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Rich Music History Long Untold Revealed and Celebrated at Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame

July 2, 2011 26 comments

Six years ago an enthusiastic gentleman by the name of Vaughn Chatman introduced me to his missionary zeal for our shared hometown of Omaha and his mission to bring attention to its rich black music heritage. He founded the Omaha Black Music as a public celebration of the large gallery of black music artists who have come from this place. Soon, the event morphed into honored not only blacks who distinguished themselves in music but in other fields of endeavor as well, and thus the event came to be known as the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame. I have interviewed many of the inductees in the Hall, including:

Preston Love Sr.

Buddy Miles

Arno Lucas

Lois “Lady Mac” McDonald

Helen Jones Woods

Cathy Hughes

You’ll find their stories and the stories of other inductees on this blog site. The event took a sabbatical a while back but is returning this year, July 29, at the Slowdown during Native Omaha Days. My story below appeared on the eve of the inaugural Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame .  I hope to write about this year’s event.

Rich Music History Long Untold Revealed and Celebrated at Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The fact that jazz and blues greats often played north Omaha’s live music haunts is well known. What’s not is this inner city’s huge roster of high-caliber musical talents. Enough Omaha artists have impacted the industry to rival the legacy of homies from historical music hotbeds like Kansas City. The contributions of these O-bred and born cats may add up to one of black music’s largest untold stories.

Bringing this weighty heritage to light “before it’s lost” motivated native Omahan Vaughn Chatman to create the new Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, which honors 40 artists in an inaugural awards dinner August 4 at Harrah’s Casino in Council Bluffs. The inductees range from such swing era figures as the late Preston Love, big band leader Lloyd Hunter and rock pioneer Wynonie Harris, right on up to such modern artists as percussionist Luigi Waites, jazz guitarist Calvin Keys, songwriter-singer Gene “Booker” McDaniels, drummer/vocalist Buddy Miles, sideman/songwriter Arno Lucas and drummer/vocalist/keyboardist Lester Abrams.

“When you look at the overall picture, Omaha’s influenced all kinds of music and still does. Half the inductees are still out there playing and influencing the world,” Chatman said. “Buddy Miles came out of Omaha and went on to play with Jimi Hendrix (not to mention Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and a host of other legends). Lalomie Washburn started with Rufus and hooked up with Chaka Khan.”

The “awesome” Keys has played with everybody from Earl “Father” Hines to Ray Charles to Ahmad Jamal. McDaniels has written standards for many top artists, including the mega-hit Feel Like Makin’ Love for Roberta Flack. Lucas has collaborated with Luther Vandross, Al Jarreau, Michael Jackson, et cetera. Abrams headed the Omaha-based grand funk group L.A. Carnival. Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris has shared the stage and earned accolades from the likes of B.B. King.

“If Omaha’s looking for something to be known for, this is what we should be known for. That we’ve turned out a number of artists who’ve achieved recognition everywhere in this country and all over the world. There was an era when this was a great place for musicians. They all influenced each other,” Chatman said.

Miles, co-founder of the legendary Band of Gypsies with Hendrix, said he and his contemporaries earned their chops “doing a lot of jamming.” He and many of the other inductees were peers on the burgeoning music scene here. “Everybody was into music. We all shared ideas and information. Any type of musical adventure or experience that presented itself, we went for it,” Keys said. Mentors abounded, too. Keys recalled how jazz master Ed ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson “lived in Omaha for awhile. He used to come down on the scene, too. He taught everybody. He was the guru. There was another guitar player here named Luther ‘Guitar’ Woodruff. We called him Papa. He was a big influence.”

 

 

Alesia Rae

 

 

Keys and company were schooled, too, by former Count Basie sideman Preston Love. “He helped a lot of us,” Keys said. Visiting artists infused more inspiration. “Every time Wayne Bennett, who played with Bobby Blue Bland, would come through town, he had stories we would listen to and he had some new chords he had learned. That made us hungry to work. Omaha was a melting pot. We were right in the center of everything and we were a window for a lot of stuff going on.”

Chatman, a musician-turned-attorney living in Fair Oaks, Calif., was among the young bloods learning from the hepcats, including his late older brother Percy, an inductee. Back in the day, music was everywhere. It was in the streets, the projects, the churches, the bars, the barbershops, the theaters and the nightclubs — the Dreamland and Carnation Ballrooms, the Showcase Lounge, the Elks Club, the Off-Beat Supper Club . These spots were proving grounds, launching pads, classrooms and stages where innovative chord changes, oh-so-sweet riffs and hot new licks tickled the night.

While some of Omaha’s brightest talents remained, most, like Keys, left to chart music careers — in jazz, blues, R & B, soul and funk — in a myriad of back rooms, studios, concert halls and stadiums, both here and abroad. Whether on stage or in sessions, on the road or back home, the artists took a piece of Omaha with them.

 

 

Calvin Keys

 

 

“Contrary to popular belief, Omaha was not just about jazz or Preston Love. A lot of genres thrived here. A lot of music developed here. A lot of remarkable talent trained here. Cats like Buddy Miles and Lester Abrams created a unique Omaha sound, a big bass sound, that they introduced wherever they went,” Chatman said.

The Hall of Fame awards dinner, which costs $35 a plate, is reuniting O-artists separated by years of touring and recording. McDaniels and fellow inductee Richetta Wilson, who perfomed with Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald, are to do a duet that night. Coinciding with Native Omaha Days, the biennial African-American homecoming, the banquet promises a nostalgic celebration of the city’s fat music times. Proceeds are to fund music scholarships for minority youths. Chatman, whose event is slated every two years during the Days, is working with local educators in the hope that a curriculum will be designed to teach Omaha’s rich black music history in the public schools.

The local talent pool runs so deep there’s no end of potential future inductees. Among the leading contenders are sax man Buddy Tate and bass fiddle player Alvin “Junior” Raglin, who went on to fame with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, respectively. “The list goes on and on, A whole lot of talent has come out of Omaha,” Keys said. “Yeah, Omaha was a mecca to be reckoned with,” Miles added.

Lit Fest Brings Author Carleen Brice Back Home Flush with the Success of Her First Novel, ‘Orange Mint and Honey’

July 2, 2011 10 comments

Another Omaha native writer enjoying breakout success is Carleen Brice, whose first two novels have done very well. This is the first of a few articles I’ve written about Carleen and her work. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared shortly after her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey, announced her as a major new voice to be reckoned with, and she soon proved that debut novel was no fluke with Children of the Waters. More recently, the superb Lifetime Movies adaptation of Orange Mint, which goes under the title Sins of the Mother, won NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding TV Movie and for Jill Scott in the lead role of Nona. Now. Brice’s sequel to Orange Mint, which she calls It Might As Well Be Spring, is due out this summer, and she’s at work on yet another novel, Calling Every Good Wish Home.  I feel a personal investment in Carleen because her late grandfather, Billy Melton, was a vital source and good friend.  He always spoke with great pride about her accomplishments.  Go to my Billy Melton category to check out some of the stories I wrote about him and his various passions and adventures.

You can find my other Carleen Brice articles, including one about that Lifetime adaptation, by clicking on her name in the category roll to the right.  I expect I’ll be adding more pieces about her as her career continues going gangbusters. Billy’s smiling somewhere.

 

 

 

 

Lit Fest Brings Author Carleen Brice Back Home Flush with the Success of Her First Novel, ‘Orange Mint and Honey

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Denver author Carleen Brice, an Omaha native who left here after graduating Central High School in the 1980s, is getting raves for her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey (One World Ballantine Books, 2008). It follows three nonfiction books and numerous newspaper-magazine essays-articles that earlier established her as a wry observer of the African American experience and the larger human condition.

Now Brice is returning as an invited author at this weekend’s (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. That makes it sound like she hasn’t been back in awhile, which isn’t so, but now she’s riding the momentum of her novel being an Essence Magazine Recommended Read and a Target Bookmarked Breakout pick.

She’ll appear on a Saturday noon panel at the Bemis about music as an influence on writing. That’s apt as music’s a family legacy Brice inherited “by osmosis” from her beloved late grandfather, Billy Melton, or “Papa,” whose best friend was the late jazz musician and her surrogate uncle, Preston Love Sr. Her jazz-blues bassist husband, Dirk, jammed with Preston at Papa and grandmama Martha’s 50th wedding anniversary. Papa’s vast music collection led Brice to jazz singer Nina Simone. In Orange Mint Simone’s presence appears to the embittered, traumatized daughter, Shay, as a guide to find healing with her recovering alcoholic mother, Nona.

Shay, portrayed as a fan of classic jazz-blues, gets involved with a younger man she works with at a Denver music store. He schools her on contemporary artists.

