwood area hotel, awoke to hear Walter Page's Blue Devils' a hearing that set his heart on becoming the bandleader Count Basie.

A few blocks away, at an establishment called Cain's Dancing Academy, a transplanted Texan, Bob Wills, would hone his combination of Dixieland, Deep South blues, Southwestern fiddle playing and Kansas City swing to perfect western swing.

In 1988, reflecting Tulsa and Oklahoma's rich musical heritage, the Oklahoma State Legislature (through legislation authored by State Sens. Maxine Horner and Penny Williams) established the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. Since then remarkable and influential artists such as Barney Kessel, Chet Baker, Charlie Christian, Patti Page, Kay Starr and Jay McShann have been honored at annual banquets.

Speaking of which, that banquet, which once was held in downtown hotels, is now held at the Jazz Depot, which is not only the administrative headquarters for the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame but also its performance headquarters. Nearly every Sunday finds five o'clock jazz concerts emceed by the Hall of Fame's Chuck Cissel, helping jazz thrive in Tulsa. And the Jazz Depot is an increasingly popular spot for weddings, receptions, corporate meetings and fund-raisers.

For the future? A capital fund drive, once the economy recovers, to complete the renovation of the depot started by Vision 2025, and a new membership campaign (visit www.OkJazz.Org for information). And more music.

Where the bustle of busy travelers and train whistles once sounded, now the enthusiasm of jazz revelers and saxophone players abounds. Unity through music. This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of TulsaPeople Magazine.
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