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Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice

July 20, 2011 23 comments

Over the past 20 years I have had the opportunity of stumbling upon some filmmakers from my native Nebraska whose work has inspired me and many others. I first became aware of Alexander Payne back when I was programming art films in the late 1980s-early 1990s.  This was before he’d directed his first feature. I read something about him somewhere and I ended up booking his UCLA thesis film, The Passion of Martin, for screenings by the nonprofit New Cinema Cooperative. Hardly anyone came, but his work was unusually mature for someone just out of college. That lead to my interviewing him in the afterglow of his feature debut, Citizen Ruth, and his making Election. I’ve gone on to interview him dozens of times and to write extensively about his work.  I even spent a week on the set of Sideways. I almost made it to Hawaii for a couple days on the set of his film, The Descendants. I may be spending weeks on the set of his next film, Nebraska. It’s been an interesting ride to chart the career of someone who has become one of the world’s preeminent filmmakers.

More recently, I was fortunate enough to get in on the evolving young career of Nik Fackler, whose feature debut, Lovely, Still, shows him to be an artist of great promise.

More recently still I discovered Charles Fairbanks, a true original whose short works, including Irma and Wrestling with My Father, defy easy categorization. He is someone who will be heard from in a major way one day.

In between Fackler and Fairbanks I was introduced to Omowale Akintunde, an academic and artist whose short film Wigger became the basis for his feature of the same name. Akintunde and Wigger are the subjects of the following story, which appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com). The small indie film, made entirely in Omaha, is getting some theater exposure around the country.

This blog contains numerous stories about these filmmakers and others I’ve had the pleasure to interview and profile.

 

 

Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Make no mistake about it, filmmaker Omowale Akintunde intends for his 2010 racially-charged Omaha-made feature, Wigger, to provoke a strong response.

After premiering here last year, and in limited theatrical release around the country, the dynamic looking and sounding film returns for a 7 p.m., July 28 red carpet screening at the Twin Creek Cinema. It’s back just in time for Native Omaha Days (July 27-August 1), the biennial African-American heritage celebration.

The film, definitively set in North Omaha, plays off a young white man, Brandon (David Oakes), so enamored with African-American culture he’s adopted its trappings. He pursues a R & B career amid skeptics, users and haters. His interracial relationships, both platonic and romantic, are tinged with undercurrents.

“He feels he has transcended whiteness,” says Akintunde, chair of the University of Nebraska at Omaha Department of Black Studies. “On the other hand, his father is a very overt racist who calls people nigger, talks about fags and Jews. He’s very open about his biases. So Brandon sees himself as disconnected from his father.”

Brandon’s best friend, Antoine, is black. As pressures build, the two have a falling out, each accusing the other of racism, unintentionally setting in motion a tragedy.

“There’s just some things you learn in a black household you don’t get in a white    household, and vice versa,” says Eric Harvey, who plays Antoine and co-produced the film, “so that line between them keeps them from being as close as they really want to be. They’re both in denial of self-conscious racism.

 

 

 

 

“It’s not a bad thing, it’s a reality. We do things without thinking about it. Seriously, it’s been embedded for so long it’s just the norm.”

This is the prism through which Akintunde, who produced, wrote and directed the film, examines polarizing attitudes. Nearly everyone in the film exhibits some prejudice or engages in some profiling. Race and privilege cards abound.

“I thought this story…was the perfect premise to get into some real deep stuff,” says Akintunde. “It’s about these two characters with this improbable dream. This white boy who loves black culture and wants to be accepted comes from a background that says, why would you want to be like THEM? And then them telling him you’re not one of US. And how does one make that fit?”

 

 

 

 

The film suggests a post-racial world is a fallacy short of some deep reckoning or ongoing discussion. It’s message is that not confronting or deconstructing our racial hangups has real consequences. Akintunde can spout rhetoric with the best, but his film never devolves into preaching.

He does something else in offering a raw, authentic slice of black inner city life here with glimpses of Native Omaha Days, the club scene, neighborhoods, church. He avoids the misrepresentations of another urban drama set here, Belly (1998).

“This is the first film that really deals with North Omaha and attempts to make icons of the things that have become emblematic of it,” says Akintunde. “I really did want to show this city and that community some big love. It was very intentional I made the location a character in this film.”

Rare for any small independent, even more so for a locally produced one, Wigger is managing theatrical bookings at commercial houses, albeit mostly one-night engagements, coast to coast. In classic roadshow fashion, the filmmaker is brokering screenings through his own Akintunde Productions. He pitches exhibitors and when he sells a theater or chain on the flick he often appears, film in hand, to help promote it. He often does a post-show Q & A.

 

 

Meshach Taylor

 

 

In May the film got national mention when co-star Meshach Taylor plugged it on The Wendy Williams Show.

The success is the latest affirmation for Akintunde, who has a solid reputation as a serious artist and scholar. His 2009 nonfiction film, An Inaugural Ride to Freedom, which charts the bus trek a group of Omahans made to the Obama presidential inauguration, won a regional Emmy as Best Cultural Documentary.

The Alabama native has heeded his creative and academic sides for as long as he can remember. “I always wanted to be a university professor and I always wanted to make films,” he says. “I wanted to make films because there are so many people who will never attend a university, who will never be involved in a high level ivory tower discussion, and movies reach everybody. What I always wanted to do is to meld those two worlds — to use film to teach academics.”

In a career that’s seen him widely published on issues like white privilege and diversity, he’s penned academic texts, short stories, a novel and a children’s book. He says he always conceives his stories cinematically. Well into his professional career though, the cinephile still hadn’t realized his dream of filmmaking.

“It was one of those things you always wanted to do but everyone discouraged you from because they felt you needed a real job,” he says. “No one ever thought that was a credible goal. I finally reached a point where I realized credibility was determined by me, and if I had a passion for filmmaking I needed to do what…makes me happy. That was one of the missing things in my life.”

During a sabbatical he attended the New York Film Academy‘s Conservatory Filmmaking Program. His thesis project was a short version of Wigger. Another of his shorts, Mama ‘n ‘Em, was selected for the Hollywood Black Film Festival.

An expanded Wigger script became his feature debut. He and producer Michael Murphy financed the film themselves. Akintunde imported principal cast and crew from outside Nebraska, including film-television actors Meshach Taylor (who was in the short) and Anna Maria Horsford, cinematographer Jean-Paul Bonneau and composers Andre Mieux and Chris Julian.

“I didn’t follow any of the traditional methodologies in terms of even making Wigger, much less how I promote it and get it out there.”

 

 

David Oakes

 

 

Kim de Patri (Kim Patrick), who plays Antoine’s girlfriend Shondra, says the script’s unvarnished truth grabbed her.

“It said every single thing most people think (about race) but would never actually say. It was the way it was said and the voice it was speaking from, these characters. It was so real and so honest and it came from a very genuine place.”

Taylor, a big advocate of Akintunde’s, says he likes how the film “challenges people’s concepts of what racism really is” by dealing with “the reality of institutionalization racism,” adding, “It’s not an overt thing, it’s really built into the system.” He says he and Akiintunde just click. “I like what he’s trying to do. It’s really wonderful to have someone who has an intellectual approach to filmmaking but still has the artistic sensibility to make it fun and interesting to watch.”

To date, Akintunde has arranged limited bookings in mid and major markets, ranging from Minneapolis and Birmingham to Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. It’s one continuous run was at the Edge 12 in Birmingham, the home of Tim Jennings, who has a supporting role. Akintunde says an Edge Theaters official “became a big fan and supporter” of the film and offered a one-week run.

Future screenings are scheduled in Chicago, Atlanta, Washington D.C. and New York City. He’s negotiating with Edge for new, multi-date runs.

