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

June 6, 2013 1 comment

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in El Perico

 

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

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

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

Why move here after so many years away?

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

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

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

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

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

“I really found an obsession.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 5, 2013 1 comment

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Ezra and Adeev have since performed several times with Batiste.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They know they have much to learn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jazz-Plena Fusion Artist Miguel Zenon Bridges Worlds of Music

July 21, 2012 1 comment

 

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

 

Migul Zenon, ©photo by Daniel Sheehan

 

 

 

Jazz-Plena Fusion Artist Miguel Zenon Bridges Worlds of Music

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

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

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

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

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

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

The MacArthur prize includes a $500,000 stipend.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

©rochesterjazz.com

 

 

 

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

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

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

Now, he’s the teacher.

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

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

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

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

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

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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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.

Billy Melton and the Sportin’ Life


Cropped screenshot of Count Basie and his band...

Image via Wikipedia

The late Billy Melton began as a source for my writing-reporting on aspects of African-American culture in Omaha and he ended up being a friend.   Like my late father, Billy was a World War II veteran.  Some 35 years my senior.  As a black man from an earlier generation Billy lived a very different life than I had as a white Baby Boomer, yet he never made those differences a barrier in our relationship.  Rather, he used his life experience as an instructional point of departure for sharing lessons he’d learned. There were many.

I quoted Billy in several stories I wrote over the years.  One of these stories, Omaha’s Sweet Sixteen, focused on the Quartermaster battalion he served in during the war.  You can find that article on this blog site under the Military and African American categories or by doing a search with the key words, “Sweet Sixteen” or “Billy Melton.”  The site also contains a piece, Puttin’ on the Ritz, that tells the story of the black owned and operated cab company Billy drove for, Ritz Cab. Search for the article by its title or in the African-American and Entrepreneurial categories.

The article presented here, Sportin’ Life, explores Billy’s passion and one might say magnificent obsession with music, and more specifically, with collecting it.  Through his friendship with the late jazz musician Preston Love, Billy got to meet several jazz legends, which resulted in signed photos of these icons.  He was in his early 80s when I did tise piece and he was much concerned about what would happen to his massive collection of records, tapes, and memorabilia when he was gone.  He tried finding an institution that would accept the many thousands of items meticulously shelved and displayed in his basement.  Though there was much interest, he could never secure a deal because he wanted compensation in return for the collection, and the museum officials he talked with didn’t have an acquisitions budget that could accommodate his demands.  He also wanted assurance his collection would be kept on view and made accessible for the the general public, which was another condition officials found hard to make any promises about given the size of Billy’s collection.

Billy passed before anything was done with his collection.  It still occupies the basement of the home he and his widow shared.  Martha would like nothing more than to carry out Billy’s wishes and find a permanent repository for the collection. I’ve also has the distinct pleasure of getting to know his granddaughter, Carleen Brice, a fine novelist you’ll find my blog posts about on this site.
photo

Dreamland Ballroom

 

Billy Melton and the Sportin’ Life

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

The sportin’ life is what Billy Melton’s lived the better part of his 82 years. This party animal has haunted the best night clubs and after hours spots from here to Philadelphia. He’s seen the great entertainers perform. Wherever he’s gone, he’s hobnobbed with friends and stars. And, always, music — the subject of a lifetime collecting hobby — has been part of the action.

“I loved the social life. I had so many great friends out there. I was out roaming around the country, drinking, gambling, enjoying the single man’s life. All the time, adding to my collection and getting enjoyment out of music,” he said.

Even after settling down as a family man, music remained his overriding interest. But it’s more than that for this gregarious man. “Music’s a passion of mine. I love it. I love it all. And I’ve collected it all,” said Billy. No where is his ardor expressed more than in the distinctive musical notes detailing on his silver Chevy Caprice and in the showplace and archive he’s made his home. His modest Omaha residence houses a music collection of staggering size and breadth. He hopes it goes to a museum.

The music room in his basement is a glittering, overstuffed assemblage of music collectibles, novelties, instruments, records, tapes, eight-tracks, photos, posters, album covers and books. One of his two prized juke boxes sits there. Every inch of the floor, wall and ceiling is adorned with a musical motif, whether tiles decorated by music symbols or CDs hanging like Christmas ornaments. Another juke box shares space in an adjoining room with the washer and dryer. The bulk of the collection rests in a specially-built room just off the attached garage. Here, a maze of stacks, bins, trees and shelves hold tens of thousands of LPs, 45s, discs and tapes that encompass a world of musical styles, periods and performers, but with a special emphasis on jazz, blues, soul and Motown.

There are collections within the larger collection, including extensive, if not complete, sets of recorded works by such artists as Count Basie, his No. 1 idol.

Where It All Began
The Omaha Technical High School graduate traces the spark of his passion to the Kansas Vocational School he attended two years in Topeka, Kansas. There, in the late 1930s, he first listened to the seductive sounds of great musical artists, black and white alike. In fact, his original collection began with a Bing Crosby platter. Back in Omaha, where Billy was born and raised, his family was too poor to afford a radio. In Topeka, he scrounged up enough scratch to buy himself, first, a crystal set and, then, a Philco radio, which he listened to late at night in his dorm room. Picking up broadcasts from as far away as Chicago and New York that featured the great swing, jazz and blues bands of the day, he was hooked. “We listened to that music every night,” he said. “It just sounded so good.”

The Metropolitan Hall in Topeka is where he first saw Basie. The experience made him a fan for life. “I loved his music and his dynamic personality. He just lit up the house. He took it to another level. If you don’t like his music…” Well, then, let’s just say you’re not copacetic in Billy’s eyes.

As a young hep cat, Billy immersed himself in the music of the day. He fell for Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Lunceford, Gene Ammons, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Jackie Wilson, Billy Eckstein, The Inkspots and others. “So many great talents. After I set to collecting these artists, I made it a point to go see them,” he said.” That early taste of Basie whet his appetite for more. He caught Basie, Ellington, Calloway, Hampton, Cole, Charles, et all, performing live on Omaha’s then-jumping live music strip on North 24th Street and at its many downtown theaters.

“As far as the big bands,” he said, “we didn’t have to go to Kansas City. They were right here in Omaha. Twenty fourth and Lake was nothing but music. Did you hear what I said? This was a fun-loving, musical town. We knew how to party.”

In Omaha, Jimmy Jewell’s Dreamland Ballroom was the mecca. “Oh, you had to go to the Dreamland.” Ask who he saw there, and he retorts, “Who didn’t I see there?” In a scrapbook, he has ticket stubs from some of the countless nights he let his hair down there in the ‘50s. The names read: Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Johnny Otis, Wynonie Harris, the Orioles and the Nat Towles territory band. “Sometimes, I’d stand there with my mouth wide open watching those guys perform.”

