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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.

Related articles

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

July 4, 2011 45 comments

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

 

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Native Omaha Club photo by lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Get Crackin’

June 21, 2011 10 comments

Another of my stories focusing attention on Omaha black artists and other high achievers follows with this feature on the rock-blues group Crackin’, whose reunion back here a few years ago was the impetus for the piece. It’s one of several stories I’ve done that profile African Americans from here who have made major impacts in their fields of endeavor. This blog contains many of those stories, and so I invite you to stroll through the gallery of work here and discover them.  It’s all part of the build up to the 2011 Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame Awards on July 29 at Slowdown and the July 27-August Native Omaha Days.

Get Crackin’

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

The Hood is replete with stories of musicians who should have made it, if only…

Crackin’, a smoking 1970s multi-racial rock-blues band from Omaha, did get its shot at fame. After a promising start and recordings on major labels, things fizzled and the band disbanded in ‘78. But “within the business people knew who we were and really loved our music,” said Crackin’s Arno Lucas. That rep and the talent to back it up made members in high demand. All have enjoyed serious music careers.

Three decades after splitting up, these stray cats are coming home for August 4-5 reunion concerts at the Omaha Healing Arts Center, 1216 Howard Street. Show times are 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. The reunion coincides with Crackin’s induction in the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. Some players also performed with fellow band-inductee L.A. Carnival.

Headed up by Lester Abrams, Crackin’ was invited to Woodstock, NY to work with idol-maker producer Albert Grossman. Then they went to L.A. to record on the Polydor label before signing with Warners, for whom they released three albums in 1977-78. The band’s lineup changed from Omaha to NY to L.A..

When the group went defunct, guys began doing their own thing.

Keyboardist/vocalist/composer Abrams co-wrote two songs on Michael McDonald’s Grammy-honored album “Minute by Minute.” He’s collaborated with B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Peabo Bryson, Quincy Jones, The Average White Band and The Doobie Brothers. He’s composed for television and film.

Percussionist/vocalist Lucas has been an A-list sideman with Al Jarreau, Luther Vandross, Bette Midler, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Michael Jackson, Burt Bacharach, Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones, Chaka Kahn and Gladys Knight. He’s written songs with Jarreau and for Dionne Warrick.

Bassist Rick Chudacoff and drummer Peter Bunetta own credits as co-producers/co-composers for Patti LaBelle, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Kenny G, and Michael Bolton. They’ve written for the screen, including the Beverly Hills Cop franchise, and have a new stage musical out called City Kids.

Guitarist Brian Ray has collaborated with Etta James, Peter Frampton and Rita Coolidge and his scorching licks now back Paul McCartney. He also penned Smokey Robinson’s lone Grammy-winning tune, One Heartbeat.

 

 

 

 

Vocalist Leslie Smith is a first-call session artist in L.A.. Guitarist and blues journeyman Bob Bordy has played with a Who’s Who of hitmakers.

An early Crackin’ member was blues legend Bugsy Maugh.

For Lucas, the reunion celebrates a shared legacy and longevity. “When we walked in a room we just basically took it over. So many great personalities stood out. This thing we’re about to do is…a coming together of a group of gifted artists and great friends who truly love each other. We’ve remained friends. Everyone’s maintained a high level of musicianship. It’s going to be worth seeing.”

He was motivated to organize the reunion when he saw friends passing away. “I told the guys, ‘If we don’t get together and do this now, I don’t know the next time …we can…’” It’s an appreciation for the fact “life’s been good to us. We’re lucky to still be doing what we lov — what feeds the soul. And it’s a chance to see some of the people who supported Crackin’ in Omaha.”

Robbie Dupree and Neal Davis are among the special guest artists expected to jam.

Arno Lucas, Serious Sidekick

June 21, 2011 30 comments

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

 

 

 

 

Arno Lucas, Serious Sidekick

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Big Bad Buddy Miles

June 21, 2011 22 comments

This is one in a batch of posts I am making in the lead-up to the 2011 Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame on July 29 at the Slowdown. The late Buddy Miles is one in a long list of musicians from Omaha to find stardom or at least solid success in the upper reaches of the music industry.  Miles is one of those who became a legend in his own time and since his untimely death in 2008 his legend is only growing. I did this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the occasion of his induction in the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, which after a hiatus is back this year in conjunction with Native Omaha Days. My blog is thick with stories I’ve done about famous African American figures from Omaha who’ve enjoyed breakout success in the arts, athletics, and many other fields.  You’ll also find stories about many other aspects of African American culture and life in these parts.  Hope you enjoy the pieces as much as I enjoyed writing them.

 

 

Big Bad Buddy Miles

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

Famed blues-rock drummer and singer Buddy Miles is coming home to accept the Omaha Star Award at the August 3 Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame ceremony, where he’ll also perform. The 2005 inductee is using the occasion to deliver a message about the needless waste of young people to violence.

Having grown up in the ‘50-’60s heyday of the hep North 24th Street music scene, he rues the loss of what used to be.

“Back in the day 24th Street is where all the clubs were. It certainly is nothing like it was then. It’s like a ghost town down there now…there’s nothing for kids to do,” he said. “That’s why there’s so much havoc and trouble in Omaha and…in every major city…People don’t know how to go and party anymore. There’s too many senseless shooting.s The time has come that we must band together as one….”

The lifetime train enthusiast hopes to convince Union Pacific Railroad to sponsor a nationwide tour, tracing the railroad’s lines, for him to educate young people “about how important their lives are.” His new CD, The Centennial, is named after the famous U.P. diesel engine at Kenefick Park.

He dreamed of being a train engineer. Instead he “followed in the footsteps” of his father, George A. Miles, Sr., who played upright bass with Ellington, Basie, Parker, Gordon. Buddy began playing drums at age 8. “I’ve been a musician all my life,” he said. “I’ve done nothing else.”