 

 

Kim de Patri (Kim Patrick)

 

 

With Wigger, he’s taken a subject and set of conventions rife with stereotype and exploitation possibilities and dramatized them as an extension of his scholarship. His goal is as much to frame a dialogue as to make a profit.

“My biggest objective here was to really put a story out there that would compel people to talk about institutionalized bias in a way that I don’t think we’ve had. I really wanted to have a national conversation about this.”

In the tradition of Do the Right Thing and A Time for Burning, which was shot in Omaha 45 years ago, Wigger makes a full-frontal assault on our expectations.

“Obviously, I chose a very provocative and incendiary title because I want it to evoke a very strong, visceral response. I want to incite people. I want to grab America by the collar and just shake them,” he says. “The title itself is very problematic for people because we live in a society where we won’t even pronounce the word nigger. It becomes the “n word” in any context in which we use it.

“In many of the (Q & A) discussions we talk about why I gave the film such a provocative title — it’s because I want people to stop and think. Certain words are simple, symbolic representations of a much deeper social problem that we tend to mask by using silly euphemisms, as if we do not know what they mean, instead of looking at why the actual word bothers us.”

The film deftly handles topics usually glossed over or overdone without becoming pedantic or sensationalistic, though it does get melodramatic. As an “ethnic” genre pic, it draws largely black audiences, but enough of a mix that Akintunde is able to gauge how it plays to black and white viewers.

“There has not been a huge disparity in response and I think that’s because Wigger takes on multiple kinds of institutionalized biases. What I find is people see in a sense the mirror being held up to themselves.”

If nothing else, he hopes the film encourages viewers to see past the taboo or race.

“In our society we’re taught the way you demonstrate you’re not racist is to pretend you don’t know race exists. Because of this color blind mentality we’re all supposed to be adopting, we have come to a point where we can’t discuss the 600 pound gorilla in the room, and what Wigger does is give people an opportunity to discuss the 600 pound gorilla.

“But it goes beyond that — to our gender, our class, our sexuality, our religious beliefs. These are so interwoven and so inextricably bound that it is impossible to construct yourself in any of those domains without taking into consideration the others.”

 

 

 

 

Wigger shows how racism, sexism and other isms thrive in both white and black culture. Everyone is guilty of some kind of bias.

“I try not to make a compelling argument of black versus white,” says Akintunde, “but about what it means to be either and how we can transcend these boundaries, these ridiculous social constructions, these radicalized expectations that keep us divided. I believe we have the ability to cross these boundaries and truly become a society resolute in its solidarity.

“I think the reason people don’t leave that film feeling as if they’re more divided is because of the way the film is structured. I think you cant help but see how really alike we are. It’s hard to walk away from this movie seeing the world in, no pun intended, black and white.”

Relegating someone to a narrow category or box, he says, diminishes that person and in the process only widens the gulf between individuals and groups.

“I don’t think they are things that exist on their own. I don’t think people are born heterosexist or are racist or Christian. We are taught these positions, we are taught these ideologies, and we reinforce them in our social context in such discreet ways that we’re formed and shaped into opinions and ideas long before we understand that’s what has happened to us.

“Nobody can be plugged comfortably into one of these slots. It ain’t that damn simple. It never has been that simple. It’s a very complex thing.”

The film unabashedly “goes there” by unearthing the fear and anger alternative lifestyles generate, from gay revelations to interracial affairs to wigger mainfestations.

“Society paints a picture of what it wants to see and some people just don’t want to see certain things,” says de Patri (Patrick).

Overcoming these barriers, in Akintunde’s view, starts with recognizing them for what they are and how complicit we are in maintaining them.

“The thing I want to get across to people is that it’s all of our problem. Even if you think you’re just a victim, you’re not, you are a participant. It’s not a white problem, and it’s not a black problem, and it’s not a gay problem. It is a human problem.”

 

 

Omowale Akintunde reviews script with cast

 

 

Akintunde enjoys the canvass film provides for expressing multi-layered themes.

“I’m very attracted to film as a way of telling that story because I think it allows you more complexity.”

Wigger marks the beginning for what he hopes is a string of films, but for now, he says, “it’s the fruition of my life’s work.” He’s justifiably proud the film’s getting seen.

“For an independent filmmaker to even get a film to run continuously anywhere for any length of time is an extraordinary achievement, and I got that to happen.”

The exhibition schedule is being revised as new screening opportunities surface.

“I had this carefully laid out plan, man, with absolute linearity, and instead things are happening in the moment.”

 

 

Zaina Ark’Keenya

 

 

He says the film’s well received wherever it plays and is invited back in some cases for additional screenings, including Las Vegas and Birmingham.

“Obviously, I would love to see the movie in an even larger roll out and I think that that is happening,” he says. “I didn’t plan that Edge Theaters was going to pick up the movie. I didn’t plan these people in Vegas and Birmingham would want me to come back. I’m going to go with what happens in that moment and just enjoy it. I’m sort of like riding the wave.”

He says there’s been preliminary talk about Rave Theaters pickiing up Wigger. He’s also following up a lead about potential interest from BET in acquiring the film for network broadcast. Wigger will eventually go to Blu-Ray and DVD.

“I am still seeking a distribution deal.”

Considering its small marketing budget, he’s pleased with the film’s performance.

“We sell out the house wherever we play. I’m not making a killing, but certainly making back the money invested to bring the movie to these theaters. I have a real job, so for me it’s not so pressing my movie makes a lot of money, Of course, I want it to make money if for no other reason then to allow me to make more films.”

His unpublished novel, Waiting for the Sissy Killer, is the basis for a new feature he’s planning. The partly autobiographical story concerns a young black man trying to cope with identity issues in the 1960s South. Akintunde hopes to begin pre-production in the fall. He plans shooting the project in his native Alabama.

Omaha rapper ASO headlines the 6:30 p.m. Wigger pre-show at Twin Creek Cinema. Performing at the Blue Martini after-party is co-composer Andre Mieux.

Tickets are $20 for the screening, pre-show and party and available at http://www.WiggerThe Film.com, Youngblood’s Barber Shop, Loves Jazz & Arts Center and Twin Creek.

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.

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

July 2, 2011 26 comments

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

Preston Love Sr.

Buddy Miles

Arno Lucas

Lois “Lady Mac” McDonald

Helen Jones Woods

Cathy Hughes

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

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Alesia Rae

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

Calvin Keys

 

 

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

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

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

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.

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.

Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One

June 11, 2011 71 comments

Even though I grew up in North Omaha and lived there until age 43 or so,  I didn’t experience my first Native Omaha Days until I had moved out of the area, and by then I was 45, and the only reason I did intersect with The Days then, and subsequently have since, is because I was reporting on it.  The fact that I didn’t connect with it before is not unusual because it is essentially though by no means exclusively an African American celebration, and as you can see by my picture I am a white guy. Then there’s the fact it is a highly social affair and I am anything but social, that is unless prevailed upon to be by circumstance or assignment. But I was aware of the event, admittedly vaguely so most of my life, and I eventually did press my editors at The Reader (www.thereader.com) to let me cover it. And so over the past eight years I have filed several stories related to Native Omaha Days, most of which you can now find on this blog in the run up to this year’s festival, which is July 27-August 1. The story below is my most extensive in terms of trying to capture the spirit and the tradition of The Days, which encompasses many activities and brings back thousands of native Omahans – nobody’s really sure how many – for a week or more of catching up family, friends, old haunts.

NOTE: The parade that is a highlight of The Days was traditionally held on North 24th Street but has more recently been moved to North 30th Street, where the parade pictures below were taken by Cyclops-OpticJack David Hubbell.

