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Native Omaha Days Story Compilation


Native Omaha Days Story Compilation

Native Omaha Days has been on my writing-reporting radar for more than two decades. With the 2019 Native Omaha Days underway, I thought it a good time to compile some of my work about this communty reunion and heritage celebration. My blog, Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com, contains hundreds of stories I have written over the years about Black Omaha people, places, events and occasions. If you are a Native Omahan back for this year’s festival, then I invite you to visit the blog, poke around and enter searches to  reconnect – through words, memories and photos – some of the very things you are reliving this week. You will find stories on dozens of notable Native Omahans, past and present, including Ernie Chambers, Cathy Hughes, Alfred Liggins, John Beasley, Rudy Smith, Bertha Calloway, Gene Haynes, Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, Tommie Wilson, Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers, Monty Ross, Charles Hall, Carol Rogers., Q Smith, Camille Metoyer Moten, Kathy Tyree, Ahman Green, Terence Crawford, Carleen Brice, Vanessa Ward, Billy Melton, Preston Love Sr.

Be sure to check out my Omaha Black Sports Legends Series: Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness.

If you like what you see, then please follow my blog as well as my companion Facebook page, My Inside Stories.

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Here is the Reader (www.thereader.com) story I did previewing Native Omaha Days 2017. From all reports, the celebration was a great success. Pam and I made it down to a few different Native Omaha Days events and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, too. If you’ve never been, you’ve got to sample this authentic slice of Omaha.

 

Native Omaha Days 2017: A homecoming like no other

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (thereader.com)

 

The African-American diaspora migration from the South helped populate Omaha in the 20th century. Railroad and packing house jobs were the lure. From the late 1960s on, a reverse trend has seen African-Americans leave here en mass for more progressive climes. A variant to these patterns finds thousands returning each odd-numbered August for a biennial community reunion known as Native Omaha Days.

The 21st reunion happens July 31 through August 7.

If you’ve not heard of it or partaken in it, you’re probably not black or some of your best friends are not black, because this culture-fest is in Omaha’s Afrocentric DNA. But organizers and participants emphasize everyone’s welcome to join this week-long party.

Featured events range from gospel and jazz concerts to talks and displays to a parade to a ball.

Nobody’s quite sure how many native Omahans living outside the state head home for it to rekindle relationships and visit old haunts.

There are as many takes on it as people engaging in it.

Thomas Warren, president-CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska, which this year hosts its 90 anniversary gala during Omaha Days, may put it best:

“People make it a purpose to come back.”

Reshon Dixon left Omaha for Atlanta 24 years ago and she’s been coming back ever since, except when military commitments prevented it. She hopes to free up her schedule for this year’s fest.

“I’m trying to. I usually plan a year ahead to come back.”

She said she brought her children for it when they were young because “that’s pretty much where our roots are from.” She’s delighted her now grown kids are “planning to come back this year.”

Serial nonprofit executive Viv Ewing said Omaha Days touches deep currents.

“People look at this event very fondly. In the off-year it’s not being held, people ask when is it happening again and why isn’t it every year because it’s such a great time bringing the community together with family and old friends. People look forward to it.

“There are people who have moved away who plan their vacations so that they come back to Omaha during this particular time, and that says a lot about what this event means to many people across the country.”

Even Omaha residents keep their calendars open for it.

“I’ve cut business trips as well as vacations short in order to make sure I was at home during this biennial celebration,” Warren said.

Sheila Jackson, vice president of the nonprofit that organizes it, said, “It’s one big reunion, one big family all coming together.”

Juanita Johnson, an Omaha transplant from Chicago, is impressed by the intentionality with which “people come together to embrace their commonality and their love of North Omaha.” She added, “It instills pride. It has a lot of excitement, high spirits, energy and enthusiasm.”

As president of the Long School Neighborhood Association and 24th Street Corridor Alliance, Johnson feels Omaha Days could play a greater role in community activation and empowerment.

“I think there’s an opportunity for unity to develop from it if it’s nurtured beyond just every two years.”

Empowerment Network director of operations Vicki Quaites-Ferris hopes it can contribute to a more cohesive community. “We don’t want the unity to just be for seven days. We want that to overflow so that when people leave we still feel that sense of pride coming from a community that really is seeing a rebirth.”

Ewing said even though it only happens every two years, the celebration is by now an Omaha tradition.

“It’s been around for four decades. It’s a huge thing.”

No one imagined it would endure.