Then consider Brice often uses music when writing to evoke moods she wants to convey. There’s plenty of mood swings in Orange Mint. The strained mother-daughter story is infused with pain and humor. Forgiveness walks a rocky road. The messy reconciliation between two strong wills rings true. The relationship is fiction but draws on the dynamic Brice had with her own mom. Just as Nona bore Shay as a teen, Brice’s late mother bore her at 15. Like Nona, her mom was a pistol. Unlike Nona, she was no alcoholic. Brice’s folks divorced when she was young.

“We had kind of the typical mother-daughter, love-hate so-close-that-we-drove-each-other-insane kind of relationship,” Brice said by phone. “We were more like sisters. What it’s like to have a young mom that you sort of sometimes feel like you’re raising her instead of she’s raising you comes out in the book.”

Brice’s novel never devolves into melodrama or soap opera. It satisfies and surprises in ways only a gifted writer and old soul can deliver. The book’s being adapted by a producer for a Lifetime Television movie and one hopes it’s treated with the care and sophistication it deserves. On her blog, The Pajama Gardener, a compendium of Brice’s musings about working in the earth and writing, activities she sees parallels in, the author votes for Angela Bassett to play Nona.

Nona’s passion for gardening reflects the kinds of creative, expressive outlet many black women have sought in lieu of limited opportunities for careers in the arts.

 


 

 

Orange Mint confirms the promise Brice has long exhibited as a storyteller.

Her first book dealt with African Americans and the grieving process and her next offered affirmations for people of color. More recently, she edited Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number (Souvenir Press, 2003), a collection of writings by black female authors, including icons Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, Niki Givoanni and Maya Angelau, that Brice put together on the subject of black women navigating mid-life. Brice contributed two pieces of her own to that well-reviewed compilation. One comments on the unrealistic expectations black women like herself face when young and how, in middle age, she’s attempted to free herself and her expressive soul from the bondage of myth.

Just don’t mistake those projects for advice column fodder. They’re much more than that. Brice writes with an eloquence and depth that put her on the same plane as the literary lionesses she shares the pages with in Age Ain’t Nothing. It’s only fitting that Brice, who grew up reading many of the very authors she’s now immortalized with, should be recognized as a serious new African American voice.

Early on she evidenced a love for the written word. “My mom liked to read,” she said, “so when I was really little I learned the joy of reading and storytelling, and I think that’s what led me to want to be a writer. I used to tell stories to other kids. I’d just make things up. I wrote my grandmother Martha stories. When I was in high school I studied creative writing. In college I studied journalism. Most of my job jobs involved writing. So it’s something I’ve always enjoyed.”

Brice no longer works a day job. She writes every day, a discipline she credits Dirk with inspiring in her. “Kind of like building my chops as a writer,” she said. “When not laying down “the bones” or “the heart” of her stories, she interacts with a literary community via book clubs, readers’ circles, writers’ groups.

She’s in-progress on a new novel, Children of the Waters, due out next July. It explores issues of race, identity and what really makes a family, she said. The story explores what happens when a pair of biracial sisters raised in separate families — one white, the other black — find each other as adults.

The author is musing with the idea of continuing Nona’s story in a future project.

Brice is among that vast exodus of blacks who’ve left this place over the years to realize their dreams elsewhere. But like many of these expatriates she’s never really left. She has lots of family and friends here. A contingent even came to Orange Mint’s release party in Denver. They’re a tight bunch and they’ll be representing at Lit Fest. They’ll have a good time, too, she said, as her “larger-than-life” family knows how to party — another legacy of sweet, ebullient Papa.

His music, she said, speaks through her.

The Sept. 19-20 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest is its usual eclectic self, with a mish-mash of events that address diverse literary themes, some with more than a wink of the eye. The BIG theme this year is Plagiarism, Fraud & Other Literary Inspiration. Fest events take place at some of Omaha’s coolest venues, including the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the RNG Gallery, Slowdown, Aromas Coffee House and the Omaha Public Library’s W. Dale Clark branch.

Some of Omaha’s and America’s hottest writers converge for readings, panel discussions and other litnik activities. Brice fits the bill to a tee. Think of the fest as a progressive mixer for readers, authors and artists engaging in a literary salon experience — Omaha-style. A scene where laidback meets high brow. For a complete schedule visitwww.omahalitfest.com.

Camille Metoyer Moten, A Singer for All Seasons

June 22, 2011 9 comments

I have had the distinct pleasure now of profiling a handful of Omaha’s chanteuses – those vexing songbirds of the nightclub or cabaret set who enchant as much with their attitude as with their voice. The magic they imbue a song with has everything to do with how they interpret the words and music, bending notes with tone, texture, posture, expression. One such songstress is Camille Metoyer Moten, who fairly oozes sophisticated style.  This piece I did on her for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared a few years ago. More recently, I’ve written about two more sisters of the Great American Songbook in Karrin Allyson and Anne Marie Kenny.  You can find my stories about these other artists on this same blog.  I still hope to write about the most legendary of the cabaret singers from Omaha, namely Julie Wilson.

 

 

 

 

Camille Metoyer Moten, A Singer for All Seasons

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Excuse the shameless alliteration, but singer Camille Metoyer Moten often gets props for her versatile chops, a quality she amply displayed in concert at the Multi-Faith Music Festival last month. In short order the Omaha native effortlessly went from a jazzy cabaret interpretation of the Harold Arlen standard “Over the Rainbow” to a soaring duet with Seth Fox of “Make Our Garden Grow” from the Leonard Bernstein classic Candide to wailing solo and harmony turns on the Rent anthem “Seasons of Love.”

Her classically trained mezzo soprano hit all the requisite notes, leaving no doubt she could call on more if required. She confirmed this in a recent interview at the north Omaha home she and her husband Michael Moten, pastor of One Way Ministry church, share. If necessary she said she can still find the first soprano notes she once reached automatically as a Xavier University voice major in New Orleans in the early 1970s, where she sang with the school’s noted jazz band and in clubs around town. Ellis Marsalis often sat in with her and the Xavier crew.

As impressive as she was that night at All Saints Episcopal Church, where she shone the brightest on a talent-rich festival bill, it was just another example of how easily she swings from one thing to another. Last spring she sang opposite Broadway veteran Kevyn Morrow in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s mega production of Ragtime. She’s a musical theater legend there, with two Fonda/McGuire Awards to her credit. But she’s best known for her cabaret shows. Lately, she’s been laying down tracks for her first CD, Go Forward, a mix of contemporary religious music. Then there’s her work at One Way Ministry, where she leads the choir and sings solos. She’s also a regular in Opera Omaha and Soli Deo Gloria Cantorum concerts.

She can sing anything,” said Playhouse music director Jim Boggess. Pianist- producer-conductor Chuck Penington, a frequent accompanist of hers, said, “She has a very broad repertoire. She can go clear across the 20th century in music. She knows lots and lots of material and she sings it all really authentically.”

Metoyer Moten, who began singing at home imitating “the silky, velvety sound” of song stylists Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald she listened to on her mother’s records, finds satisfaction in having “a lot of versatility. That’s one of the reasons I stay so busy,” she said. “That was my goal when I first started out. I wanted to be able to do it all. I love it all so. I love the fact I can do that. I love when people say, ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’” Long fascinated by how those legends got just the right inflection or phrasing, she’s now the model of cool, the caress of her voice enveloping a lyric, pulling you into the embrace of its meaning.

As those who work with her are quick to point out, her artistry extends beyond technique. “She has an innate sense of musical style and makes the message in a lyric very personal,” said Opera Omaha artistic director Hal France. “You can talk about voice and her voice is warm and compelling, but you can’t separate voice from life experience, intelligence and soul. I suppose if one can bring all of that together in performance then you really have something, and Camille does.”

 

 

 

 

The 52-year-old mother of two draws on many things. Her grandpa Vic and dad Ray ran the family business, Metoyer’s Barbecue, on North 24th Street. She said in one of the late ‘60s riots her fair-skinned father went there to “protect” the place. “As he stood outside a group of teens advanced and he overheard one say, ‘Let’s get him,’ thinking he was white, before another one said, ‘No, man, that’s Metoyer” and moved on.” Her dad was president of the Nebraska Urban League. Her folks were “involved” in the 4CL civil rights group. As a child she marched on city hall with them demanding fair housing and she met Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson.

While a Burke High School senior her mother died from a brain tumor. She said her mom was “a great singer.” Family legend has it she even landed an audition with Duke Ellington, “but never did anything with it,” except harmonize with her children, choosing life as a homemaker over touring torch singer. The loss of her mom occurred the same year Burke’s then music director denied Metoyer Moten a part in a production of Guys and Dolls due to her race. Years later she helped overturn bias in local theater by winning nontraditional roles — Mary Magdalene, Fanny Brice and Eva Peron — which helped make it happen for other minorities. “I do feel like I kind of opened the door to that color blind casting,” she said.