My blog also features many other stories related to Omaha’s African American community, past and present. Check out the stories, as I’m sure you’ll find several things that interest you, just as I have in pursuing these stories the last 12 years or so.

 

 

 

 

Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

A homecoming. That’s what Native Omaha Days, a warm, rousing, week-long black heritage reunion, means to the thousands of native sons and daughters coming back in town for this biennial summer celebration. Although the spree, which unfolded July 30 through August 4 this year, features an official itinerary of activities, including a gospel night, a drill team competition, a parade, a dance and a picnic, a far larger slate of underground doings goes on between the many family and class reunions, live concerts and parties that fill out the Days. Some revelers arrive before the merriment begins, others join the fun in progress and a few stay over well after it’s done. A revival and carnival in one, the Days is a refreshing, relaxing antidote to mainstream Omaha’s uptight ways.

North Omaha bars, clubs and restaurants bustle with the influx of out-of-towners mixing with family and old friends. North 24th Street is a river of traffic as people drive the drag to see old sites and relive old times. Neighborhoods jump to the beat of hip-hop, R&B and soul resounding from house parties and family gatherings under way. Even staid Joslyn Art Museum and its stodgy Jazz on the Green take on a new earthy, urban vibe from the added black presence. As one member of the sponsoring Native Omahans Club said of the festival, “this is our Mardi Gras.”

Shirley Stapleton-Odems is typical of those making the pilgrimage. Born and raised in Omaha — a graduate of Howard Kennedy Elementary School and Technical High School — Stapleton-Odems is a small business owner in Milwaukee who wouldn’t miss the Days for anything. “Every two years I come back…and it’s hard sometimes for me to do, but no matter what I make it happen,” she said. “I have friends who come from all over the country to this, and I see some people I haven’t seen in years. We all meet here. We’re so happy to see each other. It’s a reunion thing. It’s like no matter how long you’re gone, this is still home to us.”

As Omaha jazz-blues guru Preston Love, a former Basie sideman and Motown band leader and the author of the acclaimed book A Thousand Honey Creeks Later, observed, “Omahans are clannish” by nature. “There’s a certain kindredness. Once you’re Omaha, you’re Omaha.” Or, as David Deal, whose Skeets Ribs & Chicken has been a fixture on 24th Street since 1952, puts it, “People that moved away, they’re not out-of-towners, they’re still Omahans — they just live someplace else.” Deal sees many benefits from the summer migration. “It’s an opportunity for people to come back to see who’s still here and who’s passed on. It’s an economic boost to businesses in North Omaha.”

Homecoming returnees like Stapleton-Odems feel as if they are taking part in something unique. She said, “I don’t know of any place in the country where they have something like this where so many people over so many generations come together.” Ironically, the fest’ was inspired by long-standing Los Angeles and Chicago galas where transplanted black Nebraskans celebrate their roots. Locals who’ve attended the L.A. gig say it doesn’t compare with Omaha’s, which goes to the hilt in welcoming back natives.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the most symbolic event of the week is the mammoth Saturday parade that courses down historic North 24th Street. It is an impressionistic scene of commerce and culture straight out of a Spike Lee film. On a hot August day, thousands of spectators line either side of the street, everyone insinuating their bodies into whatever patch of shade they can find. Hand-held fans provide the only breeze.

Vendors, selling everything from paintings to CDs to jewelry to hot foods and cold beverages to fresh fruits and vegetables, pitch their products under tents staked out in parking lots and grassy knolls. Grills and smokers work overtime, wafting the hickory-scented aroma of barbecue through the air. Interspersed at regular intervals between the caravan of decorated floats festooned with signs hawking various local car dealerships, beauty shops, fraternal associations and family trees are the funky drill teams, whose dancers shake their booties and grind their hips to the precise, rhythmic snaring of whirling dervish drummers. Paraders variously hand-out or toss everything from beads to suckers to grab-bags full of goodies.

A miked DJ “narrates” the action from an abandoned gas station, at one point mimicking the staccato sound of the drilling. A man bedecked in Civil War-era Union garb marches with a giant placard held overhead emblazoned with freedom slogans, barking into a bullhorn his diatribe against war mongers. A woman hands out spiritual messages.

 

 

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Long the crux of the black community, 24th Street or “Deuce Four” as denizens know it, is where spectators not only take in the parade as it passes familiar landmarks but where they greet familiar figures with How ya’ all doin’? embraces and engage in free-flowing reminiscences about days gone by. Everywhere, a reunion of some sort unfolds around you. Love is in the air.

The parade had a celebrity this time — Omaha native actress Gabrielle Union (Deliver Us From Eva). Looking fabulous in a cap, blouse and shorts, she sat atop the back seat of a convertible sedan sponsored by her father’s family, the Abrams, whose reunion concided with the fest’. “This is just all about the people of north Omaha showing pride for the community and reaching out to each other and committing to a sense of togetherness,” said Union, also a member of the Bryant-Fisher family, which has a large stake in and presence at the Days. “It’s basically like a renewal. Each generation comes down and everyone sits around and talks. It’s like a passing of oral history, which is…a staple of our community and our culture. It’s kind of cool being part of it.”

She said being back in the hood evokes many memories. “It’s funny because I see the same faces I used to hang out with here, so a lot of mischievous memories are coming back. It’s like, Do you remember the time? So, a lot of good times. A lot of times we probably shouldn’t of been having as young kids. But basically it’s just a lot of good memories and a lot of lessons learned right here on 24th.”

The three-mile parade is aptly launched at 24th and Burdette. There, Charles Hall’s now closed Fair Deal Cafe, once called “the black city hall,” provided a forum for community leaders to debate pressing issues and to map-out social action plans. Back in the day, Hall was known to give away food during the parade, which ends at Kountze Park, long a popular gathering spot in north Omaha. Across the street is Skeets, one of many soul food eateries in the area. Just down the road a piece is the Omaha Star, where legendary publisher Mildred Brown held court from the offices of her crusading black newspaper. Across the street is the Jewell Building, where James Jewell’s Dreamland Ballroom hosted black music greats from Armstrong to Basie to Ellington to Holiday, and a little further north, at 24th and Lake, is where hep cat juke joints like the M & M Lounge and McGill’s Blue Room made hay, hosting red hot jam sessions.

 

 
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Recalling when, as one brother put it, “it was real,” is part and parcel of the Days. It’s all about “remembering how 24th and Lake was…the hot spot for the black community,” said Native Omahans Club member Ann Ventry. “We had everything out here,” added NOC member Vera Johnson, who along with Bettie McDonald is credited with forming the club and originating the festival. “We had cleaners, barber shops, beauty parlors, bakeries, grocery stores, ice cream stores, restaurants, theaters, clothing stores, taxi companies, doctors’ offices. You name it, we had it. We really didn’t have to go out of the neighborhood for anything,” Johnson said. Many businesses were black-owned, too. North O was, as lifelong resident Charles Carter describes it, “it’s own entity. That was the lifestyle.”

For James Wightman, a 1973 North High and 1978 UNL grad, the homecoming is more than a chance to rejoin old friends, it’s a matter of paying homage to a legacy. “Another reason we come back and go down 24th Street is to honor where we grew up. I grew up at the Omaha Boys Club and I played ball at the Bryant Center. There was so much to do down on the north side and your parents let you walk there. Kids can’t do that anymore.” Noting its rich history of jazz and athletics, Wightman alluded to some of the notables produced by north Omaha, including major league baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers, jazzman Preston Love, social activist Malcolm X, actor John Beasley and Radio One founder and CEO Catherine Liggins Hughes.

