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North Omaha Summer Arts Presents: Gospel in the Park

June 17, 2014 2 comments

My beloved, Pamela Jo Berry, has a big heart for her community.  It’s what led her to found North Omaha Summer Arts, an annual festival that infuses different art forms into the underserved North Omaha community she grew up in and still resides in.  This is the festival’s fourth year.  Saturday, June 21 NOSA presents a gospel concert at Miller Park.  Like all NOSA events, it’s free and open to the public.  Details below.  Before Pam and I became a couple, I profiled her and her passion behind the festival for The Reader.  You can find that story, Matter of the Heart: Pamela Jo Berry’s Love for Her Community Brings Art Fest to North Omaha, on this blog.  The link to it is: http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/pamela-jo-berry-brings-art-fest-to-north-omaha-artist-and-friends-engage-community-in-diverse-work/

In addition to the concert, there is a women’s writing workshop in progress.  On Friday, August 8 from 6 to 9 p.m. there will be an Arts Crawl up and down a swath of the North 30th Street Corridor featuring works by some of Omaha’s leading artists. Venues to be announced.

 

North Omaha Summer Arts's photo.
North Omaha Summer Arts presents a joyous, music-filled occasion-
Gospel Concert 4

Saturday, June 21
5:30-7:30 pm
24th and Kansas Ave. (next to the old ballfield)
Free and open to the public

Bring a picnic dinner and blanket or enjoy free grilled hot dogs and cool refeshing lemonade courtesy of Trinity Lutheran Church for this family-friendly concert featuring some of Omaha’s most gifted performers.

Featuring-
Eric and Doriette Jordan
Trinity Lutheran Choir
Sudanese Worship Band
Cadence
New Bethel Church of God Choir
and more…

“…for the Lord is great and greatly to be praised.” Psalm 96:4

For more info, call NOSA founder Pamela Jo Berry at 402-502-4669.

 

Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones

January 18, 2013 2 comments

The Old Market in Omaha is a both major attraction and a laidback state of mind that’s made up of the places and personalities, past and present, expressed there.  Two of this historic arts and culture district’s longest sustained restaurants, M’s Pub and Vivace, share the same owners and executive chef, and in 2013 these each of these eateries celebrates a milestone anniversary.  M’s Pub is 40 years old and Vivace 20 years old.  Owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson discuss their successful enterprises in the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and along with Old Market pioneer Roger duRand they look back at the force of nature who started M’s, Mary Vogel, and who personified the visionaries and characters that have made the Market the singular destination and experience that it is.

 

 

 

 

Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Signature Old Market spot M’s Pub celebrates 40 years in business this year. It’s a milestone for any independently owned restaurant. But reaching four decades takes on added meaning because when M’s opened in 1973 (a planned 1972 opening was delayed), the fledgling Market’s survival looked unsure.

The Market though went from counter culture social experiment to mixed use success story. M’s owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson doubly appreciate a thriving Market as their highly reviewed eatery is a fixture along with a second respected restaurant they own there, Vivace, which marks its 20th anniversary this fall. The establishments are emblems of the district’s sustainability and growth.

The well-connected woman who founded “M’s” and was its namesake, the late Mary Vogel, wanted to be part of the emerging Market scene. She commissioned architect John Morford from the Omaha firm headed by Cedric Hartman, who designed the French Cafe, to transform the former Sortino Fruit Company warehouse into a sophisticated, cozy environs inspired by her favorite dining-drinking nooks from around the globe, particularly the pubs of England and Washington DC. Some argue M’s is more bistro than pub but whatever it is M’s owns a reputation for quality food, superior service and laid-back charm that’s both cosmopolitan chic and homespun Midwest.

The small space is dominated by a three-sided green marble topped bar, exposed white brick work, a high ceiling, large mirrors, which make the room seem bigger, and picture windows that provide a glimpse of 11th Street on the east and peer into Nouvelle Eve on the south. The open kitchen is about the size and shape of a train’s dining car and overflows with activity, though the culinary action mostly happens in the downstairs prep rooms.

“It’s just a great open plan,” says Samuelson. “Timeless. And that’s why we don’t change anything about it because we see a lot of fads come and go and as tempting as you might be to say, ‘Well, it seems like that’s what everybody’s doing today – maybe we should try that,’ it’s not going to work here.”

 

 

 

 

M’s is indelibly of the Old Market. Like its neighbor shops it resides in a historic, 19th century building that exudes character earned with age. It adheres to tradition. It pays attention to detail. Its personality can’t be replicated or franchised.

“I don’t think we could take our sign and throw it in a place out west or anywhere else really,” Samuelson says. “I just don’t think it would transfer.”

The affable, attentive, knowledgable wait staff wear crisp white and black uniforms with none of the attendant starch.

Samuelson says, “We’ve worked really hard for a really long time to position ourselves as a place where you can come sit by side with the table that has a $150 bottle of wine and a couple steaks and you can have a beer and a Greek sandwich and not be treated any differently by the waiter. A lot of our people have been around here for a really long time. We have people that we trust.”

When Vogel sold M’s in 1979 to Mellen’s parents Floyd and Kate Mellen she stayed on as hostess and matriarch. Ann Mellen began working there around then and she soon grew fond of this force of nature.

“She would sit at the bar every day after lunch and count how many drinks we sold,” Mellen says of Vogel. “She was a trip. A very energetic lady, very world traveled, very knowledgable, very opinionated. But very helpful – when things went wrong here she knew who to call.

“She had a passion for this place. She knew exactly what she wanted it to be and she did it right. She totally designed M’s after her favorite places all over the world. She was like the mother of M’s pub. It was her baby.”

Market pioneer Roger duRand writes:

“Mary Vogel was a dame, A socialite with a heart of brass (polished). Mary was equal parts Mayflower pedigree, finishing school gloss and ribald cocktail raconteur. When she courageously cast her lot with the Old Market demimonde of 1972, she found a welcoming environment among the artists and adventurers. Her vision of a tearoom for ‘ladies who lunch’ that doubled as a bistro for ‘lads who lust’ became the elegant and reliably satisfying M’s Pub that remains little changed from its first days.”

