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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.”

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