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Venerable jazzman Paul Serrato has his say

March 25, 2019 Leave a comment

Venerable jazzman Paul Serrato has his say

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the April 2019 New Horizons

 

Paul Serrato

 

Journeyman jazz pianist, composer, arranger and recording artist Paul Serrato has packed much living into 83 years. The accouterments of that long, well-lived life fill to overbrimming the textured South Omaha house he resides in.

The humble dwelling is in the shadow of Vinton Street’s mural-adorned grain silos. They are distant echoes of the skyscrapers of New York, where for decades he plied his trade gigging in clubs and cabarets and writing-performing musical theater shows.

After all that time in Manhattan, plus spending bohemian summers in Europe, he returned to Omaha eight years ago upon the death of his mother. He inherited her snug bungalow and it’s there he displays his lifetime passion for arts and culture. Books, magazines, albums, DVDs, VHS tapes and CDs fill shelves and tables. Photos, prints, posters and artworks occupy walls.

Each nook and cranny is crammed with expressions of his eclectic interests, There’s just enough space to beat a measured path through the house and yet everything is neat and tidy under the fastidious eye of Serrato.

“This is how we live in New York in our cluttered, small apartments,” he said.

In a music room is the Yamaha keyboard he composes on and gigs with as well as manuscripts of completed and in-progress instrumental works. Though he’s recorded many CDs released on his own record labels, many of his tunes have never been made  public.

“I couldn’t bring it all out. That’s how it is for any artist.”

His latest release “Gotham Nights” on his Graffiti Productions label has charted nationally since January.

Some of his catalogue is licensed for television. He finds it “exciting” to hear his music on TV or radio. Tracks from “Gotham Nights” have aired on the nationally syndicated “Latin Perspective” public radio program.

Serrato has made provisions for his archives to go to his alma mater, Adelphi University, when he dies.

“They’ve been very supportive, very receptive about accepting my archives,” he said.

His home contains reminders of his second career teaching English as a Second Language to international students, including photos and letters from former students with whom he corresponds. All these years teaching immigrants and refugees, combined with his many travels, gives Serrato friends in faraway places.

“It’s really wonderful,” he said. “I’m very fortunate. We keep in touch. We send each other gifts . I have more close friends around the world than I do in Omaha.”

A friendship with a former student from Japan led to Serrato making two concert tours of the Asian nation.

He began working as an ESL instructor long ago in New York. He earned a master’s degree in Urban Education from Adelphi. He now teaches ESL for Metropolitan Community College in Omaha.

 

Paul Serrato

 

 

Coming of age

Serrato’s always shown an aptitude for learning. Growing up, he was drawn to the big upright piano his aunt played in church. It wasn’t long before he gained proficiency on it.

“I can remember myself so distinctly fascinated by the piano, wanting to play it, going over and pounding on the keys. That’s how I got to playing the piano as a toddler. From an educational point of view, it’s interesting how children can gravitate to an environment or a stimulus when they see adults doing things.”

Not being good at sports and not having advantages more well-off kids enjoyed, he said, “Music gave me the confidence I could do something. My early childhood was rather deprived. We moved around a lot. It wasn’t until I was 9 we got settled. My mother bought a piano and paid for classical lessons. She was a pretty remarkable woman considering what she had to go through raising a kid on her own.”

Music gave him his identity at Omaha Creighton Prep.

“I could start to come out as a musician and I found people liked what I did. They applauded. I was like, Hey, man, I’m good, I can do this. That’s how I got started on the track.”

All it took for him to shine was affirmation.

“That’s how it is, that’s how it always is.”

iHe was starved for encouragement, too, coming from a broken family of meager meansHe performed classical recitals and competed in talent shows at school and community centers, even on radio. “I won a couple of first prizes on KOIL” He played on a WOW show hosted by Lyle DeMoss. All of it made him hungry for more.

His classical training then took a backseat to captivating new sounds he heard on jazz programs out of Chicago on the family’s old Philco radio set.

“That was an eye-opener, definitely because at that point I had only studied classical piano – Chopin, Debussy. I hadn’t been exposed to hearing guys like Oscar Peterson or Art Tatum and Erroll Garner. Hearing that stuff opened up a big door and window into other possibilities.”

He began composing riffs on popular song forms, mostly big band and Broadway show tunes.

“That’s what jazz players did and still do – take standard songs and interpret them. That’s the classic jazz repertoire. I still love Cole Porter. I still play his stuff. I have a whole Cole Porter portfolio.”

New York, New York

After high school Serarto’s awakening as an aspiring jazz artist pulled him east. After a stint at Boston University he went to New York. It became home.

Said Serrato, “There’s three kinds of New Yorkers: the native New Yorker who’s born there; the commuter who comes in from Long Island to work or play; then there are those like myself who go there for a purpose – to achieve a goal – and for personal fulfillment. New York draws in all these dynamic young people who go to feed themselves creatively/.”

The sheer diversity of people and abundance of opportunity is staggering.

“You meet people of all different persuasions, professions, everything.

Finding one’s kindred spirit circle or group, he said, “is so easy in New York.” “You don’t find it, it finds you. I made lots of friends. I’d meet somebody in a coffee shop and it would turn out they were producing a play and needed somebody to write music. I’d say, ‘I write music’. ‘Oh, why don’t you do it?’ they’d say.

“For example, I ended up collaborating on many projects with Jackie Curtis, who later became an Andy Warhol superstar. We met at a Greenwich Village bookstore I managed. Totally serendipitous. He was very young. We struck up a conversation. I said, ‘I write songs.’ He said, ‘Oh we could do a musical together.’ We did the first one, O Lucky Wonderful, as an off-off-Broadway production, on an absolute shoestring.”

Serrato worked with other Warhol personalities, including Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn.

“Some of that material for these crazy talented trans performers and underground figures was rather risque.”

He also teamed with comedian Craig Vandernberg, “who did a great spoof on Las Vegas crooners.”

Whatever work he could find, Serrato did.