At lily white Burke things weren’t so enlightened. “I had some issues there,” she said. A sympathetic drama teacher did come to her “with tears in her eyes and said, ‘I just want you to know it had nothing to do with your talent. That man said he’s not having no black girl kiss a white boy on his stage.’ It was messed up. I was crushed but I appreciated her honesty.” After graduating she fled Omaha, at 17, for a new start down south, in Louisiana, where her dad’s Creole family hailed from.

“It was a bad year,” she said. “So I went to New Orleans. It was kind of just an opportunity to get away from the whole thing.” To her “roots.”

The Crescent City proved a tonic. There, blond afro and all, she trained her voice, met her husband, underwent a born again conversion and discovered jazz. With “so much” to engage her, what most enamored her was “the heart and soul of the people. They live their culture. The music and the food, it’s so them, and I admire that,” she said, “because it’s just a passion you don’t see other places. It’s a very spiritual place.” It’s where jazz first truly spoke to her. “Growing up and listening to the jazz artists my mother had was one thing. Then to see and feel the passion of the jazz artists there was a totally different thing.” She came to see it as an inheritance. “I had all these peers that had come from generations of jazz players. So I was surrounded with all these incredibly gifted musicians from that city.”

Partying her way through college, she found an eager playmate in a local boy named Michael Moten. Raised a Catholic, she’d fallen away from organized religion. He was no churchgoer himself. But then he made a resolution to “get closer to God” and made good on it. She did, too. “It completely changed our life,” she said.

The couple married and in 1979 acted on the advice of her dad, a counselor at Boys Town, to apply as family teachers there. They flew in on a Friday and nailed the interview. They went back to New Orleans on a high after landing the jobs. The following Monday her father was shot and killed at the family’s eatery by a deranged woman he’d fired a year before. He was 52. The “drugged-out” woman had harassed him and the family by phone, spewing “profanities.” “Just a senseless death,” Metoyer Moten said. “My father was such a giving man. His funeral was massive. So many people turned out because he was a great guy.”

 

 

 

 

Upon her return to town in ‘79 she began gigging in theater and concert settings.

Having endured the pain of losing both parents prematurely, she has a well of emotions to summon in coloring her soulful cabaret work. For someone as shy as she, the intimacy of that performing “took some getting used to,” she said. As a girl she used to sneak downstairs to dress up in her mother’s red cape with leopard trim and mimic what she imagined an elegant jazz singer in a club must look and sound like. Her mother would creep down the stairs to listen, the creak of the steps giving her away, enough to make the self-conscious Camille clam up.

Metoyer Moten prefers the “nice distance” a theater’s stage and lights provide as a buffer from audiences, but she’s come to embrace the “freer style” of cabaret, even if it exposes her. “When you’re doing that cabaret thing they’re right there, you know. You might spit on them. which has happened,” she said, cracking her big easy laugh. “I just talk…about my panty hose… whatever, and people like that. People get involved and talk back. It’s fun. It’s helped me get over that shyness.”

Her laidback vibe wins over everyone. “She’s truly one of the funniest people I have ever met in my life,” Boggess said. “A wonderful sense of humor. She doesn’t take herself very seriously. She is so easy to work with because she’s always open to suggestions. But she’s usually right about what’s right for her. I just love working with that girl. I love her to death. And she breaks my heart when she sings.”

One of Camille Metoyer Moten’s many upcoming engagements is singing for the Omaha Holiday Lights Festival concert Thanksgiving night at the Gene Leahy Mall.


Chef Mike Does a Rebirth at the Community Cafe

June 22, 2011 5 comments

Mike Whitner is one of several small business owners fighting the good fight by trying to inject some new commerce into the economically depressed northeast Omaha community. His Chef’s Mike Community Cafe is the type of going concern the district desperately needs but is woefully lacking. As with anybody, he has a story. Specifically, there’s a story behind how and why he became a chef and located his business in the heart of an area with great, though as yet unrealized promise, a situation that’s defined the area since its decline in the 1960s and ’70s. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared shortly after Chef Mike opened his place. The good news is he’s still in business and the area is targeted for massive redevelopment. The bad news is that much of that development is still some years away. But every little anchor and magnet business like his can make a difference, especially if there becomes a critical mass of them.

 

 

 

 

Chef Mike Does a Rebirth at the Community Cafe

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.threader.com)

“I’m doing a rebirth,” said Mike Whitner, a.k.a. Chef Mike, as he pointed to the colorful sidewalk/window signs outside his Community Cafe in the Family Housing Advisory Services building at 24th and Lake in north Omaha. “I’m taking what I learned from my roots and putting it in like a nouvelle style kind of soul food. I keep it traditional, but I add the new wave in it, like using a lot of smoked turkey in my greens (instead of ham hocks), where it’s going to be healthy for you.”

A solid block of a man who brightens his white chef’s smock with Pollock splattered pants and jaunty berets, Whitner grew up in a rough section of far northeast Omaha’s “Flatlands.” He ran with a gang. He learned to defend himself. As the youngest of seven siblings he spent a lot of time watching his mother cook. He paid close attention. He’ll tell you the secret to soul food is made-from-scratch cooking whose deeply imbued flavors build in stages, over time.

“It’s a process,” he said. One that can’t be rushed. No shortcuts please.

Another “mentor” is Charles Hall, owner/head cook of the now defunct Fair Deal Cafe on North 24th Street. Whitner’s smothered pork steak is a homage to Hall’s classic smothered pork chop.

“I slow cook it like he used to,” Whitner said. “I cook it in its juices with peppers and onions. When you do it right, it just melts in your mouth, baby.”

As a kid Whitner earned extra money making sandwiches/dinners and hawking them to working men on the north side. Before becoming a chef though, he had some living to do. He played college and semi-pro football, bounced at clubs, provided personal security to clients and collected for others. Once, a guy pulled a gun and shot him. A bullet grazed his head. He still managed to break the shooter’s wrist down, wrest the gun away and beat him with it.

Incidents like these convinced him “it was time to grow up and get away from all that and stop taking care of other people’s business. My mother slept better.”

He got a taste of the restaurant game working at Boston Sea Party and L and N Seafood Grill. A move to Denver in the early 1990s launched him on his career. He learned the trade at the famed Wynkoop Brewing Company, which sponsored his training in the Chefs de Cuisine Association. Working chef’s license in hand, he helped Wynkoop become an anchor of the Mile High City’s trendy LoDo district.

Back home by the mid ‘90s, he entered the Omaha catering scene. He was on the team that opened Rick’s Boatyard Cafe. A parting of the ways found him catering again, this time out of trucks doing a tidy trade on the streets. When the spot he’s in now came open, he went after it.

“One of the promises I made when I became a chef,” he said, “was to bring everything I learned back to the Flatlands. I wanted to be here.”

His fusion of soul with gourmet adds new twists to old favs: sauteed baby bay shrimp with collard greens; roast beef with a demi-glace or mirepoix-based sauce; and jalapeno cheddar corn bread. Every day he does theme dishes — from blackened beef or fish to pasta to tacos to soul food staples to whole catfish filets. He has his signature Black Angus dogs, reubens, gyros and Philly steak and cheese. Some items, like his sweet potatoes, are from his own garden. He buys from local growers.

 

 

 

 

Open weekdays for breakfast, when you can get grits and biscuits, and lunch, most meals there run well under $6. The one day he’s open late, Fridays, he offers a prime rib or salmon dinner for $13, with live jazz by Hopie Bronson. The cafe’s “transformed” then into an intimate club with low lights, linen table cloths, votive candles. There’s free parking in an adjacent lighted lot.

For Whitner, who still has his own catering biz, his place is a symbol of what he sees as North 24th’s rebirth.

“This area was rich in jazz and blues. In those days businesses were booming. Everybody was coming down here enjoying 24th Street. That’s what I want again,” he said.

It’s why his menu is a melange of old and new.

“I want to represent where I come from,” he said of his soul food roots. But, he added, “you gotta mix it up. It’s an area that’s been heavy with soul food places. You can’t eat soul food every day. It’s not good for you. You gotta give this area food it’s never had before…that’s different. Folks love being able to have that kind of cuisine down here.”

Business isn’t as brisk as he’d like, but he’s set on staying to help spark a renaissance.

“Eventually this area is going to be the educational, arts, music district” of north Omaha, he said. “That’s where’s it’s going. You can feel it. When you get the jazz and blues down here you can feel it coming. It’s coming for sure.”