Jewell, Billy said, “knew music,” and had connections to book whistlestop gigs by touring performers traveling between K.C. and Chicago. As often noted by the late jazz musician and author Preston Love, who was a close friend of Billy’s, Omaha was ideally situated to attract top entertainers due to its central location, the presence of five major booking agencies and a happening live music scene.

The music wasn’t just confined to the Dreamland, either. “Musicians got together and jammed…every night. Local musicians and out of town musicians. Even the big names — Lionel Hampton and all those guys. After they’d get done playing, they’d come out north to the bars and after hours places and jam,” Billy said. Those informal improv sessions unfolded at juke joints named the Apex, the Blue Room, the M & M, Bob and Mary’s Chicken Hut, the Showcase and the Backstreet. “The whites used to come out here and enjoy that,” he said.

Big Fat Swingin’ Fun
When not hitting night spots, Billy hosted them. He and the late Nate Mills ran a gambling emporium out of different North O sites. His partner had the bar and Billy the dice and card games. The illicit thing finally grew old. Too many raids. Too many knives and guns pulled on him. “I ran into some ticklish situations where it was life and death. Finally, it got to the point where I said, ‘I’m going to have to roll away. It’s not worth it.’ And I pulled out.” Besides, he’d married “a church lady,” the former Martha Hall, who only tolerated his hijinks so much. Together now 52 years, the couple entertained like nobody’s business. It was always open house at their place for the steady stream friends and relatives passing through town.

Commemorative street marker on North 24th Street

 

Native Omaha Days found the couple throwing an epic bash. Jukeboxes played outside, where partygoers danced, liquor flowed and laughter resounded. Stories grew embellished with each round. Martha’s home made soul food fed the throng.
“It was a music thing,” he said. “Everybody just wanted to hear music.”

His memories of these high times always include “the people we shared them with” and the music they digged together. Music is associated with virtually all the fun in Billy’s life. By the time he and Martha were hitched, they began traveling the country, by car, for vacations that lasted three to six weeks at a time. Their itinerary might include such hot spots as Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Wherever they went, they had friends, and whenever they could, they caught music acts at swank clubs or partied the nights away at after hours joints.

Sports, another spectator’s-collector’s passion of Billy’s, was usually part of the mix, as the couple took in a pro baseball or football game here. Billy saw play, in their prime, such major league baseball greats as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie McCovey. He saw National Football League legend Johnny Unitas quarterback the Baltimore Colts versus the Detroit Lions. In his own expansive backyard, where a hoop was set up, athletic prodigies — from Gale Sayers to Marlin Briscoe to Johnny Rodgers — strutted their stuff in pick up games. Bob Boozer and Oscar Robertson visited.

But Billy wasn’t home long. When not working two jobs, as a Union Station janitor by day and Ritz cabbie by night, he prowled the night — indulging in games of chance. He was also a shoe shiner, messenger, mail handler, waiter and bell hop. The extra dough supported his wife and three kids and underwrote his fun. “You can’t smoke cigars, drink, gamble, travel, raise three kids and help grandkids through college on an ordinary salary. Working two jobs still wasn’t enough for the life I wanted to live,” said Billy, whose gambling earnings made up the difference. “I could always hustle some money. God gave me that energy to fulfill my dreams.”

He was also fortunate to have a friend, John Goodwin, and brother-in-law, Charles Hall, whose Fair Deal Cafe was a fixture on North 24th, he could go to for loans.

Doin’ the Town
Traveling’s no luxury, but a lifestyle component for Billy, who “just can’t sit at home.” He and Martha drove old Highway 6, en route to Chicago, via Des Moines, where they got down with friends. In ChiTown, they hooked up for a ball game at Wrigley Field before a night on the town. “They knew when we got there we were ready to have fun. That’s what it was all about,” he said. One north side spot they hit was the Archway Lounge, owned by “Killer” Johnson. “We’d almost spend all our money in Chicago before we got to Detroit.”

Doin’ it up right, he, Martha and Co. dressed to the nines for pricey outings. “Once, we went to the most exclusive place in Chicago — the Blue Note. Lionel Hampton was playing. By the time we paid the cover, ordered a round of drinks and had our pictures taken, we’d spent $80. It takes money to live.” At his irrepressible best, Billy sauntered over to Hampton to request a favorite tune, “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” During a break in his set, Hampton joined the Meltons’ table, which Billy has a picture of, before returning to the band stand. After recognizing the Omaha party, he proceeded to play a jumpin’ rendition of the song.

Ebullient Billy has never been shy approaching celebrities. After shows, Basie  (“regular”), Calloway (“jovial”) and Hampton (“nice”) joined Billy and his bunch into the wee hours. Comedian turned-activist Dick Gregory “stayed up all night” with Billy’s crew. Billy cozied up to boxing legends Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Frazier. He’s got autographs of countless stars from the worlds of entertainment and athletics, with most of the signatures scrawled on $1 bills.

Native Omaha Club, photo by Lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

Once, at a surprise birthday bash for his wife, he got comedian Red Foxx, then appearing in Omaha, to stop by. “He was the life of the party,” Billy said. “Down and dirty.” Billy’s penchant for music gained him entree into some privileged ranks. Preston Love arranged for Billy and Martha to attend private parties headlined by Count Basie and Fats Domino on the same night. “That was the most exhilirating night.” On one occasion, Love, a sideman with Basie in the ‘40s, brought Basie over Billy’s house. A photograph recording the visit hangs in Billy’s music room. Another time, Love had Billy join he and the Count on stage at the Orpheum Theater.

“Everybody knew I loved music,” Billy said, “and it led to lots of connections.” He even carried some of his music along with him on road trips in response to friends asking that he bring certain recordings they liked.

A Collector’s Dream
His collecting began in 1939. By the time he went off to serve in the all-black 530th Quartermaster Battalion in World War II, his holdings were significant. After tours of duty in North Africa, Italy — where he and his GI buddies enjoyed operas — and the Pacific, he returned home, only to find his albums warped from lying flat. Undaunted, he began collecting anew. “I really got serious after the war. I started buying records 90 miles a minute. Forty or fifty at a time,” said Billy, who spent a third of his $7 a week salary on music.

He purchased so many records at one music store, Lyon and Healey, that shop owner Bill McKenzie advised him to invest in a reel-to-reel recorder and tape player. It set him back $600 and took him five years to pay off. Then, from one music lover to another, McKenzie told Billy he could have his pick of any records in the store to transfer over to tape — for free. Over six or seven years, Billy estimates he brought home thousands of records that he put on tape. He “knows what’s on every tape” and cartridge, too, thanks to a catalog he’s prepared.

