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Home Girl Karrin Allyson Gets Her Jazz Thing On

June 22, 2011 7 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Home Girl Karrin Allyson Gets Her Jazz Thing On

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Camille Metoyer Moten, A Singer for All Seasons

June 22, 2011 9 comments

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

 

 

 

 

Camille Metoyer Moten, A Singer for All Seasons

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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


Chef Mike Does a Rebirth at the Community Cafe

June 22, 2011 5 comments

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

 

 

 

 

Chef Mike Does a Rebirth at the Community Cafe

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 22, 2011 3 comments

 

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

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

 

 

 

John Coltrane by Frederick Brown

 

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Frederick Brown, center, at a jazz summit

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Welcome Home by Frederick Brown

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Many Worlds of Science Fiction Author Robert Reed

June 22, 2011 4 comments

I am consistently amazed at the talent surrounding me. Until I saw an item about Robert Reed in the local daily I had no idea that one of the preeminent science fiction authors of his time was from Omaha and still lived in the area – 50 miles away in Lincoln, Neb. I promptly sought out his work and was blown away by his gift, and soon thereafter arranged an interview with him. The resulting story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in the wake of Reed having won the Holy Grail of his profession, the Hugo Award, for his novella A Billion Eves. My very short piece hardly does the prolific justice to Reed, whose work is included in countless Best Of collections and anthologies, which is why I pine to do another story about him, hopefully one of some length. He is up for another major prize by the way, as a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Award for his novella, Dead Man‘s Run.

 

 

The Many Worlds of Science Fiction Author Robert Reed

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Omaha native Robert Reed’s 2007 Hugo Award-winning novella A Billion Eves imagines devices called “rippers” that punch holes in the fabric of the space-time continuum. People and places get propelled from one world to some infinity of alternate worlds. The prospect of man playing God in new edens plentiful with women proves a Pandora’s Box of male fantasy run amok. The Fathers of these frontiers may be false prophets.

Eves is a cautionary tale about staking claims in facsimile worlds that may have short life spans and be susceptible to human contamination. Better to begin with a clean slate, suggests Reed, a prolific science fiction author. Speculative musings about the fallout of using quantum mechanics as an instrument of Manifest Destiny consume Reed. He has great fun, too, with the divergent creation stories bound to be promulgated in such Instant Ready, up-for-grabs universes. Whose account of “In the beginning…” you believe depends on who you are within the tribe. History, we’re reminded, is the prerogative of the historian.

Reed, who lives in Lincoln, Neb. with his wife Leslie and their daughter Jessie, has largely survived on his writing earnings since 1987. There’ve been lean times when he’s lived off savings. But it’s never been so tight he’s thought of going back on the line at Mapes Industries in Lincoln, where he did the human automaton thing to support his habit. His fertile imagination and solid craft have paid off. His work has been called grim for envisioning horrific end-of-world scenarios and dire consequences of human folly.

“I’m astonished how little fright I have of my own imagination,” he said. “It really does baffle me that I don’t get more scared because I’m capable of thinking up things that are so awful. On any given day I can imagine the worst.”

He’s heeded the dark side of his imagination since childhood. Already an avid reader as a kid, he tried writing a novel at 12 or 13 — filling spiral notebooks with violent monsters conjured from somewhere deep within. Playing with his buddies in a wooded area near his childhood home he’d concoct elaborate tales of creatures. At home he’d devise intricate maps of water worlds, drawing on his interest in biology, and create fantastic universes out of his head.

“I just don’t perceive things quite as other people do,” he said.

Years passed between his first stab at writing fiction and his taking it up again at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He’d stopped writing in the interim, but he never stopped reading and imagining. Ideas filled him.

“I would say, yes, they were working on me for years and years,” he said of all the stirrings that pricked at him.

 

 

It’s perhaps why when he did resume writing tales poured out of him. They’ve kept coming, too. He’s up to 160 stories and 11 novels. When someone finds the success Reed has — published in all the major SF anthologies and nominated for the field’s top prizes — one asks why he isn’t a household name?

“I’m pleased by my following, what there is of it, but science fiction is really a rather tiny business compared with its giant cousin, which is fantasy,” he said.

Then there’s the fact that while some Reed works have been optioned by filmmakers, none have made it to the screen. He doesn’t much seem to care. He doesn’t do book tours and he attends few SF conventions. And, unlike most successful SF writers whose work is tenaciously grounded in some consistent vision of the future, Reed is apt to apply entirely new suppositions from story to story.

“It doesn’t help build a fan base doing that. There’s many ways in which I’ve separated myself from the rest of the business and from my readers,” he said, adding one advantage to being an outsider is — “I think I often come up with fresh perspectives on old storylines.”

It’s true this avid long distance runner prefers to stay apart from the pack, but then there’s his big, loud web site, www.robertreedwriter.com, that two huge fans created and maintain. Reed said he doesn’t feel he would have won the coveted Hugo without the site’s props. A Billion Eves, which appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, can be read there. A complete bibliography of his work is available online.