“I never would have dreamt it’d be this big,” co-founder Bettie McDonald said. “I feel good knowing it got started, it’s still going and people are still excited about it.”

She said it’s little wonder though so many return given how powerful the draw of home is.

“They get emotional when they come back and see their people. It’s fun to see them greet each other. They hug and kiss and go on, hollering and screaming. It’s just a joyous thing to see.”

Dixon said even though she’s lived nearly as long in Atlanta as she did in Omaha, “I’m a Cornhusker first and a Peach second.”

Likewise for Paul Bryant, who also left Omaha for Atlanta, there’s no doubt where his allegiance lies.

“Omaha will always be home. I’m fifth generation. I’m proud of my family, I’m proud of Omaha. Native Omaha Days gives people another reason to come back.”

A little extra enticement doesn’t hurt either.

“We really plan things for them to make them want to come back home,” said McDonald. She drew from the fabled reunion her large family – the Bryant-Fishers – has held since 1917 as the model for Omaha Days. Thus, when her family convenes its centennial reunion picnic on Sunday, August 13, it will cap a week’s worth of events, including a parade and gala dinner-dance, that Omaha Days mirrors.

Bryant, a nephew of McDonald, is coming back for the family’s centennial. He’s done Omaha Days plenty of times before. He feels both Omaha Days and reunions like his family’s are ways “we pass on the legacies to the next generation.” He laments “some of the younger generations don’t understand it” and therefore “don’t respect the celebratory nature of what goes on – the passing of the torch, the knowing who-you-are, where-you-come-from. They just haven’t been taught.”

Sheila Jackson said it takes maturity to get it. “You don’t really appreciate Omaha Days until you get to be like in your 40s. That’s when you really get the hang of it. When you’re younger, it’s not a big thing to you. But when you get older. it seems to mean more.”

Sometime during the week, most celebrants end up at 24th and Lake Streets – the historic hub for the black community. There’s even a stroll down memory lane and tours. The crowd swells after hours.

“It’s almost Omaha’s equivalent of Mardi Gras, where you’ll have thousands people just converge on the intersection of 24th and Lake, with no real plans or organized activities,” Warren said. “But you know you can go to that area and see old friends, many of whom you may not have seen for several years. It gives you that real sense of community.”

Fair Deal Village Marketplace manager Terri Sanders, who said she’s bound to run into old Central High classmates, called it “a multigenerational celebration.”

Touchstone places abound, but that intersection is what Warren termed “the epicenter.”

“I’m always on 24th and Lake when I’m home,” said homegrown media mogul Cathy Hughes, who will be the grand marshall for this year’s parade. “I love standing there seeing who’s coming by and people saying, ‘Cathy, is that you?’ I always park at the Omaha Star and walk down to 24th and Lake.”

“I do end up at 24th and Lake where everybody else is,” Dixon said. “You just bump into so many people. I mean, people you went to kindergarten with. It’s so hilarious. So, yes, 24th and Lake, 24th Street period, is definitely iconic for North Omahans.”

That emerging art–culture district will be hopping between the Elks Club, Love’s Jazz & Arts Center, the Union for Contemporary Art, Omaha Rockets Kanteen, Jesse’s Place, the Fair Deal Cafe and, a bit southwest of there, the Stage II Lounge.

Omaha Days’ multi-faceted celebration is organized by the Native Omahans Club, which “promotes social and general welfare, common good, scholarships, cultural, social and recreational activities for the inner city and North Omaha community.” Omaha Days is its every-other-year vehicle for welcoming back those who left and for igniting reunions.

The week includes several big gatherings. One of the biggest, the Homecoming Parade on Saturday, August 6, on North 30th Street, will feature drill teams, floats and star entrepreneur Cathy Hughes, the founder-owner of two major networks – Radio One and TV One. She recently produced her first film, the aptly titled, Media.

Hughes is the latest in a long line of native and guest celebrities who’ve served as parade grand marshall: Terence Crawford, Dick Gregory, Gabrielle Union.

During the Days, Hughes will be honored at a Thursday, August 3 ceremony renaming a section of Paxton Blvd., where she grew up, after her. She finds it a bit surreal that signs will read Cathy Hughes Boulevard.

“I grew up in a time when black folks had to live in North Omaha. Never would I have assumed that as conservative as Omaha, Neb. is they would ever consider naming a street after a black woman who happened to grow up there. And not just a black woman, but a woman, period. When I was young. Omaha was totally male-dominated. So I’m just truly honored.”