The Community Cafe, 2401 Lake St., is open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Breakfast from 7:30 to 11 a.m. and lunch then on. Friday dinners with live jazz from 7 to 11 p.m. For details and take out orders, call 964-2037.

Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art: Passage Across Form and Passing on Legacy

June 22, 2011 3 comments

 

UPDATE: The subject of this story, artist Frederick Brown, passed away in the spring of 2012.

An Omaha cultural venue that has never enjoyed the attendance it deserves is the Loves Jazz & Arts Center. Then again, poor marketing efforts by the center help explain why so few venture to this diamond in the rough resource. The fact it’s located in a perceived high-risk, little-to-see-there area doesn’t help, but without the promotional initiative to drive people in numbers there it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of folks avoiding the area like the plague. All of which is a shame because the center’s programming, while lacking full professional follow-through, has a lot to offer. An example of some very cool LJAC programs from a few years ago were workshops that noted artist Frederick Brown conducted there in conjunction with an exhibition of his work at Joslyn Art Museum.  Some of Brown’s paintings of jazz and blues legends ended up on display at the center. I interviewed Brown during his Omaha visit and I think I managed capturing in print his spirit. The story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

 

John Coltrane by Frederick Brown

 

 

Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art: Passage Across Form and Passing on Legacy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Leading contemporary American artist Frederick Brown offered a glimpse inside the ultra-cool, super-sophisticated New York salon and studio scene during a June visit to Omaha in conjunction with his current exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum. Showing through September 4, Portraits of Music I Love is a selection of Brown’s huge, ever expanding body of work devoted to jazz and blues artists under whose influence he came of age in the American avant garde movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.

The Georgia-born Brown was raised in Chicago, where he was steeped in the Delta Blues tradition that seminal figures like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed, neighbors and friends, brought from the South. He grew up with Anthony Braxton. Later, in New York, he fell under the spell of jazz masters Ornette Coleman and Chet Baker. His intimate circle also encompassed the who’s-who of post-modern American painters, including his mentor, Willem deKooning. It was in this rarefied atmosphere of appreciation and collaboration Brown blossomed. He observed. He absorbed. He shared. The only condition for hanging with this heady crew, he said, was to “be unique — to bring something to the table.”

“At that time one of the nice things about living in an artist’s community like SoHo was that you had these people all around you who were at the top of their game and of the avant garde scene and of the aesthetic thing. I didn’t have to invent the wheel. The standard was set. Plus, right in front of me, I saw the work ethic. You could go to their studio or they could come to yours, and you could partake in whatever you wanted to partake in and discuss aesthetics at the highest level. You had all this kind of wisdom, information, feedback and back-and-forth,” he said.

Given all the time he’s spent with musicians, it’s perhaps inevitable Brown speaks in the idiom of a jazzman. That is to say he patters away in a hip, improvisational riff that sings with the eloquence of his thoughts, the musicality of his language and the richness of his associations, stringing words and ideas together like notes.

New York was the start of his being consumed with making it as an artist. “Total immersion. 24/7. Total commitment. Either I make it or die. A total spartan kind of situation,” he said, adding the artists befriending him “accepted and encouraged me.” Art is not only his inspiration but a legacy he must carry on. A set of musicians he was tight with, including Magic Sam and Earl Hooker, made him pledge long ago that after they were gone he’d preserve their heritage through his work. Then, after emerging as a bright new force in New York, his chronically troubled tonsils grew infected, but Brown had neither the insurance nor the cash to pay for an operation. He was resigned to dying when an anonymous benefactor stepped forward to foot the bill. It was 20 years before he learned his musician friends had ponied up to save his life. Ever since then, he’s felt a debt to further the art of jazz. His paintings at Joslyn represent a fraction of the music portraits he’s done as the fulfillment of that “promise.” At his 30,000-square foot studio in Carefree, Arizona he’s working on a 450-work National Portrait Gallery-curated series of jazz icons that will tour the world under the aegis of the U.S. State Department.

 

 

Frederick Brown, center, at a jazz summit

 

 

Architecture was Brown’s first field, but when painting began speaking to him more deeply, he chose the life of an artist. He hit the ground running upon his 1970 arrival in New York, where he was immediately embraced for his talent, intellect and curiosity and for the fluidity of his technique and the originality of his vision.

“I’ve always had an innate ability to look at something or hear something and then do it. I could always paint in every style. If styles are languages, then I’m fluent in all of them. I never felt like any were above me or below me,” he said.

In amazingly short order, his work was exhibited in the Whitney Biennial, the Marlboro Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He first made his mark in the realm of abstract expressionism, but always looking to stay “10 years ahead of the curve,” he changed directions to more figurative work and is often credited with helping bring back the figure in contemporary art. The small selection of his paintings at Joslyn are expressionistic figurative portraits that employ iridescent colors and bold brush strokes to evoke the singular essence and creative spark of such artists as Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Billy Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington and the late Ray Charles.

The prolific and versatile Brown is that rare artist with the ability to produce at the highest level while churning out a prodigious volume of pieces in quick succession. He’s tackled ambitious series’, massive single works, “mosaics” that fill entire rooms and themes ranging from the history of art to the Assumption of Mary. Still indefatigble at age 60, he can paint for hours without a break, as he did 13 hours straight during celebrated tours of China in the late ‘80s, and complete a fully realized work in the span of a musical cut or joint, something he’s done on countless occasions at rehearsals and recording sessions with musicians. Hanging with “the cats” at those jams, Brown does his thing and paints while they do their thing and play. Together, in harmony, each gives expression to the other.

“When you have people expressing, live, their spirit — in music, dance, poetry — these elements are cross pollinating the whole environment and gives the place another spirit and vibe and rhythm, too,” he said. “I’ve always painted very quickly. I can paint in the same rhythm and motion as the music. In fact, I can do one painting while they do one tune. So, every day doing that, doing that, for like 15 years — 30-40 paintings a day — every day, every day for all those years, you get to a certain level where it’s just like natural and you forget that it’s anything special.”

His experiences with performing and visual artists have prompted him to explore the mysteries of capturing music on canvas via color. “To hear Ed Blackwell play, it sounded like it was raining on the drums,” he said. “So, how do you translate that into color?” To get it right, Brown embarked on a study of color theories, harmonies and contrasts. “It’s like what color do you put next to another color to make that color brightest? It’s the same kind of thing you have in music. They’re all just notes. It made me have to think about this, where before it was just instinctual. Once I got it down, I didn’t have to think about it. It became subliminal again. And then I was just reacting to the sounds…and seeing the music.”

 

 

Welcome Home by Frederick Brown

 

 

In a series of cooperative workshops Brown conducted at the new Loves Jazz & Arts Center on North 24th Street, he simulated the fertile environs of the haute couture salons and loft studios he’s so familiar with. As his workshop students applied brush to canvas, bongo players beat out a driving rhythm, life models struck dance poses and Brown, turned out smartly in suit and shades, navigated the room, stopping at each easel to offer insight and encouragement to the students, who included some of Omaha’s best known artists. It was a sensual, visceral experience.

Brown’s painted this way for decades, using music as a channel for summoning his muse. “I always have music when I’m painting. I listen to a whole spectrum of music.” It’s about setting a mood for ushering in the shamanistic spirit he feels he possesses. Art as communion. “It’s like doing a jazz solo. You’re in that stream. It’s like a total zone you’re in and it just happens. You’re not conscious of it. In one sense my painting is like automatic writing,” he said. “No one can reproduce it, either.” It’s how he goes about painting his portraits of singers or musicians.

“When I’m doing this stuff I have their music playing or I have a photograph of them out,” he said. “Their spirit has to agree to come into that painting. In essence, I provide a painterly body for their spirit to inhabit. I’m a vehicle or a conduit for this information to pass through. Until the painting has a soul or a spirit, then it’s just paint on canvas. I just work on it until their spirit is satisfied,” he said. “You have to get in this like protective, almost out-of-body experience. With some people, like Johnny Hodges, you can express everything about them very quickly and simply. Others, like (Thelonious) Monk, are more complex. But sometimes you can catch the most complex situation in the fewest strokes.

“People always say, How do you know when you’re finished? Because it won’t allow you to touch it. The thing is complete. It doesn’t need any more brush strokes.”

Brown made his Omaha workshops a vehicle for exposing participants to new “possibilities” — “pushing” artists beyond self-imposed “limits” by having them, for example, create 24 paintings in a single night. He also made the classes a means for imbuing the Loves Center, whose mission is to be a venue where all the arts meet, with a synergistic “energy” open to all forms of expression. “What it comes down to is one person expressing themselves in a certain way and being inspired by different mediums. It’s getting more people involved. It’s opening minds, just like Ornette and them did for me.”