A. Marino Grocery Closes: An Omaha Italian Landmark Calls It Quits

June 22, 2011 6 comments

One of the last of the old line ethnic grocery stores in my hometown of Omaha closed down a few years ago.  The small Italian market is one my family and I shopped at quite a bit. It was the last of its kind, that is among Italian grocers. Truth be told, there are many ethnic grocers in business here today, only the owners are from the new immigrant enclaves of Latin America and Africa and Asia rather than Europe. The owner of the now defunct A. Marino Grocery, Frank Marino, inherited the business from his father. It was a throwback place little changed from back in the old days. My piece about Frank finally deciding to retire and close the place appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

On this blog you can find more stories by me related to other aspects of Omaha’s Italian-American culture, including ones on the Sons of Italy hall’s pasta feeds and the annual Santa Lucia Festival.

 

 

A. Marino Grocery Closes: An Omaha Italian Landmark Calls It Quits

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

The final days of A. Marino Grocery at 1716 South 13th Street were akin to a wake. The first week of October saw old friends, neighbors and customers file in to say goodbye to proprietor Frank Marino, 80, whose late Sicilian immigrant father, Andrea, a sheepherder back in Carlentini, opened the Italian store in 1919.

News of the closing leaked out days before the local daily ran a story about the store’s end. As word spread Marino was deluged with business. Lines of cars awaited him when he arrived one morning. Orders poured in. He and his helpers could hardly keep up. Those who hadn’t heard were disappointed by the news. Some wondered aloud where’d they get their sausage from now on.

A Navy veteran of World War II, Marino long talked of retiring but nobody believed him. Still, decades of 50-60 hour weeks take their toll. When he got an attractive offer for the building he took it. The new owner plans to renovate the space into an interior decorating office on the main level and a residence above it.

Folks stopping by for a last visit knew the store’s passing meant the loss of a prized remnant of Omaha’s ethnic past. Housed in a two-story brick structure whose upstairs apartment the family lived in and Marino was born in, the store represented the last of the Italian grocers serving Omaha’s Little Italy. While the neighborhood’s lost most vestiges of its Italian-Czech heritage, time stood still at the small store. Its narrow aisles, vintage fixtures, wood floors, solid counters, ornate display cabinets and antique scales bespoke an earlier era.

It was a living history museum of Old World charms and ways. No sanitary gloves. Meats and cheeses comingled, but regulars figured it just added to the flavor.

An aproned Marino would often be behind the deli case in back, hovering over the butcher’s block to cut, season, grind and encase choice cuts of beef for the popular sausage he made. He sold hundreds of pounds a week. He carried a full line of imported foods. Parmigiano reggiano, romano, provolone, mozzarella and fresh ricotta cheese. Prosciutto, mortadella, salami, capicolla and pepperoni. Various olives — plain or marinated. Meatballs. Homemade ravioli and other stuffed pastas. Canned tomatoes, packaged pastas, assorted peppers, et cetera. At Christmas he sold specialty candies and baccala, a salted cod used in Italian holiday dishes.

 

He’d slice, grate, measure, weigh and bag items himself. Nothing was precut. What few helpers he had were mostly old buddies. Banter between the men and with the customers was part of the experience. Characters abounded.

Marino rang up your purchases on an old-style cash register and engaged you in crackle barrel conversation from behind the massive front counter his father had made to order in 1932. Behind the counter, whose built-in drawers stored 20-pound cases of pasta, he’d light up his trademark pipe and shoot the breeze.

“I love being here and I love being around people,” he said.

It was the same way with his father. The two worked side by side for half-a-century. They had their spats, but the disagreements always blew over. There was, after all, a business to run and people to serve. His papa taught him well.

“It’s service-oriented. You’ve got to hand-wait on everybody,” Marino said.

In some cases he waited on three generations in the same family. He enjoyed the association and interaction. “I’ll miss that. There was a lot of closeness, you know.”

 

That last week people expressed heartache over the closing.

Mary Cavalieri of Omaha shopped there all her life. “It’s really sad,” she said, adding she felt she was losing “a tradition” and “a friend” in the process.

Oakland, Iowa resident Anna D’Angelo was among many who came some distance to shop there. Asked what she’ll miss most, she said, “The sausage and all the Italian specialties, and Frank. He knows everybody by name. He knows what you like. Frank never needs to see my ID. It’s that personal touch you don’t get anymore.”

Omahan Leo Ferzley, an old chum of Marino’s, said, “You hate to see it go, but what do you do? Everybody will miss it. A lot of memories.”

Marino is worried what he’ll do with all his free time. He and his wife plan their first trip to Italy. “That’s all we’ve ever talked about,” he said. One man told him that if the opportunity comes, “whatever you do, don’t pass it up.”

Customers, some whose names he didn’t even know, wished him and his wife well. One wrote a $100 check for the Marinos to treat themselves to a night on the town. As Mary Cavalieri said, “He deserves some retirement time.”

No regrets.

As Marino told someone, “It’s the end of the line. 88 years we’ve been here. Since before I was born. It’s been good to us. But I’m 80-years-old. I think it’s time.” Besides, he said, “I’m wore out.”

Actress Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch

June 22, 2011 12 comments

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

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

 

 

 

 

Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

Making the part resonate for Ross was its reality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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