For Helen McMillan Caraway, an Omaha native living in Los Angeles, sauntering down 24th Street brings back memories of the music lessons she took from Florentine Kingston, whose apartment was above a bakery on the strip. “After my music lesson I’d go downstairs and get a brownie or something,” she said. “I had to steer clear of the other side of the street, where there was a bar called McGill’s that my father, Dr. Aaron McMillan, told me, ‘Don’t go near.’” Being in Omaha again makes the Central High graduate think of “the good times we used to have at Carter Lake and all the football games. I loved that. I had a good time growing up here.”

For native Omahan Terry Goodwin Miller, now residing in Dallas, being back on 24th Street or “out on the stem,” as natives refer to it, means remembering where she and her best girlfriend from Omaha, Jonice Houston Isom, also of Dallas, got their first hair cut. It was at the old Tuxedo Barbershop, whose nattily attired proprietors, Marcus “Mac” McGee and James Bailey, ran a tight ship in the street level shop they ran in the Jewell Building, right next to a pool hall and directly below the Dreamland. Being in Omaha means stopping at favorite haunts, like Time Out Foods, Joe Tess Place and Bronco’s or having a last drink at the now closed Backstreet Lounge. It means, Goodwin Miller said, “renewing friendships…and talking about our lives and seeing family.” It means dressing to the nines and flashing bling-bling at the big dance and, when it’s over, feeling like “we don’t want to go home and grabbing something to eat and coming back to 24th Street to sit around and wait for people to come by that we know.”

 

 

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Goodwin Miller said the allure of renewing Omaha relationships is so strong that despite the fact she and Houston Isom live in Dallas now, “we don’t see each other there, but when we come here we’re together the whole time.”

Skeets’ David Deal knows the territory well. From his restaurant, which serves till 2 a.m., he sees native Omahans drawn, at all hours, to their old stomping grounds. He’s no different. “We’re just coming down here to have a good time and seeing people we haven’t seen in years.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as “sitting around and watching the cars go by, just like we used to back in the good old days.”

North Omaha. More than a geographic sector, it is the traditional, cultural heart of the local black community encompassing the social-historical reality of the African-American experience. Despite four decades of federally-mandated civil rights, equal opportunity, fair housing and affirmative action measures the black community here is still a largely separate, unequal minority in both economic and political terms and suffers a lingering perception problem — born out of racism — that unfairly paints the entire near northside as a crime and poverty-ridden ghetto. Pockets of despair do exist, but in fact north Omaha is a mostly stable area undergoing regentrification. There is the 24-square block Miami Heights housing-commercial development going up between 30th and 36th Streets and Miami and Lake Streets, near the new Salem Baptist Church. There is the now under construction North Omaha Love’s Jazz, Cultural Arts and Humanities Complex, named for Preston Love, on the northwest corner of 24th and Lake. The same sense of community infusing Native Omaha Days seems to be driving this latest surge of progress, which finds black professionals like attorney Brenda Council moving back to their roots.

Former NU football player James Wightman (1975-1978) has been coming back for the Days the past eight years, first from Seattle and now L.A., and he said, “I’m pretty pleased with what’s going on now in terms of the development. When I lived here there was a stampede of everybody getting out of Omaha because there weren’t as many opportunities. I look at Omaha’s growth and I see we’re a rich, thriving community now.” During the Days he stays, as many do, with family and hooks up with ex-jocks like Dennis Forrest (Central High) and Bobby Bass (Omaha Benson) to just kick it around. “We’re spread out in different locations now but we all come back and it’s like we never missed a beat.” The idea of a black pride week generating goodwill and dollars in the black community appeals to Wightman, who said, “I came to spend my money on the north side. And I’ll be back in two years.”

Wightman feels the Days can serve as a beacon of hope to today’s disenfranchised inner city youth. “I think it sends a message to the youth that there are good things happening. That people still come back because they feel a sense of family, friendship and connection that a lot of young people don’t have today. All my friends are in town for their school-family reunions and we all love each other. There’s none of this rival Bloods-Crips stuff. We talk about making a difference. It’s not just about a party, it’s a statement that we can all get along with each other.”

 

 

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“It just shows there’s a lot of good around here,” said Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown, who represents largely black District 2, “but unfortunately it’s not told by the news media.” Scanning the jam-packed parade route, a beaming Brown said, “This is a four-hour event and there’s thousands of people of all ages here and they’re smiling and enjoying themselves and there’s no problems. When you walk around you see people hugging each other. There’s tears in some of their eyes because they haven’t seen their friends, who’ve become their family.”

Family is a recurring theme of the Days. “My family all lives here.” said John Welchen, a 1973 Tech High grad now living in Inglewood, Calif. For him, the event also “means family” in the larger sense. “To me, all of the friends I grew up with and everyone I’ve become acquainted with over the years is my extended family. It’s getting a chance to just see some great friends from the past and hear a lot of old stories and enjoy a lot of laughter.”

Native Omahans living in the rush-rush-rush of impersonal big cities look forward to getting back to the slower pace and gentler ways of the Midwest. “From the time I get off the plane here I notice a difference,” said Houston Odems, who flies into Omaha from Dallas. “People are polite…kind. To me, you just can’t beat it. I tell people all the time it’s a wonderful place to have grown-up. I mean, I still know the people who sold me my first car and the people who dry-cleaned my clothes.”

Although the Days traces its start back to 1977, when the Native Omahans Club threw the first event, celebrations commemorating the ties that bind black Omahans go back well before then. As a young girl in the ‘50s, Stapleton-Odems was a majorette in an Elks drill team that strutted their stuff during 24th Street parades. “It’s a gathering that’s been gong on since I can remember,” she said.

Old-timers say the first few Native Omaha Days featured more of a 24/7, open-air, street-party atmosphere. “We were out in the middle of the street all night long just enjoying each other,” said Billy Melton, a lifelong Omahan and self-styled authority on the north side. “There was live entertainment — bands playing — every six blocks. Guys set up tents in the parks to just get with liquor. After the dances let out people would go up and down the streets till six in the morning. Everybody dressed. Everybody looking like a star. It was a party town and we knew how to party. It was something to see. No crime…nothing. Oh, yeah…there was a time when we were like that, and I’m glad to have lived in that era.”

According to Melton, an original member of the Native Omahans Club, “some people would come a week early to start bar hopping. They didn’t wait for Native Omaha Days. If certain people didn’t come here, there was no party.”

Charles Carter is no old-timer, but he recalls the stroll down memory lane that was part of past fests. “They used to have a walk with a continuous stream of people on either side of the street. What they were doing was reenacting the old days when at nighttime 24th Street was alive. There were so many people you couldn’t find a place to walk, much less park. It was unbelievable. A lot of people are like me and hold onto the thought this is the way north Omaha was at one time and it’s unfortunate our children can’t see it because there’s so much rich history there.”

Then there was the huge bash Billy Melton and his wife Martha threw at their house. “It started early in the morning and lasted all night. It was quite a thing. Music, liquor, all kinds of food. It was a big affair,” Melton said. “I had my jukebox in the backyard and we’d have dancing on the basketball court. Endless conversations. That’s what it’s all about.”

Since the emergence of gang street violence in the mid-80s, observers like Melton and Carter say the fest is more subdued, with nighttime doings confined to formal, scheduled events like the gospel night at Salem and the dance at Mancuso Hall and the 24th Street rag relegated to the North Omahans Club or other indoor venues.