Hard-pressed to choose any aspect of his collection over another, he’s proudest of “the magnitude of it” and the fact it’s “not just one kind of music.” Despite not playing an instrument,he professes “an ear for music.” He even calls the best of rap “genius,” though it’s not his idea of music. Wife Martha Melton can attest to Billy’s wide-ranging tastes. “There is no form of music he does not love. He just loves music, period.” Indeed, his collection encompasses big band, jazz, blues, soul, gospel, spiritual, pop, rock, funk, classical, opera, international. She says he’s well-deserving of his self-proclaimed Doctor of Music degree. Eclecticism aside, it’s still “the black music” he “turns to” for personal pleasure. He favors “the old timers,” by which he means the big bands and vocalists of his youth. “They could do it all. Their charisma made them stand out above the rest.” And, for Billy, Basie’s in a league of his own. “If you feel down, his music will lift you up. Just that rhythm and beat in unison.” Play Basie’s “One O’clock Jump,” and he’s in heaven.

Like many music devotees, he prefers old wax records to CDs. “It’s the real thing. It takes you back. I like the scratches and the noise. You can almost see the guys.”

Billy wishes he could properly display his wares. “The only disappointment I have is I don’t have enough space to have everything in the same room, where I could appreciate it.” He’s looking for the right venue to preserve his treasures and use them as educational resources for the public. Dealers have tendered offers. He hopes a local museum, preferrably one with a black emphasis, makes him a deal. So far, he’s had preliminary talks with officials from one center about it being the home for his stuff. A potential hangup is the matter of compensation. “My life is in here,” he said. “I just can’t give away my life.”

Like the music of his life, Billy’s a swingin’ cat with few regrets. “My wife and I have done everything. There’s nothing we haven’t enjoyed from the fruits of our labor. The only sad part is we’ve lost so many of our friends that enjoyed life, too.”

Billy, who fashions himself a homespun philosopher, has one more thing to say about music. “If people could get along and blend together in harmony like these musicians do, oh, man, would this be a great world to live in.”

Preston Love, 1921-2004, He Played at Everything


 

 

This is the last story I wrote about Omaha jazz and blues legend Preston Love.  It’s a tribute piece written in the days following his 2004 death.  Trying to sum up someone as complex and multi-talented as Preston was no easy task.  But I think after reading this you will have a fair appreciation for him and what was important to him.  The piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I actually ended up writing about him two more times, once on the occasion of the opening of the Loves Jazz & Arts Center, which is named in his honor and located in the hub of North Omaha‘s old jazz scene, and then again when profiling his daughter Laura Love, a singer-musician he fathered out of wedlock.  You can find my other Preston Love stories along with my Laura Love story on this blog site.

 

 

 

Preston Love, 1921-2004, He Played at Everything

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Lead alto sax player with Basie in the 1940s. Territory band leader in the ‘50s. Arranger, sideman, band leader for Motown headliners in the ‘60s. Studio session player. Recording artist. Music columnist. Radio host. Teacher, lecturer, author.

Until his passing from cancer at age 82, the voluble, playful, irrepressible, ingenious Preston Love wore all these hats and more during a long, versatile career. Around here, he may be best remembered for the easy way he performed at countless venues or the nostalgic, by-turns cantankerous tone of his Love Notes column or the adoring tributes and scalding rebukes he issued as host of his own jazz radio programs. Others might recall the crusading zeal he brought to his roles as college instructor, lecturer and artist-in-residence in spreading the gospel of jazz.

His curt dismissal of some local jazz musicians made him an egoist in some corners. In Europe, he was accorded the respect and adulation he never got at home. Yet, despite feeling unappeciated here, he often championed Omaha. It took the publication of his 1997 autobiography to make his resident jazz legend status resonate beyond mere courtesy to genuine recognition of his talents and credits.

For his well-received book, A Thousand Honey Creeks Later, My Life in Music from Basie to Motown (Wesleyan Press), Love drew on an uncanny memory to look back on a life and career spanning an enormous swath of American history and culture. It was a project he labored on for some 25 years and even though he still had a lot of living left in him, it served then, as it does now, as an apt summing-up and capstone for an uncommon man and his unusual path. It’s a bold, funny, smart, brutally frank work filled with the rich anecdotes of a born storyteller.

“You know how most people who write their life story have ghost writers? Well, he wrote his book. Every word,” says his son, Richie Love, with pride and awe.

 

 

 

 

The ability, with no formal training, to master writing, music and other pursuits was what Billy Melton calls his late friend’s “God-given talents. Preston just picked up everything. He had a photographic memory. He was remarkable.” Richie Love says his father’s huge curiosity and appetite for life was part of “a drive to excel” that came from being the youngest of nine in a poor, single-parent house so run down it was jokingly called the” Love Mansion.” Young Preston taught himself to play the sax, abandoning a promising career in the boxing ring for the bandstand, where the prodigy’s gift for sight reading became his forte. “Any kind of music you put in front of him, he played it,” says former Love pianist Roy Givens.

Whether indulging in food and drink, friends and family, leisure or work, Richie Love says his father lived large. “Everything he did was larger than life. He did everything with a passion. Music. Fishing. Cooking. He was just so interesting. He was an all-around person. People loved him. People flocked to him.”

“He was just a big man all the way around,” says Juanita Morrow, a lifelong friend and fishing companion who experienced his generosity when she and her late husband, Edward, fell ill and Love made frequent visits to their home, bringing them groceries. “I’ll remember him as a very dear friend. He never let my husband and I down. No matter where he went on tour…he always sent letters and pictures.”

Frank McCants, another old chum from back in the day, says even after making it big with Basie that Love “never got the big head. He stayed regular.” Melton says Love would return from the road looking for a good time. “Preston made the big bucks and when he came to town he’d look us up…and that’s when the partying would begin. We let our hair down.” On those rare occasions when the blues overtook Love, Melton says, “music was the antidote. He really loved it.”

Although he hated being apart from his wife Betty, who survives him, Love savored “the itinerant life.” Givens recalls how he made life on tour a little more enjoyable: “He was a very serious musician, but he was a joker. He kept you laughing a lot because of the things he would say and do.” Traveling by bus, the spontaneous Love often heeded the sportsman’s call en route to a gig. “He loved to hunt and he loved to fish,” Givens says, “and on the bus we had he carried his shot gun and his fishing rod. If we went across any water, he’d stop the bus and say, ‘I’m just going to see what I can catch in 15 or 20 minutes.’ He’d throw in a line. When passing by a field, if he’d see a pheasant or a rabbit, he’d stop and shoot at it out the windows. If he hit anything, he’d skin it. If he caught anything, he’d put it on ice in a cooler. A lot of times we were almost late getting to the job because he would be catching fish and he didn’t want to leave. The guys would just laugh.”

A consummate showman, Love burned with stage presence between his insouciant smile and his patter between sets that combined jive, scat and stand up. Richetta Wilson, who sang with various Love bands, recalls his ebullience. “He would talk more than he would play sometimes. He was so funny and talented. The best person you could ever want to work with.” Billy Melton recalls Love teasing audience members from the bandstand. “Almost everybody that came in the door he’d know by name and he’d call them out. He was always joking, but he could take it, too. He didn’t care what you said about him.”