As a teen he gigged with his father’s band, the Bebops, and with Preston Love, Sr. and Lester Abrams. He first made it in New York, hooking up with Wilson Pickett. He jammed in the Village with Eric Clapton. His big break came when Michael Bloomfield plucked him for the Electric Flag, a blues-rock band Miles still considers the best he ever played in. He toured-recorded widely, opening for Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and playing on albums by Hendrix and Muddy Waters. More Hendrix collaborations followed. Jimi produced an album by the Buddy Miles Express. Miles played on Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. Miles formed with Hendrix and Billy Cox the trio, Band of Gypsys, which released one album before Jimi’s death.

 

 

 

 

Miles recorded hits and played with such artists as Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. His greatest commercial success came with his version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” for a California Raisins commercial. The gig made the classic song big again and spawned three Miles albums.

A 2005 stroke has not slowed Miles, who lives in Austin, Texas. He’s even throwing down a challenge to Motley Crew bad boy drummer Tommy Lee and the rocker’s MTV Husker bit. “I’ll have a duel with that dude anytime he wants…We can do it at a Nebraska football game, too,” Miles said, “because I’ll drum him a new ass.”

Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down

June 21, 2011 26 comments

With the 2011 Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame Awards coming up July 29 at the Slowdown, as part of Native Omaha Days, I am posting articles of mine from the last decade that celebrate various African-American figures from the area. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is about Lois “LadyMac” McMorris, one of many black musical artists who have come out of Omaha to forge successful careers in the music biz.  I did a phone interview with her on the eve of her induction in the Hall of Fame, which returns this year after a few years absence.  My blog is full of stories about high black achievers from Omaha.

 

 

 

 

Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Casual music fans may not know Lois “LadyMac” McMorris, but this blues-jazz-rock guitarist from Omaha is paid homages by legends like B.B. King — “The girl is super bad.” After a hot solo Prince saw her play in Kansas City, where she lives, LadyMac said, “He came up to me and asked, ‘May I touch your guitar?’ I felt so honored. For my peers to recognize me is an amazing thing. That’s like a validation.”

More validation comes at the August 3 Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame ceremony. The 2005 inductee is the Jewel Award recipient for her lifetime achievements.

She grew up on the north side making art and music. Today she’s a gallery showing sculptor, painter and drawer and a still active headliner-sidewoman.

Inspired by guitar riffs on radio-television she taught herself to play as a young girl. “It touched me so deeply,” she said. She loved working on her chords and “learned lick for lick” famous solos. She first played publicly at 17, when she joined Joe Leslie and the Impacts. She had to prove to the cats she had the chops to play with them. Her baptism of fire came at Paul Allen’s Showcase on North 24th Street.

“Allen’s Showcase had been the premiere club since my parents’ time,” she said. “There were so many stellar African-American entertainers that would come through from Chicago, Des Moines, Kansas City…there was a kernel core of musicians…and the famous jam sessions and the things that ensued are just something to be written about.

“If you didn’t make it in that jam session either you were going to go home and woodshed and come back or you were going to stop, because it was intense.”

It was even hotter for her as the guys scrutinized her every move with skeptical eyes and sexist remarks. It was the same everywhere she went.

“The gender bigotry was just amazing,” she said. “Denigrated. Put down. Unappreciated. I ran into and still have to fight so much discrimination. It’s gotten a bit better, just as racism has eased a bit. It would go from things that are subtle to overt. Like I’d be told, ‘You can’t do that.’ I mean, over and over again. Please, let’s get real. It just made me more determined to express myself and to play and not be held back by that sort of thing. I cannot abide injustice.”

She made the mark at the Showcase, blowing the house away with her virtuosity and energy.

“For myself, when I finally performed there, it was the pinnacle…” said McMorris. She took those cats by surprise, having honed her gift off by herself, at home, where she’d incessantly listen and practice. “I did not develop my music around them. It was on my own. I just immersed myself in chords. What I hear I can play and I can play it fairly quickly, and then I can write it down as well. I can read, I can write charts. I do arrangements. It’s just in me. ”

What sets her apart, besides her sizzling solos, sultry fly looks and spiritual- inspirational vibe is her ability to both “dig in and just play” and to “express a showtime sensibility” in the way she moves, dresses and strokes.

Besides the Impacts, she played locally with the Persuaders, Seventh House and Poverty Movement and artists Andre Lewis and Preston Love, Sr.. Hanging with top musicians convinced her “larger vistas” awaited. Love advised her to seek new ops. “He told me, ‘You won’t grow your playing here. If you’re going to do something with it, leave.’” She lit out for L.A., where she soon landed a recording session gig with Love’s friend, blues guitarist Johnny Otis and his big band. Another break came when Lewis asked her to join Mandre, “a hitting group with Motown.”

 

 

 

LadyMac was on her way, her dynamic musicianship-showmanship: sharing the stage with Tower of Power, Earl Klugh, Linda Hopkins; Cooilio, opening for Al Jarreau and Howard Hewitt and headlining the Playboy Jazz Festival. From L.A., she traveled the nation and the world to perform, only recently moving to K.C. to be near family. She’s fronted her own band, LadyMac Attack, and recorded. Her new CD is 500.

Her career mirrors that of many black musicians from Omaha — high caliber players with great creds, but few props outside the industry. She agrees with OBMHOF founder/director Vaughn Chatman that Omaha’s black music legacy is a great untold story, one, she said, people “should know about.”