Samuelson, who went to work there in 1986 after restaurant experience in Omaha, Texas and Colorado and then quickly partnered with Mellen, admired Vogel’s “indomitable spirit,” adding, “I think she was way ahead of her time. I think that’s probably why she got along with the Mercers so well. They needed people like that to incubate ideas and to establish a core of anchor businesses.”

Mellen’s parents, who’d never operated a restaurant before, bought it with the intent of their restauranteur son Joe running it  but when he passed Ann stepped in to lend her folks a hand. Her passion for the business bloomed.

“I liked working for myself basically,” says Mellen, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism grad who worked as a reporter and advertising copywriter before M’s.  “Then I came here and never left.”

She and Samuelson pride themselves on being hands-on owners. One or the other  or both are at their restaurants most days. A tunnel connects the two sites.

Though an institution today, M’s first decade was a struggle.

“Times were hard,” she says. “The Old Market was a totally different place then.

The Omaha (homeless) mission was just up the street. A lot of people were afraid of the Old Market. But even then it had a family, neighborhood feeling and I liked that a lot.”

“It gets under your skin,” Samuelson says of the Market.

By the early ’80s, Mellen determined the Market was here to stay.

“It just got busier and busier and we saw more tourists coming to the area. You could just tell it was an exciting, upcoming area.”

She and Samuelson, both Omaha natives, make a good team.

“We’re a good fit personality-wise and professionally,” he says. “We share the same passion for the Old Market and the same visions and goals for M’s and Vivace. It’s rare we have a disagreement about and when we do we do it respectfully.”

“I don’t want to seem like an old married couple but a lot of people think we’re married. We’re not,” says Mellen.

She does all the books. An acknowledged foodie, he deals more with the culinary side. Both partners enjoy engaging with people.

“We feel the same way about how to treat people – our clientele as well as our employees,” he says.

 

 

 

 

The fierce devotion of M’s regulars is appreciated but it can be too much.

“Somebody who’s been coming here for awhile may have an opinion about what you’re doing and if you don’t take their advice you can ruffle some feathers that way,” says Samuelson. “We listen to people a lot and we always end up making decisions based on the good of the whole, which I think is responsible ownership.”

He says that with M’s “in good hands” he and Mellen decided to launch Vivace in 1993 ” to fill a gap we saw in the landscape of the restaurant scene in Omaha for Mediterranean-influenced Italian food. We wanted to fill a niche for the community but also complement what we do at M’s.” He’s proud of its pasta and pizza.

Vivace’s larger space is perhaps warmer than M’s but not as intimate.

Executive chef Bobby Mekiney is in charge of both kitchens. “He’s young and kind of bridges the generation gap for us in a lot of ways,” says Samuelson. “He’s as talented a guy as we’ve ever had here. He makes it work.”

Samuelson’s proud that M’s Pub and Vivace express the same “meticulously adhered-to, single-minded vision of passionate, locally-owned” venues that make the Market “a community treasure.”

For hours and menus, visit http://www.mspubomaha.com and http://www.vivaceomaha.com.

Luigi’s Legacy, The Late Omaha Jazz Artist Luigi Waites Fondly Remembered

July 18, 2011 22 comments

I wrote the following two pieces in memory of the late, much-beloved Omaha jazz artist Luigi Waites.  I only met the man once and I only saw him perform a few times, but I knew a lot of people who knew him and his music well.  I had always meant to do a full-blown profile of him but it just never worked out.  These short recaps of his career will have to do.  I wish now I had pressed forward in doing something with him.  It’s a reminder that particularly with older subjects the time to interview them is now, because one never knows when they might be gone. And once gone, the wisdom of that elder goes with them.

 

 

Luigi’s Legacy, The Late Omaha Jazz Artist Luigi Waites Fondly Remembered

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine

The April 6, 2010  death of Omaha jazz percussionist, vibraphonist, band leader and music educator Luigi Waites brought an outpouring of tributes to this Classic Omaha Hep Cat.

Luigi, whose first name identified him for legions of fans, became an ambassador for jazz in his hometown of Omaha. Unlike the bombast of another local jazz icon, the late Preston Love Sr., Luigi was sedate. Contrasting personalities aside, these “brothers” came out of the same African-American social-cultural milieu to carve out careers.

The humble Luigi made friends wherever he laid down licks. It’s not surprising then his passing prompted memorials befitting a beloved hero. He touched innumerable lives with his timeless music and generous spirit.

Long ago divorced, the 82 year-old was survived by six children.

Wearing his signature floppy hat, Luigi exuded a Zen master’s inscrutable calm. His signature performance spot, Mr. Toad in the Old Market, lasted some 1,700 Sundays. Manager Rick Renn said what he’ll cherish most about Luigi is his “absolutely unique personality, adding: “He was just comfortable with everybody and he made everybody comfortable; he was one of these people who you met for the first time and you loved about a minute later; he was unusual, he was cryptic, he was always making you think.”

Whether playing a bar or festival, doing a school residency or giving private music lessons, Luigi was always teaching. Bandmates say he turned gigs into symposiums, encouraging an open exchange of ideas and approaches.

“You knew he was serious when you watched him play. You knew he was going, as the great ones do, into his element,. You’d sit and watch him on the vibes, the concentration on his face, but at the same time the fun he was having,” said Renn.

For years Luigi traveled the Midwest for the National School Tours program and Nebraska Arts Council. He provided music lessons, often for free, all over Omaha. His touring multicultural drum and drill corps, The Contemporaries, served at-risk kids. Professional side man and session player Arno Lucas credits his stint with the Contemporaries for saving him from the streets. He considered Luigi “a true mentor.”

For years, too, Luigi booked all the entertainment for the Summer Arts Festival downtown. He was also a clinician for Sonar, Trixon and Ludwig drums.

The lifetime learner never stopped being a student himself, whether teaching himself to play drums, later the vibes, or trying new things with his group, Luigi Inc.

He had some formal music training, courtesy a hitch in the U.S. Army and attending the Midwestern Conservatory of Music. Like many musicians of his era though he picked up his chops informally, traveling the country and Europe, but mostly in his hometown, where a vibrant live music scene back in the day saw him haunt the local night spots, sitting in on jam sessions galore and playing in various bands.