“I had different kinds of jobs. I was a bartender, a bouncer, a waiter, an artist’s model. That’s how I supported myself. You have to hustle and do whatever it takes. That’s the driving force. That’s why you’re in New York. That’s why it’s competitive and  there’s that energy because you look around and you see what’s possible.

“You’re in the epicenter of the arts. All that stuff was my world – visual arts, performance arts. There’s all this collision of cultural forces and people all interested in those things.”

Serrato believes everyone needs to find their passion the way he found his in music.

“That just happens to be my domain. I tell my students, ‘Hopefully, you’ll find your domain – something you can feel passionate about or connected to that will drive you and give you the energy to pursue that.’ I love to guide young people.”

Everything he experienced in NYC fed him creatively.

“As an artist’s model I met all these wonderful artists and art teachers. That’s when my passion for visual art and painters really got implanted.

When it comes to artistic vocations, he said, “many are called, few are chosen.”

“If you are truly engaged as an artist, you have confidence – you know you’re connecting.”

He eventually did well enough that he “would take off for months in the summer and go to Europe to follow bullfights and go to Paris.” “Then I’d come back and just pick up where I left off.”

“In those days living in New York was not as prohibitive as it is now economically. The rents have since priced a lot of people out.”

On his summer idyls abroad he followed a guide book by author Arthur Frommer on how to see Europe on five dollars a day and, he found, “you could just about do it.”

“His book had all the cheap places you could stay and eat. It worked, man. It was fabulous.”

Always the adventurer, he smuggled back copies of banned books.

 

All that jazz

Jazz eventually became his main metier. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Jazz Studies and Latin American Music from Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts in East Harlem.

Jazz is a truly American art form. Though its following is shrinking, he said the music retains “plenty of vitality.”

“The fact that it’s not mainstream music is probably to its benefit because that means you can be individual, you don’t have a lot of hierarchy breathing down your neck saying do it this way, do it that way. So a jazz artist can sort of be what he or she wants to be.

“It’s a personal expression. It’s not a commodity the way corporately sanctioned music can be.”

A few jazz artists have managed to gain broad crossover appeal.

“But for every artist like that,” he said, “there’s a legion of others like myself that don’t have that kind of profile.

“There’s been such a tectonic shift in the jazz culture. Mid-20th century jazz artists – (Thelonious) Monk, (Dave) Brubeck – used to make the covers of national magazines. Who would put a jazz musician on the cover of a national magazine today? Do you ever see jazz musicians on the late night TV shows? You see rock, pop or hip-hop artists. In a lot of people’s minds, jazz is not that important because it doesn’t make much money and doesn’t get much media attention, so we work however we can. But it’s always been a struggle, even in the golden era.”

The Life can take a toll.

“I remember at the Village Gate in the ’60s. I was house manager and performed there sometimes. You’d have a 2 a.m. show. You had to make it through these gigs. It’s a tough life. No wonder there was alcohol and drugs and everything. It’s always been a tough life.”

 


 

 

Playing by his own rules

Making quality music, not fame, remains Serrato’s ambition. In New York he got tight with similarly-inclined musicians, particularly “master Latin percussionist” Julio Feliciano.

“He was Yorkirican – a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent. Just full of energy and vitality and ideas. He contributed his deep musicianship to my many recording sessions and New York gigs. We enjoyed that vibe that enables the most successful collaborations. That also includes Jack ‘Kako’ Sanchez. They were a percussion team. It’s evident on my record ‘More Than Red,’ which spent many weeks on the national jazz charts.

“I’ll never find another like Julio. It was like (Duke) Ellington with (Billy) Strahorn – the two of us together. We had a tremendous collaboration. He was a Vietnam vet who OD’d on prescription pain killers. It was tragic. So young, so talented, so brilliant. We were like brothers musically and spiritually.”

What Serrato misses most about New York is “the cultural network” he had there that he lacks here.

“Like I have an idea for a musical project right now. In New York I could just pick up the phone and tell these guys, ‘Come over.’ and they’d come over and we’d start working on it. I can’t do that here. I don’t have that kind of musical infrastructure here.

“My studio in New York was a place where we would try out things. It was wonderful for me as a composer. It taught me a lot of discipline in terms of being accurate and clear about what I write.”

Just as musician Preston Love Sr. found when he returned to Omaha after years away, Serrato’s found his hometown less than inviting when it comes to jazz and to the idea of him performing his music.

“I hear people say things like. ‘We love your music, but it’s very sophisticated. We never hear music like this around here. What do you call it?’ I scratch my head when they say those things. I never get this in New York.”

He turns down some offers because, in true New Yorker fashion, he doesn’t drive and public transportation here can’t easily get him to out-of-town gigs.

“I’m not the first New York creative who left the city and had to make an adjustment somewhere else.”

Some discerning listeners have supported his music, including KIOS-FM.

“They’ve been very good to me.”

He’s cultivated a local cadre of fellow arts nuts. He sees shows when he can at the Joslyn, Kaneko, Bemis, Holland and Orpheum. His best buddy in town is another New York transplant, David Johnson. Their shared sensibilities find them kvetching about things.

What Serrato won’t do is compromise his music. His website says it all: Urban Jazz – Not by the Rules. He’s put out CDs on his own terms since returning to Omaha.

“I’m a music producer – of jazz music in particular. So when I have enough music that I think I’m ready to record, I figure out a way to record it. I don’t really have the network here to feel confident enough to do a project like ‘Gotham Nights’ in Omaha. So I rely on my band members in New York. We’ve played together for years. I want to record with them.”

For “Gotham Nights” he booked two four-hour recording sessions in Manhattan.

“It was so successful because I had everything clearly written. I gave it to my guys and the caliber they are, they saw it, and they played it. I knew these guys so well that we didn’t have to rehearse. I gave them the charts and turned them loose and let them go. We all spoke the same musical language – that’s the most important thing. I had eight instrumental tunes. We went through it once, twice at most.”

“Gotham Nights” marks a change for Serrato in moving from artsy to mainstream.