“A lot of genius players came from Omaha’s near northside,” she said. “It’s a group of multi-talented musicians who can play many instruments, and that’s what’s so rare. Another thing — we’re cross-genre. We’re not just in one pocket. The straight-ahead cats can get busy and play the funk. They can play all those things. Also this sensibility of playing and coming with a show. It’s almost as if everyone incarnated around a certain time” to create “an Omaha sound…this flavor…”

Acknowledgement of groundbreaking black Omaha musicians has been slow to come, making the peer-based Hall award all the sweeter.

“Very often the people that are the vanguard are not always recognized while they’re doing it and that’s a hurtful thing,” she said. “But it’s not too late.”

A Change is Gonna Come, the GBT Academy in Omaha Undergoes Revival in the Wake of Fire

June 14, 2011 13 comments

Mary Goodwin-Clinkscale

 

One of my favorite personalities from the last few years is Dr. Mary Goodwin-Clinkscale, who applies her passion for the Lord, for youth, and for the arts in a dynamic educational program she runs called the GBT Academy. She is its heart and soul, but she has a lot of help by a lot of people who believe in her and her mission, which is really a ministry. I spent some time with her and her staff and some of the young people they work with as the academy prepped for a fund raiser performance to help restore the auditorium that a vandal-set fire partially destroyed. I first became aware of the academy at a program that featured their recreation of a famous incident in late 1960s Omaha. The sheer energy and conviction the performers brought to the performance made me take notice. Then, a year or two later when I read in the paper about the fire and the academy’s intention to go on, I decided it was time I wrote about the program. I still hadn’t met Dr. Clinkscale or Dr. C as she’s called, but no sooner than I did then I realized she needed to be the focus of my story.  Her commitment to the program is unwavering. I still want to tell an expanded story about her one day. But for now my piece below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) will have to do.

 

 

A Change is Gonna Come, the GBT Academy in Omaha Undergoes Revival in the Wake of Fire

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Mary J. Goodwin-Clinkscale considers herself “a survivor.” That’s why when a June 29, 2008 arson fire destroyed the auditorium of the Greater Beth-El Temple, the black Apostolic church that sponsors her nonprofit GBT (Growing and Building Together) Academy of the Arts at 1502 No. 52nd St., she and fellow church officials resolved to rebuild. Proceeds from GBT’s July 2 7 p.m. Through the Fire program at the UNO Strauss Performing Arts Center will help refurbish the auditorium, now just a shell awaiting a new floor, ceiling and stage, plus seating.

The fire deferred the dream of turning the former Beth Israel Synagogue into the church’s new sanctuary and GBT’s new home. Services unfold at the church’s old 25th and Erskine site in the interim. Greater Beth-El purchased the abandoned 52nd St. property in 2004 in the largely white Country Club neighborhood. The church runs the academy along with after-school and day-care programs from the mid-town campus. The church’s extensive landscaping has transformed what was an eyesore into a showplace. Interior work to the pale brick building converted offices into classrooms and updated HVAC systems. Volunteers donate all the work.

Academy executive director Goodwin-Clinkscale — Dr. C — has built a dynamic, multi-media, Christian-based curriculum serving at-risk, school-age youths. Her staff conducts music, dance, drama, speech, creative writing, art classes. GBT members are known for their poise and enthusiasm. They really know how to project. Life skills are integrated into lessons. She coined the Academy’s mantra, “Through the performing stage to the stage of life,” and its mission “to equip youth with the character values of respect, discipline, teamwork, perseverance and leadership through diverse forms of artistic expression.” She said, “We’re trying to instill things that will take these children where they want to go.”

The neighborhood teens who set the fire aided the clean-up as part of their community service work. Dr. C said, “I really believe the kids are sorry for what they did.” GBT will dramatize the story of the fire and its consequences at UNO. “We’re trying to show that if there were more places like this, then youths would have a place to go after school,” she said. “Our plea is, Help us to help them. That’s what this is all about. We’re trying to offer a place of safety, of refuge.”

Assistant Ella “Pat” Tisdel said GBT provides avenues for kids to express themselves “in constructive rather than destructive ways. We’re seeing that if we can pull that creativity out of children it helps them to feel better about themselves and they actually do better in school.”

Mary Goodwin Clinkscale in the center

 

 

The Academy was incorporated in 2000 but Dr. C’s used the arts as empowering tools since ‘78. She produces/directs its energetic performances. Adults and kids collaborate on script, choreography, music, set design, costumes. African-American themed programs, some secular, others  predominate. Performers as young as 6 share the stage with 20-somethings. Her five sons are GBT grads, including veteran television actor Randy Goodwin (Girlfriends). He’ll be back for the show along with special guest, stage/film/TV actor Obba Babatunde (Dreamgirls original cast).

Dr. C’s showcased GBT’s diverse talents at such high-profile gigs as the Holiday Lights Festival, Omaha Entertainment Awards and Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. In 2006 her troupe performed a Tuskegee Airmen tribute in Milwaukee, Wis.

For this proud matriarch, the UNO show’s title refers not only to GBT rising-from-the-ashes and the arsonists finding redemption but to her own crucible. She was a high school drop-out and married teenage mother before turning her life around. A daughter of Arkansas sharecroppers, she worked the fields in the Jim Crow South, picking 300 pounds of cotton per day at age 10. “It takes a lot of cotton to weigh 300 pounds,” she said. She endured the back-breaking labor. Anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, she believes.

She survived segregation and poverty. “I’ve always wanted more in life because we had nothing,” she said. She survived a fire to her family’s home. She was living with her grandmother then — her mother and uncles having gone to Omaha to work packinghouse jobs. After the fire Dr. C’s late mother brought her here, where she grew up in the Spencer Projects. She learned tough lessons from her Big Mama, a cook at the old Paxton Hotel downtown. “I got my work ethic from her.”

