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


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

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

©By Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in American Visions

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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