Luigi never lost his enthusiasm or curiosity. Late in life the amateur photography buff learned digital techniques from Omaha professional photographer Herb Thompson.

“He was always just very young at heart,” said Thompson, who mentored Luigi for a Nebraska Arts Council project that resulted in an exhibition.

Thompson said the only time he saw Luigi slow down was after the ailing musician underwent chemo treatments. The artist finally lost his battle with cancer, but till the end was making plans — for a new CD, for new photography projects.

 

 

 

 

A memorial service at Omaha North High School and the funeral at St. Cecilia Cathedral drew hundreds each.

“Neither of those was really a sad occasion, they were more a celebration,” said Thompson. “People just said how much they loved him, how much he meant to them. It was a cross-section of this city who celebrated the life of a man who had contributed so very much to his community. I don’t think there’s anyone in the black community of a certain age who hadn’t been touched by Luigi. Another thing that struck me is that it’s obvious he crossed racial barriers. It came out in almost all of the comments folks made at the tribute but also in the kind of racial mixture you had there.”

Playwright Monica Bauer can attest to Luigi gracefully defying social constraints. She was among many whites who took music lessons from him. In the 1960s he was teaching at Swoboda Music Center at 20th and Q. Few blacks worked in the heavily Czech area and despite some raised eyebrows from neighbors, owner Johnny Swoboda hired and kept Luigi, and the two became friends.

If anybody had objected to Luigi’s presence, Swoboda would have stood by his man. “We were buddies,” said Swoboda. “He made quite an impression on all kinds of people. It’s quite a legacy.” Swoboda’s children became the first white Contemporaries.

Bauer echoed the sentiments of many in describing Luigi as “a terrific music teacher” with a “kind and compassionate” manner. His students say he taught philosophical life lessons as much as music. She said she “learned how to be an artist” and a mensch from him. “Luigi always told me, ‘Be kind to everybody, and they will be kind to you.’ I took those words with me through two Ivy League degrees, three Master’s degrees, and a Ph.D.”

Her play My Occasion of Sin dramatizes Luigi’s social action of taking on white students in the racially tense ‘60s. He didn’t see it as making a statement. He was just being Luigi.

 

 

 

 

Luigi Gone But Not Forgotten

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

As much as the music he made. the generous spirit of iconic Omaha drummer and vibraphonist Luigi Waites is likely be remembered even more. Waites died early Tuesday morning at Immanuel Hospital. He was 82.

His 70-year performing career encompassed much of the Omaha live music scene but extended well beyond his hometown borders. He’s perhaps best known for the more than 1,700 Sunday night shows he and his group, Luigi Inc., performed at Mr. Toad in the Old Market. Luigi was also a fixture at the Dundee Dell. As a Summer Arts Festival board member, he booked the event’s entertainment.

As early as age 12 he began playing drums and soon gigged at local nightclubs, where his mother served as his escort. He studied at the Midwestern Conservatory of Music in Chicago and worked as a clinician for drum manufacturers. He influenced many youths through the touring multicultural marching corps he formed in 1960, The Contemporaries. He applied R&B rhythms to the traditional military-style marching band aesthetic. Professional musicians Arno Lucas and Victor Lewis “graduated” from The Contemporaries.

In a 2007 interview Lucas spoke for many when he said “Luigi was the guy who made it possible for me to stay focused and to keep out of trouble.” Lucas recalled Waites as a “mentor, teacher, step-father.”

For decades Waites did artist-in-the-schools presentations.

His many honors included 1996 Nebraska Artist of the Year from the Nebraska Arts Council and 2009 Best Jazz Artist from the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards, which previously honored him with a lifetime achievement award. Waites was also inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame.

The father of six leaves behind some recordings but mainly a legacy of teaching and sharing. He lives on in YouTube excerpts of his Mr. Toad shows.

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Tiempo Libre Kicks Off Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing in Omaha

July 4, 2011 1 comment

One of the neat things about being a journalist covering arts and cultural happenings is the opportunity it provides to intersect with emerging or rising talents. In the case of this article for El Perico I got to speak with Jorge Gomez, the leader of the breakout Latin band  Tiempo Libre, who kick off this season’s Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing series in Omaha. The timba-jazz infused, Miami-based group performs July 7, and the series featuring regional and national jazz acts runs through August 11. If you haven’t heard of Tiempo Libre, as I hadn’t, you’ll soon learn why you should take notice in the space of my short article. First of all, the group has only been together 10 years and yet they’ve already earned three Grammy nominations. They’e opened for and collaborated with some world class artists. Their music draws from many different sources and influences. These musicians are highly skilled and steeped in a classical foundation. They are also inventive enough to blend their native Cuban rhythms with all manner of musical styles. And they have a great story of what fired their imaginations in Cuba and of living out their dream now as a headline act around the world.

 

 

 

Tiempo Libre Kicks Off Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing in Omaha

by Leo Adam Biga

As soon to be published in El Perico

Growing up in Cuba members of the hot Miami-based Latin band, Tiempo Libre, studied classical music at Havana conservatories. Popular music, especially American, but even their native timba, was deemed subversive and thus forbidden. Hungry for what they were denied, the players clambered atop roofs at night with homemade antennas to pick up faint Miami radio broadcasts.

The staticky sounds of Michael Jackson, Chaka Chan, Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, Manhattan Transfer and Earth Wind and Fire filled the tropical air. “It was fuel for our dreams. It opened a new door for us,” says Jorge Gomez, Tiempo Libre lead vocalist, keyboardist and musical director. “We listened, we recorded and during the day we put the music on and everybody in the neighborhood came to my house. We danced and sang and played dominos, everything. It was a new hope for us.”

Today, Gomez and his Grammy-nominated bandmates are touting their new Afro-Cuban fusion album, My Secret Radio, and its celebration of those clandestine raves. Fresh from performing at an Italian music festival, Tiempo Libre opens the Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing season Thursday. Their pulsating rhythms begin at 7 p.m. at Turner Park (31st and Dodge Streets).

The band describes their gigs as parties rather than concerts, says Gomez, “because by the end of the show everybody’s going to be singing and dancing with us. It happens all the time, and that’s the whole idea — to have fun. It’s all about the energy people are going to feel. That’s the best reason to play music .”