Then there was his serious side. Love coaxed a smooth, sweet, plaintive tone from the sax developed over a lifetime of listening and jamming in joints like The Blue Room on north 24th Street. As a student of music, he voiced learned, militant diatribes against “the corruption of our music.” As he saw the once serious Omaha jazz scene abandon its indigenous roots, he used his newspaper columns, radio shows and college classrooms as forums for haranguing local purveyors and performers of what he considered pale imitations of the real thing.

Calling much of the white bread jazz presented here “spurious” and “synthetic,” he decried the music’s most authentic interpreters being passed over in favor of less talented, often times white, players. “My people gave this great art form for posterity and I’m not going to watch my people and our music sold down the road,” he said once. “I will fight for my people’s music and its presentation.”

He delivered his eloquent, evangelical musings in free-flowing rants that were equal parts improvisational riff, poetry slam and pulpit preaching, his mellifluous voice rising and falling, quickening and slowing in rhythmic concert with his emotions.

Love’s guardianship for the music may live on if the planned Love Jazz-Cultural Arts Center dedicated to him on 24th Street ever opens, which organizers say could happen by the end of 2004. The center’s driving force, Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown, hopes the facility can showcase the Love legacy, including his many well-reviewed recordings. “I want visitors to know here is a person who was great and touched greatness and was part of that rich jazz history,” Brown says. “People like that just don’t come along every day. And I want kids to walk away with the feeling they too can achieve like he did.” Richie Love says he wants people to know his dad was “a great man.”

Center board members plan displaying items from the mass of memorabilia the late artist collected in his collaborations with what one reviewer of a reissued Love album called a “Who’s Who of American Musicians.” The star-studded roster of artists he worked with ranged from Count Basie, Lucky Millinder and Earl Hines to Wynonie Harris, Billie Holiday and Jimmy Rushing to Aretha Franklin, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Issac Hayes and Stevie Wonder.

 

 

 

 

Richie Love is sorting through the materials, including hundreds of photos, in an effort to decide what the family will donate to the center. Many photos picture Love with the Motown artists he worked with during his decade (1962 to 1972) in California. He moved his family there at the urging of friend Johnny Otis, the blues great with whom he often collaborated. Love worked as an L.A. session player and sideman and, later, as the leader of Motown’s west coast backup band, an ensemble that backed many of the label’s artists performing there.

For Richie, and siblings Norman and Portia, the L.A. years were golden. Richie recalls the high times that ensued whenever his father parked the Motown tour bus outside their rented house on West 29th Place. “The kids from the neighborhood would see that bus and we’d all get on it. I’d sit in the driver’s seat and act like I was driving and they’d be in the back singing like they were Motown. It was just the greatest.” Other times, stars arrived in style at the Love home. “We’d look out the window and see a limo coming and say, ‘Oh-oh, who’s it going to be this time?’ I think Dad liked to surprise us. It was always somebody different.” Some visitors, like Gladys Knight or Jimmy Rushing, became live-in guests, passing the time swapping stories and playing Tonk, a popular card game among blacks. “My brother, sister and I would sit in the front room and watch and listen while they were having a ball, laughing and talking all night. We’d get up in the morning, and they’d still be there.” Then there were the times when the boys accompanied their father to television tapings or live concerts and got to hang backstage with the show’s stars, including Stevie Wonder. “Oh, it was the coolest,” Richie says.

 

 

 

 

Having a dad who’s a kid at heart meant impulsive trips to the beach, swimming pools, fishing holes, music gigs. Sitting up with him all hours of the night as he made “elaborate dinners” — from gourmet to barbecue — and “told these great stories,” Richie says. “He was a great father…he turned us on to so many things in life.”

By all accounts, Love was a good teacher as well. Whether holding court at the Omaha Star, where he was advertising director, or from the bandstand, he shared his expertise. “He helped musicians reach their potential,” says Roy Givens. “After listening to you play, he could tell you what your weaknesses were…He would pull you aside and tell you to work on them. I know he made me a better musician.”

Melton says Love often spoke of a desire “to pass his knowledge on.” To see the results of that teaching, Givens says, one has only to look at Love’s children. “They are all exceptional musicians, and that right there’s an accomplishment.” Richie is an instrumentalist, composer and studio whiz. Norman, who resides in Denver, is widely regarded as an improvisational giant. Portia is a jazz vocalist. All performed with their father on live and recorded gigs.

If nothing else, Preston Love endured. He survived fads and changing musical tastes. He adapted from the big band swing era to the pop, soul, rhythm and blues refrains of Motown. He rose above the neglect and disdain he felt in his own hometown and kept right on playing and speaking his mind. Always, he kept his youthful enthusiasm. The eternal hipster. “I refuse to be an ancient fossil or an anachronism,” Love told an interviewer in 1997. “I am eternally vital. I am energetic, indefatigable. It’s just my credo and the way I am as a person.”

Even into his early 80s, Love could still swing. Omaha percussionist Gary Foster, who played alongside him and produced CDs featuring him, marveled at his skill and vitality. “He had a very pure, soulful sound that just isn’t heard anymore. It’s that Midwestern, Kansas City thing. He was part of that past when it was real — when the music was first coming and new. He had that still.” He says Love was not about “coasting on what he’d done in the past,” adding: “To him, that just wasn’t good enough. He still wanted to produce. He was still hungry. In the studio, he was like, ‘What are we doing today? Where are going to take the music today?’”

Love’s musical chops were such that, at only 22, he earned an audition with Basie during an appearance of the Count’s fabled band at Omaha’s Dreamland Ballroom. In the same room he grew up worshiping at the feet of his musical idol, Basie sax great Earle Warren, Love won a seat in the band as a replacement for none other than the departing Warren. “Preston Love was part of this lineage of great lead alto saxophone players. With Basie, he took over for one of the great lead alto saxophone players…and he performed that role with distinction,” Foster says.

Love once said, “Everything in my life would be an anticlimax because I realized my dream.” That dream was making it to the top with Basie. Luckily for us, he didn’t stop there. Now, he leaves behind a legacy rich in music and in Love.

‘Omaha Blues’ and ‘Preston Love’s Omaha Barbecue’: Two Scorching Instrumental Blues Journeys By Omaha Music Legend Preston Love


1 - 1975 - R&B Festival - Preston Love, The Na...

Image by Affendaddy via Flickr

This next story is actually adapted from a press release that the late Omaha jazzman and blues artist, Preston Love Sr., commissioned me to write to help promote a new CD he was releasing.  I include it here as another element of putting the arc of his life and career in proper perspective.

