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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.

 

Charles Ahovissi and His African Culture Connection Enrich Nebraska Youth Through Performance and Teaching Programs

October 8, 2013 Leave a comment

Thousands of miles from his homeland, Charles Ahovissi is living a dream to share his culture with the world.  The native of Benin, West African resides in Omaha, Neb., where he fell in love while on tour and married and started a family here, and this acomplished dancer, choreographer, and drummer now exposes aspects of African cultures to student and adult audiences throughout this Midwest state under the auspices of his African Culture Connection.  His small but mighty nonprofit is still basking in the glow of a major national award it was recognized with last year.  It’s not the first significant recognition he and his performing and teaching troupe has received and it’s not likely to be the last either.  My story about Charles and the ACC is still looking for a publication home but for now you can read it right here on my blog.

 

 

African Culture Connection Founder, Charles Ahovissi joins Victoria Beaugard,  participant in African Culture Connection’s program at Girls Inc, in receiving the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on November 19th, 2012

 

 

 

Charles Ahovissi and His African Culture Connection Enrich Nebraska Youth Through Performance and Teaching Programs 

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Between the beating drums and the whirling dancers the energy rises to a fever pitch during African Culture Connection performances like the one Sept, 5 at the Westside Community Conference Center.

Led by Benin, West Africa native Charles Ahovissi, a professional dancer and choreographer, the Omaha-based ACC is dedicated to presenting the vibrant rhythms, movements, colors and costumes of African tribal tradition and culture.

ACC performances are always dynamic but last month’s by-invitation-only event carried even more vitality because it celebrated a milestone in the young organization’s life. In late 2012 ACC became one of only a dozen organizations in the U.S. and the first ever in Nebraska to receive the National Arts & Humanities Youth Arts Award. It’s a major honor for any group but particularly one as new as ACC, which formed only in 2006.

Ahovissi, ACC’s high-energy founder, president and artistic director, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on Nov. 19. Accompanying him at the ceremony was Victoria Baeugard of Omaha Girls Inc., an organization that ACC ofter serves. Baeugard is part of a troupe of Girls Inc. members who’ve learned to perform African dances under Ahovissi’s tutelage. In addition to the award, ACC received a  $10.000 grant to support and expand its programming. This came on top of ACC winning the Nebraska Governor’s Arts Heritage Award.

All of it is more than enough reason to celebrate and so many of ACC’s board members, donors and supporters gathered for food, drink, conversation and congratulations last month. Even the beaming, ever-optimistic Ahovissi finds it hard to believe his little organization did what none of the state’s larger, more established arts programs managed doing.

“I just don’t know how we got here,” he says. “It was surprising.”

 

 

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Nebraska Arts Council director of programs Marty Skomal says “the award is given to an arts or humanities program for youth that takes place outside of the school day which also promotes youth development. No other arts group in Neb. has succeeded in demonstrating ACC’s masterful combination of high artistic quality with genuine and significant community engagement. Each time I see his troupe perform, I am impressed by the level of dedication, attention to detail and commitment. It becomes contagious. Kids can sense this authenticity, and they respond to it instantly. It is ACC’s unique way of inspiring youth by example that motivates kids to take pride in their own cultural heritage, whatever its origin. In brief, ACC is able to do what its name implies – make a connection.”

Ahvossi knows ACC is well thought of by the positive feedback he gets from teachers, administrators and program directors about the African immersion experience he provides. Ahovissi says the glowing evaluations and notes “confirm that after we work with kids they learn how to respect, they learn how to behave and some kids who were shy become engaged in the classroom,” adding, “All the teachers tell us thank you for making a big impact on kids’ lives.”

Then there’s the fact ACC offers programming that no one else does in this area.

“It is a very unique program,” he says. “You don’t see it in this state. You cannot get what we teach kids in a library. In schools kids barely get the cultural activities we provide them. That’s why it’s very unique, very special and engaging.”

Omaha Girls Inc. executive director Robera Wilhelm says Ahovissi “has helped girls learn about Africa in ways they simply never would in a classroom or from a textbook,” adding, “The girls connect to the lessons in a very visceral way. He and his team help the girls ‘feel’ Africa when they drum and dance. They prepare and taste African food, they create printed fabric to wear while they dance and they hear African stories. They also learn lessons about creativity, collaborative work, self-expression, delayed gratification, responsibility and pride of accomplishment.”

Ahovissi conducts residencies around the state through NAC. He brings not just the music and dance of Africa, but the stories behind them.

“I know all the cities and towns in Neb. I just pack my car with my costume and drum and travel one week, two weeks at a time. I cannot count how many places I’ve been to. I travel a lot through the Nebraska Arts Council. I’m grateful for that.  I do love teaching, performing and sharing my culture.”

He’s also trains a group of teaching and performing artists to join him at some venues to immerse participants in various elements of African culture.

“Every life aspect in Africa has a specific dance, rhythm, music and all that, so at the same time I’m teaching kids a dance I’m also teaching them the culture, the tradition, the story behind that dance and music. For example, farming is a big deal in Africa. Before farming there is preparation, during and after farming there’s a celebration. That is like story. The way we farm in Africa is not the same as it’s done in America. How we pick the fruit, why we pick that fruit, that is dance movement that has a story.

“There’s a reason why we do any traditional dance and drumming.

“Another example is the initiation of youths. When you reach a certain age you need to go see the elders. They will teach you life skills, what is right to do, what is wrong to do. During an initiation in a village we play certain music and do special dances. So when I’m teaching kids the initiation dance I’m also teaching them this story, this culture, the way we do things.”

The dances performed at the Sept. 5 celebration included the Sinte dance. He exp;lains, “Sinte comes from the Boke and Boffa area in the northwest of Guinea. The Landonma, Nalo, and Baga ethnic groups, who have been living together in this region for many years, play it before the initiation of the youth.” Another number ACC performed at the event was the Djole dance. “Djole is a dance organized to showcase different masks,” says Ahovissi. “Djole comes from the region in the southwest of Guinea and the northwest of Sierra Leone. The Temine, Mandenyi and Soussou ethnic groups share this rhythm.” Finally, he says the Kete dance executed by the Girls Inc. members is from the Allada Region of southern Benin, adding, “The music and dance can be heard on many occasions and festivals, particularly at funeral ceremonies.”

 

 

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Ahovissi says students who participate in his programs, including members of Girls Inc., learn rituals and lessons with deep, universal meaning.

“We say it takes a whole village to raise a child. That simple statement means a lot,. From generation to generation we pass on the culture. In Africa everything kind of ties together.”

He strongly feels that American children need to expand their knowledge of diverse cultures in this ever shrinking world.

“It is so important for them to learn about other cultures. They have to open their minds, they have to allow themselves to appreciate other cultures, they have to accept their friends who are not like them. Since Omaha is becoming more diverse we need to be more diverse, too. We all need to be together and move forward.”

He says as Omaha’s welcomed migrant populations from Sudan, Togo, Bhutan and several Central American countries “there is a need for global understanding in our community. It’s not just African culture. We need to be learning about all these different cultures.” He loves that America is still a melting pot. “You teach me about your culture, I teach you about mine, and we share it . That’s how we become   open-minded and free and live in a peaceful way.”

Growing up in Benin he absorbed dance and drumming through repeated exposure to it.

