Maxine Horner never could escape the music of her youth. And that was just fine with her. Why would she ever want to forget the jazz, blues and gospel music that filled her Greenwood home in the 1930s and ’40s?
She loved it and, in due time, would make it her mission to build a shrine to the Oklahoma musicians who for too long had gone without recognition for their genius.
It would be called the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.
“She remembered ... primarily the heyday, how prominent the music and entertainment factor was on Greenwood, the number of artists who would come through,” said Horner’s daughter Shari Tisdale. “My grandfather would take her every year and she would see the big jazz greats that would come in and perform.
“So it had a real impact on her life in terms of just the importance of music.”
Horner sang and played the piano, and her youngest brother, Chuck Cissel, could hold a tune, too. He grew up to become a Broadway performer.
Horner never made it to Broadway but was a fine piano player with a beautiful voice.
“She always laughed and said he (Cissel) lived out her (dream) and got to do all the things she saw herself doing initially,” Tisdale said.
On April 12, 1988, the state Legislature approved a resolution sponsored by Sen. Maxine Horner and Rep. Penny Williams establishing the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. Horner also helped secure $1.5 million in bond funding to get the facility built just north of downtown.
The little girl from Greenwood had grown up to make her mark in the music world after all.
Thirty-three years later, the Jazz Hall of Fame is in transition and its legacy murky. A prized jewel of the city in the 1990s and early 2000s, it has slowly descended into irrelevance, beset time and again by financial mismanagement and scandal.
In January, the once venerable institution filed for bankruptcy.
“The key element is that because of the persons who were there, they couldn’t get funding because they were writing bad checks, they were lying to people, they were deceiving people,” said Cissel, who ended his association with the Jazz Hall of Fame in 2011. “I want to make that clear: I have had nothing to do with it, so I don’t know. Only thing I know is, when you don’t have a vision, you fail. And they failed.
“They didn’t have the vision, and they didn’t have the reputation, and nobody’s going to want to give you $25,000, or $100,000 if they feel like you are doing something under the table, and that is what they were doing.”
All That Jazz
Vernon Howard hesitates a moment when asked to describe the history of jazz in Oklahoma. That’s telling. Howard, the former longtime director of the University of Tulsa’s Jazz Studies program, knows it’s a rich and complicated story.
“Generally, jazz music developed in all large Southern cities that had sizable Black populations,” Howard said. “And that music developed as early as the 1890s, probably in the Tulsa area, the Oklahoma region, it would have been during the ‘10s or teens.
“Early jazz was kind of a fusion of blues and ragtime. It really was a fusion of all types of popular music for those early years of the 1890s through the teens.”
Early jazz was inspired by country dances, field hollers and work songs, with Oklahoma musicians playing a key role in creating the bluesy “Kansas City” jazz sound, according to the Jazz Hall of Fame’s website.
For the uninitiated, putting names and faces to the music can make it easier to appreciate the influence Oklahoma musicians have had on the jazz, blues and gospel scenes.
Howard’s list is long but barely scratches the surface: Bassist Oscar Pettiford of Okmulgee; Sapulpa saxophonist Marshal Royal; guitarist Barney Kessel and pianist Jay McShann from Muskogee; and guitarist Charlie Christian and singer Jimmy Rushing of Oklahoma City.
And Tulsa, of course, claims Leon Russell, Ernie Fields and Earl Bostic as its own, to name just a few.
“When we talk about Tulsa, the music that has come out of Tulsa, it is really significant contributions in the area of blues, rock ’n roll, country, jazz. So many significant players have come out of this city that perform in each of those styles,” Howard said. “So it is hard to say there is a Tulsa jazz sound. There is a Tulsa rock sound. … We just have so many great players that have played all kinds of music to come out of the city.”
Mac Finlayson served on the Jazz Hall of Fame’s board of directors for about a half dozen years before resigning with several other board members in 2009. Now 70 years old and still practicing law, he fondly remembers his days on the road as a bass trombonist for the Stan Kenton Orchestra and gigs with Doc Severinsen, Wayne Newton and the Temptations.