Actress Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch

June 22, 2011 12 comments

One of my favorite “discoveries” from the past decade is fellow Omaha native Yolonda Ross, a supremely talented actress whose work back here has gone largely unnoticed for some reason. I caught up with her the first time, for the story that follows, not long after her breakthrough starring role in the HBO women’s prison movie Stranger Inside brought her to the attention of the television/film industry and just before Antwone Fisher was released and her small but telling role as Cousin Nadine made an impression. She’s proved a daring artist in her choice of material and is exploring writing-directing opportunities in addition to acting gigs. My story below appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and a later profile I did on her for that same publication can also be found on this blog.

NOTE: More recently, Yolonda’s had a recurring role as Dana Lyndsey on the acclaimed HBO drama Treme.  Another Omaha actor of note, John Beasley, just nabbed a recurring role on the same series. Small world.

 

 

 

 

Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

With her sweet-sassy voice, orange-tinged Afro, almond-shaped eyes, real-women-have-curves bod and cool hip-hop vibe, Yolonda Ross gets her groove-on exploring a seemingly boundless creativity.

The Omaha native left town soon after graduating Burke High School in the early 1990s to work in the New York fashion industry before carving out a career on stage and in front of the camera. This rising young film/television actress with a penchant for essaying gritty urban sistas is on the verge of break-out success between her acclaimed star turn in the 2001 HBO women’s prison drama Stranger Inside and supporting performances in two new high-profile films slated for release this winter. Due out first is Antwone Fisher, the directorial debut of Oscar-winner Denzel Washington. Next, is The United States of Leland, a project produced by Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey. She’s now looking to develop a script she wrote into a feature she would also appear in.

Whatever happens with her career, this confident woman of color has an array of artistic flavas to explore. “I like creating in a lot of ways — writing, painting, making clothes, singing, acting,” the New York resident said upon a recent swing-through Omaha to visit family. It was that way even growing-up with her three sisters. “I’ve always been into fashion. I would be up in the middle of the night making things to wear to school the next day. It’s a creative thing to be able to start and finish something and say that you made it. It’s just something I really like to do — that and interior design.” And music. “Me and all my sisters were always musical. I always liked to sing. I didn’t get really serious about it until I was in New York. A roommate who’s a producer had me cut a Billie Holiday cover.” Before long, she said, Ross had her own three-piece band and got offered a Motown demo deal. “I didn’t go for it,” she said. “They were trying to change my jazz into something else.”

New York sustains and energizes Ross. “When you’re in New York you’re always hustling, you’re always doing a variety of things to see which breaks. There’s always stuff happening and you can just literally walk into things,” she said. One gig would lead to another, making her early years there “growing and learning…not really so much struggling.” Prior to 9/11 she lived near the World Trade Center. She was in L.A. when the tragedy occured and took her time moving back. New York is where she feels “at home” again. “I like being on the street with people. I hate driving. I like walking and being a part of it. I’m a downtown person. It works for me.”

When she first went to the Big Apple, she didn’t know a soul there. Undeterred, she stayed to fulfill a long-held vow “to go to New York.” Within a few years there she transitioned from working as a buyer for trendy Soho botiques to modeling (Black Book) to fronting her own band in Greenwich Village gigs to appearing in music videos for the Beastie Boys, L.L. Cool J and Raphfael Saadiq and D’Angelo.

After honing her dramatic skills in classes, she began acting in small theater productions, appearing in recurring roles on Saturday Night Live and daytime shows and getting guest leads in TV series (a cop in New York Undercover, a beleaguered mother in Third Watch). She said she learned more about acting from singing than formal training.

“I’ve taken classes…but it was like being on stage with people you didn’t really like and saying words you didn’t really feel. When I started singing is when I understood that key of emotion and emoting through different characters. Behind everything I do is music. Now, when I do something, it’s not me anymore. I mean, you get a little bit of me with it, but I’m just the conveyor of the writer’s and director’s vision.”

Then along came the part of her young life. On the strength of her TV work, the script for Stranger came her way and after reading it Ross felt the role of Treasure Lee was meant for her.

“I thought it was amazing. I understood it so well. I knew where she was coming from and everything. I was like, I’ve got to get this part. I went in and auditioned. There were a lot of other girls there. I just did my thing and left and I got a call back. I ended up getting a call back three times. The producers flew me out to L.A., where it was like a month of auditioning, and I ended up getting it.”

Written and directed by black-lesbian filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, Stranger takes the conventions of Hollywood prison films and applies a feminist-dyke twist to them, offering a raw depiction of women’s life inside the pen. Ross portrays the troubled Lee, a desperate young woman trying to forge a bond with the mother she never knew, Brownie, a lifer and queenpin behind bars. Her work earned her the 2001 IFP Gotham Award for Breakthrough Actor, a Best Debut Performance nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards and an Outfest Screen Idol Award nomination for Best Performance By an Actress in a Lead Role. In 2001, she was named one of Variety’s “10 Actors to Watch.”

 

 

 

 

While never tackling a role as large or demanding as Treasure before — in one scene she endures a full nude body search and in another is pleasured with oral sex by a fellow inmate — she embraced the challenge, fully aware of just how juicy a part it was.

“To be able to do Treasure and to do everything that was in that script — I welcomed it — I really did — because I knew I had this chance that a lot of people don’t get and I wasn’t about to mess it up.”

Making the part resonate for Ross was its reality.

“Treasure, to me, was like a real person, not just a movie person. With a lot of scripts you read the characters don’t really evolve. The thing I like about Stranger is the characters aren’t one-dimensional. They’re good, strong female characters that let you see other sides.”

She said playing a profane, violent, overtly sexual woman was liberating. “The freedom to be able to get things out through her and to stretch through her was something I looked forward to. As Yolonda, I’m not going to act the way Treasure would — not that I don’t have it inside me — but I need to get those things out and use them and caress them and fine-tune them.”

Researching the role brought Ross to some California women’s prisons, where she met inmates. The film was shot at the “eerie” abandoned Cybil Brand Prison. Rehearsals lasted four weeks, which she welcomed. “You see, I’m not one of those ad-lib people. I like to know exactly what I’m doing. Sometimes, in rehearsal, little things come up and you find things. I feel once you hit it, you should leave it alone until you shoot it.”

She said filming was such a blast “I didn’t want it to end.” As for the finished film, she feels Dunye captured the truth without compromise. “It wasn’t glossed up. It didn’t get sliced up. All the emotions came through. I thought it was a great job and I’m proud of it.” The only downside to making Treasure her first lead, Ross said, is that without much of a track record behind her casting directors “didn’t know how much of it was acting and how much of it was me.”

Even though it meant playing another “bad girl,” Ross jumped at the chance to be in Fisher. The film is based on the best-selling book, The Antwone Fisher Story, in which Fisher, who adapted his own book to the screen, details his real life odyssey of childhood abandonment, foster care abuse, adult rage and — with the help of a good woman and a psychiatrist (played by Washington) — overcoming trauma to emerge a successful husband, father and artist.

Ross portrays Cousin Nadine, a foster family abuser in Fisher’s life. When she read the script, she said she doubted “if I can do this. But the negative things my character does you don’t actually see, and so once I figured that out then it was all right. I sent in my audition on tape. I was out in L.A. to do a 24 and one day I get a call on Melrose, and I’m trying to hold the reception. I’m like (to passersby), ‘OK, wait, I’ve got Denzel on the phone — walk around me. I’m not moving. I’m not going to lose this one.’ He called to say he loved it (her audition),” hiring her on the spot. “Oh, man, that was crazy.” The film was largely shot in Cleveland, where the events depicted actually took place.

 

 

 

 

On working with Washington, she said, “He’s so focused…He knew what he wanted. He had his vision and he just did it.” With no rehearsal this time, she discovered the character of Nadine on the set. “We just did the scenes and did ‘em different ways and he used what he wanted.” Of Fisher, she said, “He is the sweetest man. Soft-spoken, low-key. His family is beautiful.” She avoided reading his book before filming “because I didn’t want to try to be exactly something that he wrote. I wanted to come to it with what I have. The crazy thing was, after reading it, my interpretation was just like the character.”

The film, which follows Fisher up to his being reunited with his biological family, is ultimately an inspirational story. “Out of what he endured in his life…all this positive has come out of it,” Ross said. She likes how the film doesn’t sensationalize the events it dramatizes but rather shows them as part of a whole. “It isn’t like a Hollywood movie even though Fox Searchlight did it. It’s like how life is. How a lot of times not much is happening but then some craziness will happen and then, like, OK, you’re back to this place.” The film, starring newcomer Derek Luke, features unknowns, which she feels works to its advantage. “Because you’re not having stars shadow the story, the story is the star. It just works beautifully.”