“My mom took me from village to village to the ceremonies,. I just picked it up from that,” he says.

In his early teens he joined a local arts group. “They taught me how to be more professional,” he says. He then won a competition that enabled him to perform with the National Ballet of Benin beginning in 1984 at age 16.

“That allowed me the opportunity to travel and perform with that company. I was very honored to be selected.”

Later he joined the Super Anges dance troupe. He was touring the U.S. with that company when he met the woman who is now his wife. The former Karen McCormick, an Omaha native, did a Peace Corps stint in Africa, including service in Ahovissi’s native country, Benin. In Omaha she volunteered with the La Belle Afrique presenting group that brought Ahovissi’s dance company to Omaha in 1999. The two met, fell in love and married. They have two children together. Ahovissi moved to Omaha in 2000 and became a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist in 2001.

Ahovissi sends money back home every month to his large family – he has 21 brothers and sisters living in Benin. “I’m they’re hope,” he says.

After Decades in New York City Omaha Native Jazz Pianist Paul Serrato Proves You Can Come Home Again

June 6, 2013 1 comment

Jazz artist Paul Serrato is one of those cool cats who left his native Omaha to do his thing in the big city.  He carved out a nice career in New York as a pianist, arranger and composer.  He has serious chops and he’s well respected in the jazz world for his talents.  Now, decades after leaving here, he’s come back to his hometown something of a jazz legend to aficianados, though he’s largely unknown to the general public.  He’s one of those classic cases of being unappreciated in his own backyard.  That’s partly due to the fact that jazz is off most people’s radar.  Then there’s the reality that he was not in Omaha when he did make a name for himself in the Big Apple.  But he’s come home to stay and he’s eager to share his work with Omaha audiences.  My guess is he will get the recognition he deserves here before too long.

 

 

 

 

 

After Decades in New York City Omaha Native Jazz Pianist Paul Serrato Proves You Can Come Home Again

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in El Perico

 

Jazz pianist-arranger-composer Paul Serrato left his native Omaha more than 50 years ago to pursue a theater and music career in New York City. He found considerable success there. He led headlilne and backup bands, he soloed and did sideman work at top clubs. He composed original music for hit underground, off-Broadway plays. He recorded and released several well-reviewed CDs on his own Graffiti Productions label.

He was the first to perform on the Staten Island Ferry. He was a regular artist in the Jazz Vespers series at St. Peter’s Church. He appeared on the Joe Franklin Show.

He would return to visit family and friends. In 2011 he came back here to stay. He performs around town, including a regular gig at The Addicted Cup in the Old Market. He’s preparing a new CD highlighting some never released original music.

Why move here after so many years away?

“Well, it was a push-pull thing,” he says. His mother, who had remained in town,  died and rather than give up “the family compound in South Omaha” he decided to move in. It beat the Big Apple’s high cost of living.

Omaha is where it all began for Serrato. He grew up the only child of a single mother. He never really knew his father, who left for Calif. It’s only in the last year Serrato discovered half-siblings on the west coast. “We’ve really bonded,” he says of his new found family.

Times were tough for Serrato and his mom. She traveled wherever she could find factory work.

“I went to school in Michigan, Texas, Tennessee,” says Serrato.

His love of the piano began as a young boy. An aunt in Omaha played a big upright he couldn’t resist. He started lessons at age 9 and quickly showed promise and passion.

“I really found an obsession.”

He won local music contests and was a featured soloist in school concerts. He played mostly classics until happening upon jazz.

“I used to hear it on the radio and I was very like blown away by the great jazz pianists. I’d thought I wanted to be a concert pianist until I started hearing recordings by Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.”

By high school he was living in Omaha again. Soon after graduating Creighton Prep in the late 1950s he left for Boston University to study theater arts. Then New York beckoned.

“It was a magnet, it was a pull, it was an exciting lure,” he says. “What I did when I arrived was I saturated myself in the club scene.”

He was a regular at the landmark Birdland. He also took composition studies. His studies continued. His resulting music expresses the energy and edge of the bustling city. He calls his sound urban jazz – not by the rules.

“You’re a product of your culture, whatever it is,” he says.

 

 

 

 

He acknowledges a strong Latin influence in his work. Conga player Candido Camero was “a great inspiration,” he says.

“Candido made a record called Mambo Moves with one of my favorite pianists Erroll Garner. It has such great duets they play. I’ve always loved that record and I’ve tried to incorporate some of those ideas into my own music.”

Serrato’s worked with several conga players over the years. He recently found a new one – “He’s got the licks, man” – with whom he hopes to perform and record.

 

 

 

 

He identifies strongly with his Mexican heritage. He didn’t grow up speaking much Spanish but he fell in love with the language and became an English-as-Second Language teacher for Spanish-speakers.

“I’ve done a lot of traveling in Spanish-speaking countries. I spent lot of time in Spain, where I used to follow bullfights. That was a whole passion of mine. I used to be a really great aficionado. I got my master’s degree in urban education ESL and my last few years in New York I taught adult education in Washington Heights to mostly Dominicans. I taught bilingually.”

His early years in New York he supported himself working odd jobs, including tending bar. While managing a Greenwich Village bookstore he met artists from the underground scene – poets, playwrights, painters, singers.

“That’s a great thing about New York, where you just collide with people. In that New York downtown underground culture nobody was dictating you to write it this way or that way, so I was writing jazz for singers to perform in plays. I had the field to myself because nobody else was doing that. Everybody was doing like rock songs and the Velvet Underground, and I loved the Velvet Underground but that wasn’t what I was doing. I was a novelty.

“I jumped into it and had some wonderful collaborations with (Andy) Warhol superstars, playing for them, accompanying then, getting acts together. I did stuff with jazz basses, walking basses, trumpet solos, all this stuff, and they loved it.”

Serrato made tours of London in the 1970s. More recently he’s performed concerts in Japan. His work’s been featured in television documentaries, included An American Family, and in the HBO dramatic movie, Cinema Verite.

He says New York is “where I’ve done my most memorable creative work and I’m hoping I can transfer some of that to Omaha, and I’m having some gratifying success. I’m meeting some really good musicians.

He looks to add to a personal recording catalog that includes the albums AlterNations, Pianomania, Excursions, Origami and Nexus.

His next Addicted Cup gig is June 29 from 4 to 6 p.m.

Find more about the musician at http://www.paulserrato.com.

Potash Twins Making Waves in Jazz: Teen Brothers Count Jazz Greats as Mentors

June 5, 2013 1 comment

 

Appearances can be deceiving.  Take the subjects of this story, for example.  On first blush who would be less likely to be positioned to lead a revival of Omaha’s once kickin’ but long dormant live jazz scene than a couple of Jewish kids from suburbia?  What’s more, you probably don’t think of privilged white boys as being promising proteges of contemporary black jazz greats.  But in each instance the Potash Twins, 19-year-old identical twin brothers from Omaha, are overturning assumptions, Their making waves in the world of jazz not just in their hometown but in places like New York City and New Orleans.  They count among their mentors Wynton Marsalis, Jon Faddis and Jonathan Batiste.  It’s anybody’s gues what they’ll end up doing in jazz but they’re riding a wave that at least for now shows no sign of slowing.  I have a feeling I’ll be writing about them for a long time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Potash Twins Making Waves in Jazz: Teen Brothers Count Jazz Greats as Mentors

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Identical twin brothers from Jewish suburbia, Ezra and Adeev Potash, are Omaha’s unlikely gift to the jazz world. Their soul and funk-infused horn playing has everyone from Big Sam Williams to Wynton Marsalis singing their praises.

