Preston Love, His Voice Will Not Be Stilled
This is one of those foundational stories I did on Omaha jazz and blues legend Preston Love. Together with my other stories on him I give you a good sense for who this passionate man was and what he was about. The piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com). I should mention that Love’s autobiography, which is referenced in the story, was well-reviewed by the New York Times and other major national publications. Preston always wanted to leave a legacy behind, and his book, “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later,” is a fine one. The very cool Loves Jazz & Arts Center in the heart of North Omaha’s historic jazz district is named in honor of him. More stories by me about Preston Love can be found on this blog site. I also feature a profile I did on his daughter, singer-songwriter-guitarist Laura Love.
Preston Love, His Voice Will Not Be Stilled
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader
The ebullient Love, still a mean sax player at 75, fiercely champions jazz and blues as rich, expressive, singularly African-American art forms and cultural inheritances. This direct inheritor and accomplished interpreter of the music feels bound to preserve it, to protect its faithful presentation and to rail against its misrepresentation.
He has long been an outspoken critic of others appropriating the music from its black roots and reinventing it as something it’s not. Over the years he’s voiced his opinion on this and many other topics as a performer, columnist, radio host, lecturer and oft-quoted music authority. Since 1972 his Omaha World-Herald “Love Notes” column has offered candid insights into the art and business sides of music.
From 1971 until early 1996 he hosted radio programs devoted to jazz. The most recent aired on KIOS-FM, whose general manager, Will Perry, describes Love’s on-air persona: “He was fearless. He was not afraid to give his opinion, especially about what he felt was the inequality black musicians have endured in Omaha, and how black music has been taken over by white promoters and artists. Some listeners got really angry.”
With the scheduled fall publication of his autobiography “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later,” by Wesleyan University Press in Middletown, Conn., he will finally have a forum large enough to contain his fervor.
“It’s written in protest,” Love said during a recent interview at the Omaha Star, where he’s advertising manager. ”I’m an angry man. I started my autobiography to a large degree in dissatisfaction with what has transpired in America in the music business and, of course, with the racial thing that’s still very prevalent. Blacks have almost been eliminated from their own art because the people presenting it know nothing about it. We’ve seen our jazz become nonexistent. Suddenly, the image no longer is black. Nearly all the people playing rhythm and blues, blues and jazz in Omaha are white. That’s unreal. False. Fraudulent.
“They’re passing it off as something it isn’t. It’s spurious jazz. Synthetic. Third-rate. Others are going to play our music, and in many cases play it very well. We don’t own any exclusivity on it. But it’s still black music, and all the great styles, all the great developments, have been black, whether they want to admit it or not. So why shouldn’t we protect our art?”
When Love gets on a roll like this, his intense speaking style belongs both to the bandstand and the pulpit. His dulcet voice carries the rhythmic inflection and intonation of an improvisational riff and the bravura of an evangelical sermon, rising in a brimstone tirade one moment and falling to a confessional whisper the next. Suzanna Tamminen, acting director of Wesleyan University Press, says, “One of the wonderful things about Preston’s book is that it’s really like listening to him talk. A lot of other publishers had asked him to cut parts out, but he felt he had things to say and didn’t want to have to change a lot of that. So we’ve tried to have his voice come through, and I think it does.”
Love pours out his discontent over what’s happened to the music in the second half of the book. Love, who’s taught courses at the University of Nebraska at Omaha on the history of jazz and the social implications of black music, says he “most certainly” sees himself as a teacher and his book as an educational document.
In his introduction to the book, George Lipsitz, an ethnic historian at the University of California-San Diego and a Wesleyan contributing editor, compares Love to the elders of the Yoruba people in West Africa” “According to tradition, elders among the Yoruba…teach younger generations how to make music, to dance, and create visual art, because they believe that artistic activity teaches us how to recognize ‘significant’ communications. Preston Love…is a man who has used the tools open to him to make great dreams come true, to experience things that others might have considered beyond his grasp.
“He is a writer who comes to us in the style of the Yoruba elders, as someone who has learned to discern the significance in things that have happened to him, and who is willing to pass along his gift, and his vision to the rest of us. His dramatic, humorous and compelling story is significant because it uses the lessons of the past to prepare is for the struggle of the future. It is up to us to pay attention and learn from his wisdom.”
Some may disagree with Love’s views, but as KIOS Perry points out, “All they can do is argue from books. None of them were there. None of them have gone through what’s he gone through. They have nothing to compare it with.” Perry says Love brings a first-hand “historical perspective” to the subject that cannot be easily dismissed.