The free performance kicks off the weekly series that runs through August 11.

This is Tiempo Libre’s first Omaha show but the group’s well known for breakout recordings on Sony Masterworks and high profile appearances on Dancing with the Stars and the Tonight Show and at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Their genre busting work includes collaborations with classical artists Sir James Galway and Joshua Bell and Venezuelan composer Ricardo Lorenz.

 

 

The band first made a splash in 2002 opening for Cuban music legend Celia Cruz.

Formed a year before, Tiempo Libre only came together after its seven members separately fled Cuba. Their individual journeys included long stays in other countries before their paths merged again in 2000 in Miami. They were all working with different artists then “and in our free time we came together to make the band, ” says Gomez, hence the name Tiempo Libre or “free time.”

He’s proud the band has disproved predictions timba cannot thrive outside Cuban-centric Miami. “It’s fantastic the way people respond to it,” he says. Playing before enthusiastic audiences around the world, he says, “it’s incredible how beautiful the music can be between people who don’t even speak the same language.” By mixing timba with other styles, Tiempo Libre breaks down artificial barriers, as in the live orchestra work Rumba Sinfonica and the album Bach in Havana.

“Timba style is a mix between jazz and Cuban music. For example, if you put Buena Vista Social Club with Chic Corea, that’s timba style,” he says. “The harmony’s going to be deeper in the jazz roots but the rhythm is going to be, of course, Cuban rhythms, like rumba, ch-cha-cha, bolero. We play a mix of everything — timba, jazz, classical.”

Gomez says as the band’s exposed to ever more diverse musical influences, the more there is to blend with Cuban rhythms, including a new Placido Domingo Jr. album they’re collaborating on.

“We are living our dream playing all the music, all the mix that’s in there, adding a lot of Cuban flavor.”

 

 

Noted for their rigorous musicianship, yet free-spirited manner, Gomez says, “the way we’re playing now is so different from the beginning. We feel so secure. Now it’s all about how to enjoy yourself and transmit that energy to everybody around you. It’s unbelievable, the sensation. It’s a beautiful life.”

Now that Cuba’s more free, Gomez expects Tiempo Libre will perform back home.

“That’s part of our dream, too,” he says. “We want to play there in our neighborhood, for our friends.”

And perhaps inspire others to live their dreams. “Exactly, that’s the idea,” he says.

Jazz on the Green features other Latin-style bands this summer, including Incendio on July 14.

Visit jazzonthegreenomaha.com.

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By

July 4, 2011 45 comments

As the July 27-August 1 Native Omaha Days festival draws near I am posting articles I’ve written about this African-Ameican heritage and homecoming event and about closely related topics. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared some years ago, at at time when predominantly African American North Omaha was experiencing a large increase in gun violence and media reports laid out the widespread poverty and achievement gaps affecting that community. In response to dire needs, the African American Empowerment Network was formed and a concerted process begun to to bring about a revitalized North Omaha. Native Omaha leaders and others expressed hope that events like Native Omaha Days and the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame might serve to unify, heal, and instill pride to help stem the tide of hopelessness and disrespect behind the violence. Things have improved recently and North O really does seen the verge of coming back, thanks in large part to efforts by the Empowerment Network, but the stabilizing role of events like Native Omaha Days shouldn’t be forgotten or dimissed.

 

photo

Native Omaha Club photo by lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now and All the Days Gone By

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

Organizers of the 16th biennial Native Omaha Days call it the largest gathering of African-Americans in Nebraska. That in itself makes it a significant event. Thousands fill Salem Baptist Church for the gospel fest, spill into North 24th Street for the social mixer/registration and the homecoming parade, boogie at the Qwest Center dance and chow down on soul food at a Levi Carter Lake Park picnic.

This heritage celebration held every other summer is a great big reunion with many family-class reunions around it. Parties abound. Hotels, casinos, eateries, bars fill. Jam sessions unwind. Bus tours roll. North 24th cruising commences. Stories and lies get told. It’s people of a shared roots experience coming together as one.

Unity is on the minds of natives as their community is poised at a historic juncture. Will North 24th’s heyday be recaptured through new economic-education-empowerment plans? Or will generational patterns of poverty, underemployment, single parent homes, crime and lack of opportunity continue to hold back many? What happens if the cycle of despair that grips some young lives is not broken?

“The Native Omaha homecoming is very important, but a lot of young people don’t know what it’s all about, and that really bothers me,” said Hazel Kellogg, 74, president of the sponsoring nonprofit Native Omahans Club, Inc.. “They’re the future and what we’re trying to do is make them realize how important it is to hang in with your community and to keep your community pulling together for the betterment of our people. OUR people, you know?

“We have a big problem on the north side with violence and crime and all that, and I want to reach out to young people to let them know this homecoming is all about family and friends coming home to be together and enjoy a weekend of good clean fun. Eventually the young people are going to be heading up Native Omaha Days and they need to know what it’s all about.”

She said she hopes the event is a catalyst for ongoing efforts to build up the community again. After much neglect she’s encouraged by signs of revitalization. “I’ve been through it all. I’ve been through the riots. For a long time it moved in a negative direction. Now, I’m very hopeful. We need the whole community to come together with this. Together we stand.”

Vaughn Chatman, 58, shares the same concerns. He left Omaha years ago and the problems he saw on visits from Fair Oaks, Calif., where he now lives, motivated him to found the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. The Hall seeks to restore the sense of community pride he knew. An induction ceremony held during the Days honors area black artists, athletes, activists, entrepreneurs and leaders. He feels young blacks can only feel invested in the future if exposed to successful folks who look like they do. He works with the Omaha Public Schools to have local black achievers discussed in classroom curricula as a way to give kids positive models to aspire to.

“Back in the day” is an oft-heard phrase of the week-long fest. Good and bad times comprise those memories. Just as World War II-era Omaha saw an influx of blacks from the South seeking packinghouse-railroad jobs, the last 40 years has seen an exodus due to meager economic-job prospects.
photo

photo by Cyclops-Optic (Jack David Hubbell)

 

Centered in northeast Omaha, the black community hub became North 24th, where  Jewish and black-owned businesses catered to every good and service and a vital live music scene thrived. Hence, many Days activities revolve around 24th, which declined after the late ‘60s riots. A few blocks have seen improvements, but much of this former “Street of Dreams” is run down or empty. Gang violence in the district is a problem. It’s concerns like these now spurring coalitions of residents and expatriate natives like Chatman to craft sustainable solutions.

