Tulsa Union Depot- Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame
Constructed in 1931, this historic Art Deco-style train depot is now home to the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame was founded by an act of the State Congress in 1988. Tulsa has always been a nexus for musical influences in the state, and as such made an ideal hometown for the Hall of Fame. Noted inductees include Kay Starr, Chet Baker, Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Rushing, Howard McGhee, Frank Mantooth, Barney Kessel, Charlie Christian, Patti Page, and Jay McShann. It is the goal of the organization to promote the “Kansas City” style of jazz, which was shaped in large part through the participation of Oklahoma’s jazz musicians, venues such as Cain’s Ballroom, and Oklahoma’s all-black communities in El Reno, Greenwood, Langston, Clearview, and Boley.
Backstory and Context
Designed by R. C. Stephens of St. Louis, and built by Tulsa’s Manhattan Construction, this variegated stone structure is a beautiful example of Art Deco’s WPA-style architecture. The era’s fascination with machines and automation is revealed in the geometric shapes, stark symmetry, and sleek curvature of this depot, which was completed in 1931. At its height, the Tulsa Union Depot serviced up to 36 trains per day. The first central rail station for Tulsa, this Depot unified the Katy, Frisco, and Santa Fe lines under one station. The grand opening drew a crowd of over 60,000 people who watched speeches, Indian stomp dancing, and live music; the days-long event was broadcast live over the radio. Folks also got a gander at their first passenger train car, Frisco’s “Old 94,” during the proceedings.
With the rise of the interstate highway system and commercial air transit, rail travel declined and took the Depot with it. In 1967, operations at the facility ceased, leaving the Depot officially defunct. The building sat empty for over a decade. In 1980 it was purchased by The Williams Companies, who hired the Urban Design Group and Manhattan Construction--the founders of which had built the Depot in the 30’s--to renovate the building. By the time the building was reclaimed, the roof had caved in. A lengthy 3-year renovation costing $6.5 million restored the original interior, wall moldings, and ceiling medallions as well as the original color and paint. In 1983, Urban Design Group finished the restoration and made their offices in the Depot alongside other Williams lessees. The restoration of the Union Depot was a defining moment in Tulsa’s historic preservation policy. The project demonstrated that restoring and adapting Tulsa’s gorgeous Art Deco buildings for new purposes was a commercially viable undertaking and a new way to capitalize on the city’s unique built environment.
In 2004, Tulsa County purchased the Depot, intending that the building became the new home for the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. The organization officially relocated to the site in 2007, a move that brought the Hall of Fame’s administrative headquarters and performance headquarters under a single roof for the first time. The offices were scaled back and the large, open, central portion became a performance space and gallery, with soundproofing and stage lighting installed soon thereafter. In February of 2010, the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame opened to the public. Every Tuesday from 5:30pm-10:00pm, bandleader and Hall of Fame CEO Chuck Cissel emcees jazz and blues concerts that are free and open to the public. The Hall of Fame gives free concerts during lunchtime on Thursdays and Fridays. Each year, the Hall of Fame’s annual induction banquet and concert is held on-premises, and the Depot is increasingly popular as a wedding and event celebration venue.
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame honors musicians and communities that created, shared, and supported music. This includes African American schools and communities that created and supported musicians and bands. When the Depression came, Kansas City jazz musicians hit the road to earn money when local clubs could not support all of the city's many jazz many musicians each night of the week. Tulsa, Muskogee, and Oklahoma City were major tour stops, and people came from all over to hear the swing and bebop styles of jazz. Several young musicians left their marching and concert bands to join the traveling troupes.
Local legend says that a young vaudeville piano player called Bill Basie, whose troupe was quartered in a Greenwood hotel, first heard the wonders of jazz music in Tulsa. One night, he awoke to hear Walter Page’s Blue Devils playing a set, and became utterly besotted with jazz. Eventually, Bill became a bandleader and changed his name--to Count Basie. Or so the story goes…
"History." Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. Accessed February 16, 2015.
"Tulsa Union Depot." Tulsa Preservation Commission. Accessed February 16, 2015.