“In the past I’ve had good success, but sometimes I’ve heard, ‘Oh, your music is too avant garde,’ which is like poison. ‘Gotham Nights’ is not avant garde. It reflects my Brazilian influences. It’s Latin jazz filtered through my own musical personality. Very melodic. It’s why it’s so accessible.”

The album is the latest of many projects he’s done that celebrate his muse, New York, and its many notes.

He was there teaching only blocks from ground zero when the twin towers came down on 9/11.

“We had to vacate our building. After we were allowed back in a few weeks later I had my international adult students write about their impressions of that day. They were from Taiwan, Japan, Turkey, Korea, Chile, all these different countries. They wrote eloquently about that and I saved their essays. Fast forward 15 years later and I asked some of my ESL students in Omaha to read these testimonials set to music I composed at a Gallery 72 event commemorating that tragic day. I was very proud of how that event turned out.”

He’s teaching a new ESL class this spring. As usual, he said, he’s trying “to make it comfortable” for recent arrivals “to adapt to a new culture and a new land.”

“Cultural transference or acculturation – that’s an ESL teacher’s job.”

But his class assignments always encourage students to celebrate their own culture, too.

The ever searching Serrato said, “I love other cultures and I love education. I’m a big believer in bilingual education. Teaching’s been a natural evolution for me. All musicians are educators at heart.”

Fellow hin at http://www.paulserrato.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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Outperforming and Including Others: Makayla McMorris

March 20, 2019 Leave a comment

Outperforming and Including Others 

Makayla McMorris

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in the March-April 2019 edition of B2B Omaha Magazine (https://omahamagazine.com/articles/outperforming-and-including-others/)

 

Marketing whiz Makayla McMorris became executive director of the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Office of University Communications in December 2018.

The Omaha native hopes to elevate her hometown community, leading by example as an African-American female in UNO’s executive ranks. “Being in this position is a huge hope for the community,” McMorris says. “It’s difficult in Omaha. A lot of people from the community leave for better opportunities. ”

She and her husband, Charles Drew Health Center CEO Kenny McMorris, have spurned offers to relocate.

“We both are very committed to the success of Omaha,” she says. “We see where change is starting to happen. Networking and understanding how things work here has allowed us to stay in Omaha and thrive.”

The Nebraska Wesleyan graduate’s local professional life began as a Hearst Television Broadcast Sales Academy Fellow, where she found herself to be the only African-American in local media marketing. She often exceeded sales goals, surpassing her new business goal alone by 30 percent in 2007.

The position at Hearst empowered her to be an entrepreneur. That two-year experience helped her relate to clients when she joined Cox Media in March 2009.

“I could talk to business customers about things other consultants couldn’t—about how to write a business plan, supervise construction of a physical space, hire and train employees, make payroll,” she says. “I had a connection with, and understanding of, small- to medium-sized businesses and what the value of a dollar means to them. It put me so far ahead of other consultants.”

Over the next few years, she climbed steadily in her career, and in 2013, exceeded her first quarter goals by 12 percent for new business, and by 139 percent for digital. But it took time to for McMorris to overcome stereotypes.

“When I would go into a business for the first time I could see they didn’t expect a black person,” McMorris says. “They were like, ‘who is she to tell me how to run my business?’ I felt like I was always under the microscope. I had to perform at a higher level. I had to break down barriers to get them to understand I’m of value to their company.”

She out-performed revenue targets by devising integrated media campaigns across broadcast, publishing, and digital platforms. Word of her achievements led KETV to recruit her back into the Hearst fold. As the KETV senior marketing executive, she led multi-million dollar integrated sales campaigns that grew station revenue by millions.

She’s also grown her circle of influence, serving on the Omaha Women’s Fund and Metro Community College Foundation boards, doing professional meet-ups, and encouraging peers.

“You just really have to be connected,” McMorris says. “This position at UNO came to me because of those things. People I had worked with who I stayed in connection with vouched for me in this role. It’s a testament to that networking.”

That’s one reason she brings a democratic, inclusive leadership style to “the UNO family.”

“I lead a team of 21. I want to be someone they actually feel connected to,” McMorris says. “I like to sit back and listen. But when I do have something to say, it’s effective. I want it to be relatable. People don’t respond well to jargon…I prefer one-on-one, intimate conversations.”

McMorris believes UNO is “a premier institution for higher learning, not only on a local level, but on a national level.”

And with her track record for marketing, she will certainly help elevate the school into an even more premier institution.


Visit unomaha.edu/university-communications for more information.

This article was printed in the April/May 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Makayla McMorris

A Man for All Reasons: Legacy Omaha Investor John Webster Was a Go-To Guy for The Reader

March 10, 2019 Leave a comment

The Reader newspaper is celebrating 25 years with a special anniversary March 2019 issue. This is one of two articles I have in that milestone edition. In commemorating the paper’s quarter century serving the community, we’re noting some behind the scenes figures and events that helped get the paper this far. This piece profiles legacy Omaha investor John Webster, whose capital allowed publisher John Heaston to reacquire the paper and whose money and advice helped Heaston stabilize the operation through the economic downturn and the changing landscape for print media. Another Omaha investor who stepped up at the same time as Webster to aid The Reader was John Blazek, a social entrepreneur I profile in the second article. It takes a lot of talents and resources to put out a paper and it’s good to recognize some of the untold stories and unsung heroes who have a hand in making it reality. I didn’t know of Webster until I got the assignment to interview him. His role was eye-opening to me and I personally appreciate the way he assisted Heaston and bailed out the paper because I have been a Reader contributing writer for 23 of its 25 years. The bulk of my wide-ranging work as a journalist has been with the publication, where I have had something like a thousand or so pieces appear in its pages, including hundreds of cover stories. It’s been an eventful marriage filled with highs, lows, opportunities, adventures and all the usual stuff that attends a relationship that long-standing. I am glad to have some presence in this landmark edition and I look forward to being part of The Reader reaching new milestones over time.