Ezra plays trombone, tuba and sousaphone. Adeev plays trumpet. The Westside High School grads recorded their 2012 debut album, “Twintuition,” in Omaha as a New York City calling card. The 19-year-olds are elite music students there.

They’ve parlayed a gift for schmooze and chutzpah into private lessons and close personal relationships with jazz greats, notably trumpet master Marsalis.

“When we go to concerts we bring our instruments with us and for us that’s like a baseball fan bringing your glove to a game hoping to catch a foul ball. But for us the foul ball is the lesson, and we’ve caught a couple foul balls,” says Adeev.

They also have a knack for nabbing national attention. In March they performed at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where they led an impromptu New Orleans-style Second Line down Sixth Street that National Public Radio featured. A film crew following them for a proposed Reality TV series was there and at the May Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting the brothers performed at.

 

 

 

 

 

Currently back in Omaha on summer break they’re performing June 8 with their band The Potash Twins at LoessFest on the same bill as Don Vattie, a New Orleans legend Marsalis introduced them to. The free fest is at River’s Edge Park on the Bluffs end of the pedestrian bridge. The brothers’ group consists of players from the Westside jazz band they anchored along with other hometown friends. Following their 4 p.m. appearance Preservation Hall Jazz Band takes the stage at 7:30.

Ezra, who describes himself and Adeev as “musicians, entertainers and personalities,” says they realize how surreal a ride they’re on. It’s why they’re already writing their memoir.

“It’s been a fast transition and a huge transition for us,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe some of these things that happen to us. I have to write them down. Every time something happens we look at each other and say, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’

Like meeting jazz heavyweight Jonathan Batiste on the streets of New York and being invited to a Harlem church gig he was playing. They went to dinner with him and that led to playing with him at the famed Dizzy’s Club, where Marsalis and Bobby McFerrin were their rooting section. All that in their first week in the city.

Ezra and Adeev have since performed several times with Batiste.

“We can’t believe the way our lives have turned out. We were never that serious about being musicians until we met Wynton in 2008. The next thing we know we’re playing with all these people and invited to all these things, living in New York City,” says Ezra.

Their superstar mentor, Marsalis, opens doors for the twins to hang out and jam with major artists. Indeed, the brothers may have never emerged as promising jazz newcomers if not for Marsalis, who took them under his wing in a series of backstage encounters that changed the way they thought about music.

That first meeting in the green room of the Lied Performing Arts Center in Lincoln, Neb. turned into an extended private lesson.

“We talked for a really long time about what it means to be a musician. Wynton’s very about being humble and just representing the music like you’d represent yourself. It’s something he always talks about,”  says Ezra. “When Wynton told us ‘you guys should be learning this’ we had to learn it, especially if we wanted to continue a relationship with him. It was like, If we want to be musicians this is what we need to do. He handed us like a free pass almost.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The twins acknowledge their nonchalant attitude about music turned around once Marsalis entered their lives.

Ezra says, “That lesson really got us serious about being musicians. Everything changed from that point on.”

“We started practicing a lot more,” says Adeev.

After a Marsalis concert in Minneapolis the brothers attended Marsalis offered to help with their college admissions applications. They’re not entirely sure why he’s taken such an interest other than the fact “he knew we were eager,” says Ezra. “He gets it that we understand basically what he wants us to do.

“We’re apt students,” adds Adeev. “When we saw him the third or fourth time he said he had a huge connection to us because we were old souls. But I don’t know if that would describe us.”

They do acknowledge their deep appreciation for jazz is unusual for people their age. Their brazen approach to big names, usually sneaking or fast-talking their way backstage, “kind of takes artists by surprise,” says Adeev

“They can see we’re really interested,” says Ezra. “They don’t mind, especially because we’re eager to learn from them, and we’re respectful and we really appreciate their time. They see we’re more students than fans.”

“We think this is something jazz musicians have – a willingness to welcome eager younger musicians. It’s a jazz family,” says Adeev.

The twins attribute their rapid progress to hard work and good instruction more than prodigious talent.

“I wouldn’t say we have natural ability. I just think we’ve had really good music education,” says Adeev.

Ezra says, “I think we’re the poster children of Omaha or Westside music education. We learned how to play and we just continued.”

Then came the lessons from jazz greats. Today, Adeev studies under Dizzy Gillespie protege Jon Faddis and Ezrra with veteran sideman Dave Taylor. “We take what they give us and we kind of run with it,” says Adeev.

They know they have much to learn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The brothers are not only tight with Marsalis but with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, whom they first met in Omaha in 2009 “after worshiping their musicianship for a year,” says Adeev.

“We knew all of them by name. We had studied this band. It’s like people collect baseball cards, well we memorize everything about certain jazz musicians,” says Ezra. “We got such a connection with them the first time and we got like really good one-on-one advice from top New York musicians.

“They are like our adopted parents in New York City. It’s pretty special because Jazz at Lincoln Center is a huge organization. These guys are pretty famous. We feel so honored with that “

The twins are determined to get horn players respect across genres. They aspire being the horn section of a famous band.

They also want to revive Omaha’s live jazz scene. They recently played at Loves Jazz and Arts Center, where they learned about its namesake, local music legend Preston Love Sr. and North Omaha’s jazz hub legacy.

“We want to give back to Omaha specifically. We want to bring in these big artists we know. We really want to develop a New York City-Neb. jazz connection,” says Ezra, who confirmed that he and Adeev are LJAC’s new artistic directors.

He’s aware how strange it is he and Adeev are “the jazz representatives of Neb. in New York.” He’a aware too how ironic it would be if North O’s jazz scene is resurrected through the efforts of two white Jewish boys from the ‘burbs. But they’ve found a shared interest with Loves Jazz to recapture a music heritage.

“They have the passion for it, we have the passion too. We want to bring that back,” says Ezra, who imagines a packed jazz club and hot jam sessions there. “We really do have a love for the music and we’re trying to bring it to places where it’s not as accessible. A lot of people say jazz is dead. It’s definitely not at its peak but I think it’s something people can relate to if they put the effort in.”

Meanwhile, the bros have written original tunes for their second album, which they’ll record in New York this fall.

Follow the Potash Twins at http://www.facebook.com/PotashTwins.

Brenda Allen’s Real Life Country Music Drama Took Her from Nebraska to Vietnam to Vegas

June 1, 2013 1 comment

 

 

Brenda Allen is a good old broad.  That’s a compliment by the way.  She just says it like it is, take it or leave it.  She’s funny, brash, the life-of-the-party and yet more than a little acquainted with tragedy.  Her career as a country singer-guitarist took some unexpected turns, like taking her to Vietnam and Vegas.  Her path and the forks in the road she came to along the way make her life story compelling.  I tell that story in the following article for the New Horizons.

 

 

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Brenda Allen

 

 

 

Brenda’s Real Life Country Music Drama Took Her from Vietnam to Vegas

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

NOTE: This Web version contains bonus material not found in the print version

Brenda Allen is not your typical crooner come open mic nights at the southwest Omaha bar, Lauter Tun. Unlike the amateurs and wannabes who struggle carrying a tune, she’s a pro who can style a song to fit her voice and mood or any crowd and occasion. A real cut-up, she invariably does comedy bits as part of her act. Her brazen, earthy manner comes through loud and clear.