“We have had some magnificent, magnificent players that either played here or grew up here," Finlayson said. “I would stack us up against anybody in the country in terms of raw talent, including Los Angeles and New York. We just don’t have the depth that they have.
“And when I was playing, our first call was as good as there was anywhere.”
This was the kind of talent the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame was intended to recognize and honor, along with its other primary mission — education.
“Maxine’s mission was to honor artists who were almost forgotten in the jazz, blues and gospel field, and during that, have the galas and whatever, which were the fundraisers to support and have scholarships for children who had artistic abilities and desires to go to college or go to musical school, or go to Broadway,” said longtime Jazz Hall board member Connie Holt-Fisher.
Holt-Fisher joined the Jazz Hall of Fame board in the early 1990s and served for about 15 years. She recalls a vibrant organization that began operations on what is now the site of the Greenwood Cultural Center before moving to the Union Depot building in 2007.
Early on, the largest and best-known events on the Jazz Hall of Fame’s calendar were the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony and the Juneteenth festival. The biggest names in jazz, blues and gospel music made the trip to Tulsa to be honored, followed by a weekend of free performances across the street from the Jazz Hall of Fame that drew tens of thousands of people.
“I’ll be honest with you, a lot of people heard about Juneteenth here in Tulsa and they were approaching us to be part of the festival,” Holt-Fisher said. “This is a free festival, and some of these people came here and they were devastated because they looked out in the audience and they saw nothing but people all the way back down to Pine (Street).
“It was devastating to them because they thought they were coming to some country little town and there wasn’t going to be probably a hundred or 200 people. I mean, that is the impression people have of Tulsa.”
The Jazz Hall of Fame continued to roar along in the early 2000s. Its biggest problem at the time was that it didn’t have enough open dates on its calendar because it was sharing its facilities with the Greenwood Cultural Center.
So Cissel, who was serving as Jazz Hall of Fame CEO at the time, started looking for another home for the organization.
“It was the Union Depot train station that I went down and looked at and I would drive by and think, ‘I wonder what is going on with that building?’” Cissel said. “I really wanted that building because we needed all the space because I was doing programming, and I wanted to make sure we could continue programming. We could rent out the facility for events, parties, graduations, weddings, all kinds of things, so we did.”
In September 2003, Tulsa County voters approved Vision 2025, a $530 million capital improvements package that included such big-ticket items as the BOK Center. The proposal also designated $4 million to purchase and restore the Union Depot building for use by the Jazz Hall of Fame.
“It was a great deal,” Finlayson said. “It was a $1-a-year rent. I mean, for 99 years on a long-term lease, you can’t beat that. And from a performance standpoint … to have it in that iconic structure really drew a lot of people out.”
The celebratory mood soon faded, however. In January 2009, less than two years after the Jazz Hall of Fame moved into its new home, several board members resigned, including Vice Chairman Finlayson and Chairman Steve Alter.
“At a board meeting, I told the board members, we are getting fictitious and incomplete numbers from accounting, and we have knowledge of it, so we have to resign, and we resigned,” Alter said. “We demanded to see the full accounting and then they refused, and we resigned.”
From its inception to about the time it moved into the Union Depot building in 2007, the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame could count on receiving about $200,000 a year in operating funds from the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation department.
Then it stopped coming, thanks in part to a change in the makeup of the Legislature. Suddenly, money was tight at the Jazz Hall of Fame.
“That is about what it cost to run the organization, if you will,” Finlayson said.
Cissel describes the loss of state funding as “a big, big crook in our necks.”
It was certainly a setback, one from which the Jazz Hall of Fame never seemed to recover. Within two years after the 2009 exodus of board members, Cissel stepped down as artistic director. He hasn’t been back in the Union Depot building since.
“When I left that building, when I retired from the Jazz Hall of Fame, I was getting calls as if I was still there,” Cissel said. “'Can you help us? We need to get paid.' Doc Severinsen, ‘Can we get paid?’”
Not long afterward, the Jazz Hall of Fame’s money woes went public. The Tulsa County Industrial Authority, which leases the Union Depot building to the Jazz Hall of Fame, began getting notices that the nonprofit wasn’t paying its bills.
