So, including Tulsa in a list of jazz hotbeds – New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City, Chicago – seems arrhythmic.
That jazz reputation, or lack thereof, is one of many hurdles the 24-year-old Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame must clear in its struggle for survival, as the nonprofit is faced with paying down tens of thousands of dollars in debt after years of questionable budgeting practices and a souring economy.
After several reprieves from Tulsa County to get its finances order, the jazz hall has been given an ultimatum: Pay the roughly $60,000 in back assessments and utility bills it owes by the first week of October or face eviction.
“We’re done, we really are,” County Commissioner Karen Keith said in a recent interview. Keith is one of three commissioners who serve as trustees of the county’s industrial authority, which has oversight of the jazz hall. “It just is not working. There have been too many promises made and too many promises broken.”
Keith said she wants it to survive because of its importance to the city’s cultural history, but “not with its current list of players,” a stern rebuke of the top management, which recently went through a shakeup.
Jazz in Oklahoma evolved as African-Americans migrated from the South to the Midwest. Many of the pioneers of Kansas City swing had roots in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and the legendary Count Basie cut his teeth in the state and returned its clubs to recruit new talent. North Tulsa’s Greenwood District, which historians call Black Wall Street because of its thriving shops, newspapers and nightclubs, was a hotbed for up-and-coming acts.
But instead of informing the public about these origins, the nonprofit has spent the past few years explaining why it’s in such dire financial shape.
County Commissioner John Smaligo suggested leaders have taken advantage of the goodwill of voters, who wanted funds to be set aside for the hall.
“The public made a conscious decision to make an investment in this entity by purchasing this facility,” he said. “The expectation of this private organization was to maintain the facility, and quite frankly, they’ve failed miserably at that.”
Local historian and author Jeff Kos, who took over as chairman of the Hall of Fame’s board last month, admits the facility – located downtown in the cavernous Tulsa Union Depot – has failed to maximize its outreach to citizens and patrons of the arts, whose contributions continue to dwindle in a still-recovering economy.
“We should be doing that whether there’s pressure from the county or not,” Kos said in a recent interview at the museum, which was devoid of visitors save for a class of schoolchildren sitting on the well-worn carpet. “We have a great story to tell.”
Part of the problem is letting people know that the museum, whose admission is free, exists and why Oklahoma needs one. Dozens of musicians have been inducted – even if they don’t hail from Oklahoma – greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as Okie-born guitarist Tommy Crook.
Kos estimates 150 people visit on a good week. Some find it accidentally, such a recent group of German tourists traveling on historic Route 66. Others are referred by local hotels. The hall is home to a couple-dozen exhibits featuring gold records, well-used instruments and musicians’ costumes. Rare black-and-white photographs of musicians and concert posters line the walls.
While there’s no cost to enter the museum, its Sunday concerts cost around $15, less for students and seniors. The museum also rents out its performance hall for special events and gets a modest cut of beer and wine sales. It also tries to make ends meet by leasing space to the Tulsa Symphony and a charter school.
Financial problems surfaced after the hall moved into the Art Deco-style Union Depot in 2007. Voters had set aside money under the Vision 2025 capital improvement campaign to buy and refurbish the former train station.
This spring, the organization’s nearly $4,000 check to cover a half-year’s insurance on the building bounced.
Its past tax documents are littered with red ink. Between Oct. 1, 2009 and Sept. 30, 2010, the organization reported revenue of $354,429 and expenses of $449,714 – a deficit topping $95,000. The next fiscal year, the center made around $31,000.
The organization recently put on a jazz benefit concert and is scrambling to find other ways of generating revenue. Jason McIntosh, the hall of fame’s chief executive officer, admits to the past troubles.
“Mistakes have been made, but we’re stronger for it,” said McIntosh, whose goal is to increase membership from 300 to 1,000. Memberships cost $100 a year, and give donors discounts on concerts and merchandise as well as early warnings about exhibits and events.
Kos remained confident the nonprofit will pay off what it owes next month.
“We’re not going to fold up our tent and go away,” he said.