“I’m a straight shooter…full of piss and vinegar,” she likes to say.

The singer-guitarist, who was born Brenda Allacher, has decades of paying gigs behind her. She’s performed at major venues and appeared alongside bone fide legends, including the late Johnny Cash, who became a friend and champion.

Though long ago retired from her music career she simply can’t give up taking the stage, putting an audience in the palm of her hand and lapping up the laughs and applause. That’s why she often heads to the nearest night spot to present selections from her vast repertoire of country and rockabilly sounds.

A natural comedienne with a bold, often risque sense of humor, Allen is a no-holds-barred personality with plenty of stories to share from her eventful life. She sometimes catches audiences off guard with not only her humorous anecdotes but her unexpected true tales of love and loss, fear and regret, addiction and recovery.

She was in her early 30s when she had to leave the successful band she helped found, The Taylor Sisters, to address her alcoholism. She now has 39 years of sobriety that she maintains one day at a time.

The Taylor Sisters headlined at the famed Golden Nugget in Las Vegas when things came to a head for Allen, who upon getting herself clean and sober began a crusade against substance abuse.

“I left the show in ’73 because I was an alcoholic. I needed help,” she says. “I was told I had less than three months to live from cirrhosis of the liver. I had a good connection up there (she signals to heaven) because I’m the only one alive out of the original Taylor Sisters. He let me stay around because I talk about (the dangers) of alcohol and drugs. I started going into schools and doling shows like that. Then I went to nightclubs and said, ‘All you drunks, if you want to meet me tomorrow morning I’ll take you into detox.’ I talked about it even in nightclubs.”

Her use of alcohol to medicate feelings, she says, got worse after taking part in a three-and-a-half month tour of Vietnam the Taylor Sisters made during the height of the war in 1969. Servicemen called her “Crazy Legs” for the way she’d kick her legs up and fling her shoes into the crowd.

The members of the all-girl band were not really sisters but the things they experienced over there bonded them like blood siblings.

Allen is still haunted by all that happened. She survived a rocket attack that killed a U.A. Army nurse. Once, she got left behind by the convoy she was traveling in and had to catch up to it in the dead of night. After one show she talked her way out of a possible rape. Three U.S. army doctors died in an attack only hours after she met them. One time a mysterious U.S. Army colonel spirited her away, blindfolded, to a secret POW camp manned by a black-op Special Forces unit.

She can’t shake the fact mere boys were put in harm’s way for so dubious a cause. She fears their lives were lost in a conflict that had more to do with boosting the military industrial complex than defending freedom.

“To sacrifice a generation of young men for prosperity is sick,” she says.

 

 

Allacher @ Park

 

 

She’ll never forget being around scared, lonely young men who saw in her and her fellow entertainers their girlfriends, sisters, mothers.

“They were looking at you, longing for you. We let them know America loved them and we were there to entertain them. We sat and drank with them just like we were one of the boys.”

Back home, Allen felt compelled to share these experiences with the press but she says nobody showed any interest. Then The Taylor Sisters hit it big at the Golden Nugget and between her busy career and wanting to forget what she saw at war she suppressed the trauma. Her drinking got out of hand. Not long after she left the group the other original Sisters died – one of cancer, the other by suicide, Just like that  two of her closest friends were gone. She’s never married and has no children.

A man she dearly loved, Hollywood makeup artist Jerry P. Soucie, died in a 1989 motorcycle accident.

Life’s thrown more challenges at Allen. She was in a bad auto accident that cost her part of a foot. She was an identity theft victim.

After going on the wagon for good Allen returned to performing, sometimes with bands led by Johnny Ray Gomez and Pat Hamilton.

Increasingly, the entertainer felt a need to educate the public about the overlooked military and civilian roles American women played in Vietnam. She performed for veterans groups. Vets who saw her perform in Nam would call out “Crazy Legs” at her shows and she’d hold mini-reunions with them afterwards. She made a point to tell each vet, “Welcome home, soldier.” She advocated for a national memorial dedicated to the women who served. She was on a committee that pressed for the Congressional Medal of Freedom be given veteran USO entertainer Martha Raye.

A native of Lincoln, Neb., Allen grew up in nearby Martell, where her mother was the town switchboard operator. She sang at church and school from childhood. When her older brother went into the service he left his ukulele behind and she learned to play it. She soon switched to guitar. The advent of rock ‘n’ roll changed her life while a student at Lincoln High.

“That was the beginning of it all – The Memphis Five, Elvis, rock n roll. In 1958 we were rocking and rolling and the black sound was coming in and I loved it. I was the only one that played guitar in my school and the guys invited me to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band – The August Heat Wave. I was the only girl in the band. All the girls at school were mad at me.”

Her parents were not thrilled with her new passion.

“You know all the young girls found their libido after watching Elvis. My parents didn’t approve. My mother shut the TV off when Elvis was on. My dad said, ‘Why don’t you sing at church?’ I said, ‘They don’t applaud.”

She enjoyed every opportunity she could find to make music for people.

“I’d sit out on my front porch at night singing and playing and kids from the neighborhood would come. I loved doing that. I’d make money, too. I’d put a tin cup out there and say, ‘If you want to hear a song it’ll cost you a nickel.'”

The pretty, vivacious, saucy Allen attracted admirers. One was Charles Starkweather, just another neighborhood kid before he went on a killing spree that made him infamous. Allen was close friends with his sister Lavita.

“Charlie was nice looking but he had bright flaming red hair and he was bow legged and he spoke with a lisp, He was slow. Kids made fun of him,” recalls Allen. “Lavita loved him dearly. Charlie called up one day and said, ‘I’m Lavita’s brother.’ He’d been listening to me from his car. My father saw that and came out and said, ‘I don’t know who you are but I don’t want you here.’ I felt bad.”

 

Charles Starkweather

 

 

Her last encounter with Starkweather gave her a chilling insight into what may have contributed to his homicidal rage.

“Lavita invited me to a slumber party and said to bring the guitar. There were about 10 of us girls. Her father came home and said hello and then here came Charlie. He sat down and listened to me playing guitar and asked if I would show him some stuff. I said sure. I gave him the guitar, showed him chords, and his father came in and said, ‘What are you doing in here you little shit?’ He was drunk. The dad took Charlie and threw him out the back door.”

Allen says she later learned that Starkweather didn’t returned home and the sister suspected her troubled brother was “with that girl” – meaning Caril Ann Fugate, his accomplice in the killing spree. Allen says she remembers asking Lavita, “What do you think of her?” and Lavita answering, “She’s nothing but trouble. He acts different with her.” Allen says, “The next few days they found the bodies. It was a very scary thing because Charlie was killing people he knew.”

Tragic as it was, Allen would not be distracted from her goal of being a professional musician. Her first major public show happened by accident but whetted her appetite for more big stages.

“I went to the (Nebraska) state fair and Jimmy Wakely (a popular singing cowboy) was appearing in the open auditorium.  I snuck backstage and got his autograph. I was sitting back there singing with a band I knew from high school who were backing Wakely. We did “The Bible Tells Me So’ – a big Dale Evans song back then. Somebody tapped me on the shoulder and it was Wakely, and he said, ‘I want to have you be my special guest.”