Besides a one-act play she’s preparing to appear in in New York, Ross awaits her next acting job. Hardly idle, she’s busy schmoozing-up a production deal for her script, which she describes as “a slice of life set in New York” dealing with the romantic entanglements of two couples.

“It’s one of those things where you’ve been with somebody for a while and somebody just comes out of nowhere and blows your mind. Is it real? Is it not? Do you jump and go off with this person or do you stay with your steady in a not so happy but safe relationship?”

She wrote it because “there just aren’t a lot of great parts out there for black women. I mean, you’re the crack head or the welfare mom or the girlfriend. It’s like you can never just stand alone and be a character. So, if there’s something I want to do and I can write it, then I might as well do that. Why wait?”

In United States, premiering at Sundance in January, Ross plays the girlfriend of Don Cheadle in a story examining the impact a death has on a community. Her part was added after principal photography wrapped. She also appears this fall on PBS in an American Film Institute short, The Taste of Dirt. Meanwhile, she’s campaigning for the role of jazz singing legend Billie Holiday. “There’s an amazing script out there I really want. It’s not at the point where there’s anybody behind it, but I’m trying to make sure I’m more than in the running when it comes to that.”

So, how does a young woman from Omaha stay real in the spotlight? “My sisters. My sisters keep me real. They won’t go run and do stuff for me. It’s like, ‘No, do it yourself.’” What’s important to her? “My family — we’re really close. My health. Paying attention to things around me and appreciating them. I’m very much an earthy kind of person.” Still, as her marquee value rises, Ross has her eyes fixed on the perks fame can bring and, for now anyway, forgoes thoughts of long term romantic attachments, saying unabashedly, “There’s things that I want, and I need to get them, and I can’t let things get in the way of that. I’m so focused on working.”

What does the 20-something crave? “A place of my own in Manhattan. A house in upstate New York. To be settled…to be able to have a little bit under my belt. I’d like to be producing movies that I would be in.”

If Fisher nets the same enthusiasm it did in September at the Toronto Film Festival, where Ross said it got a standing ovation, then hers may soon be a household name. “Exactly,” she said, delighted at the notion of being THE new one-name soul sista. “Not Diana, not Halle…Yolonda. Mmmm, hmmm. We’ll see.” Go, girl, go.

Daring Actress Yolonda Ross Takes It to the Limit

June 21, 2011 11 comments

Another example of a talented creative artist from Omaha is Yolonda Ross, a superb actress who left her hometown years ago for New York City, and she’s carved out a very nice career in film and television.  The following profile for The Reader (www.thereader.com) gives a good sense for this adventurous actress, who also writes and directs. This story appeared in advance of her role in the controversial film Shortbus, one of my provocative projects she’s participated in.  I am posting other pieces I’ve done on Yolonda as well.

NOTE: More recently, Yolonda’s had a recurring role as Dana Lyndsey on the acclaimed HBO drama Treme. Another Omaha actor of note, John Beasley, just nabbed a recurring role on the same series.  Small world.

 

 

 

 

Daring Actress Yolonda Ross Takes It to the Limit

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Gabrielle Union gets all the pub, but another film/television actress from Omaha, the righteous Yolonda Ross, consistently does edgy material far afield from Bad Boys II and The Honeymooners. Ross has played everything from a wannabe gangsta desperate for love to a string of lesbian characters to a child molester to a porn actress. She’s worked with everyone from Woody Allen (Celebrity) to Denzel Washington (Antwone Fisher) to Don Cheadle (The United States of Leland) to Vanessa Williams (Dense and Allergic to Nuts).

Last fall, she worked on a Leonardo DiCaprio-produced film, The Gardener of Eden, and has been in discussions with such A-list artists as Cheadle for other parts. But it’s a project she wrapped last summer, Shortbus, that should grab her some attention. The notorious new feature by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), a maker of queer cinema, deals with transient artists looking to connect through sex in the malaise of a post-9/11 Manhattan languishing from ever-present anxiety, commerce, inflation and exhibitionism.

Whether Shortbus ever makes it to Omaha is anyone’s guess. Most of Ross’s film work, which includes several shorts, doesn’t make it here. An exception is Dani and Alice, a 2005 short directed by Roberta Marie Munroe that’s screening at the Omaha Film Festival. The film deals with the rarely discussed problem of woman-on-woman partner abuse. Ross plays the femme victim Alice to butch lover Dani in an abusive relationship in its last hours. Dani and Alice shows March 25 at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Abbott Lecture Hall in the fest’s 9 p.m. short film block and Ross plans to attend and participate in an after-show Q & A. For details, check the event website at www.omahafilmfestival.org.

Difficult subjects are the Ross metier, which keeps her work from being widely seen. Her Shortbus director, John Cameron Mitchell, had trouble financing that pic because of his insistence on lensing non-simulated sex scenes.

“Yeah, that’s true, the not-simulated part,” Ross said. “That’s why it’s taken him so long to get money for the movie. People were scared to put money into it.”

Ross was originally put off by the idea of “doing it” on screen and perhaps jeopardizing her career by blurring the line between adult and mainstream cinema. Then, she changed her mind, and was even prepared to partner up again with an old flame for some celluloid enflagrante.

“At first, I was like, I’ll work on it, but I won’t do the sex part. Then, a year later, when John still didn’t have money for it I told him me and my ex-boyfriend would do it — because he needed couples. At that point I was like, If Chloe Sevigny could suck off Vincent Gallo (in The Brown Bunny), then I’m sure I could do it with my ex in a movie. Right?! I said I would do that based on my complete faith that John knew what he was doing and would do something amazing with it, and not use it in a disgraceful way.” As things turned out, Ross didn’t have to get down and dirty for the sake of her art. “Everything turned out cool. The actual couples are still in it. But when somebody fell out of another part, I was re-cast in a role that does not require me to have sex on camera,” she said.

In a film full of non-actors, she plays opposite JD (Samson) of Le Tigre and Suk Chin of Canadian News. She’s not telling who does what on screen. “Dude, you’ll have to watch the movie to know who does and who doesn’t have sex,” she said, laughing.

In the film, she’s the lesbian rocker, Faustus. She attends a women’s support group whose members talk through the politics and emotions of being gay in a straight world. Shortbus is the name of the fictional salon where the insecurities and idiosyncrasies of the characters, including Faustus, intersect. Some go for readings or performances. Others, for therapy. Still others, to engage in public sex. The salon culture portrayed in the film, where sex is a ritualistic and nihilistic acting out mechanism, is based on actual Manhattan salons.

Mitchell and Ross had wanted to collaborate for some time and the two actually hooked up last winter for a Bright Eyes video he directed and she appeared in.

“It’s really a nice thing working with John. He’s so good with people, whether they’re actors or non-actors. He’s great at bringing out the most in them,” she said. “He’s really good at making people feel confident and at ease, while staying on track with what he wants. I think he’s ridiculously talented.”

Ross follows her own clear vision in trying to elevate her career to the next level. She’s well aware, however, of Hollywood’s feckless ways. It’s why she’s taking matters in her own hands and pitching scripts she’s penned in the hope one sells and provides her with a tailor-made part. One of those scripts is serving as her directorial debut, for the comedy short Safe Sex she plans shooting. The story explores how sexual preferences, once exposed, tend to define people.

“Sex fascinates me. It makes people do really stupid things and act in ways they probably never do otherwise. It’s about a lot of mind stuff and what we see as wrong with sex. People have their fetishes or what have you, but you can’t really judge a person by what they get off to. Different things turn different people on.”

 

 

 

 

Bold themes and choices mark her work. In her best known role, as lesbian inmate Treasure Lee in Cheryl Dunye’s 2001 HBO original film, Stranger Inside, she endures the humiliation of a strip search early on and, in a later love scene, enjoys being pleasured by an inmate going down on her off-camera. In the comic fable Hung, she’s among several gay women to grow a penis. Each owner of the new appendage has her own ideas what to do with it.

In the feature Slippery Slope, pegged for a fall release, she’s a porn star named Ginger who initially struggles adjusting to the higher expectations of a legit director slumming in the world of skin flicks. “Ginger’s been in the business a little while,” Ross said of her character. “She’s a bit set in her ways. She kind of only knows one way to act. She resists learning something new and then she kind of embraces it. She gets into it, actually — the idea of making better pictures. And she starts making her own pictures. It’s nice that she’s not a one note character.”

With Shortbus, Ross once again pushes the envelope as one in a gallery of exotics. Exposing herself emotionally and physically in a part doesn’t intimidate her.