 

A Man for All Reasons

Legacy Omaha Investor John Webster Was a Go-To Guy for The Reader

by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Being from a legacy family carries expectations. Retired broadcaster John Webster, 70, grew up knowing he was part of a historical line. Even though making his own mark as a Webster was expected, it wasn’t a given.

“I’m a fifth generation in Omaha on my dad’s side and sixth generation on my mother’s, so we’ve been around for a while. I come from a great family. It’s one thing to come out of a good family, but if you don’t have the desire to do something with yourself, it’s just not going to happen,” said Webster, whose family was successful in investments and transportation.

Blessed with creative and enterprising genes, he made his biggest imprint as owner of Omaha radio station KEFM. He was also a director of Ash Grove Cement Company, a cement and cement kiln dust provider to the construction industry. Additionally, he’s served on numerous community boards and committees.

“I was heavily involved in the masonic organizations in Omaha. I got to meet people from all walks of life. That was a big part of how I formed myself.”

When Reader publisher John Heaston needed capital to buy back the paper and stabilize it in this disruptive media space, Webster became an investor. He kept a low profile doing it, which is the Webster way.

“My grandfather and father were big influences on me. As a family we’ve always been pretty private and quiet as to what we do with investments or philanthropy. I’ve followed suit.”

Webster attended Shattuck, a private boarding school in Faribault, Minnesota, when it was a military academy. He earned a business administration degree from Menlo College in Menlo Park, California. His interest in the radio business was stoked visiting a West Coast station.

“I became fascinated with the broadcast side of things. I thought it was terribly creative.”

Back in Omaha, the licenses of radio stations KEFM and KOIL were suspended after owner Don Burden ran afoul of the FCC in 1976.

“When the properties came up I thought this would be a thing I would enjoy doing for a living and I might be pretty good at,” Webster said. “My father and I and Joe Baker formed a small company to go after the licenses.

We thought nobody would want to file against us but

11 other groups did. We went through a seven-year comparative hearing process I wouldn’t wish on anybody. We thought we could serve the community as well as anyone else given our strong Omaha history.

“After seven years the FCC finally decided the same thing. We went on the air officially in 1983. We started from scratch and we built it. Joe Baker left and my father and I continued on and I basically ran the thing.”

He said a lesson he learned is that “you can’t be a broadcaster and be thin-skinned.”

After a nearly two-decade run as a local independent, Webster saw the competitive landscape change when the FCC opened ownership to unlimited stations and markets.

“I could see the writing on the wall that I wasn’t going to be able to compete with somebody that had many more stations and resources. I called a friend of mine who was a license station broker and said, ‘It’s time for me to get out.’ And I got out at the right time.”

Webster made a cool $10 million selling his profitable stations to Clear Channel.

“I think if I had waited six months it would have been a totally different game.”

He added, “If the FCC hadn’t changed things, I’d probably still be in broadcasting.”

He misses it, especially the people.

“When it’s all gone, there’s a vacuum.”

Other business opportunities have popped up, he said,

“but broadcasting was my bread and butter,” adding, “Being in the business and being able to grow the business through creativity and drive meant a lot to me.”

He served as president of the Nebraska Broadcasters Association and was instrumental in creating its charitable foundation. In 2001, he was inducted into the association’s Hall of Fame.

Besides owning his own specialty advertising company, his only other media foray was The Reader.

“I met John Heaston and I liked him, and I liked what he was doing. John Blazek and I got involved as investors.

It was interesting.”

Webster appreciates the publisher’s entrepreneurial zeal. “I think a lot of John Heaston. He’s creative. He has worthwhile ideas. He pursues stories that maybe mainstream publishers wouldn’t lay a hand on. I think there’s something to be said for an alternative newspaper. It adds a different viewpoint.

“The Reader may not be the biggest operation, but I think it serves a very vital part in providing information to the Omaha community.”

Webster and Blazek’s infusion of cash helped The Reader through some tough times.

“It hasn’t been an easy road. It’s been a real struggle. It’s a real compliment to John Heaston that he stuck with it.”

Webster’s been there himself.

“When you own your own business the buck always stops at your desk,” he said. “You can’t blame it on anybody else.”

Satisfaction, he said, comes in direct proportion “to the degree that you can work things out and solve problems and continue to grow.”

Webster, who’s married with three adult children (a fourth died in 2015), keeps a wintertime residence in South Carolina, but Omaha remains home.

“I’ve always loved Omaha. I don’t think I could ever really cut my ties with the city or Nebraska.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

More Bang for His Buck: Social Entrepreneur John Blazek Helped Reset The Reader’s Course

March 10, 2019 Leave a comment

The Reader newspaper is celebrating 25 years with a special anniversary March 2019 issue. This is one of two articles I have in that milestone edition. In commemorating the paper’s quarter century serving the community, we’re noting some behind the scenes figures and events that helped get the paper this far. This piece profiles social entrepreneur John Blazek, an Omaha investor whose capital allowed publisher John Heaston to reacquire the paper and whose money and advice helped Heaston stabilize the operation through the economic downturn and the changing landscape for print media. Another Omaha investor who stepped up at the same time as Blazek to aid The Reader was John Webster, a former broadcast radio owner I profile in the second article. It takes a lot of talents and resources to put out a paper and it’s good to recognize some of the untold stories and unsung heroes who have a hand in making it reality. I didn’t know of Blazek until I got the assignment to interview him. His role was eye-opening to me and I personally appreciate the way he assisted Heaston and bailed out the paper because I have been a Reader contributing writer for 23 of its 25 years. The bulk of my wide-ranging work as a journalist has been with the publication, where I have had something like a thousand or so pieces appear in its pages, including hundreds of cover stories. It’s been an eventful marriage filled with highs, lows, opportunities, adventures and all the usual stuff that attends a relationship that long-standing. I am glad to have some presence in this landmark edition and I look forward to being part of The Reader reaching new milestones over time.

 

More Bang for His Buck

Social Entrepreneur John Blazek Helped Reset The Reader’s Course

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Omaha investor John Blazek likes getting “a two-fer” when putting his money to work.

“I always figured why do something for just one reason when you can do things for more than one reason. It’s what I really enjoy. That’s why I’ve done everything I have in my career,” he said.