Before she knew it she found herself being introduced before a crowd of a couple thousand folks. She was 15.

“I didn’t have time to be scared. He screwed up on the ending of it and he said, ‘Hey, you messed that up,’ and I shot back, ‘You’re the pro.’ Later, he took me aside to tell me, ‘Take up country music.’ Well, I loved Teresa Brewer, Patti Page, people like that. I said, ‘What’s country music?’ and he said, ‘Listen to Hank Williams.’ And he said there was only one big female name in country then – Kitty Wells.”

 

 

Jimmy Wakely

 

 

Allen followed his advice and transformed herself into a country artist.

She also got a taste of show biz’s seamier side.

“He (Wakely) did make a play for me by the way and I downplayed it with, ‘Mr. Wakely, you always rode off in the sunset by yourself.’ A year later Channel 10 in Lincoln had a Multiple Sclerosis telethon I performed on and Mr. Wakely was there and he said, ‘How old are you now?’ I said, ‘Mr. Wakey, I’m 16, I’m still jail bait, and he kind of laughed and said, ‘Here’s a dime, call me when you turn 21.'”

Allen began making a name for herself as a solo entertainer and as one half of the duet, The Country Misses. She decided to go to Springfield, Mo. to audition for the Ozark Jubilee made famous by Red Foley on his ABC-broadcast show. It was there that an elephant doing its business brought she and a country icon together.

“I did my audition and they said I could stay and see the rest of the show. This was about 45 minutes before show time. My girlfriend and I were looking at three guys sitting in front of us. They weren’t regulars on the show.”

One in particular caught Brenda’s eye.

“I said, ‘God, he’s good looking,’ and my girlfriend said, ‘All three of them are good looking. Yeah, I wonder who that is?’ In the meantime the Jubilee’s version of a Hee Haw couple, Uncle Cyp and Aunt Sap Brasfield, were rehearsing.”

A live elephant was part of the act. The animal did some tricks. Then the elephant decided to pee.

“It sprayed 20 rows out. All the performers were in their costumes already. Everybody got hit. We were soaked,” Allen recalls with a hearty laugh. “I dived and my girlfriend dived under the seats and I saw these long legs go running over top and I said, ‘Is he done yet?’ And this male voice said, ‘No, you better stay down there,’ and he went on by me. Finally I peeked up and they were putting saw dust all over the place, wiping seats down and I heard that same voice say, ‘Well, how high is the water, mama?’ I said, ‘It’s two feet high and rising.’ It was Johnny Cash.

“I popped up and said, ‘Are you staying across the street?’ ‘Yeah,” he said. ‘We’re staying there, too, you want me to bring you a shirt?’ ‘Hell, yes,’ he said and he gave me the key to his room and I got him a clean shirt.”

The old theater lacked dressing rooms and so anyone drenched had to make do with what they had on or what they’d brought.

 

 

 

Brenda posing

 

Brenda with Johnny Cash.

 

An  for the Grand Ole Opry featuring the Taylor Sisters.

 

 

What Johnny Cash looked like around the time he befriended Brenda

 

 

That unlikely meeting was the beginning of an enduring friendship with The Man in Black. At the time Cash was married to his first wife Vivian and the woman he made his second wife, June Carter, was not yet in his life.

“That’s what started it,” Allen says of her long association with Cash. “We sat and played guitars that night and talked about country music. He was a perfect gentleman. I told him I was looking to join a band and he said, ‘Why not get your own band together?’ Back in Lincoln I wrote him a letter and I got a letter back. We had exchanged pictures. I gave him a picture of myself with my Fender Telecaster and I got his first song book. He wrote, ‘Love & kisses.’ Trust me, he wouldn’t have written that after June (Carter).

“Without me even knowing it he sent my picture to Fender. That’s the kind of guy he was. Fender offered me a contract to model.”

She never signed the contract. Instead, she worked hard on her music and at 18 landed her next big break when she met Marty Martin, who gained fame as Boxcar Willie.

“I was his first girl singer. Because of my age I couldn’t be in nightclubs. He and his wife looked after me. We toured the Midwest in a big car. I learned a lot from Marty. He was a honey. He was a very, very good teacher for me. But I got bored because they wanted me to be the prim Miss So-and-So. I’m not geared that way. I’m a ham.”

 

 

Boxcar Willie

 

 

Fate intervened again when she got a call from an agent saying Cash was coming to Lincoln and needed an opening act. She promptly pitched The Marty Martin Show Featuring Brenda Allen. It was the early 1960s. They got the gig.

“We opened in Lincoln for him at Pershing Auditorium and in Omaha at the Civic Auditorium. I played the Omaha Music Hall with a lot country acts.”

“Wonderful,” is how she describes sharing the stage with Cash. She says he flattered her by saying, ‘You’ve got a damn good voice.'” She says Cash and his lead guitar player Luther Perkins “sat me down and said, ‘Brenda, stick with country music, you’re going to make it.'” She did, too.

She says it was sometime in the early ’60s that June Carter “started entering the picture and I started noticing things about John from when I first him.” Cash battled drug addictions at various points in his life.

When Allen turned 21 she began playing Lincoln lounges-clubs, When not performing she modeled and worked the switchboard at Hovland-Swanson clothing store. She says s strict policy forbid employees from moonlighting. One night, she says, the owner showed up where she was performing. His guest was newly hired University of Nebraska football coach, Bob Devaney. She says the owner fired her on the spot, saying, “You sing better than you sound on the switchboard.” She adds that the married Devaney took an immediate liking to her and pursued her through the years.

Now that she was on her own, she focused on perfecting her comedy and country act that was equal parts innocent and naughty.

“For instance, I’d start up and say, ‘OK, fellas, hang on because I’m going to take you for a ride. Hey, hey good looking, what you got cooking…’ And then I’d still be playing guitar and I’d say, ‘Move that chair,’ and I’d sit down on their laps and say, ‘Oh my goodness. I think he’s got a flashlight in his pocket.’ “

With suggestive lyrics like, “I’ve been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too, the things I did to them, sugar, I can do to you, I’m a Fujiyama Mama…” she made quite an impression.

How far she went depended on the crowd.

“Then I’d start doing my version of Johnny Cash.”

Allen had an established solo career going when she met fellow musician Joann Paugh backstage at a show. Paugh wanted to start an all-girl band. Allen resisted. “But she kept bugging me and bugging me,” recalls Allen, The dye was cast after Paugh introduced her to Helen Taylor, a formidable guitarist herself. “We drew straws to see who would play bass and rhythm guitar,” says Allen. Helen got bass and Brenda rhythm.

Things moved fast for the group. They began performing as the Taylor Sisters before Helen’s husband took over as manager and changed the name to Helen Taylor and the Taylor Sisters. “It pissed me off,” says Allen.

The band played with Cash a few times, even opening a 1964 Wichita, Kansas show with June Carter, Minnie Pearl, the Statler Brothers and Lefty Frizzell.

“I’d say we were in damn good company.”

 

 

Brenda #2 (reduced)

 

 

Then the call came that changed their lives.