Dr. C earned her GED at Metropolitan Community College, where she won a scholarship for continuing education. “I went from there and started doing things.” Doctorates in theology and organizational administration from the International Apostolic University of Grace and Truth in Columbus, Ohio followed.

 

 

 

 

Her academic and youth ministry achievements only came after a born-again experience at Greater Beth-El in 1974. She was adrift then, without a church. “I just didn’t know what direction to go and the Lord led me to these people here,” she said. “I’d been looking for a church that offered something more than fashion or just a place to go hang out. I wanted truth.” She found it. “Before, my life didn’t have any meaning. There was no purpose until I came to the church. That’s when my life really began.” After being baptized she assumed lay leadership roles.

She was inspired “to implement” the teachings of her pastor in skits that engaged youth. “When I see a need, I go after it,” she said. Despite no formal arts background she said she felt prepared because “I’ve always been attracted to beauty. Raising my kids, decorating my home, making a garden, all that to me is an artistic expression. In everything you do there’s an art form to it. You just don’t throw things together. All my life I’ve been able to take a little something and make a lot out of it. I always strive for the best.” Two-hundred plus performances worth.

A perfectionist and task-master who describes herself as “hard but fair,” she views next week’s benefit as GBT’s coming-out party. “We started in January putting this together and we have worked our fingers to the bones on this production. It’s showcasing all the different facets of our talents. We want people to see there is something going on in this big historic building we can all be proud of.”

Her work with GBT has been recognized by the YWCA, UNO, Woodmen of the World, et cetera. GBT just received its first Nebraska Arts Council grant. She believes big things are ahead. She keeps meaning to step aside but, she said, “I never leave a job undone. I have to complete it.” As the soul song goes, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and she wants to be there to see her vision through the fire.

Black Women in Music

July 11, 2010 7 comments

Label of a Commodore Records 78 record by Bill...

Image via Wikipedia

I got the idea for this story in bits and pieces over years, as I learned tidbits about several black women of a certain age who have accomplished themselves in music, whether jazz, blues, gospel, or classical, whether as singers, musicians, directors, and composers.  All the women have ties to Omaha, my hometown.  I got to meet all but one of the charming ladies profiled here and it was my pleasure to learn their stories and tell them in this piece for the New Horizons.  Only one of them achieved anything like a national reputation, but as I hope I make clear in the article they all distinguished themselves in their shared passion for making music.

Black Women in Music

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

Jeanne Rogers
“Music is my life. I can’t live without music.” Omaha jazz singer/pianist Jeanne Rogers recites the words as a solemn oath. As early as age 4, she said, her fascination with music began. This only child lived in her birthplace of Houston, Texas then. She’d go with her mother Matilda to Baptist church services, where young Jean was enthralled by the organist working the pedals and stops. Once, after a service, Jean recalls “noodling around” on the church piano when her mom asked, “‘What are you doing, baby?’ ‘I’m playing what the choir was singing.’ So, she tells my daddy, ‘Robert, the baby needs a piano.’ They let me pick out my piano. I still have it. All my kids learned to play on it. I just can’t get rid of it,” said Rogers, who proudly proclaims “four of my five kids are in music.”

Blessed with the ability to play by ear, she took to music easily. “I’d hear things and I’d want to play ‘em and I’d play ‘em,” she said. She took to singing too, as her alto voice “matured itself.” After moving with her family to Omaha during World War II, she indulged her passion at school (Lake Elementary) and church (Zion Baptist) and via lessons from Florentine Pinkston and Cecil Berryman. At Central High she found an ally in music teacher Elsie Howe Swanson, who “validated that talent I had. Mrs Swanson let me do my thing and I was like on Cloud Nine,” she said. Growing up, Rogers was expected by the family matriarchs to devote herself to sacred or classical music, but she far preferred the forbidden sounds of jazz or blues wafting through the neighborhood on summer nights. “Secular was my thing,” she said. When her mother or aunt weren’t around, she’d secretly jam.

Jeanne Rogers

The family lived near the Dreamland Ballroom, a North 24th Street landmark whose doors and windows were opened on hot nights to cool off the joint in an era before AC. She said the music from inside “permeated the whole area. I would listen to the music coming out and, oh, I thought that was the nicest music. Mama couldn’t stop me from listening to what the bands were playing. That’s the kind of music I wanted to play. I wanted to play with a band. I was told, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that. Nothing but trash is up in that ballroom. There’s no need your going to college if that’s all you want to play.’ But, hey, I finally ended up doing what I wanted to do. And playing music in the nightclubs paid my way through college.”

Do-gooders’ “hoity-toity,” attitude rubbed her the wrong way, especially when she “found out folks in church were doing the same thing folks in the street were.”

Rogers, who became a mother quite young, bit at the first chance to live out her music dream. When someone told her local bandleader Cliff Dudley was looking for a singer she auditioned and won the job. “That’s how I got into the singing,” she said. “I was scared to death.” She sang standard ballads of the day and would “do a little blues.” Later, when the band’s pianist dropped out, she took over for him. “And that’s how I got started playing with the band.” Her fellow musicians included a young Luigi Waites on drums. The group played all over town. She later formed her own jazz trio. She’d started college at then-Omaha University, but when the chance to tour came up, she left school and put her kids in her mother’s care.

The reality of life on the road didn’t live up to the glamour she’d imagined. “That’s a drag,” she said of living out of suitcases. Besides, she added, “I missed my kids.” Letters from home let her know how much she was missed and that her mother couldn’t handle the kids anymore. “She needed me,” Rogers said. “I mean, there were five kids, three of them hard-headed boys. So I came back home.”

The Jewell Building once housed the Dreamland Ballroom

She resumed college, resigned to getting an education degree. “All I wanted to do was play the piano in the band. But I ended up doing what I had to do,” she said.