“I have no problem with being a taboo character or doing taboo things or anything like that,” she said. “As long as I can physically do them, I’m going to get up there and do it. I want you to forget it’s me. I want you to be lost in that character.”

Because Ross wants even fringe characters grounded in reality, she underplays what could be camp or superficial. “I like working subtly. The stuff that gets me is what happens behind the scenes and what people are really going through. Good, strong female characters that are real people,” she said. Not big on research, she relies instead on instinct and script preparation. “Know what you need to know, and then Iet the acting take over. I think what you need to be dead-on with are the emotions. That’s what makes me work better. If I know what my character thinks or feels in a situation, then that’s what makes me react in the right way.”

Her expressing the right emotion of a line is akin to when she sings jazz or blues, something she does purely for pleasure these days, but that she once did professionally in New York clubs. Music, she said, opened her up to acting, and she still uses it today to find the right notes and beats for her characters.

“When I started singing is when I understood the key of emotion. With every major character I’ve done there’s been music behind each one. From singing, I know there’s certain notes I hit or tones I make that, when I hear them, make me cry or make me feel some other way. Music can change my whole body and how I carry myself. If I’m listening to Ella, I’m not going to walk the same way I do as when I’m listening to Ray Charles. When I was doing Stranger Inside, there was a Marvin Gaye song, Distant Lover, in my head. OnShortbus, it was The Tindersticks’ Trouble Every Day soundtrack. Music keeps me relaxed or tense or whatever I need to be.”

 

 

 

 

In her early-30s, Ross is at a place in her career where she does a nice balance of little and big screen gigs capitalizing on her street smart persona, which finds her getting cast as beleaguered mothers, strung-out junkies, intense cops and bohemian types in episodic TV. But anyone who’s seen her work, such as her riveting turn in Stranger, knows she can play a full palette of colors and be everything from a hard-core case to a sweet, neurotic, vulnerable woman-child.

There’s a sense if she can just land one juicy part, she’ll be a major presence. Even if that doesn’t happen, she keeps adding to an already impressive body of work. Among her TV credits, are sketch comedy on Saturday Night Live, and high drama guest shots on 24ER and Third Watch.

Part of why Ross hasn’t broken out big time in front of the camera, despite some heady props for Stranger and Fisher, has to do with the unsympathetic or peripheral roles she gets and the small indie projects she plays them in. One could argue that until now, while Gabrielle Union’s enjoyed the more successful commercial career, Ross’s has been more interesting. To be fair, though, Union has three films in the can that finally go beyond purely popcorn storylines and that for once hold out the promise of stretching her dramatic abilities.

But the point is Ross, an African-American contemporary of Union’s, has explored provocative subject matter for some time now without a fat pay-off. Union and Ross, who incidentally are fans of each other’s work, offer an interesting comparison. Each has defied the odds to carve out a nice career on screen. A key difference is perception. Union’s classic, wholesome beauty, with her smooth, soft features, put her up for positive roles and land her well-placed Neutrogena TV spots and endless glamour photo spreads in national mags. She comes across as sexy, brainy, full of attitude, but in purely non-threatening terms — as the love interest, friend or rival — and in widely accessible pictures, too.

By contrast, Ross’s unconventional but no less intriguing radiance has harder features, leaving her out of luck when it comes to girl-next-door or, for that matter, seductress roles. Spend any time with Ross, and it’s obvious she can play it all. She even does her share of glam, including a recent Bicardi Big Apple event in which she modeled an Escada gown. She’s a regular at New York premieres and other photo-op bashes. But in a town where they only know you by, What have you done lately? — perception, not reality, rules. Her performance in Stranger, a film/portrayal that became a cause celeb at feminist/lesbian festivals, was so on the mark, she’s been typecast ever since as a low down sista. In fact, she’s in high demand by women directors, whom she often works with.

Women confront stereotypes in the business, but Ross said black women must overcome even more. She said if you look closely, you’ll see that actresses with darker skin tones play “bad” while those with lighter skin shadings play “good.”

“Darker women are the cops, the crack heads, the hard asses. The darker the skin, the harder you’re going to be, the tougher you’re going to be. It’s very difficult for me to be seen as the cute girl next door or the nice mother or the love interest. I mean, it’s the craziest thing. Gabrielle’s about the same color I am, but she’s somewhat busted through,” said Ross, who surmises Union’s straight hair translates into less urban or ghetto in the minds’ of casting directors. “It’s about looks and name and face recognition. That’s what sells. Halle Berry can make bad movie after bad movie and have a Revlon contract. But why is it Angela Bassett isn’t working?”

Good women’s roles are hard to find, period, and even harder if you’re black. “Most scripts I read aren’t that good,” she said. “The characters don’t evolve.” Then there’s color-conscious casting that denies Ross, and even Union, a chance at roles deemed white or, God forbid, being part of an interracial romantic pairing.

That’s why Ross, who’s developed a working friendship with famed screenwriter Joan Tewksbury (Nashville) — “my second mother” — and Dani and Alice co-star Guinivere Turner, is trying to make something happen with projects she’s written alone or in collaboration. She despairs sometimes how fickle and slow the business is. “It drives me crazy. But I have to remember all the stories about other people where it took like 10-15 years to get something done. I know that the stories I have will have an affect on people. So, I keep that in mind.”

Until something breaks there, she’s waiting for start dates on two more features she’s cast in. Pearl City is a modern-day film noir set in Hawaii that lets Ross play sly as one of many potential suspects in a homicide investigation. Then there’s a new religious-themed film by Boaz Yakim (A Price Above Rubies).

Meanwhile, slated for a spring release is The Gardener of Eden. Directed by Kevin Connolly, the film co-stars Ross as one of many people crossing paths with a man  so addicted to the props that come with being hailed a hero that he manipulates events to rescue others. The film also features Lukas Haas and Giovanni Ribisi.

Whatever comes next, Ross will take it to the limit.

Get Crackin’

June 21, 2011 10 comments

Another of my stories focusing attention on Omaha black artists and other high achievers follows with this feature on the rock-blues group Crackin’, whose reunion back here a few years ago was the impetus for the piece. It’s one of several stories I’ve done that profile African Americans from here who have made major impacts in their fields of endeavor. This blog contains many of those stories, and so I invite you to stroll through the gallery of work here and discover them.  It’s all part of the build up to the 2011 Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame Awards on July 29 at Slowdown and the July 27-August Native Omaha Days.

Get Crackin’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The Hood is replete with stories of musicians who should have made it, if only…

Crackin’, a smoking 1970s multi-racial rock-blues band from Omaha, did get its shot at fame. After a promising start and recordings on major labels, things fizzled and the band disbanded in ‘78. But “within the business people knew who we were and really loved our music,” said Crackin’s Arno Lucas. That rep and the talent to back it up made members in high demand. All have enjoyed serious music careers.

Three decades after splitting up, these stray cats are coming home for August 4-5 reunion concerts at the Omaha Healing Arts Center, 1216 Howard Street. Show times are 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. The reunion coincides with Crackin’s induction in the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. Some players also performed with fellow band-inductee L.A. Carnival.

Headed up by Lester Abrams, Crackin’ was invited to Woodstock, NY to work with idol-maker producer Albert Grossman. Then they went to L.A. to record on the Polydor label before signing with Warners, for whom they released three albums in 1977-78. The band’s lineup changed from Omaha to NY to L.A..

When the group went defunct, guys began doing their own thing.

Keyboardist/vocalist/composer Abrams co-wrote two songs on Michael McDonald’s Grammy-honored album “Minute by Minute.” He’s collaborated with B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Peabo Bryson, Quincy Jones, The Average White Band and The Doobie Brothers. He’s composed for television and film.

Percussionist/vocalist Lucas has been an A-list sideman with Al Jarreau, Luther Vandross, Bette Midler, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Michael Jackson, Burt Bacharach, Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones, Chaka Kahn and Gladys Knight. He’s written songs with Jarreau and for Dionne Warrick.

Bassist Rick Chudacoff and drummer Peter Bunetta own credits as co-producers/co-composers for Patti LaBelle, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Kenny G, and Michael Bolton. They’ve written for the screen, including the Beverly Hills Cop franchise, and have a new stage musical out called City Kids.

Guitarist Brian Ray has collaborated with Etta James, Peter Frampton and Rita Coolidge and his scorching licks now back Paul McCartney. He also penned Smokey Robinson’s lone Grammy-winning tune, One Heartbeat.

 

 

 

 

Vocalist Leslie Smith is a first-call session artist in L.A.. Guitarist and blues journeyman Bob Bordy has played with a Who’s Who of hitmakers.

An early Crackin’ member was blues legend Bugsy Maugh.