The Taylor Sisters had toured with Sheb Wooley and the entertainer called Brenda to say, “They need you in Vietnam,’ to which she responded, “What’s Vietnam?” He thought the Taylor Sisters would go over well with the boys. She says the decision to go was easy “once we heard what was going on over there and how bad it was.”

Instead of going with the USO (United Service Organizations), the group went independently though the Johnny Robinson talent agency, who hooked them up with an agency in Saigon, who signed them over to the Korean Entertainment Corporation.

Brenda and Co. arrived in Saigon the first week in April. The humidity, heat and stench are what first struck her.

Until they returned home in July they were kept busy.

“We did three-four shows in a day within a 150-mile radius every four or five days,” says Allen.

They traveled by jeep, truck, boat and helicopter. A military escort was assigned but she says those they were often drunk or stoned by the end of the show. Drinking and drugging were prevalent wherever they went. Brenda imbibed a lot herself.

The women were given strict orders to not venture out at night alone but that didn’t always prevent them from going off on their own, especially with an enlisted man they liked. “We always made sure the others knew where we were,” Allen says. Not every GI could be trusted, she discovered.

“One night we were tear gassed. We came off the stage and we were separated

The guy who grabbed me ended taking me out to a hangar and I said, ‘What are we doing here?’ ‘This is where you’re going to meet the rest of the group,” he said. ‘No it isn’t, I’m supposed to go to the major’s tent.’ The guy said, ‘We can wait a little bit.’ ‘No we can’t.’ Then he admitted, ‘I’m so lonesome.’ ‘That’s too bad,’ I said, ‘then you need to get a break. If you have the idea of what I think you’re thinking and you rape me here now the girls are going to miss me and the Army’s going to find you and throw the book at you, and I don’t want to see that happen. Look, I came here to get paid a little bit of money. I didn’t have to be here to make you feel better. Americans do care about you. And you want to rape me?’ He started to cry.

“I said, ‘I’m sorry but you’ve got problems, you need to go to your commanding officer. He took me to hs CO. I explained what happened and the major said, ‘You’re going to lose a stripe over this soldier.’ I was a little bit more careful from then on.”

Her suspicions were aroused another time but her instincts told her she’d be safe and she was. The experience sounds like something out of a movie.

“After an outdoor show in Da Nang a snap-to colonel wearing a green beret came up to me and said, ‘I want to ask you a question.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘I am in charge of one of our POW camps and we have a North Vietmanese soldier starving himself. He doesn’t want to talk, he’s afraid we’re going to poison him. We want to get some information out of him. Would you be willing to help?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, where is it?’ ‘You can’t see where it is. but it’s about an hour’s drive from here. We’re Special Forces. Please do it.’”

Whether out of curiosity or patriotism, she says, “I agreed to go. I told the girls if I’m not back by six o’clock this is who I went with and I want you to report it. He loaded me up with my guitar in a jeep. We drove for awhile and then he said, ‘I have to blindfold you.’ ‘I’ll have a drink of scotch first,’ I said. He never laid a hand on me.” At the camp she found herself in an officers club, where the colonel barked, ‘“Attention. This young lady was going to help us with our North Vietmanese prisoner but he’s already been put down for the night. She has her guitar here and she’s going to entertain you.” She recalls, “The place went bonkers. They grabbed me and sat me on the bar. I cracked jokes and sang to them for about 45 minutes.”

When it was time for her to leave, she says the soldiers “separated into two lines and saluted her. At the end of the line was the colonel and as he walked her out he removed his green beret and placed it on her head. “He took me back and I never heard a word from him since,” she says. She tried tracking him down but her inquiries with the Army always got the same response: we don’t have anybody by that name. She assumes he was part of some black op, covert unit. She still has his green beret and sometimes dons it for pictures and performances. She also has a vest pinned with medals and decorations given to her by military personnel.

 

 

Brenda Cover (reduced)

Brenda wearing the green beret and insignia

 

 

In Chu Lai Nebraska National Guard troops had just come back from the bush, she says, when the CO, “Big Daddy” Richardson, asked her, “Brenda, can you and the girls do one more show for the guys from Nebraska?” “Are you kidding?” she replied. Once on stage inside a quonset hut, she recalls, “I said, ‘Hit it girls,’ and we did ‘There is no place like Nebraska.’ The roof went off – the place exploded.”

She says that Chu Lai, a central coastal area manned by the Americal  Division,“was one of our favorite places because we had privacy taking a shower. I remember ‘Big Daddy’ Richardson saying, ‘I’m going to work your butts off, but when you come back at night your favorite food and drink will be sitting in front of you.’ And it was, too. Lobster and blackberry brandy and Cutty Sark scotch. We’d do five and six shows a day for that man. The men, they just wouldn’t let us quit and we weren’t about to leave those boys. The guys were just absolutely beautiful. They called me ‘Crazy Legs’…I’d do wild dancing and kick my legs up. They just went bonkers. We’d come back exhausted.”

An incident in Chu Lai scarred her forever.

“One night, we’d come back from a show and a few of us were in the officers club drinking when there was a loud CLAP and the building just shook. “ It was the start of a prolonged mortar attack. A GI grabbed her and threw her down under the bar. “Aren’t we supposed to go to a bunker?” she asked, “Too late now,” she was told. “We took 16 rounds over a period of four or five hours. We just laid there on the floor and got drunk. I was so scared. Around daylight a young man came running in, shouting, ‘They got a nurse at the 312 Surg-Evac,’ which was like a block away.”

The victim, 1st Lt. army nurse Sharon Ann Lane of Canton, Ohio, was the first Army nurse to die under hostile fire in Southeast Asia and one of 68 American women in all — military and civilian — to die in the conflict. “She was decapitated by shrapnel,” says Allen. The incident shook the singer to her core. “She was 26 and I was 21. What really gets me is – why her and not me? – because she was saving lives. I held her mother in my arms at the dedication of the statue in 1993.”

The Taylor Sisters pushed off to their next stop. The war ground on as usual.

“We just forgot about it, we had to put it behind us…The next day it was a whole new ballgame, a whole new area to perform in.”

It was a sober reminder of what men in combat faced. She couldn’t fathom “seeing their best friends blown apart” and having to keep on fighting. “Holy crap, I still have post traumatic stress. I can’t stand the Fourth of July.”

She says she learned Western performers had a price on their heads. The bigger the star, the higher the bounty. Bob Hope was the biggest target of all though he reduced his exposure to danger by being flown to safety every night.

Another brutal reminder of war’s vagaries came when Brenda and Helen got their picture taken with three U.S. Army docs on the deck of a boat headed for Cua Viet, a base in the demilitarized zone near North and South Vietnam border.

“It was sand and tents and water. It was R & R for the troops.”

The Taylor Sisters did a show on a small stage with a sheet as a backdrop. The all-male audience sat on a sandy beach on the South China Sea.

“Cua Viet was getting hit almost every night. That’s why they got us back down the river right away. We did an afternoon show, they loaded us up, and away we went.”

After the band left the base came under attack that night and suffered major casualties. She was informed the men she got her picture taken with were among those killed.

“They died the day we played for them.”

The Taylor Sisters landed the Golden Nugget slot soon after returning from Nam.

“We had a damn good thing – an all-girl country western show band. We had the comedy, all the girls sang, we all played different instruments. We made history as the only headline act at the Golden Nugget without a recording.”