“I’m a really big believer that to whom much is given, much is required. You’ve got an obligation to try to help the other guy. That’s what makes life enriching.”

As a social entrepreneur, he’s started, acquired and sold businesses with this two-for-one goal in play. At some critical junctures in its history, even The Reader benefited from his strategy, as Blazek infused capital that allowed the paper to remain a viable alternative voice while netting him a return on investment.

“I like to leverage the things I do so it’s not just about me but also provides service to others.”

The Creighton University graduate is Entrepreneur in Residence at his alma mater, where he teaches entrepreneurship and real estate.

His multi-faceted career has encompassed being a pharmacist, executive, educator, real estate developer, philanthropist and mayoral cabinet member.

He served patients as a Kohll’s and Clarkson Hospital pharmacist. He created jobs as a home (Total HomeCare) and workplace healthcare provider (Wellcom). His Old Market and downtown real estate projects have reactivated old buildings, He, Mark Keffeler and Mike Moylan redeveloped the historic Paxton Hotel. Blazek’s an investor in The Jewell jazz club in Moylan’s Capitol District and a partner in the Prairie Hills residential-commercial real estate development.

Reared in a midtown Omaha working-class family, he learned early about leveraging resources. His World War II veteran father was a Union Pacific machinist. His homemaker mother worked part time as a Walgreens cashier. His immigrant grandparents laid a foundation anchored in high aspirations and strong values.

“I think every generation wants the next generation to better themselves,” he said, “but maintain the same values. I think lots of times as people better themselves, they lose some of those core values, which are what got them there.

“Probably the biggest thing I took from my growing upwas a really good work ethic. There’s plenty of people way smarter than me, but I will outwork anyone.”

This practicing Catholic’s faith is central to his life.

“I served as board president of Skutt Catholic High School and Catholic Charities. My wife and I sent our three daughters to Catholic grade schools, high schools and colleges.”

Blazek champions Omaha and its many opportunities.

“It’s all here. You’ve just got to roll up your sleeves and go after it.”

In the late 1990s, then-Omaha Mayor Hal Daub appointed Blazek to the city planning board. Later, as director of economic development, Blazek led the city’s charge to demolish the old Asarco lead refinery plant, whose decades of contamination resulted in East Omaha being declared a Superfund site. A public bond issue paved the way for construction of the convention center-arena and the creation of the Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority (MECA), which he served on the first board of directors.

“That was a great experience,” Blazek said. “The convention center-arena has been a game-changer for the city in the entertainment and development it’s generated.”

An encounter with Reader publisher John Heaston, who was investigating the Asarco site, forged a bond.

“I thought he did a good job and was a fair journalist,” Blazek said of Heaston. “I gained a lot of respect for him and I enjoyed our relationship.”

By the early 2000s, Heaston, who had been bought out, was looking to buy The Reader back from then-owner Alan Baer. Heaston approached Blazek and another local investor, John Webster, to assist him.

“We put up the capital in order for John to do that,” Blazek said.

The investors also helped Heaston acquire El Perico newspaper.

In The Reader, Blazek saw an opportunity to make a profit and stabilize a struggling media entity.

“I thought the survival of the paper was important to the community. Certain things would not be covered if not for The Reader. It often brings up a social-justice voice that I think is healthy. If it were gone, I do think there would be a void.”

His estimation of Heaston has only grown.

“We all know the pressures on print media but John’s a survivor. He works his tail off. He’s a trencher who hung in there through the tough times. He added a digital imprint. He downsized the paper to a monthly. He changed as the times changed. Yet he’s kept the same journalistic principles in place.”

Blazek’s ownership interest was “more from a board-seat standpoint” offering “business advice and mentorship.” Despite the paper not always reflecting his views, he kept involved.

“John and I certainly didn’t agree on everything. I disagreed with a lot of the positions the paper took. But I never interfered with any editorial content.”

All along, the idea was to let Heaston eventually have the paper again all to himself.

“We negotiated an exit strategy where John acquired our interests back. We sold it back to him on an installment basis. John’s done a great job and we wanted to see him continue to do that. It’s kept the paper going and allowed him to stay on as publisher.”

The paper fully became Heaston’s again in 2017.

“I think John had a good year last year,” Blazek said, “so mission accomplished as far as I’m concerned.”

As for Blazek, he intends to finish a self-help book he’s writing and to pursue a doctorate in education.

“I’m open to other ventures as long as they support my direction of moving from ambition to meaning.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

An Omaha Star: Phyllis Hicks – The Publisher & the Newspaper She Never Meant to Run

March 10, 2019 Leave a comment

An Omaha Star: Phyllis Hicks

The Publisher & the Newspaper She Never Meant to Run

by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the March-April 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/articles/an-omaha-star-phyllis-hicks/)

 

 

 

 

When the story of the city’s longest-running African-American-owned newspaper, The Omaha Star, is written, three women will dominate its 80-year narrative.

Founding publisher Mildred Brown ran the ship from 1938 until her death in 1989. Her niece Marguerita Washington (a career educator), who spent time working for her aunt growing up, succeeded her. Phyllis Hicks joined the paper in 2005 and took over more and more of its operations after Washington fell ill. Upon Washington’s 2016 death, Hicks officially became publisher and managing editor; in truth, she had been running things for some time.

Hicks—the last survivor of this troika of black women journalists—never intended getting so deeply involved with the paper. Brown was only an acquaintance and Hicks’ association with the Star was limited to reading and submitting news items to it. She only joined the staff as a favor to her mother, who was close to Washington. Hicks studied journalism in school, but besides writing occasional press releases for her work in the public and private sectors (including her coaching of the Stepping Saints drill team), she had nothing to do with the Fourth Estate.

Fate had other plans, and thus Hicks, like Brown and Washington before her, became the matriarchal face of the paper. She did it her way, too. Lacking the entrepreneurial and sartorial flair of Brown, Hicks nevertheless managed attracting enough advertisers to keep the Star afloat through troubled economic times and declining ad revenues and subscriptions. Without the publishing and academic background of Washington, Hicks still found ways to keep the paper relevant for today’s readers.