A reunion ultimately means saying goodbye, hence the close of the Days is dubbed Blue Monday. Most out-of-towners have left by then, but the few stalwarts that remain mix with die-hard residents for a final round or two at various drinking holes, toasting fat times together and getting high to make the parting less painful. After a week of carousing, out-of-town revelers wear their exhaustion like a badge of honor. “You’re supposed to be tired from all this,” Houston Isom said. “There’s no such thing as sleeping during this week. I can’t even take a nap because I’ll be worried I might be missing something.” Goodwin Miller builds in recovery time, saying, “When I go home I take a day off before I go back to work.” She and the others can’t wait to do it all over again two years from now.

Life is a Cabaret, the Anne-Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love

May 28, 2011 5 comments

My writing brand focus is “telling stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions” and the following New Horizons profile I wrote about cabaret singer Anne Marie Kenny is an almost perfect match of writer and subject. She is a multi-talented woman whose love of music and adventure has driven much of her life. She is one of those bright spirits I feel drawn to, and I think you will too reading her story.  She comes from a long line of Omaha women who have made careers as cabaret or torch or big band singers – from Anna Mae Winburn to Julie Wilson to Richetta Wilson to Camille Metoyer Moten to Karrin Allyson.  These chanteuses all share in common at art and craft of interpreting a song.  Indeed, they all feel a kinship with one another, and Kenny is quick to acknowledge that she adores Julie Wilson’s work.  Much like Wilson had to once take an extended leave from the performing world she loves so, Kenny did as well.  My story charts some of the ups and downs,  twists and turns, and various adventures of her life in and out of music.

 Anne-Marie Kenny

 

 

Life is a Cabaret, the Anne Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love

©by Leo Adam Biga

As appeared in the New Horizons

 

“What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret old chum, come to the cabaret…”

Singer Anne-Marie Kenny’s life is a cabaret alright. The story of how she left Omaha to follow her dream in Paris is storybook stuff. It only gets better when you learn she came back home to find true love in dashing advertising executive, John Bull. Then she left for Paris again, only this time with her man. The two lived an enchanted life as expatriates abroad. She sang, he painted…

But then like the tragic-romantic songs this chanteuse sings in clubs and concert halls, their fortunes changed. They struggled financially and then John fell ill. She gave up music to go into business, reinventing herself as an entrepreneur in the newly liberated Czech Republic. Just as her company took off and a new life dawned in Prague, John’s condition worsened. He later died.

That was 15 years ago. Since then Kenny’s reinvented herself again. She remarried, though this second union didn’t last long. She has no children of her own but is involved in the lives of her step-children.

After selling her company she resettled in Omaha, now the base for her intercultural consulting and training business. She’s fluent in French, Italian and Czech, Along the way she earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership from the College of Saint Mary..

Today, this vivacious world citizen, businesswoman, vocal coach, choir leader and cabaret singer still lives her performing dream. She looks forward to whatever life holds, certain she’s prepared to take the bitter with the sweet.

Growing up, Kenny’s musical family met tragedy when her father, attorney Dan Kenny, drowned at 35. While on a fishing trip with buddies his motorboat capsized. Everyone ended up in the chilly waters that fateful day. He was a good swimmer but between the cold, the heavy clothing he wore and his head likely hitting the motor, he didn’t survive.

Anne was not quite 3. She, her four older sisters, a brother and their mother, Veronica Janda Kenny, were on their own. Until the initial shock wore off, their Field Club home, usually filled with the sound of music, was silent except for weeping.

“My father played instruments, saxophone, a little bit of piano. My mother played the piano. My father had a great singing voice, so did my mother. They loved music — it was a big part of their lives,” said Kenny.

All the kids took piano lessons.

Soon, music took its rightful place again in the Kenny home, serving as healing therapy for the still grieving Irish (her father’s side) and Czech (her mother’s side) clan.

“I think the music redeemed whatever loss we had.”

This was the mid-1950s, long before professional counseling became de rigueur for children touched by trauma.

“In those days, no, you just forged ahead,” Kenny said. “I think the music was a godsend for us. I don’t know what we would have done if we had not had it. I think life might have been a little bit harder, but music was our outlet, and we harmonized.”

When old enough, Anne joined her sisters in the four-part harmony group, the Kenny Sisters. They performed at Show Wagons, service clubs, receptions and various other events. All her siblings have remained musical into adulthood.

Not all was peaches and cream. Anne’s mother, formerly a traditional stay-at-home mom, suddenly had to be the breadwinner.

“I can look back now and I realize what an amazing mother we had because she made sure she provided for us, there was no thought of welfare or anything for Mom,” said Kenny. “She had to go to work and she found a way. She worked hard. She started as a secretary in my dad’s old law firm.

“Then she moved to Creighton University, in the career placement office. Even though I’m sure we had very little money, we always looked good because Mother sewed all of our clothes. She made sure we had a parochial education.”

Anne attended St. Peter Elementary and Mercy High Shool.

Everyone pitched in to make ends meet. Mother Kenny made sure of it.

“She made us start working at a very early age, so that we helped with the finances,” recalls Anne, who with her sisters worked at St. James Orphanage. “I remember having to go get a work permit at age 13 or 14 to be a child care worker. I would pick up babies and feed them three nights a week.”

Meanwhile, Anne blossomed into a beauty with an angelic voice and a fetching personality. She couldn’t go to a party without being prevailed upon to sing. Her late ’60s repertoire included folksongs, Beatles hits, show tunes, et cetera.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was in high school, all I know is that everybody loved my music. I could play the guitar, I could sing, I could play the piano a little bit. I got the leads in the plays — the musicals, even the nonmusicals.

“When my mother asked me what I wanted to be, I said I wanted to be an actress, so I was thinking along those lines in those early days. And singing is acting, because you’re selling a song, you’re becoming the character of whatever the song is.”

It would be a few years yet before Anne became a polished vocalist but right from the start she understood the importance of breathing heart and soul into a song and winning over an audience.

“I learned early on, when I first started singing professionally at 21, that you have to lose yourself in the song, and that’s what you do when you’re acting. You have to lose the nerves, you have to lose the everybody’s-looking-at-me mentality and get into the music, interpret that music, let it take you away.”

That expressiveness, she said, only comes “after you do your homework and learn the words and learn the song, and learn some technique and how to deliver it.” It only comes, she said, “after you have really concentrated on studying it.”

One of Kenny’s musical idols is fellow Omaha native Julie Wilson, the legendary singer. Wilson’s a revered figure in New York City cabaret circles and is still going strong at 86. Kenny said no one does cabaret better than Wilson.

“Julie is a master at that. She really sells the song. You’ve heard that Rodgers and Hammerstein song a hundred times, yet you hear Julie Wilson sing it and it’s like you’ve never heard it before. It’s her phrasing and the color and tone she brings to it. And her diction is impeccable. I am a huge fan of Julie Wilson.”

 

 

Julie Wilson

 

 

She said unlike some singers who bore after awhile, Wilson holds you spellbound.

“Never do you feel you want it to get over. You’re hoping there’s another verse. She’s completely into it. I would say I am too when I sing but I don’t know if I get it across as well as Julie.”

Kenny said while Wilson’s voice is limited in range now, age has also ripened it. “She delivers it with such intensity and emotion,” said Kenny. “She just has it.”

All this insight was was still ahead of Kenny in 1973. Music then was an avocation, not a career. She tried office work for a time, but felt her creative impulses stymied.

“I knew it wasn’t for me, and that’s when I decided to move from Omaha. I was 21, I couldn’t figure out where I wanted to go, I just knew I needed to spread my wings.”

“Put down the knitting, the book and the broom, time for a holiday…”

In truth, Kenny knew exactly where she was headed: France. She studied French  in school and became a Francophile. At 18 she made her first trip to Europe, to then-West Germany, where a sister and her military husband lived. Even though Anne didn’t make it to Paris that time, she said, “That trip did tell me I’m coming back to Europe and I always knew someday I was getting to France.”