For a change, Karen Davis sees “substance” in the new initiatives targeting rebirth. Enough to make the Native Omahans Club officer feel the area “can be back to where it was or even more. Businesses have come down or moved back, and I think it’s a good thing for us,” she said.

The Native Omahans Club is quartered in a former lounge at 3819 North 24th. During the Days the building and street outside overflow with people reminiscing. Visitors mix with residents, exchanging handshakes, hugs, laughter, tears. Scenes like this unfold all over — anywhere neighborhood-school chums or relatives catch up with each other to relive old times.

“We haven’t seen each other in years, so it’s just a fellowship — what we used to do, what we used to look like…It’s just big fun,” said Davis.

Like countless Omahans, Davis and Kellogg each have friends and family arriving for the Days. No one’s sure just how many out-of-state natives return or the economic impact of their stays, but organizers guess 5,000 to 8,000 make it in and spend millions here. Those hefty numbers lead some to say the event doesn’t get its just due from the city. No matter, it’s a family thing anyway.

“People come in from all over for Native Omaha Days. My family comes from Colorado, Minnesota. It’s a time I can get together with them. I have a friend from Arizona coming I haven’t seen in 20 years. I’ll be so glad to see her. Those are the things that really just keep my heart pumping,” Kellogg said. “It’s just a gala affair.”

For details on the Days visit www.nativeomahans.com or call 457-5974.

Home Girl Karrin Allyson Gets Her Jazz Thing On

June 22, 2011 7 comments

Omaha‘s gifted the world with at least two world-class chanteuses. Julie Wilson is a cabaret staple singing standards at posh Manhattan night clubs. More recently, jazz vocalist Karrin Allyson has made connoisseurs in New York City and other swank spots take notice with her live concerts and Grammy nominated recordings, Her new CD, Round Midnight, came out May 2. She describes her 13th release on Concord Records as “a very intimate, personal album” that recreates the vibe of a late night set.

Her February Holland Performing Arts Center concert with the UNO Jazz Ensemble marked a homecoming and reunion in several ways. Omaha is where she grew up. Her father and numerous friends still live here. The University of Nebraska at Omaha is where she earned her music degree (piano and choral). She’s performed with the UNO jazz band before and she usually gets back to gig once a year in her hometown, where she first cut her chops soloing at Ms Pub.

Allyson, who lives in New York, appreciates accolades by critics, fans and peers, but she said “for me it’s making music that’s the paramount thing.” The ever searching artist is always looking to evolve, whether rediscovering old standards or adopting French tunes or performing Brazilian numbers. Lately, she’s played more piano, acting as her own accompanist. On her new CD she did most of the arrangements herself. On stage and in the studio, she calls the shots. “I think from the very beginning I’ve been a bandleader. I’ve never had a music director,” she said, adding she subscribes to what a UNO choir teacher taught her:  “I’m a musician who sings. I’m a part of the process, not standing outside it.”

Noted for her poise, Allyson said, “I want the audience to feel comfortable because I appreciate that as an audience member. I really want to be in the moment and to make it a special thing and to have that ease with the band to just let stuff flow.”

The classically-trained Allyson also led a rock band at one point but it was the improvisation of jazz and its huge repertoire that captured her. As her voice has ripened and she’s lived more of life, she’s grown into the music: “It’s true the older you get or the more experience you get the more you have to say. I want to tell a story — that’s my thing.” Her Omaha gig featured special big band and ballad arrangements. “I’m going to be playing a couple on piano myself — breaking it down as we say. It’s going to be a beautiful, varied evening,” she said in advance of the event.

In addition to Allyson and Wilson, Omaha has more chanteuse-cabaret talents in Anne Marie Kenny and Camille Metoyer Moten. My stories about them can be found on this blog. And if things work out, a story I hope to do about Julie Wilson will be joining the others here soon.

 

 

 

 

Home Girl Karrin Allyson Gets Her Jazz Thing On

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Even after three Grammy nominations, top festival and club gigs and comparisons to iconic divas, jazz vocalist Karrin Allyson is not resting on her laurels.

Staying hungry’s a survival instinct. Your passion and talent either grow or stagnate.

“There’s always a sense of having the feeling of doing what you need to do and following what you love,” Allyson said by phone from New York City. “It’s essential for any artist to question where they’ve been, where they are and where they’re going. It’s always a journey.”

The Great Bend, Kan. native was six when her parents moved the family to Omaha. Her pretty, pixie, girl-next-door looks belie an old soul. This girl has it. The plaintive, sultry, earthy, smoky, whiskey-wizened voice. The knowing inflection. The emotion, angst, irony, desire. An artist’s expressive range and register. A stylist’s interpretive skills. She works it. She’s real.

“That’s all you can do is to let your music speak for you,” she said. “I come from a very varied background musically and socially. I was brought up with a social conscience, which I think informs one as an artist as you go along. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m a Nina Simone singing freedom songs…but I love to sing about all sorts of different struggles and I love to sing all different styles — jazz, blues, the Great American song book. Different languages interest me.”

Her latest cultural immersion is Imagina, Songs of Brasil, a Best Jazz Vocal Album Grammy-nominated work on the Concord Records label.

 

 

 

 

Coming of age in Omaha she headlined an all-girl funk-rock band, Tomboy. Then she “discovered” jazz, steeping herself in Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, et all. The University of Nebraska at Omaha classical music major got another kind of education at Kilgore’s and the Howard Street Tavern. “There was a (jazz) scene in Omaha,” she said. She became a fixture among the cats. “They let me sit in on jam sessions.” An M’s Pub gig followed. “I learned a lot. I cut my teeth in a lot of ways.”

She moved to Minneapolis and did “the scene there.” Then on to Kansas City, where she blossomed at uncle Ron Schoonover’s Phoenix club. In K.C. she met many of the musicians she still plays with today. One, guitarist Rod Fleeman, will join her for a 7:30 p.m. concert on Friday, June 19 at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Proceeds benefit Ted E. Bear Hollow and Hospice House — The Josie Harper Residence.