Those who share Love’s experience and knowledge, including rhythm and blues great and longtime friend, Johnny Otis, agree with him. ”Those of us who came though an earlier era are dismayed,” Otis said by phone from his home in Sebastopol, Calif., “because things have regressed artistically in our field. Preston is constantly trying to make young people understand, so they’ll do a little investigation and get more artistry in their entertainment. He’s dedicated to getting that message out.”
But Love’s book is far more than a polemic. It’s a remarkable life story whose sheer dramatic arc is daunting. It traces his deep kinship with jazz all the way back to his childhood, when his self-described “fanaticism” developed, when he haunted then flourishing North 24th Street’s popular jazz joints to glimpse the music legends who played there.
He grew up the youngest of nine in a ramshackle house in North Omaha. Love’s mother, Mexie, was widowed when he was an infant. Music was always part of his growing up. He listened to his music idols, especially Count Basie and Basie’s lead alto sax man, Earle Warren on the family radio and phonograph. He taught himself to play the sax brought home by his brother “Dude.” He learned, verbatim, Warren’s solos by listening to recordings over and over again. By his med-teens he was touring with pre-war territory bands, playing his first professional gig in 1936 at the Aeroplane Inn in Honey Creek, Iowa (hence the title of his book).
At Omaha’s Dreamland Ballroom he saw his idols in person, imagining himself on the bandstand too — hair coiffured and suit pressed — the very embodiment of black success. ”We’d go to see the glamour of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. We aspired to escape the drabness and anonymity of our own town by going into show business,” Love recalls. ”I dreamed of someday making it…of going to New York to play the Cotton Club and of playing the Grand Terrace in Chicago.”
He encountered both racism and kindness touring America. The road suited him and his wife Betty, whom he married in 1941.
The couple’s first child, Preston Jr., was born 54 years ago and the family grew to include three more off-spring: Norman and Richie, who are musicians, and Portia, who sings with her father’s band.
Life was good and Love, who eventually formed his own band, enjoyed great success in the ’50s. Then things went sour. Faced with financial setbacks, he moved his family to Los Angeles in 1962, where he worked a series of jobs outside music. His career rebounded when he found work as a studio musician and later as Motown’s west coast band leader in the late ’60s, collaborating with such icons as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. He returned to Omaha in 1972, only to find his music largely forgotten and his community in decline. While often feeling unappreciated in his hometown, he basked in the glow of triumphant overseas tours, prestigious jazz festival performances and, more recently, reissues of classic recordings. Today, he’s an elder statesman, historian and watchdog.
To grasp just how much the music means to him, and how much it saddens him to see it lost or mutilated, you have to know that the once booming North 24th Street he so loved is now a wasteland. That the music once heard from every street corner, bar, restaurant, and club has been silenced altogether or replaced by discordant new sounds.
The hurt is especially acute for Love because he remembers well when Omaha was a major jazz center, supporting many big bands and clubs and drawing premier musicians from around the region. It was a launching ground for him and many others.
“This was like the Triple A of baseball for black music,” he says. ”The next stop was the big leagues.”
He vividly recalls jazz giants playing the Dreamland and the pride they instilled: ”All of the great black geniuses of my time played that ballroom — Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl “Father” Hines, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker. Jazz was all black then, number one, and here were people you read about in magazines and heard on radio coast-to-coast, and admired and worshipped, and now you were standing two feet from them and could talk to them and hear their artistry.”
Love regrets many young blacks are uninformed about this vital part of their heritage. ”If I were to be remembered for some contribution,” he says, “it would be to remind people that what’s going on today with the black youth and their rap and all that bull has nothing to do with their history. It’s a renunciation of their true music — blues, rhythm and blues and jazz. You couldn’t get the average young black person today to listen to a record by anyone but one of the new funk or rap players. It’s getting to be where black people in their 20s and 30s feel that way, too.”
He says “the power structure” running the music business in cities like Omaha plays on this malaise, marketing pale reproductions of jazz and blues more palatable to today’s less discriminating audiences:
“Everything’s controlled from out west and downtown in our music. It’s based on personalities, politics and cronyism. Even though it’s often a very poor imitation of the original, it passes well enough not only for whites, but for black too. The power structure has the ability to change the meaning of everything and compromise truth. It’s a disservice to this art and to this city. Every old jazz friend of mine who comes here says the same thing” ‘What happened to your hometown, Preston?’”