That day came sooner than expected when she finally threw caution to the wind and booked passage there.

“It was just welling up in me and I still feel this way today — I cannot not do my art. If I don’t, I’m not healthy.”

Still, the idea of going off to Paris alone was daunting. Yes, she was adventurous but also insecure enough that she kept her plans secret. She was even too timid to tell herself she was pursuing a singing career.

“I didn’t dare tell anybody I was going to Paris. I didn’t know anyone there, I didn’t know anything, except I knew some French. So I sold my little Volkswagen Beetle, all my possessions. I knew I couldn’t tell anybody who would naysay. I’ve held that principle all my life — don’t talk about any big plans to anybody who cant help you or isn’t going to be encouraging. I knew my mother would talk me out of it, but I was old enough to do this, so I did.”

She found a great deal and made the voyage on a luxurious Italian oceanliner.

“That was an education in itself –  this Omaha girl on a ship,” she said.

She disembarked in Marseilles, where she caught a train bound for Paris. En route, she said, a French passenger asked what her plans were, “and I don’t know why but I said, ‘I’m a singer, I’m going to sing,’ and that’s the first time I admitted that to myself. I remember being surprised to hear that come out of my mouth.”

Once in Paris the romance and reality of the City of Light set in.

“When I first moved there by myself I didn’t know a soul, but the minute I hit Paris I felt like I was home. Paris is about beauty and art all around you. That’s how I see it.”

That electric energy aside, there was still the matter of supporting herself.

“I only had like $2,000 to my name to last me — I had to start earning money. I did get a job as an au pair, so I at least had a secure place to live, and the family was just wonderful. It was a great job. I’m still friends with these people today.”

But how does an unknown young American break into the Paris music scene? In Kenny’s case, by pluck and luck.

“I put this sign up at a place called the Centra Americain that read, ‘Singer looking for musicians.’ I don’t know how I had the guts to do this by the way. And lo and behold a couple days later a phone call — this deep resonant voice on the other end. The person spoke French but I could tell it wasn’t a Frenchman. He was a guitarist named Carlos. He’d worked with a lot of singers.”

It was attraction at first sight. He, the tall, dark Argentine virtuoso. She, the lithe, lovely American song stylist.

“We didn’t even talk much. He started playing, and he just played with such purity and exactness. He’s the best guitarist I have ever heard. Anything I knew, he knew. We were very good together musically. After we had about 10-12 songs under our belt, he said, ‘I think we’re ready to perform in the streets.’ I said, ‘No way,’ but he talked me into it.

“He felt we should go to the Champs Elysees, the busiest street in Paris. We had crowds all around us listening. I passed a long glove. We made pretty good money.”

 

 

 

 

Her first big break happened only days later when a talent scout discovered them.

“Somebody came along from ORTF radio and asked if we would come for an audition, and we did, and we got a job on the radio.”

She and Carlos appeared on the popular Le Petit Conservatoire de Mireille, a showcase for emerging talents.

“The French loved the show,” said Kenny. “We were on almost every week, and we got paid — not a whole lot,  but enough to get me ‘off the streets’ so to speak.”

The duo also appeared on the show’s television spinoff. More offers poured in.

“It got me an agent, who was also a songwriter. He wrote songs that kind of fit my voice. He got me gigs in theaters around Paris.”

All this after being in Paris only weeks. She chalks it up as “meant to be,” adding, “I just think things do fall into place, and if they don’t maybe they’re not meant to be.” Plus, she sad, “I was determined.”

She and her Argentine dream boat were more than musical partners, they were lovers. But their romance and collaboration didn’t last. Se la vie, as the French say.

After a year living her dream, she ran short of funds. After all, singing is at best sporadic work. Besides, it was time to return home.

“No use permitting some prophet of doom, to wipe every smile away, come hear the music play…”

Kenny took her first formal voice lessons from teachers Diana Morrison and Mary Fitzsimmons Massie. After she performed Edith Piaf and Jaques Brel songs at an Omaha Alliance Francaise concert, the late Morrison offered to work with her.

“She got me started in a whole new world of learning the technique of singing,” said Kenny. “Now, before that, I had a good natural voice, but she got me into classical music. I must say I love it. But I love the Great American Songbook, too. With good technique you should be able to do it all, you should be able to sing operatic but then when you sing a pop song not sing it in the operatic style, but switch those gears.

“I don’t think there’s many people who have a cache of different voices to use.”

With training, she said, she’s learned to “try on different voices” to suit the song, the mood, the venue, the audience. Therefore, she can project, in a belting voice, in all the registers, but can also “pull it way back” to a soft, intimate purr. She likes leading off her opening set with a “wow” song, then throttling down a few notches, before closing with her favorite, “La vie en rose,” or saving that emotional number for her encore.

She’s further honed her instrument in master classes at Juilliard, Peabody and Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. She’s fluent in the full French and Italian repertoire.

It was the late ’70s in the Old Market when Kenny became a hot item singing at M’s Pub, V Mertz and the French Cafe. Meanwhile, she’d met her future husband, John, socially. He was a Mad Man ad whiz from Chicago come to work at Bozell and Jacobs. His big account was Mutual of Omaha. Sparks flew when the two met and their mutual attraction developed into a full-blown courtship.

“Every time I performed, he was there. He clearly was interested in me.”

They married in 1980, honeymooning — where else? — in France.

Back in the States she sometimes traveled with him cross-country as he made syndication deals for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Then one day he surprised her by announcing he’d quit his job and they were moving to Paris.

“We had talked about one day wouldn’t that be wonderful. He wanted to live his dream too — of painting. Talk about a risk taker. But it was a shared dream. So off we went to live our dream.”

They started their new life together in Paris in 1983.

“We lived the life. We were two artists in Paris. It was a beautiful life. We had a lot of fun, contact with other artists. We had musical parties. I would sing at his art shows, He was always so supportive of my music.

“We just blended so well. I heard life, he saw life. We would go places and he would notice things I would never even see. Likewise, I’d pick up on other things.”

The couple lived in an idyllic setting, too, in an apartment on the Iie Saint-Louis, an island in the River Sienne, right in the heart of Paris.

Whenever she visits Paris that’s where she heads — to that arrondissement or district where she still knows the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, as well as all the neighborhood cafe proprietors.

Her next big leap as a singer came under the formidable vocal coach Janine Reiss, who’s worked with world class artists Maria Callas, Luciana Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Kenny knew it was a long shot that Reiss would take her on as a student but she no sooner phrased a few verses at an informal audition then Reiss agreed.

“I was shocked.”

 

 

Janine Reiss

 

 

They worked intensively together and are friends to this day.

“She was meticulous, you could not get by with anything,” said Kenny, who appreciates how much Reiss pushed her to improve, saying, “She took me deeper into my art.”

The student-teacher relationship “is way more than just the singing,” said Kenny. “Invariably you need to talk about what is this song saying and where do you find that emotion within yourself. It’s like method acting. You end up having very intimate conversations. You need to be very vulnerable with your teacher, and Janine would share as much about herself.”

Kenny applied her finely honed technique and artistry at some posh venues, such as the Oak Room at the Paris Ritz Hotel. “Probably one of my favorite gigs of all time,” she said, “They treated me so well and they’re real connoisseurs. Sophisticated.”

 

 

 

 

She found time, too, for the part of Miss Moneypenny in three feature films shot on the Riviera and principal roles in plays and operettas.

“Come taste the wine, come hear the band, come blow your horn, start celebrating…”

Life was grand, and then the bottom fell out. The American dollar took a dive and the unsteady income from her singing and John’s painting no longer allowed them to live in the manner to which they’d become accustomed. It meant downsizing and moving to the South of France, where things were less expensive.