Her appearance is a special Father’s Day gift for her pops, former Augustana Lutheran Church pastor Vic Schoonover. She’s also singing for a Sunday, June 21 celebration at the church marking the 50th anniversary of his ordination. The special circumstances are sure to induce a catch in her voice.

“For me,” she said, “I think the truest, most beautiful thing about this medium is that it’s an expression of the life you lead. Your experiences come out through the music and enhance the music. Improvising in front of people is a pretty personal thing. You’re using your body, your heart, your intellect. If you’re tired you’re going to sing a little differently, if you’re joyful you’re going to sound a certain way, if you’ve had a hard time that will inform it as well.”

Expect a voice tinged with emotion when Allyson performs this weekend in memory of a grandmother who died in hospice and in honor of her father’s ministry.

Nomad Lounge, An Oasis for Creative Class Nomads

June 21, 2011 6 comments

Nick Hudson is one of several Omaha transplants who have come here from other places in recent years and energized the creative-cultural scene. One of his many ventures in Omaha is Nomad Lounge, which caters to the creative class through a forward-thinking aesthetic and entrepreneurial bent and schedule of events. This Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) piece gives a flavor for Hudson and why Nomad is an apt name for him and his endeavor. Three spin-off ventures from Nomad that Hudson has a major hand in are Omaha Fashion Week, Omaha Fashion Magazine, and the Halo Institute.  You can find some of my Omaha Fashion Week and Omaha Fashion Magazine writing on this blog.  And look for more stories by me about Nick Hudson and his wife and fellow entrepreneur Brook Hudson.

 

 

 

 

Nomad Lounge, An Oasis for Creative Class Nomads

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

Another side of Omaha’s new cosmopolitan face can be found at Nomad Lounge, 1013 Jones St. in the historic Ford Warehouse Building. The chic, high-concept, community-oriented salon captures the creative class trade. Tucked under the Old Market’s 10th St. bridge, Nomad enjoys being a word-of-mouth hideaway in a shout-out culture. No overt signs tout it. The name’s stenciled in small letters in the windows and subtly integrated into the building’s stone and brick face.

The glow from decorative red lights at night are about the only tip-off for the lively goings-on inside. That, and the sounds of pulsating music, clanking glasses and buzzing voices leaking outdoors and the stream of people filing in and out.

Otherwise, you must be in-the-know about this proper gathering spot for sophisticated, well-traveled folks whose interests run to the eclectic. It’s all an expression of majority owner Nick Hudson, a trendy international entrepreneur and world citizen who divides his time between Omaha and France for his primary business, Excelsior Beauty. Nomad is, in fact, Hudson’s nickname and way of life. The Cambridge-educated native Brit landed in Omaha in 2005 in pursuit of a woman. While that whirlwind romance faded he fell in love with the town and stayed on. He’s impressed by what he’s found here.

“I’m blown away by what an amazingly creative, enterprising, interesting community Omaha is,” he said. He opened Excelsior here that same year — also maintaining a Paris office — and then launched his night spot in late 2006.

If you wonder why a beauty-fashion industry maven who’s been everywhere and seen everything would do start-up enterprises in middle America when he could base them in some exotic capital, you must understand that for Hudson the world is flat. Looking for an intersection where like-minded nomads from every direction can engage each other he opted for Omaha’s “great feeling, great energy.”

“We’re all nomadic, were all on this journey,” he said, “but there are times when nomads come together, bringing in different experiences to one central place and sharing ideas in that community. And that’s exactly what it is here. Nomad’s actually about a lifestyle brand and Nomad Lounge is just the event space and play space where that brand comes to life for the experimental things we do.”

He along with partners Charles Hull and Clint! Runge of Archrival, a hot Lincoln, Neb. branding-marketing firm, and Tom Allisma, a noted local architect who’s designed some of Omaha’s cutting-edge bars-eateries, view Nomad as a physical extension of today’s plugged-in, online social networking sites. Their laidback venture for the creative-interactive set is part bar, part art gallery, part live performance space, part small business incubator, part collaborative for facilitating meeting-brainstorming-partnering.

“That whole connecting people, networking piece is really exciting to us because it’s not just being an empty space for events, we’re actually playing an active role in helping the creative community continue to grow,” said Hudson.

 

 

Nick Hudson

 

 

Social entrepreneurship is a major focus. Nomad helps link individuals, groups and businesses together. “It’s a very interesting trend that’s going to be a big buzz word,” Hudson said. “Nomad is a social enterprise. It’s all about investing in and increasing the social capital of the community, creating networks, fostering creativity. My biggest source of passion is helping people achieve their potential.”

“He’s definitely done that for me,” said Nomad general manager-events planner Rachel Richards. “He’s seen my passion in event planning and he’s opened doors I never thought I’d get through.”

The Omaha native was first hired by Hudson to coordinate Nomad’s special events through her Rachel Richards Events business. She’s since come on board as a key staffer. With Hudson’s encouragement she organized Nomad’s inaugural Omaha Fashion Week last winter, a full-blown, first-class model runway show featuring works by dozens of local designers. “That was always a dream of mine,” she said.

Under the Nomad Collective banner, Hudson said, “the number of social entrepreneurs and small enterprises and venture capitalist things that are coming from this space from the networking here is just phenomenal. Increasingly that’s going beyond this space into start-up businesses and all sorts of things.” Nomad, he said, acts as “a greenhouse for ideas and businesses to expand and grow.”

Nomad encourages interplay. Massive cottonwood posts segment the gridded space into 15 semi-private cabanas whose leather chairs and sofas and built-in wood benches seat 8 to 20 guests. Velvet curtains drape the cabanas. It’s all conducive to relaxation and conversation. Two tiny galleries display works by local artists.

There’s a small stage and dance floor. The muted, well-stocked bar features international drink menus. Video screens and audio speakers hang here and there, adding techno touches that contrast with the worn wood floors, the rough-hewn brick walls and the exposed pipes, vents and tubes in the open rafters overhead. It all makes for an Old World meets New World mystique done over in earth tones.