After more than a decade with the paper, Hicks—who turns 76 on March 7—is looking to step away from the paper due to her own declining health. She broke her ankle in 2017, and then, last year went to the hospital to be treated for pneumonia; she was discharged with a dysfunctional kidney requiring dialysis.

She is eager for someone to carry the Star torch forward. As this issue of Omaha Magazine went to press, a management transition involving the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center was in progress.

Whatever the paper’s future, Hicks is glad to have been part of its legacy of strong black women. That legacy extends to her late mother, aunts, and grandmother (Emma Lee Agee-Sullivan)—all independent achievers from whom she drew much inspiration.

When Agee-Sullivan was young, she was a member of the church pastored by the Rev. Earl Little (Malcolm X’s father). Agee-Sullivan was with the Little family when a lynch mob came looking for Earl Little. The family hid him and covered for him, and the Littles fled Nebraska the next day. As an adult, Hicks says, Agee-Sullivan was active in the Baptist church and started the state’s first licensed, black-owned home daycare.

Hicks had aunts who worked in finance and another who was a championship golfer (who would have gone professional “if she had come at another time”), she says, adding that her paternal grandfather, the Rev. J. P. Mosley Sr., led a demonstration to integrate swimming pools in Chillicothe, Missouri, in 1954, and “built Mount Nebo Baptist Church from the ground up” in Omaha.

When the challenge of the Star or anything else presented itself, she was ready. “I just did it because it had to be done,” Hicks says.

She followed the path laid out by other “black women taking the leadership role.”

At a time when few black women owned businesses, Brown launched the Star only a year after moving to town. She originally worked for the city’s other African-American paper, The Guide. She left its employment for her startup, which competed against The Guide for advertisers and readers. The Star soon won out thanks to her entrepreneurial savvy and not-taking-no-for-an-answer grit. The publisher made her paper a bastion for civil rights and community pride.

Following Brown’s death in 1989, Washington took command. By the early 2000s, the
paper struggled.

Meanwhile, Hicks’ mother, Juanita, befriended Washington. When Juanita fell ill, Washington helped care for her to allow Hicks to manage the Stepping Saints. Then, when Juanita’s house got flooded, she stayed with Washington for six weeks.

“They kind of adopted each other and threw me in the mix,” Hicks says.

Hicks was retired but, at the urging of her mother, she offered to assist Washington at the Star. Hicks soon took on editorial and business duties.

“I went to do a little marketing for Marguerita, and I’ve been there ever since,” she says. “I discovered there was a lot of help she needed. The paper was in dire straits. And I just started doing some of everything.”

Along the way, Hicks and Washington grew close. “It was a growing relationship that became more of a personal one than a business one,” she says.

Together, they formed the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center as a fundraising and scholarship vehicle.

As Washington’s health failed, Hicks became her caregiver and eventually power of attorney. By the time Washington died of multiple malignant brain tumors in 2016, Hicks transitioned the paper from a weekly to a biweekly as a cost-savings move. She also got the paper’s archives digitized online.

Hicks continued running the paper, she says, because “I just felt an obligation. When I take on something, I try to see it through.”

Woodcut of Phyllis Hicks by Watie White

The Star is believed to be the nation’s oldest African-American paper owned and operated by women. Through the Great Depression, the late ’60s riots, the 2008 economic collapse, the death of publishers, and declining print ad revenue, it has never ceased publication.

Hicks admires how Washington took up the mantle after Mildred Brown died.

“She wanted the paper to go on as a legacy to Mildred because Mildred put her all into the paper. Plus, Marguerita felt the paper needed to be in the community to allow the black community a voice. She felt the newspaper was another way to educate people.

“She made the ultimate sacrifice and put her life on hold to keep somebody else’s dream alive,” Hicks says.

With Washington and Brown as her models, she ensured the Star’s survival.

“I take satisfaction in knowing I kept it from going under because it was close to going under,” she says. “With some personal sacrifices, I’ve been able to keep the doors open and pay people’s salaries. I paid off allThe Omaha Star bills. There were several years of back taxes. All that’s been caught up to date.”

Hicks came to believe, as Brown and Washington did, the Star serves an important role in its “ability to tell it like it is in the community, without it having to be politically correct.”

Just don’t expect crime reporting.

“I’ve tried to keep the paper in the light that Marguerita and Mildred did in positive news,” she says. “We don’t report who got killed, we don’t report crime, we don’t report any of that, because there’s a mess of that being reported already. What we try to do is paint a bright picture of what’s going on in the community—people’s accomplishments. We try to put information out there that builds the community up as well as inspires the community.”

The Star’s long been home to strong voices—from Charlie Washington and Preston Love Sr. to Ernie Chambers and Walter Brooks—calling for change. For many black Omahans, including those living elsewhere, it remains a main conduit to their shared community.

Hicks wishes more young people used the paper as a resource and recognized its role in fighting injustice and championing black self-determination.

“It’s a legacy for them,” she says. “It’s a part of this community’s history, and it’s a vehicle for them to tell their stories. We invite young people to submit stories.”

The Star intersects with young people through internships it offers students and scholarships granted by the Study Center. Engaging with community youth has been a priority for Hicks for years.

Long before joining the Star, Hicks made her community mark as co-founder and director of the Salem Baptist Church Stepping Saints drill team. The team was originally organized in 1966 to perform at a single event. But Saints dancers and drummers wanted something permanent, so the group became a fixture in area parades and at Disneyland, Disney World, Knott’s Berry Farm, and many other attractions across the nation.

Hicks says, the last time she counted, the Saints had performed in 38 states and some 2,000 youths had cycled through the team’s ranks over time. Some veteran Saints have seen their children and grandkids participate, making it a multigenerational tradition.

The Saints celebrated 50 years in 2017. The team is still going strong. Even though Hicks no longer takes an active hand in things, she’s still the matriarch.