“I sang a lot in the South of France, but they weren’t the same opportunities I had in Paris,” she said, “so I wasn’t as happy.”

When John fell ill, things became even harder.

Then something straight out of one of the sentimental songs she sings occurred. It was late fall 1989 and the Iron Curtain was falling in Eastern Europe. The Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic was capturing people’s hearts and imagination. The new president, Vaclav Havel, a poet and playwright once imprisoned for his dissident views, took office in a bloodless regime change from communist to democratic rule.

Watching on TV Kenny was enthralled by the charismatic Havel, a fellow artist, at the head of this movement. She was moved too by his writings.

“He was the moral voice of the people,” she said. “If you read anything he’s written you would be inspired, too. He’s the Nelson Mandela of the former Soviet bloc countries.”

Amid the nationalistic fervor, she took new pride in her Czech heritage.

“I’m half Czech, so I felt extra connected. I hoped to go one day.”

Caught up in the spirit of it all, she did something rash.

“That was one of those moments when I think I had too much champagne,” she said. “We had just seen on TV the celebrations in the street and I went over to the piano and I wrote some English words for the Czech people to Jacques Brel’s song “If We Only Have Love” and I sent them to President Havel with a congratulatory note that said how moved we were to watch this happen.

“And by gosh I got a letter back on behalf of President Havel inviting me to sing that song at the Reduta Jazz Club.”

That Prague club is a national landmark and playing it is considered a high honor, so naturally she accepted the offer. Her performance there marked the beginning of her own Czech Spring, as she witnessed first-hand the opportunities being afforded by the country’s new found freedom. With John sick and the couple needing a stable income, she began looking at making a major life-career change.

“I knew we had to do something and I was ready to make a break with music.”

With the Wild Wild East wide open to economic development, Kenny learned that companies struggled finding enough employable talent. That’s when she hatched the idea of a training and staffing firm. There was little competition at the time.

“Everything was new, laws were changing and it was the best time to go in. It was just a great place to be. I was very inspired there. I also realized I would have to throw myself completely into it if I was going to start this business.”

But could she really walk away from music to become a CEO? It’s then that she recalled a meeting with her idol, Julie Wilson, years earlier at New York’s Algonquin Hotel. Kenny was there to see Wilson perform. The two had never met.

“Julie walked into the room and I was alone sitting at one of those wonderful round booths, and as she came by I said, ‘By the way, I’m from Omaha and I’m a singer, too, and I’m so excited to hear you.’ Julie said, ‘Do you have time for dinner afterwards?’ ‘Why, yes,” I stumbled. ‘Good, I’ll catch you after the show.’ And we just had a great talk over dinner.”

As Kenny weighed her options in Prague years later she thought back to something Wilson told her that night — how this queen of the stage and the cabaret set had to quit when her marriage failed and she needed to attend to her trouble-prone sons in Omaha.

“She told me right out there came a time in her career she had to stop and give up what she loved doing the most to work a regular job to support her kids. I was so touched by her story. I thought, That’s what I have to do, I have to give up music. And it wasn’t a huge hardship. I’d been doing it professionally 20 years. But it was different.”

Kenny said she also identified with and took solace in something else Wilson told her: that once an artist, always an artist, “even if life takes you away from it.” And as Wilson proved, you can always go back to it. It’s never too late.

All of Kenny’s deliberation was rewarded when her company flourished, becoming Easter Europe’s go-to staffing and training service for multinationals.

“I knew I could do it. I just wont accept failure. Once you stand up at the Oak Room of the Paris Ritz Hotel and sing to that clientele, you can sell yourself.”

She ended up living 10 years in Prague.

Just as Julie Wilson resumed her singing career, Kenny’s performing again. She works gigs in Omaha, in Florida, in the South of France, all around her busy business schedule. Her intercultural work is ever more in demand in this flat world, digital age, global economy, where cross-cultural competency is vital.

She also enjoys passing on her expertise to vocal performance students she trains at her Dundee home. A new passion is leading the Siena Francis House Singers, a spirited choral group comprised of that shelter’s homeless residents.

Kenny looks forward to whatever new adventures await.

“I don’t know what my future is, but I don’t expect it to be any less exciting than what my life has been so far.”

There is one dream she pines to fulfill:  “I would love to do a cabaret show with Julie Wilson. The two of us back in Omaha. I just know we’d pack ‘em in.”

“Start by admitting, from cradle to tomb, isn’t that long a stay, life is a cabaret old chum, only a cabaret old chum, and I love a cabaret!”

Once More With Feeling, Loves Jazz & Arts Center Back from Hiatus

May 5, 2011 14 comments

The Loves Jazz & Arts Center has been one of Omaha‘s little-known gems among arts-cultural organizations and venues. Its programming has been consistently engaging.  But the organization has also been held back by certain deficiencies and challenges that have kept people away and prevented it from realizing its potential. Named in honor of Omaha’s late great jazz and blues man, Preston Love St., the center has also suffered from an identity crisis – never quite figuring out what its specific mission is and thus being diminished by trying to be all things to all constituencies rather than focusing on a few things it can do at a high level.  After an unexplained dormancy or hiatus period, during which time I heard all kinds of speculation about problems at the center and I could not get anyone from the center to explain the situation, I finally managed to speak with the two men currently working on revitalizing the center.  Ernest White and Tim Clark seem to have a good sense for what the organization should be – an art gallery that celebrates Omaha’s jazz heritage and black culture.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) that follows is based on the recent interview I did with these men.

 

 

 

 

Once More With Feeling, Loves Jazz & Arts Center Back from Hiatus

©by Leo Adam Biga

As appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Rumors about the impending demise of a north Omaha cultural institution began flying last fall when Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2510 N. 24th St., took an extended break from normal operations.

Even the hint of trouble alarmed the African American community and city-county officials, who view LJAC as a linchpin for an envisioned 24th and Lake revival. The North Omaha Development Project, the Empowerment Network and others target the area as a potential cultural-tourism district.

The reports, while dead wrong, were not unreasonable given that during a nine-month hiatus LJAC made no announcement concerning why it ceased exhibitions and programs. Or why it was open only by appointment and for rental. It turns out the inactivity was not due to financial crisis as some feared; rather, the staff and board undertook a funder-prompted and strategic planning and building process.

LJAC also underwent an audit, which board chair Ernest White says “came out clean.” The result of it all, White said, is a restructured and refocused organization whose makeover is in progress. For the first time in months LJAC is regularly open to the public, presenting gallery displays and live music events.

White could have quelled negative speculation by offering an explanation through traditional or social media. The American National Bank vice president chose silence, he says, to distance LJAC from the rumor mill that dogged the nearby Great Plains Black History Museum.

While questions went unanswered about its dormancy, LJAC participated with other nonprofits in the Omaha Community Foundation’s capacity-building initiative. White says the monthly sessions, led by OCF consultant Pete Tulipana, critically examined staffing, administration, memberships and programs.

White says no funding was withheld as a stick for LJAC to undergo the review, though some funds are “pending” its compliance with recommended changes. (The LJAC would not identify any specifics in terms of pending funds.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Understaffed and under-funded since its 2005 opening, LJAC hurt itself, White says, by doing a poor job marketing, not signing up members, keeping inconsistent hours and, on at least two occasions, losing approved grant money by failing to file required paperwork.

“There were some things not done, there were some inefficiencies,” he says. “We need to do a better job, we need to be open when we say we’re going to be open, we need to be accessible, and those are things I think we’re already a long ways to fixing.”

Despite “great” exhibits and programs, White says few people knew of them.