‘Omaha Blues’ and ‘Preston Love’s Omaha Barbecue’: Two Scorching Instrumental Blues Journeys By Omaha Music Legend Preston Love

©by Leo Adam Biga

Adapted from a press release I wrote for Preston promoting a new CD

 

At age 80, legendary Omaha jazz and blues musician Preston Love is enjoying the kind of renaissance few artists survive to see. It began with the 1997 publication of his autobiography, A Thousand Honey Creeks Later (Wesleyan University Press), which earned rave reviews in such prestigious pages as the New York Times Book Review. Next, came a steady stream of re-released albums on CD featuring a much younger Love playing in such distinguished company as the Count Basie and Lucky Millinder bands, just two of the classic groups he played with during this indigenous American music’s Heyday.

Now, there is the unlikely release of two albums, produced 30 years apart, each with the name Omaha in them – Omaha Blues and Preston Love’s Omaha Barbecue — and each showcasing Love at his silky smooth lead alto saxophone playing best. Love has always been faithful to his hometown of Omaha where, as a kid, he first got hooked on jazz and blues by hanging on every note performed by his idols at the near northside clubs he later played too. He still makes his home in Omaha, where he lives with his wife Betty.

“What a unique thing to have two albums out with the name Omaha in them and to have them selling like hotcakes all over the country,” Love said. “What a thrill.”

Beyond the rare confluence of Omaha in their titles, the two releases cast an equally rare spotlight on an artist at two different periods in his career as a jazz-blues interpreter. A brand new release, the Omaha Blues CD presents the ever vibrant Love performing the music of his life, including a mix of standards by the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie and a selection of original Love tunes, including the soulful title track.

Produced by Gary Foster at Omaha’s Ware House Productions studio and distributed by North Country Distributors, Omaha Blues has received high praise from what is commonly referred to as The Bible of jazz and blues magazines for the way Love and his band perform everything from slow ballads to hot swinging numbers. Special praise is reserved for Love’s music-making.

 

 

 

 

Gregg Ottinger, a reviewer with Jazz Ambassador Magazine in Kansas City, writes that the ensemble heard on the record “is particularly good and provides an excellent surrounding for Mr. Love’s strong sound. But the highlight of the CD is Mr. Love’s playing. This is a man who is full of music — eight decades of it — and it’s still strong and fresh. It’s a joy to hear it released on this recording.” Jack Sohmer in Jazz Times describes Love as “still a masterly saxophonist,” adding, “The proof is here that Love has not lost a beat…” And Robert Spencer in Cadence writes, “Preston Love has a slippery, slithery tone that slides through the blues real easy and rings all the changes on a dime with a fine exuberance. Preston Love plays this music with superlative commitment and yes, love. Great fun.”

Producer Gary Foster, the drummer on this recording and a regular percussionist with Love’s working band, said he was drawn to the project because it provided an opportunity to bring the man he considers his mentor to the forefront, a position unfamiliar to this venerable artist who for decades toiled in relative obscurity as a highly respected if not starring sideman, session musician, contractor and band leader.

Also a flutist, Love was a fixture in the reed section of many bands and made a name for himself with his ability to sight read. In addition to playing with Basie and Millinder, he headed-up his own territory bands and led Motown’s west coast band.

“I’m really happy I was able to present Preston Love just doing what he does best and doing it as well as he can. I think in the past Preston deferred to what producers wanted and a lot of times he ended up in the background,” said Foster, who refers to Love’s many studio and live collaborations with legendary artists — ranging from Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to longtime friend and rhythm and blues great Johnny Otis. During these gigs, Love almost always played a supporting role. But, as Foster and others see it, Love is more than deserving of his own limelight because he is a consummate artist in his own right and the genuine article to boot.

“Preston Love is part of this lineage of great lead alto saxophone players. With Basie, he took over for one of the great lead alto saxophone players — Earl Warren — and he performed that role with distinction. He did a great job,” Foster said.

The way Foster sees it, Love is still making sweet sounds some half-a-century later. “He’s got a very pure, soulful sound that just isn’t heard anymore. It’s that Midwestern, Kansas City thing. He’s part of that past when it was real — when the music was first coming and new. He’s got that still.” Despite the fact Foster has played alongside Love for years he is still amazed that a man of his age remains as sharp and vital and curious as he is. “I’m half his age and I watch this guy night after night constantly trying to improve himself. He’s 80 years old and he’s still worried about being good enough. He’s never satisfied. It’s an inspiration. That’s what I aspire to be as an artist — just constantly trying to be better.”

Foster said Love is not about “coasting on what he’s done in the past,” adding: “To him, that’s just not good enough. He still wants to produce. He’s still hungry. In the studio, he’s like, ‘What are we doing today? Where are going to take the music today?’”

The idea of resting on his laurels is anathema to Love, who dismisses the notion he is some “moldy fig” or stick in the mud. Indeed, Love feels his playing has never been better. “I reached my peak on my instruments later in life,” he said. “I wasn’t interested that much in a career as a soloist early on, but as I became more interested in that I was able to accomplish more at a time in life when most guys deteriorate. I refuse to be an ancient fossil or an anachronism. I am eternally vital. I am energetic, indefatigable. It’s just my credo and the way I am. I play my instruments as modern as anybody alive and better than I’ve ever played them. It’s helped that my health has been good too.”

For Love, Omaha Blues was a blast to make because he was working with his longtime band members Orville Johnson (piano), Nate Mickels (bass) and Foster (drums), along with his daughter Portia Love, an assured vocalist and frequent collaborator. Also heard on the disc are guitarist Jon Hudenstein, pianist Bill Erickson, bassist John Kotchain and vocalist Ansar Muhammad. Of his fellow musicians, Love said, “The guys are just miraculous on this. We didn’t get technical or anything. We just banged it out and I think we did a good job.” Love also lends his smoky voice to a few tunes.

Originally produced on Kent Records and now being re-released by Ace Records of Great Britain, Preston Love’s Omaha Barbecue represents Love at a time and place in his career when he was working with some of the music industry’s strongest talents. “These were top players and all dear friends of mine. I hired them a lot for the Motown band,” Love said. “We had James Brown’s drummer and Ike and Tina Turner’s sax player. We had my dear friend Johnny Otis, who produced the album. Johnny also brought in his son, Shuggie, then a 15 year-old prodigy on the guitar.”

 

 

 

 

The recording features several different artists, but most notably Shuggie, now enjoying a revival of his own. “He played the greatest blues solos on guitar on that album that will ever be done,” Love said. “He’s a genius.” In keeping with the album’s Omaha and eating themes, the tracks feature a number of Love-penned tunes named after favorite soul food staples, including Chitlin Blues. Released in 1970, the album fared well in Europe, where, Love said, “it made me a pretty big name.” The musician has performed in Europe several times and he is preparing to play France later this year.

Not only a performing and recording artist, Love is also a noted jazz-blues columnist and historian. For years, he hosted a popular jazz program on local public radio, a forum he used as a combination stage, classroom and pulpit in presenting classic jazz in its proper aesthetic-cultural-historical context. He is clearly not done making his passionate, sometimes prickly voice heard either. From his brand new CD to classic reissues of old LPs to area gigs his band plays, his music-making continues enthralling and enchanting old and new listeners alike. With his first book, A Thousand Honey Creeks Later, now going into its second printing, Love is already planning to write another book on his eventful life inside and outside music.

