What in the world is going on at the historic Mutual Musicians Foundation, the cradle of Kansas City swing?
There’s an accusation that Chairman James Hathaway “emptied” the bank account and regularly grabbed cash collected during weekend jam sessions. Another accusation holds that Vice President Anita Dixon diverted thousands of dollars to a “secret” bank account and walked out with photographs, documents and artifacts.
Each has hurled those accusations at the other during two years of litigation that is about to come to a head.
Dixon is fighting to get Hathaway and other members of the board tossed out after he “proceeded to angrily berate” her — in part with “offensive vulgarities” — for two hours in a locked room.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Hathaway and the board counter that they had “expelled” Dixon, that no one wants her back “because of her abrasiveness and aggressive behavior” and that “it would be absolutely disastrous if she was allowed back in the building.”
Their hyper-personal legal fight goes to trial Monday, Nov. 26, in Jackson County Circuit Court. The outcome may decide who controls the 101-year-old jazz landmark.
At stake is the care of one of Kansas City’s deepest roots in jazz. The 101-year-old Mutual Musicians Foundation is widely celebrated for its jam sessions that begin in the wee hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings. It also operates a small radio station, KOJH, and holds occasional events.
Its humble home at 1823 Highland Ave. became a Historic National Landmark in 1981, nearly a quarter century before the Liberty Memorial was listed.
At its core, the foundation is a musicians union founded in 1917 as Musicians Protective Union Local No. 627. It was one of a few African-American musicians unions to become part of the American Federation of Musicians.
Neither side in the court case would talk about the lawsuit with the trial so close at hand.
Few outsiders would wade into the bitter dispute. Several members of Kansas City’s jazz community contacted by The Star declined to talk, at least publicly.
“The jazz community is aware that there is a lawsuit. I don’t know that people really know the details of it,” said Larry Kopitnik, a Kansas City jazz writer and until recently an editor at Jam Magazine, where he wrote a profile of the foundation in June.
Details remain masked, in part, because the two-year-old lawsuit has attracted little attention. Kopitnik said Hathaway acknowledged the lawsuit but would not discuss it for the profile. And in one court filing, Hathaway and the other defendants said they have tried to keep Dixon’s alleged misdeeds “out of the public eye.”
Kopitnik said local musicians and others in the city’s jazz community also have much less interaction with the foundation than in the past.
“I don’t think it has had much of an impact on the jazz community because for some time now, the foundation has been out there doing their own thing, the jam sessions,” Kopitnik said. “They really haven’t had a lot of other involvement in the jazz community in recent years.”
Bank account concerns
The lawsuit also represents the instability that some consider to have been too common at the foundation.
Dixon — although she declined to discuss the case on her attorney’s advice — did talk about her role at the foundation. She said it grew out of a change in the foundation’s control in late 2009.
Longtime foundation Secretary Betty Crow was displaced as members voted in a new board. Dixon, who first began to hang around the foundation in the 1970s, became vice president.
“I got an opportunity to come back in 2009 to take care of the place,” Dixon said. “We brought in the Kansas City boys and girls choirs so they could study there. The jam session got cleaned up somewhat, you know.”
Health reasons limited Dixon’s involvement for a few years, but she returned to a more active role to find that “things went south.” She sued in October 2016.
In a March 2017 update of her complaint, Dixon claimed board members had mishandled money, violated by-laws intended to protect foundation assets and retaliated against her for complaining about it.
She levied her most serious charges against Hathaway.
In 2014, according to her complaint, Hathaway removed a requirement that checks on the foundation account had to bear two signatures. With “unchecked complete control” of the account, the lawsuit said, Hathaway began “to engage in impermissible self-dealing, to make unauthorized payments to himself, and to expend corporate funds for his personal benefit.”
In August 2016, Hathaway “emptied and closed” the bank account, Dixon’s complaint alleged. It said the closing meant the foundation was unable to receive funding expected from the Kansas City Neighborhood Tourism Department Fund as well as other sources.
Dixon also claimed that Hathaway, Mark Thomas — the foundation’s Sergeant at Arms — and others would “take a cash cut” of money collected at the door and for drinks during weekend jam sessions.
Counterclaim involving artifacts
In a counterclaim in the lawsuit, Hathaway and the board said Dixon “fraudulently used” foundation money for her personal needs. The amount has changed in filings from as much as $20,000 to as little as $5,000.
The board claimed that Dixon opened a “secret” bank account in the foundation’s name, but used her personal address, and then deposited more than $10,000 in it with “intention to permanently deprive defendants of these funds.”
Dixon took monies, photographs, foundation documents, paintings and artifacts valued at $20,000 or more, the board claims. Its filings said Dixon also “engaged in illegal and secretive contracts” that left the foundation more than $8,000 in debt.
Little financial information about the foundation is publicly available.
It consists of two separate bodies. The most recent report for Mutual Musicians Foundation Inc. showed it took in about $135,000 in 2012. Guidestar.com reported that the Internal Revenue Service revoked the nonprofit’s filing status for failing to file reports for three consecutive years.
Guidestar also offers one Mutual Musicians Foundation International report, for 2015, that shows it collected less than $77,000 in revenues that year.
A heated meeting, a near riot
Despite their differences, both sides seem to agree that matters reached a boiling point in mid-2016.
Dixon called a special meeting of the board on July 17 to confront its members over what she saw as their misdeeds and failure to carry out their duties.
Instead, according to her description in court filings, Dixon became the target of an angry two-hour confrontation “intended to degrade, embarrass and harass” her.
Hathaway, Dixon claimed, ordered the doors to the meeting room locked. No one was allowed in, or out. When Dixon tried twice to leave, she claimed, Thomas got between her and the door.
During the session, according to Dixon’s account, Hathaway called her a “traitor” for being in a relationship with a white man, talked about her health issues, called her a “bitch” and uttered other “highly offensive vulgarities” at her.
Dixon filed a complaint with Kansas City police over the incident. For his part, Hathaway sought a protection order against Dixon. Neither led to official action.
About three weeks later, Dixon sought a settlement from the foundation.
An Aug. 12, 2016, letter from her attorney laid out the July 17 incident in detail and said it constituted “sex and race based discrimination creating a hostile work environment” for Dixon.
The letter demanded Hathaway’s and Thomas’ resignations, creation of a community-based group to oversee the board, and $500 to cover Dixon’s legal fees to that point.
Dixon’s attorney gave the board three weeks to act. It needed only two days. Its answer was an Aug. 14, 2016, meeting at which Dixon was expelled.
A board resolution from the Sunday meeting cited additional infractions not mentioned in the court filings.
Dixon, it said, had used foundation premises for political purposes in violation of the bylaws and brought one political candidate to that July special board meeting “to disrupt and cause controversy.”
It also said Dixon publicly confronted one musician in an “unnecessary and ugly conversation which almost started a riot and mob at our headquarters” by using the N-word to describe him on social media.
Foundation hangs in balance
Control of the foundation hangs in the balance in part because Dixon had sued under a provision in Missouri law that allows a director of a nonprofit corporation to take what is called a derivative action. In short, Dixon brought the case on behalf of the corporation rather than herself.
Court filings by Hathaway and other board members denied that Dixon could bring such a case since they had removed her from office and from the board months before she filed the lawsuit.
Neither side has won much ground as the case has progressed toward the trial.
Dixon had asked for a preliminary injunction — essentially an order giving her access to the foundation — but her motion was denied. Hathaway and his fellow defendants asked the judge to dismiss the case on the grounds Dixon was no longer part of the foundation. Their motion was denied, too.
Starting next Monday, each side will get its day in court.