Thus began a years-long cycle of the Industrial Authority demanding payment for overdue bills, and the Jazz Hall of Fame arriving with a check at the last moment.
In 2012, for example, the Industrial Authority notified the Jazz Hall of Fame that it was in default of its lease for being late on insurance, downtown assessment and utility fees, totaling more than $75,000. Three years later, county commissioners were prepared to evict the Jazz Hall of Fame from the Union Depot building for not paying its downtown assessment.
The Industrial Authority filed a lawsuit in November seeking to terminate its lease with the Jazz Hall of Fame and recover $8,474 in past-due taxes and utilities. And in mid-January, on the same day an eviction hearing was scheduled, the Jazz Hall of Fame filed for bankruptcy.
Jason McIntosh, who took over as CEO of the Jazz Hall of Fame after Cissel left, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
But Jack Henderson, a longtime Tulsa city councilor, was glad to come to the defense of the organization and of McIntosh.
“The main thing is, he struggled, he tried to manage to keep it going with what he had,” Henderson said. “I think the county was several times unfair to him in calling for him to pay bills and do stuff when they knew his situation, they knew that he didn’t have any funding coming in from the (state). They just seemed like they were trying their best to take it away from him.”
Henderson said he does not believe funds were mismanaged because there were no funds to mismanage, and that the county’s repeated public discussion of the Jazz Hall of Fame’s struggles only made things worse.
“Once people started believing it, naturally the (philanthropic) funding is going to dry up,” Henderson said.
In a statement to the Tulsa World, Tulsa County commissioners defended their actions, noting that the Jazz Hall of Fame's inability to meet the minimal requirements of the lease has been well documented for years.
"There are an unacceptable number of instances of overlapped bookings and last-minute cancellations for an untold number of facility guests that have occurred over the lifetime of the Jazz Hall’s lease," the commissioners wrote. "The Tulsa County Industrial Authority and the Board of County Commissioners have a responsibility to our citizens to ensure their taxpayer dollars are used in the best and most fiscally responsible way possible, which led to the decisions that have recently taken place."
Maxine Horner won’t be around to see the next chapter of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. She died in February at the age of 88.
But Shari Tisdale knows what her mother would want to see.
“She was very excited to see where it had grown to, but she always wanted to see it really expand globally because she was very passionate about the story that needed to be told,” Tisdale said.
Maybe, just maybe, James Moore can make that happen. The local businessman and founder of the Jazz Foundation LLC was the only qualified bidder to come out of the Jazz Hall of Fame’s bankruptcy proceeding, and earlier this month the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Tulsa was scheduled to rule on whether to accept the bid.
He’s promising big things.
“We have the expertise and the ability to help make the Jazz Hall something pretty exciting for Tulsa,” Moore said. “We kind of look at it as … it never reached its potential, and I think part of that had to do with just lack of resources, and so our plans, if we are the successful bidder, then we would allocate a sizable amount of dollars to renovate the building.”
And there’s more, but as the long, complicated and contentious story of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame has taught Tulsans, it’s best to trust — but verify — before getting too caught up in the music.
Tulsa World Magazine summer edition
Gallery: Memorabilia bound for Tulsa's OKPOP Museum
Ernie Fields poster
Tom Mix toy horse
Leon Russell case
Jamie Oldaker Eric Clapton tour jacket
Bob Wills statuette
Luke Cage comic
Luke Cage hoodie
Alfre Woodard apparel
Russell Myers Broom Hilda
Jesse Ed Davis guitar
$3 for 3 months
“They didn’t have the vision, and they didn’t have the reputation and nobody’s going to want to give you $25,000, or $100,000, if they feel like you are doing something under the table, and that is what they were doing,” said Chuck Cissel, who ended his association with the Jazz Hall of Fame in 2011.
“We have the expertise and the ability to help make the Jazz Hall something pretty exciting for Tulsa,” said James Moore, local businessman and founder of the Jazz Foundation LLC. “We kind of look at it as … it never reached its potential, and I think part of that had to do with just lack of resources, and so our plans, if we are the successful bidder, then we would allocate a sizable amount of dollars to renovate the building.”