Years of loss and love, making people happy and getting healthy again followed. Then she found the cause that was so close to her heart. Getting the Vietnam Women’s Memorial approved by Congress and erected on the Washington Mall took years of persistence. “We fought and we fought,” Allen says of the sisterhood that took up the fight. The bronze statue by sculptor Glenna Goodacre depicts women in fatigues caring for a wounded soldier.

 

 

The Vietnam Women’s Memorial

 

 

Brenda was there for the statue’s dedication. She was there for the 10th anniversary in 2003 and she’s due to be there again for the 20th anniversary in November. She always says a few words and sings a few lyrics at the memorial.

She became a big supporter of the Shirley Lauro play, A Piece of My Heart, that dramatizes the true-life stories of American women in Nam. When the Blue Barn Theater in Omaha produced the play the woman who led the effort for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, Diane Carlson Evans, attended opening night and ended up inviting the production to be performed in D.C. for the 10-year anniversary.

Brenda’s Vietnam story has been told in newspaper articles, the book Potpourri of War and in a Nebraska Educational Television documentary Not on the Front Line.

For a time she drowned her feelings about what happened in Vietnam in booze. But once she confronted those bittersweet memories the healing began. Of that intense time over there, she says, “I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.”

Peter Buffett Completes Circle of Life Furthering Kent Bellows Legacy

July 21, 2012 3 comments

The Buffetts are to Omaha what the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers and the Fords were to their home cities only the Buffetts don’t build brick and mortar edifices as expressions of their wealth they way those other mega-rich families did.  No, the Buffetts are creatives, not industrialists, and therefore the contributions they make are in ledger books and programs and services and, in the case of Peter Buffett, in compositions.  This is a story I did a few years ago for Metro Magazine about Peter and his passions for music, art, youth, and social justice.  It also goes into the encouragement he received from his late mentor, the artist Kent Bellows of Omaha and his support for the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts in Omaha.

 

 

Peter Buffett

 

 

Peter Buffett Completes Circle of Life Furthering Kent Bellows Legacy 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine

 

The sudden death in 2005 of American Realism master Kent Bellows reverberated throughout the art world. Among those affected by his passing was musician Peter Buffett, an Omaha native and youngest son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

Decades earlier Peter was befriended by Bellows, eight years his senior, when his parents became the artist’s patrons. Bellows, who had an affinity for young people, mentored Peter. Over time, the two remained close, a relationship that lasted until the artist’s death at age 56 from natural causes at his mid-town studio.

In the back of that studio, whose loft contained Bellows’ living quarters, the artist held court with a coterie of friends, creatives all. Buffett was a frequent visitor.

“I just really found his intellectual curiosity, coupled with his creativity, infectious,” Buffett said by phone from his New York City home. “He was just a very warm, open, likable person. He also played piano. I loved to hear him play. He had a very unique style.”

The widely collected and exhibited Bellows lived and worked in a century old structure overbrimming with the toils of his discipline. The building’s now home to the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts, 3303 Leavenworth St., where his tools, ephemera and backdrops are preserved the way he left them. The result is a tableaux-like, three-dimensional still life of the creative process.

The center, whose mission is to “ignite the create spark” in individuals and encourage their “potential through self-expression in the visual arts,” conducts a  mentoring program pairing professional artists with area high school students.

Fulfilling potential is a theme of Buffett’s new book, Life is What You Make It (Harmony Books), a part memoir, part inspirational primer.

 

 

Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts

 

 

On April 30 he presented Life is What You Make It, A Concert and Conversation benefit for the nonprofit center. Performing before a packed house at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall, he sang and spoke about finding one’s bliss.

“I think self-reflection and responsibility is sometimes the missing piece for people. They’re not really willing to take a hard look at their own actions,” he said. “It’s much easier to blame something or someone else.”

He believes “a lot of people short change themselves. Our own minds can wreak havoc on our dreams for sure. It is too bad we get trapped by our own thinking that we’re not good enough.” He said he held himself back musically for years because of self-doubt. In his book he discusses some of his failures or missed opportunities. Recognizing those moments can help us seize the next day, he says.

He credits encouragement from his parents and from mentor figures like Bellows for preparing him to fulfill his own potential.

Event proceeds also supported a Bellows exhibition opening September 25 at Joslyn, the first major retrospective of the artist’s work since his death. A young Bellows studied masterworks in Joslyn’s galleries and some of his own early work showed there.

The Bellows center and exhibition are close to Buffett’s heart because they perpetuate the spirt of a man whose loss is still fresh for him and they complete the circle of life.

 

 

Kent Bellows

 

 

“Kent’s somebody I think about very often,” said Buffett. “When you know anybody well there’s certain things about them you remember. He had a great laugh, he had a great quality to his voice. So, viscerally you can feel and hear his presence. He’s definitely still around.”

Buffett’s built a life embodying the Bellows mantra of following one’s passion.  Buffett’s parents modeled a similar philosophy: his father Warren as entrepreneur and philanthropist; his late mother Susie as community activist and singer. Peter suspects Susie saw Bellows as a kindred spirit who would nurture and guide him .

Bellows center executive director Anne Meysenburg said of Peter, “He’s a product of Kent’s mentoring.” Buffett agrees and often references the influence of his departed friend. As Kent did, Buffett’s carved out a creative niche for himself that expresses his deepest feelings. As a Kent Bellows Foundation founder and board member, he’s keenly aware of carrying on the generosity Bellows was famous for.

“As Kent was to me, the foundation is to the kids it’s mentoring and supporting. That was the brilliance I think of Kent’s sisters and Anne (Meysenburg) really saying, What was Kent’s role in the lives of the people he touched and how can that be extended to what the foundation does? They’ve really hit it, too. It really is that supporting, mentoring role.”

“The center gets to give that back to young people in perpetuity,” said Meysenburg.

In turn, mentors and students engage the communit in positive social action through public art projects. Meysenburg said Buffett is “a guiding force. He’s got a very holistic view. He comes from a funder’s perspective but he also understands the plight of the nonprofit. He provides a lot of insight. He has incredible passion for the organization. Peter is very focused on the two sides of our mission, which are honoring Kent’s legacy and creative development in the community.”

Giving back is a dimension of Buffett’s humanist ideals. He and his wife Jennifer’s NoVo Foundation works to empower girls in developing nations. He said this focus is predicated on the belief societies need to move “from domination and exploitation to collaboration and partnership” by valuing the disenfranchised.

“We talk about that in the context of girls and women because they’re certainly wildly misrepresented in the world compared to their numbers,” he said.

He believes supporting girls and women has a ripple effect through families and communities.

“The bottom-line for me is that only a girl will be the mother of every child and because of that if you can support, educate, provide health care and a livelihood to a girl she’s going to be a different kind of mother, and therefore everyone will be better off. It’s not unlike my father’s investment philosophy — you find something undervalued in the marketplace, you recognize its true value, you invest in it, support it, and wait until the market catches up and your investment pays off. And to me that’s a girl, she’s undervalued. That’s where we want to put our money.”

He said there’s no substitute for visiting a country to understand its challenges. “It’s invaluable to do. My line is, ‘You won’t know if you don’t go.'” Jennifer was recently in Uganda for the foundation. The couple log many miles together. The Uganda visit was the first major foundation trip he’s not been on.

