Writer John Wooley has been saying for years that Tulsa badly needs a place where visitors can come and hear western swing music on a regular basis.
Next week, it seems, that need will be filled -- at a place that serves as the Carnegie Hall of the music style made famous by the legendary Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
Organizers of the planned Cain's Ballroom Music Museum and Historical Society, in conjunction with the National Fiddler Hall of Fame, unveiled their plans two weeks ago to begin a western swing dance series Thursday, May 26 at Cain's Ballroom, 423 N. Main St.
The series -- entitled the "Cain's Dance Academy and School of Swing" -- means the famed nightclub will return to one of its earliest purposes after it was converted from a garage in the 1930s. In those days, the Cain's Academy was a dime-a-dance joint, but it wasn't until Wills, "The Kind of Western Swing," and his band showed up in 1935 that Cain's became the epicenter for a musical style that would sweep much of the nation, enduring to this day.
Eventually, Wooley said, Wills' performances at Cain's -- broadcast across the country via radio -- became so well known that Tulsa became synonymous with that musical style.
"The way I like to put it is, western swing is to Tulsa what the blues are to Memphis or what jazz is to Kansas City or New Orleans," Wooley said. "Western swing didn't start here. It started in Fort Worth. But this is where it grew up."
Wooley will serve as curator of the Cain's Ballroom Music Museum when it opens. But for now, says Kerry Joels, the museum's executive director, the new dance academy will give people a taste of what the museum will have to offer.
"I think the message is, with all the activity that's going on in the Brady (Arts District), with different institutions fulfilling different needs, this is our niche," he said. "Throughout the 20th century, the music that reverberated through the rafters of this district was western swing. What we're trying to do is preserve that music."
One Thursday each month, Cain's Ballroom will play host to a western swing dance. A half-hour before the dance begins, the doors will open for western swing dancing lessons. The series kicks off at 7pm on Thursday, May 26, with dance lessons starting at 6:30pm.
Proceeds from the dances will benefit the museum and historical society.
Progress on the Cain's Ballroom Music Museum has been slowed by the economic downturn, but Joels likes to refer to the project as a "museum without walls" at this point. When it does open, he says it won't compete with the state Historical Society's planned Oklahoma Museum of Pop Culture. That museum will feature traditional exhibits, he said, while the Cain's Ballroom Museum will showcase western swing music in such a way that "everybody can participate in it and not just hear about it."
The once-a-month western swing dances will be broadcast as a live feed on the Cain's Music Museum website, and Joels said he hopes to announce soon that an agreement has been reached for a live radio broadcast. If all goes well, the frequency of the dances will be increased, he said. Eventually, they will be held at the museum, rather than Cain's Ballroom.
Wooley, who is writing a book about Cain's, was all smiles at the May 5 announcement, which featured live music by the Tulsa Playboys.
"I'm so glad to see this," he said, explaining that visitors to Beale Street in Memphis or the French Quarter in New Orleans have their pick of places to hear blues or jazz. Now, Tulsa will join that list, at least on a limited basis.
He expects the music to be well received.
"People keep rediscovering it," he said. "It almost died out in the '60s, but then people came long like Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, and Asleep at the Wheel and Alvin Crow in the'70s. Most recently, there's been Hot Club of Cowtown."
Western swing is a combination of so many other styles, it never grows stale, Wooley said.
"This music is for people to have fun to," he said. "That's why it endures -- because it's still fun."
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