To support her studies she still played gigs at local clubs. And she nurtured her kids’ and their friends’ love of music by opening up the family home to anyone who wanted to play, turning it into a kind of informal music studio/academy.

“My house on Bristol Street was the house where everybody’s kids came to play music,” she said. Her twin boys Ronnie and Donnie Beck practiced with their bands upstairs while younger brother Keith Rogers’ band jammed downstairs. Their sister, singer Carol Rogers, imitated soul songstresses. Some youths who made music there went on to fine careers, including the late guitarist Billy Rogers (no relation). Ronnie played with Tower of Power and still works as a drummer-singer with top artists. Donnie left Omaha with drummer Buddy Miles and now works as a studio musician and sideman. Keith is a veteran music producer. His twin sister Carol performed with Preston Love and Sergio Mendes, among other greats.

Jeanne plays with her children when they come to town. In 2000 she went to Calif. to cut her one and only CD, “The Late Show,” which her son Ronnie produced. He pushed her hard on the project, but she likes the results. “My son’s a nitpicker and a stickler, but that’s what gets the job done.” One of the kids who was always at her place, Vaughn Chatman, is an attorney and the founder of the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, which Rogers and her three sons are inductees in.

She still plays a concert now and then but mostly for Sunday services at Church of the Resurrection, adding a piano jazz beat to traditional hymns. “I like it because it’s a come-as-you-are church. It’s a nice place to be.” She also volunteers at Solomon Girls Center and sometimes gives piano lessons.

She may not have wanted it, but she ended up a teacher and principal (Druid Hill) in the Omaha Public Schools. “It turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve done,” she said. She used music to reach students. “The kids loved it because I would play the blues for them when they were doing their math lessons and stuff. Other kids would come by the door and my kids would say, ‘Bet you wish you were in here.’” Whether at home, in the classroom, at the altar or on a nightclub bandstand, she makes music part of her life.

Audience responding to Creighton Gospel Choir performance

Nola Jeanpierre

Nola Jeanpierre and Claudette Valentine
So intertwined are the lives of singer/actress Nola (Pierce) Jeanpierre and her “Auntie,” music director, pianist and piano teacher Claudette Valentine, that while not a musical partnership per se, their work is often inseparable. Some of dramatic soprano Jeanpierre’s earliest music memories involve her aunt, who’s accompanied her niece at recitals and concerts for half a century. They’ve worked together in community theater productions, including Omaha Community Playhouse and Center Stage Theatre shows. The Omaha music legends performed last month at the Cathedral Flower Festival. Their most solemn pairing occurs Sundays at New Life Presbyterian Church, where Valentine leads a choir that includes Nola as well as Nola’s sister Johnice Orduna, daughter Carole and grandkids Elyssia and Emil.

These sisters of the spirit draw on music, like their faith, as a wellspring for life. “It’s powerful,” said Valentine, an adjunct piano instructor at Creighton University, whose gospel choir she also directs. “It’s almost an ecstasy. There’s a warmth when the music touches you. It’s strength. When you’re feeling really down it can lift you right back up. The music can comfort you,” as it did when her brother recently passed. The belief described by her favorite hymn, “My Father Watches Over Me,” guides her in all she does. Jeanpierre views music in the same light. “It is so healing,’ she said. “It’s the one communication that breaks all barriers.”

Valentine’s life in music began at home, where as a 4-year-old she duplicated any tune she heard on the family piano, from hymns, chants and anthems at Zion Baptist Church to ragtime numbers a neighbor played. Her folks recognized her gift and signed her up for lessons. From a young age she’s played for and directed church choirs, first at Zion, then Calvin Memorial Presbyterian and lately New Life Presbyterian. A prodigy advanced well beyond her years, she performed at community events and school programs at Long Elementary and Tech High. After graduating Tech at 16 she was recruited to Drake University, where she obtained her BA and master’s. At 22 she opened her own studio. Always honing her craft, she earned a doctorate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and studied at the Peabody Conservatory (Baltimore, MD). She’s attended national piano festivals and conferences. “I’ve never stopped studying,” she said. “The teaching of piano has changed so much since I hung up that first shingle, so I try to keep on track.”

For 50 years now she’s kept a schedule her niece describes as “sun up to sun down working. She is tireless,” said Nola. “A joke in the family is — What is Auntie going to get into now?” Valentine’s work is her passion. “The choral music — it’s a spiritual thing. It just hits me where I live,” she said. “The piano teaching, now that’s my first love. When the babies come to me and they don’t know anything about the piano and they go away from me and they’re playing for choirs, conducting, appearing on Broadway, in Europe, that’s my life, that’s my legacy.”

Former student Kevyn Morrow, a New York and London musical theater actor, wowed audiences last year guest starring in Ragtime at the Playhouse. Another old student, Douglas Corbin, is a top ballet accompanist and music teacher back East.

When directing Creighton’s gospel choir she said “it does my heart good” watching its white members “grow” as she “introduces them to how black people really live and what they’re really like.” She complements its student ranks with Nola, Johnice, Carole and other relatives, whose soaring voices provide a “nucleus” she draws on. Whatever Valentine takes on, Nola knows family is sure to be dragged in. “We know we’re going to have to do something,” she said, laughing. “Anything you ask of family, we’re there.” Their most personal collaboration is for a heritage program that pays tribute to the strong matriarchs in their family. Through dramatic recitation, song and music Valentine, Jeanpierre and family recount the stories of ancestors Easter, Queenie I and Queenie II, to tell a story of perseverance from slavery to reconstruction to civil rights.

