Black Women in Music

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

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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.

Kelly: Singer, whose mom has Alzheimer's, comes home to Omaha for 'the long goodbye'

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.

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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  2. Rosalind Dryver-Scott
    July 21, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    Is it possible to receive a hard copy of the article which you wrote, including my mother, Veola Seay Dryver; and did this article appear in a magazine. I so, which one?



  3. Nataki
    August 8, 2011 at 1:10 am

    Thank you for such a wonderful article featuring so many talented Black women! Claudette Valentine was my piano teacher for 10 years as a child. More than that, she was a phenomenal role model and just an awesome woman of God. I still keep in touch with her to this day!
    I’d also like to recognize Mrs. Jeanne Rogers, who I remember as organist at ZionBaptist church, where I attended as a child. It’s so great to know the rich, cultural history of my hometown and the backstory on these living legacies!
    I would also like to receive a hard copy of the article if possible.


    • August 8, 2011 at 1:00 pm

      Thanks so much for the positive response. The article was written some years ago, and so I am afraid you are out of luck as far as an actual news print copy. I only have one myself.


  4. Bill Provaznik
    January 20, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    Your articles about Omaha and its personalities are priceless. The piece on Jeanne Rogers is wonderful. She was a teacher at Laura Dodge Elementary, and I was in her class for her first year in the later 1970’s. Like mentioned in the article, she did incorporate music into her class in many ways. The talent was so amazing, even we 11 year olds recognized what a luxury it was. A couple of her standards were “Get Up Get On Your Feet”, bringing us back from our food comas after lunch. Another was “One Tin Soldier”, for which the original doesn’t do justice to what Ms Rogers improvised weekly. Growing up, weirdly we all from her classes sort of assume that sixth grade classes were like this. They should be.
    One aspect of Ms Rogers that should be mentioned, is that even with her love of music, and her teaching career intended as a fall back, she is a great educator. The kids from our class, as may be typical of sixth grade kids from that area, were really not tuned in to school and well on our way to bigger trouble. It was not uncommon for kids to get beat up in class, desks to be thrown, live electric wires to be stripped from outlets. I can’t imagine now how to deal with this kind of stuff as a teacher. She devoted a lot of time to patient, but to a sixth grader seemingly severe, discipline. Individually, or with our violation comrades, we would spend many one –two hour after school sessions in gym doing basketball drills. Looking back, this did two things – it was punishment, but it also disrupted our afterschool routines and those of our buddies who we got in trouble with. It basically took us off the street until no one we could get in trouble with was around anymore. Sounds like an easy plan, but one person has to do it – and it was her. It was her time that she could have spent doing other things. We’d leave school, and it was just us, Ms Rogers, maybe Ms Fletcher the principle, no other teachers or students. This was in the days before elaborate afterschool programs, activities and staffing, which I’m not sure how effective they would have been for us. Even at 11 years old, we were pretty set in our ways. It was the fact we were dealing with Ms Rogers, not some abstract organizational program or idea that we grew respect for her, or anything. We weren’t ready or willing to change, but we did.

    I can picture her being asked if she was interested in the principle gig, and reluctantly accepting. She’s no doubt redirected a lot of lives from dead ends over the years.

    Thanks again for the great article Leo Adam.


  5. Dennis Asaka
    March 19, 2014 at 9:09 am

    I began thinking about Richetta Wilson and whatever happened to her and then I stumbled upon this article. Reading about Richetta was great, I still have fond memories about the Jungle Lounge, Richetta Wilson, Roy Givens, and “Bubbles” the sax player. This was 1959 and I was stationed at Offutt.


  6. L. Italia
    August 1, 2017 at 11:13 pm

    Thanks for this great bit of Omaha’s musical history. I was a guitarist in Omaha many years ago and had the pleasure of playing a number of gigs with Sonny Firmature’s band with Roy Givens, Gerald Holtz, Ric Swanson, Mason Prince, etc.

    The singer was Richetta Wilson. She was the real deal, not just a great singer but a great musician and classy lady. I wasn’t a jazzer, didn’t know any of the tunes, etc. which she of course knew but she and Roy and Gerry were always nice to me and Sonny never fired me…

    Your article took me back to the Big O, that band and Richetta’s wonderful singing.


  7. Noel Patterson
    December 29, 2022 at 8:24 pm

    I enjoyed reading about Jeanne Rogers. While I was at Omaha University I played tenor saxophone with Cliff Dudley’s band. We played at a nightclub in downtown Omaha maybe a couple of nights a week. Jeanne was our piano player and vocalist. What a great collection of people, and great musicians. Cliff told me that Preston Love needed a tenor saxophone player and I dropped out of school and traveled with Preston for several years, yes, there is no glamour on the road. But, I value those experiences.

    Thanks for the memories.


    • Dennis Asaka
      December 29, 2022 at 10:44 pm

      Hi Noel
      Suddenly your comment popped up in my email and I then reminded myself that I commented on that article in 2014. Brought back good memories for me because I spent many a night at the Jungle Lounge listening to Roy Givens, “Bubbles”, and Richetta Wilson.


  1. July 21, 2017 at 5:43 pm
  2. February 26, 2019 at 2:47 pm

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