For Lucas, the reunion celebrates a shared legacy and longevity. “When we walked in a room we just basically took it over. So many great personalities stood out. This thing we’re about to do is…a coming together of a group of gifted artists and great friends who truly love each other. We’ve remained friends. Everyone’s maintained a high level of musicianship. It’s going to be worth seeing.”

He was motivated to organize the reunion when he saw friends passing away. “I told the guys, ‘If we don’t get together and do this now, I don’t know the next time …we can…’” It’s an appreciation for the fact “life’s been good to us. We’re lucky to still be doing what we lov — what feeds the soul. And it’s a chance to see some of the people who supported Crackin’ in Omaha.”

Robbie Dupree and Neal Davis are among the special guest artists expected to jam.

Big Bad Buddy Miles

June 21, 2011 22 comments

This is one in a batch of posts I am making in the lead-up to the 2011 Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame on July 29 at the Slowdown. The late Buddy Miles is one in a long list of musicians from Omaha to find stardom or at least solid success in the upper reaches of the music industry.  Miles is one of those who became a legend in his own time and since his untimely death in 2008 his legend is only growing. I did this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the occasion of his induction in the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, which after a hiatus is back this year in conjunction with Native Omaha Days. My blog is thick with stories I’ve done about famous African American figures from Omaha who’ve enjoyed breakout success in the arts, athletics, and many other fields.  You’ll also find stories about many other aspects of African American culture and life in these parts.  Hope you enjoy the pieces as much as I enjoyed writing them.

 

 

Big Bad Buddy Miles

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

Famed blues-rock drummer and singer Buddy Miles is coming home to accept the Omaha Star Award at the August 3 Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame ceremony, where he’ll also perform. The 2005 inductee is using the occasion to deliver a message about the needless waste of young people to violence.

Having grown up in the ‘50-’60s heyday of the hep North 24th Street music scene, he rues the loss of what used to be.

“Back in the day 24th Street is where all the clubs were. It certainly is nothing like it was then. It’s like a ghost town down there now…there’s nothing for kids to do,” he said. “That’s why there’s so much havoc and trouble in Omaha and…in every major city…People don’t know how to go and party anymore. There’s too many senseless shooting.s The time has come that we must band together as one….”

The lifetime train enthusiast hopes to convince Union Pacific Railroad to sponsor a nationwide tour, tracing the railroad’s lines, for him to educate young people “about how important their lives are.” His new CD, The Centennial, is named after the famous U.P. diesel engine at Kenefick Park.

He dreamed of being a train engineer. Instead he “followed in the footsteps” of his father, George A. Miles, Sr., who played upright bass with Ellington, Basie, Parker, Gordon. Buddy began playing drums at age 8. “I’ve been a musician all my life,” he said. “I’ve done nothing else.”

As a teen he gigged with his father’s band, the Bebops, and with Preston Love, Sr. and Lester Abrams. He first made it in New York, hooking up with Wilson Pickett. He jammed in the Village with Eric Clapton. His big break came when Michael Bloomfield plucked him for the Electric Flag, a blues-rock band Miles still considers the best he ever played in. He toured-recorded widely, opening for Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and playing on albums by Hendrix and Muddy Waters. More Hendrix collaborations followed. Jimi produced an album by the Buddy Miles Express. Miles played on Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. Miles formed with Hendrix and Billy Cox the trio, Band of Gypsys, which released one album before Jimi’s death.

 

 

 

 

Miles recorded hits and played with such artists as Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. His greatest commercial success came with his version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” for a California Raisins commercial. The gig made the classic song big again and spawned three Miles albums.

A 2005 stroke has not slowed Miles, who lives in Austin, Texas. He’s even throwing down a challenge to Motley Crew bad boy drummer Tommy Lee and the rocker’s MTV Husker bit. “I’ll have a duel with that dude anytime he wants…We can do it at a Nebraska football game, too,” Miles said, “because I’ll drum him a new ass.”

Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down

June 21, 2011 26 comments

With the 2011 Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame Awards coming up July 29 at the Slowdown, as part of Native Omaha Days, I am posting articles of mine from the last decade that celebrate various African-American figures from the area. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is about Lois “LadyMac” McMorris, one of many black musical artists who have come out of Omaha to forge successful careers in the music biz.  I did a phone interview with her on the eve of her induction in the Hall of Fame, which returns this year after a few years absence.  My blog is full of stories about high black achievers from Omaha.

 

 

 

 

Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Casual music fans may not know Lois “LadyMac” McMorris, but this blues-jazz-rock guitarist from Omaha is paid homages by legends like B.B. King — “The girl is super bad.” After a hot solo Prince saw her play in Kansas City, where she lives, LadyMac said, “He came up to me and asked, ‘May I touch your guitar?’ I felt so honored. For my peers to recognize me is an amazing thing. That’s like a validation.”

More validation comes at the August 3 Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame ceremony. The 2005 inductee is the Jewel Award recipient for her lifetime achievements.

She grew up on the north side making art and music. Today she’s a gallery showing sculptor, painter and drawer and a still active headliner-sidewoman.

Inspired by guitar riffs on radio-television she taught herself to play as a young girl. “It touched me so deeply,” she said. She loved working on her chords and “learned lick for lick” famous solos. She first played publicly at 17, when she joined Joe Leslie and the Impacts. She had to prove to the cats she had the chops to play with them. Her baptism of fire came at Paul Allen’s Showcase on North 24th Street.

“Allen’s Showcase had been the premiere club since my parents’ time,” she said. “There were so many stellar African-American entertainers that would come through from Chicago, Des Moines, Kansas City…there was a kernel core of musicians…and the famous jam sessions and the things that ensued are just something to be written about.

“If you didn’t make it in that jam session either you were going to go home and woodshed and come back or you were going to stop, because it was intense.”

It was even hotter for her as the guys scrutinized her every move with skeptical eyes and sexist remarks. It was the same everywhere she went.

“The gender bigotry was just amazing,” she said. “Denigrated. Put down. Unappreciated. I ran into and still have to fight so much discrimination. It’s gotten a bit better, just as racism has eased a bit. It would go from things that are subtle to overt. Like I’d be told, ‘You can’t do that.’ I mean, over and over again. Please, let’s get real. It just made me more determined to express myself and to play and not be held back by that sort of thing. I cannot abide injustice.”

She made the mark at the Showcase, blowing the house away with her virtuosity and energy.

“For myself, when I finally performed there, it was the pinnacle…” said McMorris. She took those cats by surprise, having honed her gift off by herself, at home, where she’d incessantly listen and practice. “I did not develop my music around them. It was on my own. I just immersed myself in chords. What I hear I can play and I can play it fairly quickly, and then I can write it down as well. I can read, I can write charts. I do arrangements. It’s just in me. ”

What sets her apart, besides her sizzling solos, sultry fly looks and spiritual- inspirational vibe is her ability to both “dig in and just play” and to “express a showtime sensibility” in the way she moves, dresses and strokes.

Besides the Impacts, she played locally with the Persuaders, Seventh House and Poverty Movement and artists Andre Lewis and Preston Love, Sr.. Hanging with top musicians convinced her “larger vistas” awaited. Love advised her to seek new ops. “He told me, ‘You won’t grow your playing here. If you’re going to do something with it, leave.’” She lit out for L.A., where she soon landed a recording session gig with Love’s friend, blues guitarist Johnny Otis and his big band. Another break came when Lewis asked her to join Mandre, “a hitting group with Motown.”

 

 

 

LadyMac was on her way, her dynamic musicianship-showmanship: sharing the stage with Tower of Power, Earl Klugh, Linda Hopkins; Cooilio, opening for Al Jarreau and Howard Hewitt and headlining the Playboy Jazz Festival. From L.A., she traveled the nation and the world to perform, only recently moving to K.C. to be near family. She’s fronted her own band, LadyMac Attack, and recorded. Her new CD is 500.

Her career mirrors that of many black musicians from Omaha — high caliber players with great creds, but few props outside the industry. She agrees with OBMHOF founder/director Vaughn Chatman that Omaha’s black music legacy is a great untold story, one, she said, people “should know about.”

“A lot of genius players came from Omaha’s near northside,” she said. “It’s a group of multi-talented musicians who can play many instruments, and that’s what’s so rare. Another thing — we’re cross-genre. We’re not just in one pocket. The straight-ahead cats can get busy and play the funk. They can play all those things. Also this sensibility of playing and coming with a show. It’s almost as if everyone incarnated around a certain time” to create “an Omaha sound…this flavor…”

Acknowledgement of groundbreaking black Omaha musicians has been slow to come, making the peer-based Hall award all the sweeter.

“Very often the people that are the vanguard are not always recognized while they’re doing it and that’s a hurtful thing,” she said. “But it’s not too late.”

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