Jeanpierre’s musical roots are in church, “the foundation” of her life. She and her sisters sang in choirs, for school programs and as the Pierce Trio at Show Wagon competitions. Courtesy her aunt, she was “introduced to classical music…all types of music” and trained on the piano. She did musical theater shows as a kid, once playing Bloody Mary in South Pacific, a part she reprised as an adult at the Playhouse. As a teen she left Omaha for Calif. to live with her father, who encouraged her love of opera. “He realized my talent,” she said. As a young woman she trained with Professor LeRoy Brandt, sang jazz with producer/arranger Quincy Jones and flutist Paul Horn and opera with the San Francisco Opera chorus and placed in the NY Metropolitan Opera auditions. She studied with Met coaches.

Since coming back to Omaha, she’s appeared in many stage shows here and in summer stock at the New London Barn Playhouse in New Hampshire, where she broke ground by insisting on playing nontraditional roles. She’s sung with Opera Omaha, performed cantatas, oratorios, solos, “anything you can imagine,” in churches and concert halls. “Among my favorite things to do is to sing spirituals in church,” she said. She’s directed choirs, cantored at St. Cecilia’s Cathedral and even sung for three kings. Her “lovely old voice” is widely praised. So why she isn’t famous?. Her attention to faith and family and good works has kept her from pursuing a larger career. “The voice is always in demand, but there’s always someone in need of something and that side of me wants to go do that. I love assisting people. I want to be of help,” said Jeanpierre, who counsels folks in need. “There’s a tear of helping a community and singing for that community. Sometimes they’re combined. God puts you where you need to be the most.”

Her refuge is her faith. “It carries you through every single situation. When I think I can’t go another step or something’s not going my way, I can hear Auntie Claudette’s” stirring rendition of “‘My Heavenly Father Watches Over Me’ in the back of my mind, and that’ll get me up and get me moving. Music is a celebration.”

Richetta Wilson
When Omaha jazz vocalist Richetta (Lewis) Wilson sings, she can’t help but sound a little like icons Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dianah Washington and Nancy Wilson, as she worked and forged friendships with these legends when they performed here. Once a featured artist in Omaha’s finest clubs, Richetta naturally drew on the impeccable phrasing and posh stage craft of divas she admired. “I had a little bit of all of ‘em in me because I dealt with all of ‘em,” she said from her showplace of a home. With sophisticated ladies as models, it’s no wonder the petite Wilson has been the epitome of art and class among Omaha song stylists for half-a-century.

“Those were all my favorite people. I loved ‘em,” she said. She “especially” cherishes how she was able “to get to know” them as human beings. She got particularly “close” to Dianah and Ella. “Practically all of ‘em stayed at my house. We’d cook. We had a lot of fun together. Dianah Washington was my idol. From 10 years old I always wanted to sing like her. I did every tune she did. She put so much feeling in her tunes. She was a great person. Ella was a dream. I did her hair. We’d go to work together. She was a honey. I really enjoyed her.”

Getting schooled by old souls was nothing new for Wilson, whose father, Richard Lewis, mother Camille, and uncles and grandpa, all played professionally. Early on her dad saw his little girl’s talent and hunger to perform. She was so enamored with his life in music she’d “wait up on him” to come home from the Trocadero Club, where he played with Cliff Dudley’s band, pumping him for all the details.

“I had to know everything that went on,” she said. “He always sang ‘Laura’ to me because I loved to hear him sing that. When I got to be about 12 he let me go to rehearsals with him down to the Trocadero. I’d be wide-eyed.”

He bought her a baby grand piano for her 7th birthday and saw to it she and her four siblings learned their chops. “He dearly loved music. He instilled it in all of us,” she said, adding that a brother, Victor Lewis, has enjoyed a long career as a jazz drummer-composer. “Everybody had to play.” She balked, declaring, “‘All I want to do is sing.’ She later appreciated the training ”because that’s how you learn to phrase and get your chords down and everything.”

At home she imitated Dianah, crooning into a lamp while her brothers made believe brooms were horns or saxes. Her dad eased her into show biz by having her sing at American Legion halls. “That’s when I took off,” she said. “I told him, ‘This is what I want to do, Daddy. I want to sing.’ I threw my lamp away and picked up the real mike.” When he felt she was ready, he had her audition for bandleader Dudley. Shy Richetta was coaxed to sing “Tenderly.” She recalls finishing the tune and Dudley turning to her dad to declare, “’She’s hired.’ That got me on the circuit,” she said.

Dudley became her mentor. “He made me sing some of everything. I couldn’t just do jazz. I did country western, all the show tunes…so I have a rep where I can do a little bit of everything,” she said. “He was a heck of an arranger. He was my foundation, I’ll put it that way. He was stern…I cried a lot, but he taught me everything I know. It was worth it. It got me good jobs and sent me on my way.” She was 17 when she joined Dudley and 19 when she hooked up with Preston Love’s territory band, touring the South on a big yellow bus with a pot belly stove in it. She was the  group’s only female. Before her dad let her go he made pianist Roy Givens “promise he’d take care of me.” Givens kept his word.

Life on the road with a 17-piece orchestra was “an experience” she said. They played Jim Crow venues where the band had to enter through the back door and the crowd on the dance floor was separated by a rope — whites on one side, blacks on the other. The band slept on the bus. She got teased by the guys. Nine months away from home with all those crazy cats was enough for her.

She performed many more times with Love and Givens. She regarded them and players like Sonny Firmature and Buddy Graves “my musical family.” With her real family she sang in a trio that had her dad on sax and her mom on piano.

In her heyday she performed at swank local night spots — The Colony Club, Angelo’s, the Carnation Ballroom, Mickey’s, the M & M, the Blue Room — and the best hotels. She headlined a Joslyn jazz festival. Her “great following” went wherever she did. She took gigs in Denver, San Francisco and once had an extended, nine-month engagement at a hip Kansas City club. By then she was married with kids. It meant a weekly routine of getting her house in order before hopping a Wednesday charter for K.C, performing through the weekend there, then flying back to Omaha Sunday night to begin the cycle all over again. Her late husband, Richard Wilson, generally didn’t like her going on the road.