NOTES: After a highly successful run at L & N Seafood in One Pacific Place, Preston Love and his band now jam Friday and Saturday nights at Tamam, 1009 Farnam-on-the-Mall, an Old Market restaurant specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine;

Love was recently a featured performer at the August 3 Blues, Jazz and Gospel Festival on the Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus; Omaha Blues can be found at area record and music stores, including Homer’s.  Preston Love’s Omaha Barbecue will soon be available.

Preston Love, His Voice Will Not Be Stilled

June 3, 2010 1 comment

This is one of those foundational stories I did on Omaha jazz and blues legend Preston Love. Together with my other stories on him I give you a good sense for who this passionate man was and what he was about.  The piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I should mention that Love’s autobiography, which is referenced in the story, was well-reviewed by the New York Times and other major national publications.  Preston always wanted to leave a legacy behind, and his book, “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later,” is a fine one.   The very cool Loves Jazz & Arts Center in the heart of North Omaha’s historic jazz district is named in honor of him.  More stories by me about Preston Love can be found on this blog site. I also feature a profile I did on his daughter, singer-songwriter-guitarist Laura Love.

Preston Love, His Voice Will Not Be Stilled

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

One name in Omaha is synonymous with traditional jazz and blues — Preston Love Sr., the native son musician most famous for playing lead alto saxophone with the legendary Count Basie in the 1940s.

The ebullient Love, still a mean sax player at 75, fiercely champions jazz and blues as rich, expressive, singularly African-American art forms and cultural inheritances.  This direct inheritor and accomplished interpreter of the music feels bound to preserve it, to protect its faithful presentation and to rail against its misrepresentation.

He has long been an outspoken critic of others appropriating the music from its black roots and reinventing it as something it’s not.  Over the years he’s voiced his opinion on this and many other topics as a performer, columnist, radio host, lecturer and oft-quoted music authority. Since 1972 his Omaha World-Herald “Love Notes” column has offered candid insights into the art and business sides of music.

From 1971 until early 1996 he hosted radio programs devoted to jazz.  The most recent aired on KIOS-FM, whose general manager, Will Perry, describes Love’s on-air persona: “He was fearless.  He was not afraid to give his opinion, especially about what he felt was the inequality black musicians have endured in Omaha, and how black music has been taken over by white promoters and artists.  Some listeners got really angry.”

With the scheduled fall publication of his autobiography “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later,” by Wesleyan University Press in Middletown, Conn., he will finally have a forum large enough to contain his fervor.

“It’s written in protest,” Love said during a recent interview at the Omaha Star, where he’s advertising manager.  “I’m an angry man.  I started my autobiography to a large degree in dissatisfaction with what has transpired in America in the music business and, of course, with the racial thing that’s still very prevalent.  Blacks have almost been eliminated from their own art because the people presenting it know nothing about it.  We’ve seen our jazz become nonexistent.  Suddenly, the image no longer is black.  Nearly all the people playing rhythm and blues, blues and jazz in Omaha are white.  That’s unreal.  False.  Fraudulent.

“They’re passing it off as something it isn’t.  It’s spurious jazz.  Synthetic.  Third-rate.  Others are going to play our music, and in many cases play it very well.  We don’t own any exclusivity on it.  But it’s still black music, and all the great styles, all the great developments, have been black, whether they want to admit it or not.  So why shouldn’t we protect our art?”

When Love gets on a roll like this, his intense speaking style belongs both to the bandstand and the pulpit.  His dulcet voice carries the rhythmic inflection and intonation of an improvisational riff and the bravura of an evangelical sermon, rising in a brimstone tirade one moment and falling to a confessional whisper the next.  Suzanna Tamminen, acting director of Wesleyan University Press, says, “One of the wonderful things about Preston’s book is that it’s really like listening to him talk.  A lot of other publishers had asked him to cut parts out, but he felt he had things to say and didn’t want to have to change a lot of that.  So we’ve tried to have his voice come through, and I think it does.”

Love pours out his discontent over what’s happened to the music in the second half of the book. Love, who’s taught courses at the University of Nebraska at Omaha on the history of jazz and the social implications of black music, says he “most certainly” sees himself as a teacher and his book as an educational document.

In his introduction to the book, George Lipsitz, an ethnic historian at the University of California-San Diego and a Wesleyan contributing editor, compares Love to the elders of the Yoruba people in West Africa” “According to tradition, elders among the Yoruba…teach younger generations how to make music, to dance, and create visual art, because they believe that artistic activity teaches us how to recognize ‘significant’ communications.  Preston Love…is a man who has used the tools open to him to make great dreams come true, to experience things that others might have considered beyond his grasp.

“He is a writer who comes to us in the style of the Yoruba elders, as someone who has learned to discern the significance in things that have happened to him, and who is willing to pass along his gift, and his vision to the rest of us.  His dramatic, humorous and compelling story is significant because it uses the lessons of the past to prepare is for the struggle of the future.  It is up to us to pay attention and learn from his wisdom.”

Some may disagree with Love’s views, but as KIOS Perry points out, “All they can do is argue from books.  None of them were there.  None of them have gone through what’s he gone through. They have nothing to compare it with.”  Perry says Love brings a first-hand “historical perspective” to the subject that cannot be easily dismissed.

Those who share Love’s experience and knowledge, including rhythm and blues great and longtime friend, Johnny Otis, agree with him.  “Those of us who came though an earlier era are dismayed,” Otis said by phone from his home in Sebastopol, Calif., “because things have regressed artistically in our field.  Preston is constantly trying to make young people understand, so they’ll do a little investigation and get more artistry in their entertainment.  He’s dedicated to getting that message out.”

But Love’s book is far more than a polemic.  It’s a remarkable life story whose sheer dramatic arc is daunting.  It traces his deep kinship with jazz all the way back to his childhood, when his self-described “fanaticism” developed, when he haunted then flourishing North 24th Street’s popular jazz joints to glimpse the music legends who played there.

He grew up the youngest of nine in a ramshackle house in North Omaha.  Love’s mother, Mexie, was widowed when he was an infant.  Music was always part of his growing up.  He listened to his music idols, especially Count Basie and Basie’s lead alto sax man, Earle Warren on the family radio and phonograph.  He taught himself to play the sax brought home by his brother “Dude.”  He learned, verbatim, Warren’s solos by listening to recordings over and over again.  By his med-teens he was touring with pre-war territory bands, playing his first professional gig in 1936 at the Aeroplane Inn in Honey Creek, Iowa (hence the title of his book).