Hudson embraces Nomad’s flexibility as it constantly evolves, reinventing itself. In accommodating everything from birthdays/bachelorettes to release/launch parties to big sit-down dinners to more intimate, casual gatherings to social enterprise fairs and presenting everything from sculptures and paintings to live bands and theater shows to video projection, it’s  liable to look different every time you visit. Whatever the occasion, art, design, music and fashion are in vogue and celebrated.

Dressed-up or dressed-down, you’re in synch with Nomad’s positive, chic vibe.

“It’s this whole thing about being premium without being pretentious,” said Hudson. “Nomad is stylish, it’s trendy, it’s great quality. All our drinks are very carefully selected. But it’s still made affordable.”

In addition to staging five annual premiere events bearing the Nomad brand, the venue hosts another 90-100 events a year. Richards offers design ideas to organizations using the space and matches groups with artists and other creative types to help make doings more dynamic, more stand-alone, more happening.

 

 

 

 

Clearly, Nomad targets the Facebook generation but not exclusively. Indeed, Hudson and Richards say part of Nomad’s charm is the wide age range it attracts, from 20-somethings to middle-agers and beyond.

Nomad fits into the mosaic of the Old Market, where the heart of the creative community lives and works and where a diverse crowd mixes. Within a block of Nomad are The Kaneko, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, the Blue Barn Theatre and any number of galleries, artist studios, fine restaurants and posh shops. Nomad’s a port of call in the Market’s rich cultural scene.

“It’s such a great creative community. We want to help make our little contribution to that and keep building on all the great things going on,” said Hudson.

Besides being a destination for urban adventurers looking to do social networking or conducting business or celebrating a special occasion or just hanging out, Nomad’s a site for charitable fundraisers. Hudson and Richards want to do more of what he calls “positive interventions” with nonprofits like Siena/Francis House. Last year Nomad approached the shelter with the idea for Concrete Conscience, which placed cameras in the hands of dozens of homeless clients for them to document their lives. Professional photographers lent assistance. The resulting images were displayed and sold, with proceeds going to Siena/Francis.

New, on Wednesday nights, is Nomad University, which allows guests to learn crafts from experts, whether mixing cocktails or DJing or practically anything else. It’s a chance for instructors to market their skills and for students to try new things, all consistent with a philosophy Hudson and Richards ascribe to that characterizes the Nomad experience: Do what you love and do it with passion.

Shakespeare on the Green, A Summertime Staple in Omaha

June 21, 2011 9 comments

Before you get the idea that the only thing happening this summer in my hometown is the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame Awards and Native Omaha Days, here’s a heads-up for this year’s rendition of the annual Shakespeare on the Green festival. The popular event has been packing them in for performances of the Bard’s plays at Elmwood Park for 25 years. The following story for Omaha Magazine gives a brief primer for how the fest started and what to expect at it. This blog is full of stories about and links to Omaha cultural attractions. It used to be people complained there wasn’t enough to do here, but now it’s quite the opposite – there’s so much to do that it’s hard choosing among the bounty.

 

 

Shakespeare on the Green, A Summertime Staple in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

When the annual Shakespeare on the Green festival returns this June and July, alternating two professional productions of the Bard’s work, it will mark the 25th season for one of Omaha‘s summer entertainment staples.

Over that time the free outdoor event has played to more than a half-million spectators in a tucked-away nook of Elmwood Park adjacent to the UNO campus.

The play’s certainly the thing at these relaxed evenings on the green and under the stars but the lively pre-show has its own attractions:

•food and souvenir booths

•interactive activities for youths

•live musical performances

•educational seminars to brush up your Shakespeare

•Two-Minute Shakespeare quizzes where the audience tries stumping the actors

•assorted jugglers, jesters and merrymakers.

On select nights Camp Shakespeare performances let school-age kids “speak the speech.” On June 26 Will’s Best Friend Contest invites dog owners to show off their pooches in Shakespearean splendor.

Co-founders Cindy Phaneuf and Alan Klem say the festival found a loyal following right from the start. The come-as-you-are ambience, bucolic site and free shows are hard to beat.

“We really woke up the space,” says Phaneuf. a University of Nebraska at Omaha theater professor.. “It’s a gorgeous location — 3.7 acres, naturally slanted, protected by trees, gobs of parking. Once you go down the hill it’s like you’re in a magical little world.”

 

Cindy Phaneuf

 

Whether a brooding tragedy or a lilting comedy an average of 2,000-plus folks flock to each performance. This year’s contrasting shows are A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet.

Phaneuf says some favorite memories are “the hushed silence of the crowd, the laughter that ripples from the front to back row and spontaneous standing ovations.” She likes that families make Shakespeare “part of their summer… part of their growing up.” Many fans return year after year to soak up the language, the outdoors and the communal spirit.

“It was always about the highest quality art we could possibly create but we also wanted an event where everyone felt comfortable,” says Phaneuf. “Shakespeare seems somewhat elitist but then we put it in an open environment, in a park, right in the middle of the city and it’s very inviting.

“The other thing that’s made it so lasting is we wanted everyone to feel they owned it — that it didn’t just belong to the board and to the people making the plays. If you cater only to a small faction it will not continue to grow and thrive, it will start to wither and die, and so that was really important to us.”

She says the festival alleviated a paucity of the Bard’s work performed locally and gave theatergoers a fix for for the usually dormant summer stage season.

“There was such a hunger and need for it,” she says. “There’s lots of theater in town but very little Shakespeare.”

While some theaters’ seasons now extend into summer the fest’s among Omaha’s only professional venues. Equity actors from across the nation headline their.

 

Alam Klem

 

Creighton University professor Alan Klem says the event not only presents good theater but supports and grows the local talent pool by hiring professional actors from the community and “bringing in students from Creighton and UNO who are working towards becoming actors.” Phaneuf says for many students it’s their first professional gig. Some, like Jill Anderson, earn Equity cards in the process.

“It just ups the ante and the expectation,” Phaneuf says. “It’s a great training ground.”

The festival’s only one element of the nonprofit Nebraska Shakespeare. Vincent Carlson-Brown and Sarah Carlson-Brown interned as UNO students, then worked through the ranks and today are associate artistic directors.