“I was amazed he let me do it that long,” she said. “I had many opportunities to go and do a whole lot more than I did. He said, ‘We’ve got four daughters here and I don’t think you’re going to be going away leaving girls.’ So, I made myself happy with working around here. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done and all the people I’ve had the opportunity to meet and the good times we’ve had.”

She only plays the rare gig anymore. There’s still nothing better than blending her sweet voice with the sound of a full, swinging orchestra. She last did that in 2005 at Harrah’s Casino, singing a duet with Omaha native Eugene Booker McDaniels on his classic “Feel Like Making Love” at the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame awards dinner. She was inducted for her lifetime as a consummate jazz interpreter.

Much of the old gang’s gone now, but she still performs from time to time with Buddy Graves at Touch of Class Lounge. She sings at her annual birthday bash, too. She and her brother Victor Lewis jammed at a recent Jazz on the Green.

“I’ve had an adventurous life with all the things I’ve done,” she said. “It’s hard to kind of believe. But I wouldn’t trade it for nothing in the world.”

Ruth Norman
In a career spanning 60 years, Omaha native Ruth Norman has made a name for herself as an organist, pianist, composer, music educator and choral director. She left Nebraska decades ago to pursue a life in music, settling back East, where she got her master’s at Eastman School of Music (Rochester, NY), but she credits her early start here for her later success. Her introduction to music began at home.

“All the females in my family played the piano quite well,” she said by phone from her adopted hometown of Bethesda, MD. “I grew up playing the piano. I was always at the piano, always. I didn’t know what else to do but that.” Except for tennis, her second passion. Her grandmother, aunts and cousins all played piano, but her “dominating” grandma set the tone. She made sure Ruth took lessons — from instructors Edrose Willis Graham and Frances Baetens. But it was an inner stirring that drove young Ruth. “I’ve always just been led to do it,” she said. “It is deep within me.” Her many compositions, from “The Rapture” to “Introspection,” speak to music’s profound pull on her and her interest in “metaphysics.”

Despite being black in an era of overt racial bias, she said, “I grew up with every advantage to grow into music. I was always given the opportunity to play. I often played for classes at Lothrop Elementary and Central High. I played at Central’s Road Show…Baetens would drag me all over Nebraska and parts of Iowa playing programs here and there. I did a lot of concertizing from age 10 or 12. I loved it.”

Ruth Norman is featured in the above anthology

Some might say she’s followed an unusual path for an African American by concentrating on classical music. “I always played classical music and I always played sacred music (at Claire Chapel Methodist Church). Jazz and blues and gospel were not even on my menu,” she said. “I did not have that exposure at all.” That’s not to say she couldn’t play or appreciate those styles. Summers home from her studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found her playing “cocktail-lounge music for some of the better hotels in Omaha (among them, the Fontenelle) as I’ve done here in the D.C. area. I don’t consider myself a cool, swinging jazz player, but I found I could always play something like ‘Blue Moon’ or ‘I’m in the Mood for Love’ or ‘Night and Day’ without any trouble because I could play ‘em by ear.” A diverse repertoire, she said, served her well. “The way you can survive as a musician is to prove you can do several things. If you’re going to write music it’s to your advantage to play and hear different things…different rhythms. Playing by ear gives you help and freedom in playing and writing classical music.”

It was at UNL, where she got her BA, she began composing. “It was just sort of a natural process,” she said. “I thoroughly enjoy composing and I’ve written for many mediums — choral, chamber, piano and organ works.” Much of her work’s published in anthologies of black composers. She’s also recorded pieces. In a career that’s “been a whole mix of things,” she’s always conducted choirs and played organ at churches. “The organ is very rewarding. There’s an inner feeling you can get from playing the organ you don’t get from playing the piano,” she said. “An ethereal expression deep within. I thoroughly enjoy that. I don’t mean a Hammond or Wurlitzer organ. I mean the actual pipe organ.” She’s played some of the best.

It was during her academic career, including a stint teaching music at a string of black colleges (Spelman, Morehouse, Bowie State, Texas Southern), she developed an interest in researching the works of black classical composers. “Annoyed” that blacks were relegated in many quarters to certain strands of music she said, “I decided I would set the record straight. I realized black composers had lived in many parts of the world and written in every style of music. They didn’t do just blues, jazz and gospel.” Her studies, funded by National Endowment for the Arts grants, found “a lot of classical composers we thought were white were black or mixed race. That led me to a wide avenue of music and many adventures” in Latin America and beyond. She’s given much of her life to sharing her findings via piano lecture recitals and interviews/performances on radio (Pipedreams) and television.

Her career’s been about taking the path less traveled. It’s why she left home. “I’ve always liked a challenge and I felt one was never challenged enough in Omaha. The worst thing you can do is stay where everyone thinks you’re wonderful. You get so comfortable. I don’t believe in limiting myself or patting myself on the back. I knew I belonged in the East. That’s what made me stay here (after Eastman). If you’re going to be in the field of performing you have to drive yourself alone,” she said. “You can’t just loaf through. You have to have that self-motivation as I did. You have to be honest with yourself, you have to be willing to criticize yourself, you have to realize I could have done better and I will do better.”

These days her playing’s curtailed as the result of injuring a hand in a fall. “To find yourself in a situation in which your playing ability has been hampered is devastating at first,” she said, “but I don’t let myself focus on that. I’m a very positive person. I do a lot of meditation and prayer. Independence is a state of mind. Besides, I never was one to sit still.” Norman was inducted in the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame in 2005. She’s been honored by a concert of her works at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC, where she’s served as Artist-in-Residence at the Sumner School.