Just as she never meant for the Saints to be a long-term commitment, her Omaha Star gig turned into one. Her promise-keeping may be her enduring legacy.

“If I say I’m going to do something, then I’m going to try to see it to the end,” she says.

Hicks wants the paper to remain black-owned and managed and based in North Omaha, where its red brick building (at 2216 N. 24th St.) has landmark status on the National Register of Historic Places.


Visit theomahastar.com for more information.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Alfred Liggins is the other half of the Urban One success story


Alfred Liggins is the other half of the Urban One success story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Omaha Star

 

 

Profile image of Alfred Liggins, IIIAlfred Liggins III

 

 

The oft-told entrepreneurial success narrative of Urban One founder and chair Cathy Hughes tends to leave out a crucial part of the story: Her son and company CEO Alfred Liggins III is an equal partner in the journey of this black multimedia and entertainment enterprise.

By now, the tale of this single-mother’s rise from Omaha dreamer to Washington D.C. icon is the stuff of legend. But what gets lost in translation is that her son also came out of Omaha. He was only 7 when he moved with his mom to D.C., but he was here long enough to form fond memories of school (Sacred Heart, Mammoth Park), recreation (Kellom Pool, Fontenelle Park) and spending time with extended family (his maternal grandparents Helen Jones Woods and William Alfred Woods).

For years, he came back annually to visit family. He twice lived with his biological father Alfred Liggins II.

Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t enter or inherit the family business after it was already rolling. He was there from its fledgling start and helped make it a success. He’s since grown it to unimagined heights.

But even he’s is in awe of his mom.

“Yeah, I marvel at her gumption and her fearlessness,” he said. “You have to remember, she’s only 17 years older than I am. The business was founded in 1980. I joined full-time in 1985 when we had the one radio station. so I’ve had a front-row seat on the business journey from almost the beginning.

“She was very open in making me her business partner very early. It’s really a joint journey.”

Along the way, there’s been little time to admire what they’ve done together.

“It wasn’t like we were sitting back watching, going, ‘Oh look at what we did.’ You’re too busy trying to keep doing what you’re doing on the right track and figuring out how to fix the stuff that’s not working and figuring out what the next thing is.”

He doesn’t mind her getting most of the pub.

“Look, my mother has an amazing story from where she came and she’s always been more of a forefront person.

A lot of people tend to think this woman built this company and she made her son the CEO, but they  don’t realize how long I’ve been at the company and that it was really a joint effort. They tend to thing it’s a traditional family business.

“But my mother is very good at giving me credit. She did it when we were in Omaha.”

Last May, Omaha feted Hughes at events celebrating her life, including a street naming in her honor..Liggins was content letting his mom have the spotlight.

“I never spend a bunch of time doing press or correcting people because that’s just not who I am. I love our         partnership. I’m grateful and happy that people are inspired by her story, our story,  and it’s a great story and a great journey. I don’t feel a need to build my own story separate and apart from hers.

“But if I get called for an interview and we start talking about it, I’m happy to lay out what my role was and what our relationship is.”

 

Son and mother in the early days of Cathy’s radio career

 

Before coming on full-time at age 20 in 1985, Liggins worked at the station as a sportscaster and weekend talk show host while still a high school teenager.

“I guess it was cool I worked at a radio station, but I didn’t really want to do it. I was kind of required to do it. I didn’t really want to be in the radio business at first. I wanted to be in the record business.”

He went to L.A. to live with his step-father, Dewey Hughes, looking to break into the music biz.

“I ended up unemployed and my mother suggested I come back to D.C., work at the station, go to college at night and get my act together and figure out what to do next, so I did that.”

What was then known as Radio One consisted of a single station. Within a decade, the mother and son grew the company into a nationwide network.

“I always had a talent for sales. I went into the sales department and started to be successful pretty early on,” Liggins said.

He kept doubling his earnings from year to year until, by his early 20s, he was pulling down $150,000.

“I was young making a lot of money. That was the time I realized this would be a great career path if we could grow the business beyond where we were.”

Between his earnings and social life, he dropped out of night school. It was only some years later he applied to the Wharton School of Business executive management master’s program. Despite not being a college graduate, he got in on the strength of managing a $25 million a year company and recommendations from the likes of Rev. Jesse Jackson.

“The idea that I had doubled-back and ended up getting in an Ivy league business school was exciting to me. It kind of felt like I was beating the system in some way. My diploma says the same thing every one else’s diploma says. In the end, I feel like I got my ticket punched. my certification, my bonafides.”

While he took care of business behind the scenes, Cathy Hughes made her presence known on air.

“My mother was doing the morning show and I was a stabilizing force in the sales department. She did some things on the air, like lead the Washington Post boycott, that really started to brand her as the voice of the black community. I was able to sell that to mainstream advertisers. We started to make money. It wasn’t a ton, but we went from losing four-five hundred thousand dollars to making a couple hundred thousand dollars.”_

 

Cathy Hughes

 

Reaching a more substantial audience came next.

“We owned one AM radio station and FM radio at that time was really exploding. It was where all the audience was, AM was dying. We set out and put together a plan to expand into FM radio. I identified an FM we could afford, Investors worked with my mother and me to figure out how to finance it. It was like a $7.5 million purchase. I think they needed like 10 different minority focused venture capital entities to put up the funding. And we got our first FM.

“That first year the bank required us to keep it in an adult contemporary format that wasn’t black-targeted because they wanted to have the cash flow. But we didn’t do that very well and we fell out of the ratings book. We were like, ‘Okay can we change the format to something we know?’ So we changed to an urban adult contemporary and it took off like a rocket.”

For the first time, the company recorded serious profits.

“Five years later the AM and the FM were doing $10 million of revenue and $5 million of profitability.  We became a wild success. Then we bought into the Baltimore market – our first market outside of Washington. Then we kept going from there. I felt like we were on this mission to build this business. I felt optimistic and empowered and energetic and vigorous.”