Not long ago Buffett was best known as a composer-producer of New Age-style projects, but he’s fast-gained notoriety for personal recordings, some political, featuring his singing voice. The first social justice awakening in his music came with his Native American work (Spirit – The Seventh Fire) and a collaboration with Chief Hawk Pope. He’s lately collaborated with R&B artist/rapper Akon and Afropop artist Angelique Kidjo. He and Akon performed in the United Nations General Assembly in remembrance of slave trade victims.

He said his ever evolving career “is a testament to following what you love” as opposed to a rigid goal. “I’m much more into being than doing because I’m finding the more I follow this thing that’s inside of me I’m able to put these interior feelings in the music in a way that people respond to.” He never imagined himself a singer but he believes events opened him to the possibility.

“Kent’s death was a big piece of that, as was my mom dying the year before. Jennifer and I went through a very difficult time, so songs started coming out, and I really just wrote them for myself and my relationship. I was surprised by the fact they sounded OK. I still don’t think of myself as a singer. I’m still getting used to it frankly. But when you’re sitting in the General Assembly of the U.N. and Akon is singing with you and Nile Rodgers is backing you up on guitar, you think, How the hell did this happen? How cool is this?”

Buffett is the only male to perform on stage for V-Day, a movement to stamp out violence against females. By using music to speak out against social ills, such as his songs “Can We Love?” and “Bought and Sold,” he’s fulfilling a long-held desire. He said, “I always wanted the music to do something — to serve a higher purpose.”

In an era of diminishing resources and widening inequities, he’s a proponent of people in developed countries making do with less.

“We’re stuck in this world that tells us we need things to feel whole,” he said. “I think you can never fill whatever inside you that feels empty with stuff. Some brilliant ad man a long time ago figured out that you can make people think that they can. Now we’ve built an economy on it, and when it collapses what will we have? We won’t have the sense of community and connections we’ll need to really survive.”

 

 

Peter Buffett with children in Liberia

 

 

He appreciates the irony of someone from privilege raising the question, “How much is enough?,” but points out that for all the Buffett’s riches they live frugally and do give back. His father’s famously earmarked his fortune to charitable causes, including foundations run by Peter and his siblings that address social problems.

Peter advocates social networking as a means to promote social justice and supports efforts like the social action web site, IsThereSomethingICanDo.com.

Meysenburg said the Bellows center’s community engagement piece aligns closely with Buffett’s interests. Students and mentors will participate in a graffiti abatement program this summer with juvenile offenders. Buffet’s involvement in the Bellows Foundation is a big reason why Meysenburg said the start-up’s grown quickly and formed multiple partnerships. His April concert was the second fund-raising gig he’s performed on its behalf.

Peter visits the Bellows center whenever in town. He enjoys seeing the student-mentor dynamic at work. He cannot help but think back to when he and Bellows filled those roles. It’s an interaction he finds almost sacred beauty in.

He’s seen the progress made in transforming the old Bellows work space into a contemporary gallery, offices, education wing and artistic playground. Work continues as funds allow. Renovations have necessitated the center’s classes meeting in the Bemis Underground in the Old Market. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts is a major partner of the Bellows program.

Buffett said he and fellow Bellows Foundation members are conscious of living up to the legacy of the man whose life exuded the nurturing, creative spark. He’s satisfied they’re on the right track.

“It makes us all feel good we’re doing something we know he would love. None of us forget that.”

Jazz-Plena Fusion Artist Miguel Zenon Bridges Worlds of Music

July 21, 2012 1 comment

 

A couple years ago I interviewed a hot name in jazz, Miguel Zenon, in advance of he and his quartet playing in Omaha.  This cat has major chops and I was a bit intimidated because I am far from a jazz aficionado, but he was great and if he detected my ignorance he didn’t let on.

 

Migul Zenon, ©photo by Daniel Sheehan

 

 

 

Jazz-Plena Fusion Artist Miguel Zenon Bridges Worlds of Music

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

When the Miguel Zenon Quartet plays the Holland Performing Arts Center May 21 at 8 p.m., one of the world’s most acclaimed and decorated young artists will take center stage.

Leader-composer-saxophonist Miguel Zenon, a native of Puerto Rico now based in New York City, is a Grammy nominated musician, but the recognition goes well beyond that music award.

He’s been heralded by the Downbeat Critic’s Poll, Billboard magazine, the New York Times, Latin Beat, El Nueva Dia, the Chicago Tribune, Jazz Times, Jazz Improv and Jazz.com, among others.

Regarded as an innovator for bridging jazz with plena, the traditional music of Puerto Rico tinged by influences from Africa and Spain, he’s received major grants, including a 2008 fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. The Guggenheim helped fund a project that developed into his most recent CD, Esta Plena (2009).

That same year he received the MacArthur Fellowship or “genius grant,” which recognizes individuals who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.” In his citation the MacArthur Foundation noted: “This young musician and composer is at once reestablishing the artistic, cultural and social tradition of jazz while creating an entirely new jazz language for the 21st century.”

The MacArthur prize includes a $500,000 stipend.

With so much that’s come his way so quickly — Zenon is only 30 — El Perico caught up by phone with the busy artist, who also teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music, to talk about his red hot career and many accolades.

“I just feel very blessed by all these opportunities, They’re all very positive things,” he says. “They’ve all come in kind of a relatively short time and all very close to each other, and for me it’s just basically an incentive to keep doing what I’m doing and keep working hard and trying to move forward.

“These opportunities open doors to other opportunities and other roads. It’s truly the best thing you could ask for in terms of being a creative person — to have opportunities and people giving you the means to do what you want to do.”

One thing that won’t change is his work ethic.

“It’s just something that’s always been in my personality,” he says. “I understood early on in my development as a musician that in order to advance and move forward I just needed to be disciplined and focused and put in the work. It’s always been my main priority.”

 

 

 

©rochesterjazz.com

 

 

 

His early musical foundation was laid at the San Juan performing arts school Escuela Libre de Musica, where he studied classical saxophone.

In the States his formal jazz training came at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Mass. He continued studies at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. He’s learned too from all the gifted musicians he’s played with as sideman or leader.

“I think the big thing for me is to have this attitude of the eternal student and really trying to learn something from everyone and trying to be curious about things and trying to get something out of every experience,” he says.

Now, he’s the teacher.

“It’s something I enjoy very much. I learn a lot from my students and I learn a lot from myself. By having to pass on information and concepts and tools onto others, you sort of have to relearn them yourself. The whole experience and dynamic of being a teacher is a great learning experience for me in every way.”

Working with serious, highly motivated students is “my ideal situation,” he says, adding, “That’s when I feel I can give the most because I identify with that in many different ways.”

Honoring his heritage is a vital part of the music he shares with the world. He says his work is “an exploration of these two sides of me — of being a jazz musician and being rooted in this very strong Caribbean and Puerto Rican culture and trying to find something that connects both worlds.”

In Omaha, he says, “people can expect this sort of mix or fusion. The way I like to think of it is, I’m a Latin American musician that plays jazz music. I have many different things I like, many influences, just as anybody else, but I try to be honest and true to my background, my culture, my roots, and have that come out in a natural and organic way through my music. Hopefully, people hear that honesty and all those different combinations.”

His quartet will play original tunes from a new CD, Alma Adentro, set for August release on Marsalis Music. He says the label allows he and his collaborators great “freedom to do what we want to do.”

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