Stompin’ at the Speak 

The weekly jazz nights and jam sessions at the 51st Street Speakeasy are bringing jazz generations together.

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Gary Guercio

The mid-week jazz night has swiftly become a staple of bars and bistros across the country, a seemingly perfect, chill way to wind down and de-stress with some calming music and cocktails or wine.

But jazz isn’t always about “calm.”

When OKC’s 51st Street Speakeasy was getting its feet back on the ground after the pandemic closures, the team behind the scenes knew that they wanted to jump headlong into the jazz night game, but in classic “Speak” fashion, they weren’t going to do it lightly – or quietly.

With one of the best mid-level stages and sound systems in the city, Speakeasy is built to handle a full band at full volume and full intensity, far removed from the usual soft, classy soundtracks for upper-class after-work drinks that most jazz nights are looking to provide.

click to enlarge GARY GUERCIO
  • Gary Guercio

That ability to let loose and explore the wilder, freer side of jazz is exactly what appealed to bandleader and pianist Kendrik McKinney.

“Jazz music, and even the word ‘jazz,’ sometimes has a fancy or stuck-up ideology that comes with it,” McKinney said. “We are trying to change that week-by-week here at Speakeasy. There are 30 to 40 people at the front of the room that are really intensely listening to every note, and there are 30 to 40 people having fun, listening, but still having conversations in the back of the room. We want anyone and everyone to come and listen and experience America’s music.”

McKinney represents a younger generation that is, some would say unexpectedly, helping to fuel a resurgence of hard-hitting jazz around the world, with teens and twenty-somethings picking up instruments and drawing inspiration from the great jazz giants at a higher rate than ever before. That youthful, non-traditionalist, non-exclusive attitude reigns supreme on Wednesday nights at Speakeasy.

“We will not be in suits on stage, and we will not be turning away anyone at the door for any reason,” he promised. “This is an inclusive event, for people from all walks of life, which is what makes this night so special.”

That policy of inclusivity extends to the musicians on stage as well.

McKinney acts as bandleader from behind the keys, but the weight of the weekly showcases rests equally on each of his trusty house band players: drummer Dave Bowen, bassist Rei Wang, and semi-regular guitarist Mitch Bell.

“My relationships with the members of the house band go very deep, and they are truly an extension of my family,” McKinney said. “David Bowen is my parents’ age and grew up playing music with both of my folks at Yukon High School and UCO. He was there the day I was born. I met Rei in school at The University of Central Oklahoma, and we played together in many, many ensembles and situations.”

The band functions as an inseparably tight trio, but whenever they’re able, they add one extra element into the mix that kicks things to an even higher level.

“Shortly after we started at Speakeasy, I invited my good friend Mitch Bell to sit in on guitar for a week,” he said. “Mitch is a professor and administrator at UCO@ACM, and I work for him as an adjunct professor. He is a world class touring musician that is excellent in all styles of music. Later that night, after he sat in as a guest, we all agreed we wanted Mitch in on this night. He is in and out of town, but is with us every single Wednesday he is in Oklahoma City.”

click to enlarge GARY GUERCIO
  • Gary Guercio

The spotlight isn’t always on that core group, though. While they’re holding it down, they frequently invite friends and collaborators to join them, sometimes presenting entire nights built around a featured guest performer.

But every week, after the first set ends, it’s time for the open jam.

“Traditionally, a jazz jam session is a place where anyone that is playing or learning or practicing jazz can come and sit in on a few tunes, and we have kept this tradition alive,” McKinney explained. “Many students and professional players from all around the state come each and every week. There are at least 10 to 15 players to come and sit in every week. Sometimes more than that.”

You’d think that wrangling all of those players every week would be like herding cats (pardon the jazz pun), but according to McKinney, it’s all rather natural and supportive.

“Surprisingly enough, there is hardly any preparation for the jam session,” he said. “The players wait backstage, and figure out amongst themselves who all wants to play on what tune. Once you’re on stage, you typically play two tunes before switching out with another player. I try to even things out, change up tunes to fit the vibe of the evening, and introduce all of the players. But when it comes down to it, that ship runs itself.”

click to enlarge GARY GUERCIO
  • Gary Guercio

After more than a full year of organizing, hosting, and leading these weekly jazz nights, during which time he saw the birth of his first child, McKinney has quickly grown into a leading figure of the local jazz scene. Together with the Speakeasy, he’s helped spawn a whole new generation of players and collaborators in the city, with even recent wave-makers Bee and the Hive first meeting and playing together because of the weekly event.

For McKinney himself, however, it’s not about the prestige or praise. It’s always just about playing the music he loves with the people that challenge and elevate him, and bringing that love to a new, younger, energetic audience.

“I am very lucky to get to play with these guys every single week,” he said. “They make me a better musician, and a better person.”

And that’s what jazz is all about.

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