Mar 02, 2018 - Music icons recall early days of Jazz Lab, festival



    Dr. Lowell Lehman and the late Joe Davis are two names synonymous with jazz in Northeast Oklahoma.

  • Lehman founded the Green Country Jazz Festival when he was a professor at Northeastern State University. He started a jazz band at NSU in 1967, after teaching band, with a jazz combo, at Muskogee's Central High School.

    Now 85, the NSU professor emeritus of music and jazz enthusiast is in the Cherokee County Nursing Center in Tahlequah. He welcomes visits from friends and former students.

    "It started as a campus talent competition with drama and music and everything," Lehman said of the festival.

    Corinthian Broadcasting owned Channel 6 and went around recording various groups, he recalled.

    "Ours was the only jazz band, and we won first place," Lehman said. "My father-in-law saw it on TV in Guymon. That was pretty cool."

    Lehman said he put out several CDs and the last one featured the late Joe Davis. He wonders if Ginny Davis has a copy.

    Ginny, widow of the man who was once Jazz Studies director at NSU, recalled that her husband helped start the River City Players as a variety show.

    "Joe was playing in Tulsa and other places and teaching at NSU when I met him. I first heard a recording of him playing in Lowell's office and was amazed at how good he was," said Ginny, who was once a French horn player with the Tulsa Philharmonic. "He asked if I wanted to meet the musician. I was surprised he was around here, and said, 'Yes.'"

    He drove a yellow Corvette and was a lot of fun, Ginny recalled.

    "[Former NSU President] Roger [Webb] built the Jazz Lab to showcase Joe, in a way to show his appreciation for the hard work he did to start River City Players," Ginny said. "And it was to attract students to NSU who had jazz on their minds. The Jazz Festival had been going for a while."

    After the River City show, guests went across the street to the Jazz Lab to listen to more music, Ginny said.

    Davis taught clarinet, saxophone and flute, but he could play most any instrument.

    "After Joe died, it seems the jazz influence was less," said Ginny.

    Joe Davis died of colon cancer in 1995. In his honor, Webb placed a neon sign over the stage door, and it is still there. It simply reads "Joe's Place."

    C.H. Parker, retired assistant professor of Speech and Theater and co-director of Downtown Country, along with Davis, created the script for the River City Players' first production, "Ferlin's Folly" or "Dolly Goes to Dixie," which combined the best of popular music, Broadway hits, gospel, and everything in between.

    Parker remembers some of the back story, and Webb's saying the Jazz Lab's creation was very necessary.

    "He envisioned a place that not only had music performances, but tables where people could have dessert and a drink," said Parker. "It caught on pretty quickly, especially a Bob Wills show that brought in people from Tulsa and surrounding areas."

    He was amazed at the number of people who said it was a unique show.

    "We kept growing and on and on," Parker said. "Eventually we outgrew the space and moved over to the Playhouse across the street. We added Downtown Country and started doing a Christmas show."

    Parker's 100-year-old mom came to live with him and attended all the shows.

    "President [Don] Betz named the area where we kept wheelchairs 'Thelma's Place' after mom and put a plaque up for her," he said. "That was really something."

    Parker also performed some during the shows.

    "One skit, Carrie Underwood was dressed like an old woman, and a squirrel went up my pant leg; the sketch was really funny," he said. "I still run into people at Walmart who ask it I ever got that squirrel out of my pants."

    Another story Parker shared was about Davis.

    "Joe was extremely gifted; he'd play these instruments and was so outstanding and professional," said Parker. "One time, I came into his office, all these instruments were sitting around and I started to reach for one. Joe said, 'Please don't touch. We who play saxes, it's part of us.'"