Love says his son Norman, a saxophonist living in Denver, largely left Omaha out of frustration — unable to find steady gigs despite overwhelming talent. Love says black musicians have been essentially shut out certain gigs because of their race.
He believes several local musicians and presenters inappropriately use the jazz label. ”The implication is that these guys might be fine jazz players. It’s an arrogance on the part of people who really don’t have the gift to perform it and don’t have the credibility to present it. What I’m saying is not an ego trip. It’s irrefutable. It is, at least, a professional opinion.”
It’s on points like these Love elicits the most ire because they are, arguably, matters of taste. For example, Love complains the city’s main jazz presenters don’t book enough black performers and the people booking the events are unqualified. When it’s pointed out to him that half the acts featured in a major jazz series the past two years have been black and the series’ booker is Juilliard-trained, he dismisses these facts because, in his view, the performers “haven’t been much” and the booking agent’s classical credentials carry little weight in jazz circles.
He acknowledges limited opportunities extend even to North Omaha. ”We have no place to play in our own neighborhood,” he says. ”The club owners here, in most cases, really can’t afford it, but even if they could they don’t know anything about it. So we’ve been thrown to the wolves by our own people.”
Bill Ritchie, an Omaha Symphony bass player and leader of his own mainstream jazz quartet, agrees that many local jazz players don’t measure up and rues the fact there are too few jazz venues. The classically-trained Ritchie, 43, who is white, says the boundaries of jazz, rightly or wrongly, have been blurred: ”There’s so much crossover, so much fusion of jazz and rock and pop today, that it’s hard to say where to draw the line. Preston obviously feels he’s one to draw the line. I might go a little further on that line than someone like Preston, because he comes from a different era than I do, and somebody younger than me might even stretch that line a little bit further.”
For Love and like-minded musicians, however, you either have the gift for jazz or you don’t.
Orville Johnson, 67, a keyboardist with Love’s band, says jazz and the blues flow from a deep, intrinsic experience common to most African-Americans. ”It’s a cultural thing,” Johnson says. “Jazz is sort of the sum total of life experiences. It’s the same with the blues. There’s a thread that runs clear through it, and it’s a matter of life experience that’s particular to black people in America.
“If a person hasn’t lived that life, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to express themselves musically that way. It’s a sum total of what musicians frequently describe as ‘the dues that we’ve paid.’ It doesn’t have much anything to do with technique. It’s a matter of being able to express in musical terms your experience. A university-educated white student who’s been raised perhaps in a middle-class white neighborhood and never known hunger or the frustration of living in a racial society, usually isn’t able to play and get the same feeling. And that includes a young black person who hasn’t known nearly the hardship that people of my generation or Preston’s generation has known.”
It’s the same message Love delivers in lectures. Like Johnson, Love feels jazz is an expression of the black soul: ”To hear the harmony of those black musicians, with that sorrowful, plaintive thing that only blacks have. That pain in their playing. That blue note. That’s what jazz is,” he says. ”The Benny Goodmans and those guys never got it. They were tremendous instrumentalists in their own way. But that indefinable, elusive blue note — that’s black, and a lot of blacks don’t get it.”
The two men doubt if many of the younger persons billing themselves as jazz and blues musicians today have more than a superficial knowledge of these art forms. ”Take the plantation songs that were the forerunners of the blues,” Johnson says. ”Many of the things they said were not literal. When they sung about an ‘evil woman.’ frequently that was a reference to a slave master…not to a woman at all. There’s pretty much a code involved there. When you study it as I’ve done and Preston’s done, that’s what you discover.”
He and Love feel their music is diluted and distorted by university music departments, where jazz is taught in sterile isolation from its rich street and club origins.
Love bristles at the notion he’s a “moldy fig,” the term Boppers coined to describe older musicians mired in the past and resistant to change.
“As far as being a moldy fig, that’s bullshit. I’m as alert and aware of what’s going on in music now as I was 60 years ago,” he says. ”I hear quite a few young guys today who I admire. I’m still capable of great idol worship. I am eternally vital. I play my instruments as modern as anybody alive…and better than I’ve ever played them.”
And like the Yoruba elders, he looks to the past to inform and invigorate the present:
“When you muddy the water or disturb the trend or tell the truth even, you make people angry, because they’d rather leave the status quo as it is. A lot of musicians around her will say privately to me the same things, but they’re afraid to say them publicly. But I’m not afraid of the repercussions. I will fight for my people’s music and its preservation.”
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- Omaha Native Steve Marantz Looks Back at the City’s ’68 Racial Divide Through the Prism of Hoops in His New Book, ‘The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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