NOTE: Fellow Central grad Cherie Curry, a distinguished pianist and piano teacher, also traces her musical start to Omaha’s north side. She played for church (Zion Baptist) and in concert (an all Chopin recital at Joslyn). After graduating Omaha University she pursued advanced studies at San Jose State University, where she taught many years. Her concert/recital career took her all over the U.S. and Europe, where she also studied. In 1976 she performed the Aaron Copland Sonata before the iconic composer himself at a concert in San Jose, where she resides.

Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church

Veola Dryver
Veola (Seay) Dryver of Omaha was a girl of 8 when she said she received the call to serve the Lord through music, something she’s done for 70 years. “I knew God had called me. It’s sort of a wonder way that He does, but you know it’s His voice. It’s like a whisper. And sometimes it’s really loud.” She attended Mt. Nebo Baptist Church at the time. She sang in the choir, but insists she had no real knack for music. She trusted God would show her the way. “I didn’t know anything about music,” she said. “I asked Him, ‘Are You sure this is what You want me to be?’ He told me, ‘I looked for a man and I found none.’ I was reading my Bible when I turned to the first chapter of Jeremiah and that’s exactly what this passage said.”

It was all the confirmation she needed. “There are those who are called into the ministry and there are other ones that are gifted. They are special chosen, ” she said. For years she kept the calling a secret, even from her parents. “Most people, if they have this kind of a gift, they’re afraid to tell it,” she said, “because people won’t believe them and they’re jeered at.”

She was 15 before she revealed her calling. By then she was showing promise at church, although her family was too poor to send her for lessons and “everybody except my father,” she said, “thought I would never make a musician.” Veola would not be dissuaded. She said unlike her demure mother, “who always believed women should be sort of docile, I was not. It just didn’t suit me.”

Then fate or divine inspiration struck again. “Eulah Billingsley, a very sincere, very religious person — what we called a Christian that knew God — said the Lord had led her into forming a youth choir for the church…and to appoint me as the minister of music. I just burst into tears because I hadn’t told anybody that secret.” Dryver “had a lot of studying to do and music lessons to take, much under the guidance of “a marvelous teacher named Florentine Pinkston. She was a beautiful person…very strict and austere.”

Despite some training, she credits the Lord for her directing prowess. “I never have taken directing lessons. I just knew.” Being a female music minister in the Baptist church was unheard of then, but she pressed on anyway. “So many people were saying women don’t teach music, women don’t direct…but they all accepted me.” Further setting her apart was a dynamic directing style, gesticulating hands keeping beat and bringing voices in. She was minister of music at Mt. Nebo for years and enjoyed a long tenure at Trinity United Methodist Church. Over time she’s directed youths and adults at many churches of varied faiths. She even directed a choir of doctors and nurses at Immanuel Hospital. “Music is music,” she said.

Her son Michael Dryver, a noted Omaha music minister, director and teacher in his own right, considers his mother “a pioneer” for the “total” way she integrated the arts into sacred rites and overall church development. “She’s very creative. She’s also a visual artist. She pioneered liturgical dance in Omaha…she had dances that were actually part of the worship services. There was a spirit of music ministry she brought to this community, especially to north Omaha, that was unseen before.”

Mother and son collaborated on productions of Ahmal and the Night Visitors and The Messiah and she sung in the Voices of Omaha when he directed it. His mother and father, the late Herman Dryver, provided artistic and technical support, respectively, for many concerts/recitals he directed. She was a lead teacher for the Wee World fine arts program at her son’s Omaha School of Music.

Years earlier she directed large events herself. She was music director for several state Baptist conventions and once, for a national ministerial congress Martin Luther King, Jr. attended. The late ‘50s gathering marked MLK’s lone visit here. She befriended the young Southern minister and led a choir of some 1,000 voices.

Dryver, who attended then-Grace College and Omaha University, has done her share of preaching, too. “I do preach,” she said, “but the radio is my pulpit. I have a program on KCRO (660AM) called In His Image.” Airing Saturdays at 12:15 p.m., the program has her deliver an inspirational scriptural message each week under the guise of her radio handle — Teacher Mary D. Before that, she hosted a weekly Sunday television show called Soul Searching on KETV Ch. 7, for which she interviewed clergy and other religious figures from Omaha and other communities. Her charisma made her “an Oprah Winfrey” in her own time.

Michael Dryver

Aside from her media-ministerial work, she’s best known as a private piano-music theory instructor. She’s taught countless youths at her home, many of whom have gone onto music careers, such as singer Yolonda Johnson, who enjoys a concert opera career in New York. Old students often check in on her. “I live for that,” she said. “It’s just wonderful, I tell you.” Her impact is everlasting. “Well, my mother, she’s my mother, but she’s mother to a lot of children,” Michael said. “She’s inspired lots of people. Lots of women pastors have been inspired and encouraged by her leadership,” including his sister Rosalind Dryver-Scott, pastor at Menomonie (Wis.) United Methodist Church. Many music ministers, Michael among them, followed her path, which she calls “a blessing.”

As immersed as the family was in church and music, her children were bound to carry on. “We all loved music and we all loved God,” Veola said. “We lived in the church. I think that was our advantage.” For her, music and faith are inseparable. “I’ve always been very fascinated with it. It’s just been an exciting journey and an exciting call,” she said. “It’s a healer, it’s a testament and it’s a witness. Music has an effect upon people. You really can control an entire audience through music. I believe music is the one gift God has given to mankind we enjoy on Earth that we will take back to heaven with us. We won’t be barbers, butchers and businessmen in heaven, but we will sing.” A vision has showed her a million heavenly voices raised in song. “I look forward to being part of that number,” she said. Amen.

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