Besides being a learning lab and career springboard for emerging talent, thousands of high school students attend the Music Alive! collaboration with the Omaha Symphony. Nebraska Shakespeare also tours a fall production to schools throughout the state, complete with post-show discussions and workshops. Klem says these educational efforts are “as important as doing the plays out in the park,” adding that there are plans to expand the tours.

 

 

Klem and Phaneuf, who go back to their undergrad days together at Texas Christian University, say they knew they were onto something big when audiences turned out in droves year one. His experience founding Shakespeare in the Park in Fort Worth, Texas gave Shakespeare on the Green a head start. The Omaha fest has always been a collaboration between UNO and Creighton.

The two theater geeks served as co-artistic directors the first six years. Then Klem went onto other things — returning to act roles. Phaneuf continued in charge until resigning after the 2009 festival, when budget cuts resulted in one show rather than the usual two. The festival’s since rebounded. Klem’s back as artistic director and Phaneuf remains close to the organization.

Volunteers are critical to putting the event on. Phaneuf recalls once when high winds blew the set down during the day the stage crew and volunteers rebuilt it in time for that night’s show. She says that show-must-go-on dedication is what she appreciates most: “It’s people pulling together to make this happen. It’s a cooperative venture.” Klem marvels that the same spirit infusing the event 25 years ago still permeates it today.

Schedule-

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: June 23-26, July 6, 8, 10  and Hamlet: June 30, July 1-3, 7, 9

Performances start at 8 p.m. Booths open at 5:30. The pre-show starts at 7.

For more info., visit http://www.nebraskashakespeare.com/home.

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.

Arno Lucas, Serious Sidekick

June 21, 2011 30 comments

Another in my series of stories about Omaha musicians who’ve made it big features Arno Lucas. My profile of him appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) when he came back to perform with Gladys Knight. He’s performed with many legends. I am highlighting some of the artists like Lucas who have been honored by the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame. Inactive the last few years, the Hall is returning this year, July 29 at Slowdown, as part of Native Omaha Days.  Lucas was inducted early on into the Hall, which has become a fine and fitting showcase for the immense talent that’s come out of this place, by which I mean Omaha and its African American community. Look for more of my stories about Black Omaha, past and present, on this blog.  I am also posting a piece about a fondly recalled band Lucas played with called Crackin’ that held a reunion concert back here a couple years ago.

 

 

 

 

Arno Lucas, Serious Sidekick

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.como)
Arno Lucas is among many artists from Omaha to forge a serious music career. The percussionist-vocalist-composer returns home this weekend from a gig at the Apollo to do what he does best, serve as a consummate sideman, this time backing Gladys Knight for her headlining of Joslyn Art Museum’s 75th anniversary gala concert.

He’s played with more legends than he can count: Michael Jackson, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Rickie Lee Jones, Chaka Kahn, Yolanda Adams, Bette Midler, Harry Belafonte, Randy Newman. If you’ve not heard of him it’s because his job is to “augment” — not show up — stars like Knight, whom he’s worked with extensively.

Lucas moved to Omaha with his family at age 10 from Berkeley, Calif. He sang at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church. It was the 1960s, a rich time for the Omaha music scene. While a North High student he had his own singing group, The Creations, and later sang with L.A. Carnival, a fondly remembered local funk outfit, and the Les Smith Soul Band, before joining R&B-rock fusion ensemble Crackin’. As a teen he was making $300 a week gigging.

It was also a time of free love, flower power, peace signs and racial tension. Moving from ultra-liberal Berkeley to segregated Omaha was a “culture shock,” he said. “It was just very, very different the way people treated other people. You could tell there was this race thing. I hated high school to be honest because of the prejudice thing. It was brutal.” Music was a refuge where racial lines faded at places like Sandy’s Escape, a teen club. “Whites and blacks would go and it was cool. It was remarkable, especially in Omaha. There was a great humanistic feeling at that time in Omaha. Even though there was definitely a color thing going on, the circles we traveled in that wasn’t the case, and that was the best thing about it.”

He also came under the influence of Luigi Waites, whose group The Contemporaries he joined. “It was an R&B approach to what marching bands do,” he said. “Very interesting. Luigi just had this vision about this. We’d go and play these small little towns in outer Nebraska. Only whites would be in the audience, and they dug it.”

While peers got caught up in a life of crime, Lucas honed his craft. “It was the thing that kept me focused and kept me out of trouble,” he said. He regards Waites as a “mentor, teacher, stepfather” who showed him music as a way out. “For me, he was the guy, man, who made it possible for me to see these things.” He plans to catch up with Waites, family and friends while in town. Besides Lucas, The Contemporaries produced another major artist in jazz drummer-composer Victor Lewis, best known for his work with icons David Sanborn and Stan Getz.

 

 

Crackin’ and L.A. Carnival also introduced killer players in drummers Lester Abrams and Leslie Smith and bassist Ron Cooley. Lucas said Omaha was filled with national-caliber musicians who were “really happening, really great. These people were just as talented as anyone else on the planet. Some of them got out of Omaha. Some of them didn’t. I was one that did.” Crackin’s first shot at fame came when invited to Woodstock, N.Y., to record for Albert Grossman, the manager of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and The Band.

Touring and session work soon came his way. His song “Maryann” was on a triple-platinum New Edition album. He wrote songs for Dionne Warwick and other big-name artists. He settled down when he joined Gladys Knight’s show at the Flamingo in Las Vegas. He liked being in one place for a change. He and his wife bought a home there. He commuted weekends to L.A. to write, do session work or tape TV specials. He’s also written songs for Al Jarreau and co-wrote one tune, “All I’ve Got,” performed by Jarreau for the Meg Ryan-Omar Epps movie Against the Ropes.

Music’s taken him around the globe and provided a lifestyle beyond his dreams. “For me, that’s the way it’s rolled for 35 years … getting on planes … going to these unbelievable places,” said Lucas, who lives a couple hours outside L.A. He enjoys the relative anonymity of being a sideman, unlike the stars he works with who deal with groupies and entourages. “The greatest thing about what I do is I get to fly in under the radar,” Lucas said. “I get to walk away after the show is over and I can go hang and nobody bothers me.” ,

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