At Omaha’s Dreamland Ballroom he saw his idols in person, imagining himself on the bandstand too — hair coiffured and suit pressed — the very embodiment of black success.  “We’d go to see the glamour of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.  We aspired to escape the drabness and anonymity of our own town by going into show business,” Love recalls.  “I dreamed of someday making it…of going to New York to play the Cotton Club and of playing the Grand Terrace in Chicago.”

He encountered both racism and kindness touring America.  The road suited him and his wife Betty, whom he married in 1941.

The couple’s first child, Preston Jr., was born 54 years ago and the family grew to include three more off-spring: Norman and Richie, who are musicians, and Portia, who sings with her father’s band.

Life was good and Love, who eventually formed his own band, enjoyed great success in the ’50s.  Then things went sour.  Faced with financial setbacks, he moved his family to Los Angeles in 1962, where he worked a series of jobs outside music.  His career rebounded when he found work as a studio musician and later as Motown’s west coast band leader in the late ’60s, collaborating with such icons as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.  He returned to Omaha in 1972, only to find his music largely forgotten and his community in decline.  While often feeling unappreciated in his hometown, he basked in the glow of triumphant overseas tours, prestigious jazz festival performances and, more recently, reissues of classic recordings. Today, he’s an elder statesman, historian and watchdog.

To grasp just how much the music means to him, and how much it saddens him to see it lost or mutilated, you have to know that the once booming North 24th Street he so loved is now a wasteland.  That the music once heard from every street corner, bar, restaurant, and club has been silenced altogether or replaced by discordant new sounds.

The hurt is especially acute for Love because he remembers well when Omaha was a major jazz center, supporting many big bands and clubs and drawing premier musicians from around the region.  It was a launching ground for him and many others.

“This was like the Triple A of baseball for black music,” he says.  “The next stop was the big leagues.”

He vividly recalls jazz giants playing the Dreamland and the pride they instilled:  “All of the great black geniuses of my time played that ballroom — Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl “Father” Hines, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker.  Jazz was all black then, number one, and here were people you read about in magazines and heard on radio coast-to-coast, and admired and worshipped, and now you were standing two feet from them and could talk to them and hear their artistry.”

Love regrets many young blacks are uninformed about this vital part of their heritage.  “If I were to be remembered for some contribution,” he says, “it would be to remind people that what’s going on today with the black youth and their rap and all that bull has nothing to do with their history.  It’s a renunciation of their true music — blues, rhythm and blues and jazz.  You couldn’t get the average young black person today to listen to a record by anyone but one of the new funk or rap players.  It’s getting to be where black people in their 20s and 30s feel that way, too.”

He says “the power structure” running the music business in cities like Omaha plays on this malaise, marketing pale reproductions of jazz and blues more palatable to today’s less discriminating audiences:

“Everything’s controlled from out west and downtown in our music.  It’s based on personalities, politics and cronyism.  Even though it’s often a very poor imitation of the original, it passes well enough not only for whites, but for black too.  The power structure has the ability to change the meaning of everything and compromise truth.  It’s a disservice to this art and to this city.  Every old jazz friend of mine who comes here says the same thing” ‘What happened to your hometown, Preston?’”

Love says his son Norman, a saxophonist living in Denver, largely left Omaha out of frustration — unable to find steady gigs despite overwhelming talent.  Love says black musicians have been essentially shut out certain gigs because of their race.

He believes several local musicians and presenters inappropriately use the jazz label.  “The implication is that these guys might be fine jazz players.  It’s an arrogance on the part of people who really don’t have the gift to perform it and don’t have the credibility to present it.  What I’m saying is not an ego trip.  It’s irrefutable.  It is, at least, a professional opinion.”

It’s on points like these Love elicits the most ire because they are, arguably, matters of taste.  For example, Love complains the city’s main jazz presenters don’t book enough black performers and the people booking the events are unqualified.  When it’s pointed out to him that half the acts featured in a major jazz series the past two years have been black and the series’ booker is Juilliard-trained, he dismisses these facts because, in his view, the performers “haven’t been much” and the booking agent’s classical credentials carry little weight in jazz circles.

He acknowledges limited opportunities extend even to North Omaha.  “We have no place to play in our own neighborhood,” he says.  “The club owners here, in most cases, really can’t afford it, but even if they could they don’t know anything about it.  So we’ve been thrown to the wolves by our own people.”

Bill Ritchie, an Omaha Symphony bass player and leader of his own mainstream jazz quartet, agrees that many local jazz players don’t measure up and rues the fact there are too few jazz venues.  The classically-trained Ritchie, 43, who is white, says the boundaries of jazz, rightly or wrongly, have been blurred:  “There’s so much crossover, so much fusion of jazz and rock and pop today, that it’s hard to say where to draw the line.  Preston obviously feels he’s one to draw the line.  I might go a little further on that line than someone like Preston, because he comes from a different era than I do, and somebody younger than me might even stretch that line a little bit further.”

For Love and like-minded musicians, however, you either have the gift for jazz or you don’t.

Orville Johnson, 67, a keyboardist with Love’s band, says jazz and the blues flow from a deep, intrinsic experience common to most African-Americans.  “It’s a cultural thing,” Johnson says. “Jazz is sort of the sum total of life experiences.  It’s the same with the blues.  There’s a thread that runs clear through it, and it’s a matter of life experience that’s particular to black people in America.

“If a person hasn’t lived that life, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to express themselves musically that way.  It’s a sum total of what musicians frequently describe as ‘the dues that we’ve paid.’ It doesn’t have much anything to do with technique.  It’s a matter of being able to express in musical terms your experience.  A university-educated white student who’s been raised perhaps in a middle-class white neighborhood and never known hunger or the frustration of living in a racial society, usually isn’t able to play and get the same feeling.  And that includes a young black person who hasn’t known nearly the hardship that people of my generation or Preston’s generation has known.”

It’s the same message Love delivers in lectures.  Like Johnson, Love feels jazz is an expression of the black soul:  “To hear the harmony of those black musicians, with that sorrowful, plaintive thing that only blacks have.  That pain in their playing.  That blue note.  That’s what jazz is,” he says.  “The Benny Goodmans and those guys never got it.  They were tremendous instrumentalists in their own way.  But that indefinable, elusive blue note — that’s black, and a lot of blacks don’t get it.”

The two men doubt if many of the younger persons billing themselves as jazz and blues musicians today have more than a superficial knowledge of these art forms.  “Take the plantation songs that were the forerunners of the blues,” Johnson says.  “Many of the things they said were not literal.  When they sung about an ‘evil woman.’ frequently that was a reference to a slave master…not to a woman at all.  There’s pretty much a code involved there.  When you study it as I’ve done and Preston’s done, that’s what you discover.”

He and Love feel their music is diluted and distorted by university music departments, where jazz is taught in sterile isolation from its rich street and club origins.

Love bristles at the notion he’s a “moldy fig,” the term Boppers coined to describe older musicians mired in the past and resistant to change.