In charge of day to day operations for more than two decades, Liggins has led subsequent strategic moves – from taking the company public in 1998 tp brokering deals that created TV One and Interactive One (now iOne Digital) to entering the casino-gaming industry.  He’s also guided the company in divesting itself of low-performing stations and other media segment drags and in acquiring Reach Media, whose national radio personalities lineup includes Tom Joyner, Erica Campbell, DL Hughley and Rev. Al Sharpton.

“We built our company around serving the black community,” he said.

That’s why getting into television was key.

“BET was created in Washington in 1980 – the same year Radio One was formed. We knew BEY founder Robert Johnson. The people who invested in Radio One were also involved in BET. One of our lead investors was actually on the BET board. So we had a front-row seat to see that success.

“It was clear there was only one network targeting black people in the entire country, and that didn’t make any sense. But we were building the radio station and TV remained off our radar for a time.”

But there was no getting around that radio was “a tertiary medium,” Liggins said, “and if you wanted to really grow the platform to serve African-Americans you had to be in the places where they’re at – and they don’t just listen to radio.”

“I’ve always looked at us as in the black people business and not just the media business. BET was wildly successful and there was only one of it, so I always wanted to get into the television business.”

 

Alfred Liggins 2019 Winter TCA Tour - Day 16

Alfred Liggins III, ©Gettt Images

 

 

The opportunity to enter the TV space came, he said, when “Comcast decided they wanted to expand in content and I went in and made a big pitch to them.”

“I said, ‘Look, I know we’ve never done television before, but we know how to market and program to black people. You have the distribution, but we’ll put up all the money.’ Lots of people were wanting to start a cable network, but they wanted Comcast to put up all the money. Eventually, $134 million was raised. Comcast invested $15 million in it. They got a big piece of the company just for giving us the distribution. We  invested $74 million and I raised another $30 million from people I had done business with before. That’s how we got started in TV.”

The once monolithic TV industry, he said, “is disintermediating now with cord cutting” and streaming. “We’re trying to figure out how to pay for and deliver more content and what other distribution opportunities or systems there are for us to monetize that content.”

To hedge against media volatility, the company’s diversified into the casino gaming business with partners MGM and a casino resort in DC..

“It’s been a great investment for us,” Liggins said.

Meanwhile, the radio business that’s been the foundation of the company, he said, is “a declining, mature legacy media business that probably will have further consolidation.” He added, “We’ve got to figure out what our role in that is.”

Urban One carries “a lot of debt,” he said, “because we piled up a bunch of debt buying radio stations over the years, and then when the Internet hit all traditional media took a hit – print taking the worst of the brunt.”

“Our debt’s come way down but still not low enough, so were continuing to reduce our leverage. We’ve been buying back stock for 10 years, which is good, because we’ve been buying it back at low prices and paying down debt. Hopefully, we’ll make that transition to the new media ecosystem and have a reasonable level of debt and have increased holdings for the shareholders who decided not to sell.”

Then there’s the new phenomenon of black culture and content being in great demand.

“Everyone wants to be in that space,” Liggins said, “which makes it more completive for us  because we’re up against big guys like Viacom, A&E, HBO, Warner. Everybody’s got black content and some of these players have got a lot more money than we do. So we’ve got to be smart and nimble in what we produce and how we finance it.”

He’s arrived at a leadership style that suits him.

“I’m an information-gatherer. I ask a lot of questions of a lot of people and I throw a lot of ideas on the wall. Then I debate them with folks. Even though I ask people a lot of questions I’m not necessarily a manager by consensus all the time. I’l take that info and chart the path. I’m a big believer in hiring people who know more than I do in certain areas and have skill sets I don’t.

“When we were building the radio company I made a point of hiring people who had worked for larger radio companies. People we brought in taught us about research and disciplined programming and sales techniques. So I’m a big believer in importing knowledge. What happens in a family business when it’s the only place you’ve really worked at is that you don’t know what you don’t know. You have to import that        knowledge in order to grow the business.”

 

Alfred Liggins 43rd NAACP Image Awards Viewing Event

Alfred Liggins III and Cathy Hughes, ©Getty Images

 

 

He nurtures the team he’s cultivated around him.

“I try to be collegial in my style with folks even though like my mother I can be very direct. Some people may say I’m aloof. I would say generally though the people who work with me like working with me. I nurture a positive relationship with those people.

“Sometimes when you have to ask people to do difficult things or you have address negative issues or shortcomings its better if its coming from a place of constructive criticism in a joint goal as opposed to an ego driven place where you’re trying to prove your smarter than that person.”

Ego has no place in his business approach.

“In a corporate environment I could see where infighting could cause managers to want to make sure they get credit for the idea and they look like they’re the smartest person in the room – because they want to get that next promotion. Well, fortunately, being in your own business I don’t have to worry about that. I’m more focused on just getting to the right answer and I don’t care who gets the credit.”

Liggins, a single father of one son, acknowledges he’s given some thought to a third generation in this family legacy business.

“It would be great. My son’s 10. He talks as if he wants to. It’s still early on. He’s got to earn his way into that, too. But i like the idea that he would want to follow in our footsteps. But it’s up to me he’s got a company to even consider taking over by the time he comes of age.

“I’m still trying to navigate our transition in the media business -– reducing our leverage so the company isn’t at risk and so is set it up for the future.”

Whatever happens, Omaha remains home for him and his mother – a reality impressed upon him when they visited last spring.

“It’s like you come full-circle. This is where we both recognize we’re from. We’ve got deep roots there. There’s a track record of successful African-Americans from that community. We’ve always come back.

“To have a street named in her honor is a big deal. You feel like your business career and your life has meant something. It was an amazing experience.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Commemorating Black History Month – Links to North Omaha stories (Part IV of four-part series)


Commemorating Black History Month

Links to North Omaha stories from 1998 through 2018

 

 
Articles on social justice, civil rights, race, history, faith, family, community, business, politics. education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera

A weekly four-part series

Final week: Part IV – Soul food and soul sports

 

https://leoadambiga.com/2019/01/16/the-long-road-to…ear-as-a-bluejay

Charles Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/10/onepeachof-a-pitcherpeaches…
 

 

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