“Omaha Days does not forget people that are from Omaha,” Reshon Dixon said. “They acknowledge them, and I think that’s great.”

During the Urban League’s Friday, August 4 gala concert featuring national recording artist Brian McKnight at the Holland Performing Arts Center, two community recognition awards will be presented. The Whitney M. Young Jr. Legacy Award will go to Omaha Economic Development Corporation president Michael Maroney. The Charles B. Washington Community Service Award will go to Empowerment Network president Willie Barney.

Maroney and Barney are key players in North Omaha redevelopment-revitalization. Warren said it’s fitting they’re being honored during Omaha Days, when so many gathering in North O will have “the opportunity to see some of those improvements.”

Quaites-Ferris said Omaha Days is a great platform.

“It’s an opportunity to celebrate North Omaha and also the people who came out of North Omaha. There are people who were born in North Omaha, grew up in North Omaha and have gone on to do some wonderful things locally and on a national level. We want to celebrate those individuals and we want to celebrate individuals who are engaged in community.

“It’s a really good time to celebrate our culture.”

“I really admire the families who are so highly accomplished but have never left, who have shared their talents and expertise with Omaha,” said Hughes. She echoes many when she expresses how much it means returning for Omaha Days.

“Every time I come, I feel renewed,” she said. “I feel the love, the kindred spirit I shared with so many of my classmates, friends, neighbors. I always leave feeling recharged. I can’t wait.”

The celebration evokes strong feelings.

“What’s most important to me about Omaha Days is reuniting with old friends, getting to see their progression in life, and getting to see my city and how it’s rebuilt and changed since I left,” Dixon said. “You do get to share with people you went to school with your success.”

“It’s a chance to catch up on what’s going in everybody’s life,” Quaites-Ferris said.

Juanita Johnson considers it. among other things,

“a networking opportunity.”

Paul Bryant likes the positive, carefree vibe. “There we are talking about old times. laughing at each other, who got fat and how many kids we have. It’s 1:30-2 o’clock in the morning in a street crowded with people.”

“By being native, many of these individuals you know your entire life, and so there’s no pretense,” Warren said.

Outside 24th and Lake, natives flock to other places special to them.

“When I come back,” Dixon said, “my major goal is to go to Joe Tess, get down to the Old Market, the zoo, go through Carter Lake and visit Salem Baptist Church, where I was raised. My absolute favorite is going to church on Sunday and seeing my Salem family.”

Some pay respects at local cemeteries. Dixon will visit Forest Lawn, where the majority of her family’s buried.

Omaha Days is also an activator for family reunions that blend right into the larger event. Yards, porches and streets are filled with people barbecuing, chilling, dancing. It’s one contiguous party.

“It’s almost like how these beach communities function, where you can just go from house to house,” Hughes said.

The Afro-centric nature of Omaha Days is undeniable. But participants want it understood it’s not exclusive.

“It just happens to be embedded in the African-American community, where it started,” Dixon said. “Anyone can come, anyone can participate. It has become a little bit of a multicultural thing – still primarily African-American.”

Some believe it needs to be a citywide event.

“It’s not like it’s part of the city,” Bryant said. “It’s like something that’s going on in North Omaha. But it’s really not city-accepted. And why not?”

Douglas Country Treasurer John Ewing agrees. “Throughout its history it’s been viewed as an African-American event when it really could be something for the whole community to embrace.”

His wife, Viv Ewing, proposes a bigger vision.

“I would like to see it grow into a citywide attraction where people from all parts come and participate the way they do for Cinco de Mayo. I’d like to see this event grow to that level of involvement from the community.”

Terri Sanders and others want to see this heritage event marketed by the city, with banners and ads, the way it does River City Roundup or the Summer Arts Festival.

“It’s not as big as the College World Seriesm but it’s significant because people return home and people return that are notable,” Sanders said.

Her daughter Symone Sanders, who rose to fame as Bernie Sanders’ press secretary during his Democratic presidential bid, may return. So may Gabrielle Union.

Vicki Quaites-Ferris sees it as an opportunity “for people who don’t live in North Omaha to come down and see and experience North Omaha.” She said, “Sometimes you only get one peripheral view of North Omaha. For me, it’s an opportunity to showcase North Omaha. Eat great food, listen to some wonderful music, have great conversation and enjoy the arts, culture, business and great things that may be overlooked.”

John Ewing values the picture if offers to native returnees.

“It’s a great opportunity for people who live in other places to come back and see some of the progress happening in their hometown.”