“As far as being a moldy fig, that’s bullshit.  I’m as alert and aware of what’s going on in music now as I was 60 years ago,” he says.  “I hear quite a few young guys today who I admire.  I’m still capable of great idol worship.  I am eternally vital.  I play my instruments as modern as anybody alive…and better than I’ve ever played them.”

And like the Yoruba elders, he looks to the past to inform and invigorate the present:

“When you muddy the water or disturb the trend or tell the truth even, you make people angry, because they’d rather leave the status quo as it is. A  lot of musicians around her will say privately to me the same things, but they’re afraid to say them publicly.  But I’m not afraid of the repercussions.  I will fight for my people’s music and its preservation.”

Preston Love’s Voice Will Not Be Stilled (short version)


The following story about fabled Omaha jazz man Preston Love Sr., who died in 2004, originally appeared in American Visions magazine. The piece was culled together from a couple earlier stories I had written about Love, both of which can be found on this site: “Mr. Saturday Night “and a much longer version of “Preston Love’s Voice Will Not Be Stilled.”  There are yet more Love stories on the blog. He was forever fascinating.

Preston Love’s Voice Will Not Be Stilled (short version)

©By Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in American Visions

While Kansas City and Chicago were the undisputed centers for the Midwest’s burgeoning jazz scene in the 1920s and ’30s, Omaha, Neb., was a key launching pad for musicians of the time. “It was like the Triple A of baseball for black music,” recalls Omaha native and Count Basie alumnus Preston Love. “The next stop was the big leagues.”

The flutist-saxophonist grew up the youngest of nine children in a ramshackle house, jokingly called “the mansion,” in a predominantly black North Omaha neighborhood. He listened to his idols (especially Earle Warren) on the family radio and phonograph, taught himself to play the sax his brother “Dude” had brought home, and learned Warren’s solos note for note, laying recordings over and over again.

At Omaha’s fabled but now defunct Dreamland Ballroom, he saw his idols in person, imagining himself on the bandstand, too–the very embodiment of black success. “All of the great black geniuses of my time played that ballroom–Count Basic, Earl Fatha Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker,” he recalls. “We’d get to see the glamour of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong‘ Jazz was all-black then, and here were people you read about in magazines and heard on radio coast to coast and admired and worshipped, and now you were standing 2 feet from them and could talk to them and hear their artistry. I dreamed of someday making it …, of going to New York to play the Cotton Club and of playing the Grand Terrace in Chicago.”

With Warren as his inspiration, Love made himself an acccomplished player. “I had the natural gift for sound–a good tone, which is important. Some people never have it. I was self-motivated. No one had to make me practice. And being good at mathematics, I was able to read music with the very least instruction.” His first paying gig came in 1936, at age 15, as a last-minute fill-in on drums with Warren Webb and His Spiders at the Aeroplane Inn in Honey Creek, Iowa. Soon, he was touring with prewar territory bands.

His breakthrough came in 1943, when Warren recommended Love as his replacement in the Basie band. Love auditioned at the Dreamland and won the job. It was his entry into the big time. “I was ready,” he says. “I knew I belonged.” It was the first of two tours of duty with Basie. In storybook fashion, Love played the very sites where his dreams were first inspired: the Dreamland and the famous, glittering big city clubs he’d envisioned.

Love enjoyed the spotlight, playing with Basie and the bands of Lucky Millinder, Lloyd Hunter, Nat Towles and Johnny Otis. “Touring was fun,” he says. “You played the top ballrooms, you dressed beautifully, you stayed in fine hotels. Big crowds. Autographs. It was glamorous.” The road suited him and his wife, Betty, whom he had married in 1941. And it still does. “The itinerant thing is what I love. The checking in the hotels and motels. The newness of each town. The geography of this country. The South, with those black restaurants with that flavorful, wonderful food and those colorful hotels. It’s my culture, my people,” he rhapsodizes.

Life was good, and Love, who formed his own band, enjoyed fat times in the ’50s. Then things went sour. Faced with financial setbacks, he moved his family to Los Angeles in 1962, where he worked a series of jobs outside of music. His career rebounded when he found work as a studio musician and as Motown Record Corporation‘s West Coast backup band leader.

He returned to Omaha in 1972, only to find the once booming North 24th Street he so loved a wasteland and the music once heard from every street corner, bar, restaurant and club silenced altogether or replaced by discordant new sounds.

Today, the 76-year-old who earned rave reviews playing prestigious jazz festivals (Monterey Montreaux, Berlin); toured Europe to acclaim; cut thousands of recordings; worked with everyone from Basie and Billie Holiday to Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder; and taught university courses on the history of jazz and the social implications of black music–and who still earns applause at the trendy Bistro supper club in Omaha with his richly textured tone and sweetly bended notes–has written his autobiography. While A Thousand Honey Creeks Later (Wesleyan University Press, 1997) recounts a lifetime of itinerant musicianship, it also serves as a passionate defense of jazz and the blues as rich, expressive, singularly African-American art forms and cultural inheritances.

“It’s written in protest,” Love explains. “I’m an angry man. I started my autobiography to a large degree in dissatisfaction with what has transpired in America in the music business and, of course, with the racial thing that’s still very prevalent. Blacks have almost been eliminated from their own art because the people presenting it know nothing about it. We’ve seen our jazz become nonexistent. Suddenly, the image is no longer black. Nearly all the people playing rhythm and blues, blues and jazz … are white. That’s unreal. False. Fraudulent.”

When Love gets on a roll like this, his intense speaking style belongs both to the bandstand and to the pulpit. His dulcet voice carries the rhythmic inflection and intonation of an improvisational riff and the bravura of an evangelical sermon, rising in a brimstone tirade one moment and falling to a confessional whisper the next.

While Love concedes the music is free for anyone to assimilate, he demands that reverence be paid to its origins. In his mind, jazz is separate from fusion and other hybrid musical styles that incorporate jazz elements. For Love, either you have the gift for jazz or you don’t. All the studying, technique and best intentions in the world won’t cut it, without the gift. And while he doesn’t assert that only blacks can excel at jazz, he always returns to the fact that it is, at its core, indigenous black music, an expression of soul: “To hear the harmony of those black musicians, with that sorrowful, plaintive thing that only blacks have. That pain in their playing. That blue note. That’s what jazz is. The Benny Goodmans and those guys never got it. They were tremendous instrumentalists in their own way, but that indefinable, elusive blue note–that’s black.”

Love feels that the music is diluted and distorted by university music departments, where jazz is taught in sterile isolation from its rich street and club origins, and he bristles at the notion that he’s a “moldy fig,” the term boppers coined to describe older musicians mired in the past and resistant to change.

“As far as being a moldy fig, that’s bull—-,” he says. “I’m as alert and aware of what’s going on in music now as I was 60 years ago. I hear quite a few young guys today who I admire. I’m still capable of great idol worship. I am eternally vital. I play my instruments as modern as anybody alive … and better than I’ve ever played them.”

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