The review process, he says, is “brutally honest — here’s your strengths, here’s your weaknesses. They make you do a 10-year plan. They challenge you.” The need for a seasoned administrator led White to ask Neville Murray, executive director since LJAC’s inception, to relinquish that role and remain as curator. When Murray declined, White appointed Omaha entrepreneur Tim Clark as interim executive director.

 

Tim Clark

 

 

 

Clark, who assumed the post in April, says board development is a major priority. He’s looking for board members “to serve in three areas — advocacy, policy and fund raising. We really need to focus more on getting individuals on the board who can help with the fund development. In these very challenging times fund raising is an every day deal. It has to be a board-executive director partnership, and you have to have individuals who have some reach — the capacity to give and go get. They’ve got to have access to dollars.”

“This place needs money,” says Clark, “and every single board member has to step up and do their part. You can’t ask anybody else to help you if your board is not helping.”

The LJAC board continues to be in flux.

Efforts going forward, says Clark, revolve around “trying to retool, build the infrastructure for capacity, for sustainability long term.” He says, “The strategy now will be more looking at how do we build partnerships with school systems, getting more youth involved. We’ve brought on Janet Ashley as program director to help look at our Loves Art School and partnering with targeted elementary schools this summer.”

White says funders want the center to do more educational programming and stay on mission as an art gallery that celebrates black culture and jazz music.

“When people give us money,” says Clark, “we’ve got to give them a return on their investment. They can hold us accountable — we’ve just got to live up to expectations.”

He says LJAC’s securing sponsors and strategic partners to help it realize its potential as a public attraction.

“I think we have a product and a story to tell. We just have to be better at telling that story. We have to be more proactive. I think we’re positioned now to move forward. I’m excited about its future possibilities. I think if we’re successful it stimulates everything around us.

“Have we made some mistakes? Yes, we have. We have some challenges before us. It’s not going to be a cakewalk, but we’re going to roll up our sleeves and tackle them.”

Acknowledging the center’s transitional mode, Clark says, “We’re open for business, but we’re not making a big splash of that until we know we can sustain that. We want to do the work within first. We want to be whole.”

“We want to be viable,” adds White.

LJAC’s new Jazz Fridays series launches May 6, from 5 to 8 p.m., with For the Occasion. Two new exhibits are in the works. For more information, call 402-502-5291.

Favorite Sons, Weekly Omaha Pasta Feeds at Sons of Italy Hall in, Where Else?, Little Italy

April 28, 2011 4 comments

I am part Italian. More precisely, I am half Italian on my mother’s side, and half Polish on my father’s side . When in Omaha‘s Little Italy  or when with that strain of the family I make like a good paisan and summon the Calabrese in me. To be honest, I have never gone in much for affiliating myself with groups of any kind, much less with those that celebrate Italian heritage. Don’t misunderstand – I am proud of my heritage and I certainly indulge a love for Italian food, but I don’t go out of my way to cultivate cultural associations or observances. Omaha is home to a chapter of the national Sons of Italy fraternal organization and this chapter’s headquarters operates out of a social hall that’s locally famous for the pasta feeds it puts on. Most of the clientele at these lunches and dinners are non-Italian, but most of the men and women serving and cooking there are.  As for myself, I have eaten there many dozens, perhaps even a few hundred times over the course of 30-odd years. And even though I have been a writer that entire period this is the first time I’ve written about the Sons of Italy experience. The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) tries to express how they roll at Sons.
Favorite Sons, Weekly Omaha Pasta Feeds at Sons of Italy Hall  In, Where Else?, Little Italy

©by Leo Adam Biga

As appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

If you go to Sons of Italy expecting a “Jersey Shore” or Goodfellas scene, you’ll leave disappointed. If you anticipate a square meal and a fair deal, minus any drama, you’ll leave satisfied, and probably stuffed.

The Nebraska chapter of this national fraternal organization is famous for its Thursday pasta feeds. The weekly 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. lunches draw 600 to 800 diners, says its stout president, Charles “Butch” Turco.

They’ve been feeding folks like this since the early 1960s. At the start, only members, and exclusively men at that, could partake. As guests spread the word, lunches were opened to the public, but still not to women; that is until, Turco says, a threatened discrimination lawsuit prompted the lodge to open its doors to everyone.

There’s a rich history behind Sons dating to 1929. Early on it aided Italian immigrants getting settled. In 1954,world heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano cut the ribbon for the newly remodeled digs. The original building, formerly a horse stable, has been renovated and added onto many times, all the work done by members skilled in various trades.

Today, Sons is a social and community service club. The meals not only help celebrate Italian heritage, but proceeds from the Thursday lunches as well as from weekly Friday night dinners and special fundraisers go to charitable causes, including St. Frances Cabrini Church across the street.

Sons of Italy reeks with nostalgia, right down to the sauce, whose recipe, Turco says, remains unchanged after all these years. Same with the sausage and meatballs. He and the tall kitchen boss, Sam Vazzano, are always around when these staples are made in big batches, to ensure quality and consistency or, as Turco puts it, “so nobody jacks around with it.” Turco won’t give up the secrets of the sauce, quipping, “Like my mother said, ‘When you’re done putting the ingredients in, you give it the sign of the cross.’”

This is not gourmet Italian, rather your nana’s home-cooked Sunday dinner Italian. Or a close approximation. Nothing fancy, just a straight up red sauce over pasta, spaghetti one week, mostaccicioli the next, served, alternately, with meatballs or sausage. There’s a full bar, too.

Turco says everything’s made from scratch (except the pasta and bread). He’s especially proud of the homemade sausage. Sausage days are the hall’s biggest draws.

The pasta may not be cooked al dente, the sauce leans toward bland, and the Iceberg salad drenched in oil and vinegar is overly wet and wilted, but these are quibbles that soon fade in light of the $7.50 price and the warm embrace of the people.

Ah, the people. It’s the kind of egalitarian joint that draws diners from all walks of life to feed at the same trough. Therefore, professionals in business suits chat or gorge beside laborers in overalls. Past and present Little Italy neighborhood residents mingle with downtown, Old Market and South Omaha denizens and artist types. Some suburbanites even make their way down. Judges, lawyers, politicos and businessmen are known to flock there. Regulars abound.

At peak time, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., expect elbow-to-elbow, shoulder-to-shoulder action. In the close confines, a bib or else stain-guard clothes are advisable to protect against spills and splatters. No worries though, your red stain’s a badge of honor.

Wall signs and floor workers remind you, “Don’t throw away the forks.”

It’s largely a 30-something, middle-aged and senior crowd. The same demographic applies to volunteers. Mostly retirees. Turco says the only paid help are four men from the Siena Francis House assigned heavy-lifting duties in the spacious commercial kitchen. The hot, steam-filled space is run with precision. Huge cauldrons of sauce bubble away, stirred with wooden paddles the size of small oars.

The kitchen crew is the heart of the operation. Jack, Pete and Tony work the takeout counter. The two Georges — Matuella and Grillo — are the salad kings. Short Sam and Ernie float from station to station. The average age may be 75. Turco himself is 70. Short Sam and Bernie are both 88. Sam Vazanno, 91. Joey “Bag of Donuts” Costanzo is the notable exception at 48. The men, along with women crew members like Marge Bruno, enjoy the “camaraderie” and “friendship.”

It’s family. It’s tradition. Turco’s father was active in Sons before him. His wife Ann is involved too. More than a few couples, along with parents and their adult children, belong and volunteer there. You don’t have to be Italian to join, just to vote.

Sons of Italy is at 1238 South 10th St. Call 402.345.4639 for the weekly menu. NOTE: The Thursday lunches take a hiatus June through August.

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