Vocalist Luisza Cornelius may be a newcomer to the Jazz Depot stage – and to the rest of the Tulsa jazz scene as well – but anyone who hears her sing will realize immediately that she’s hardly a rookie. In fact, as recently as last year, she was a featured performer in a jazz show at the House of Blues on L.A.’s Sunset Strip.
Later in 2012, however, she returned to the town of her birth, after following her jazz dreams to the West Coast, Paris, and back to California. Now, she’s exploring the Tulsa scene for opportunities to establish herself as an artist in her hometown.
For that, she couldn’t have found a better person that the veteran pianist and vocalist, Joe Wilkinson, whom she met, more or less by accident, not long after coming home for the holidays.
“I’d just gotten here, and I thought, `You know, I’d really love to hear some jazz during this Christmas time. I just don’t know where to go to hear it,'” she remembers. “So I looked in the paper, and I saw that there was going to be jazz at this church. I was kind of shocked that there was going to be jazz at a church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but my brother and I went, and that’s how I met Joe. I told him I sang, and he told me about the jam sessions [at the Jazz Depot].”
The event she attended was Jazz to the World, a holiday concert organized by Wilkinson at the First Christian Church in downtown Tulsa. A performer since his World War II days, Wilkinson has had untold numbers of people come up to him and introduce themselves as singers, so he can be forgiven for being skeptical.
But then he heard her sing.
“He said, `It seems like you’ve done this before,'” Cornelius recalls with a laugh. “And I said, `Yes, I have.'”
She did not do it while she was growing up in Tulsa, however, although she did participate in school music programs.
“That was it, because my dad wouldn’t allow me to do anything else,” she explains with another laugh. “It was just school and church.”
Then, in the 1980s, she took off for California, where she found work for the first time in clubs and similar venues.
“I’ve sung with people who are famous now, like Billy Childs, the jazz artist,” she says. “He used to back me up at a club called the Comeback Café, in California. I’ve sung at all the various clubs: the Roosevelt Hotel, the Roxy, the Troubadour. From there I went to France, because I’d heard how beautiful it was, and I sang at famous hotels there as well. That was in the ’90s.”
After another stint on the West Coast, Cornelius came back to Tulsa. And now, with the help of Wilkinson and her own substantial talent, she’s worked her way up from the jam sessions to featured spots in Jazz Depot shows, notably the most recent Memorial Day concert, which Wilkinson produced. Last month, she shared a bill with vocalist Darell Christopher. Sunday, she’s got one for herself.
“Luisza is quickly becoming a crowd favorite here at the Jazz Depot,” says Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame CEO Jason McIntosh. “And she’s a vocalist musicians love to play music with.”
“I’ll do jazz, but I’m going to mix a little R&B in there as well,” she says of her show. “People should expect the unexpected. Sometimes I’m not even sure what’s happening – it’s in the moment, and it is what it is. That’s what beautiful music is about: improvisation. You just improvise, and beautiful things usually come out.”
She’ll be working with a band Sunday, she adds, but there’ll also be a guest appearance by the man who helped her get her foot in the door in Tulsa.
“I’m going to have Joe come up and do a guest number with me, and tell the people how I came to perform there, and how I got there because of him,” she says. “He’s just been so helpful, pointing me in the direction of different things. He’s a kind-hearted person, and he and his wife have been very good to me. I appreciate that.”
Luisza Cornelius is set to begin at 5:00 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8, at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First Street. Tickets can be purchased at the depot, from www.myticketoffice.com, or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5.
The show is a part of the Jazz Hall’s 2013 Autumn Concert Series.
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.