Recently completed and in-progress North O redevelopment will present celebrants more tangible progress than at anytime since the event’s mid-1970s start. On 24th Street. there’s the new Fair Deal Village Marketplace, the renovated Blue Lion Center and the Omaha Rockets Kanteen. On 30th, three new buildings on the Metro Fort Omaha campus, the new mixed-use of the former Mister C’s site and the nearly finished Highlander Village development.

For some, like Paul Bryant, while the long awaited build-out is welcome, there are less tangible, yet no less concerning missing pieces.

“I think the development is good. But I truly wish in Omaha there was more opportunity for African-American people to be involved in the decision-making process and leadership process. But that takes a conscious decision,” Bryant said.

“What I’ve learned from Atlanta is that unlike other cites that wanted to start the integration process with children, where school kids were the guinea pigs, Atlanta started with the professions – they started integrating the jobs. Their slogan became “We’re a city too busy to hate.” So they started from the top down

and that just doesn’t happen in Omaha.”

He worked in Omaha’s for-profit and non-profit sectors.

“A lot of things happen in Omaha that are not inclusive. This isn’t new. Growing up, I can remember Charlie Washington, Mildred Brown, Al Goodwin, Bob Armstrong, Rodney S. Wead, talking about it. The story remains the same. We’re on the outside running nonprofits and we’ve got to do what we have to do to keep afloat. But leadership, ownership, equity opportunities to get involved with projects are few and far between. If you’re not able to share in the capital, if your piece of the equation is to be the person looking for a contribution, it’s hard to determine your own future.”

Perhaps Omaha Days could be a gateway for African-American self-determination. It’s indisputably a means by which natives stay connected or get reconnected.

“I think its’ critical,” said Cathy Hughes, who relies on the Omaha Star and her Omaha Days visits to stay abreast of happenings in her beloved North O.

She and John Ewing suggest the celebration could play other roles, too.

“I think it’s a good way to lure some natives back home,” Hughes said. “As they come back and see the progress, as they feel the hometown pride, it can help give them the thought of, ‘Maybe I should retire back home in Omaha.'”

“I think Omaha could do a better job of actually recruiting some of those people who left, who are talented and have a lot to offer, to come back to Omaha,” Ewing said, “and if they’re a business owner to expand or invest in Omaha. So there’s some economic opportunities we’ve missed by not embracing it more and making it bigger.”

Ewing, Sanders and others believe Omaha Days infuses major dollars in hotels, restaurants, bars and other venues. The Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau does not track the celebration’s ripple effect, thus no hard data exists..

“I don’t think it’s accurately measured nor reflected in terms of the amount of revenue generated based on out-of-town visitors,” Warren said. “I suspect it has a huge impact on commerce and activity.”

Some speculate Omaha Days could activate or inspire homegrown businesses that plug into this migration,

“I think it can certainly be a spark or a catalyst,” Warren said. “You would like to see the momentum sustained.

You hope this series of events may stimulate an idea where a potential entrepreneur or small business owner sees an opportunity based on the activity that occurs during that time frame. Someone could launch a business venture. Certainly, I think there’s that potential.”

For Omaha Days history and event details, visit nativeomahacub.org.

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

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With the 2011 Native Omaha Days, July 27-August 1, just around the corner I am posting stories I’ve written about this every two years African American heritage and homecoming event and how it serves a kind of litmus test for the black community here to take stock of itself in terms of where it’s been, where it is today, and where it’s heading. The following story appeared just as the 2009 Native Omaha Days concluded. I spoke to a number of individuals for their take on the state of Black Omaha at a time when there is both much despair and much promise for the predominantly African American northeast Omaha community. I interviewed folks who grew up here and stayed here and those who left here but who retain deep ties here and come back for events like the Days in order to get a cross-section of perspectives on what the past, present, and future holds for North Omaha. This much discussed community, where generational problems of poverty and underachievement are rampant but where many success stories have also been launched, is finally getting the kind of attention it’s long required. Initiatives like the African American Empowerment Network are helping drive a planned revitalization that seems much closer to reality today than it did even two years ago. The role of Native Omaha Days shouldn’t be overlooked because it does bring together thousands of current and former Omaha residents whose individual and collective vision and energy are helping fuel what is about to be a major North Omaha revival. That doesn’t mean all the challenges that face that community will be eradicated overnight. It took decades for those problems and wounds to become embedded and it will take decades to heal them, and events like Native Omaha Days help give a purpose and focus to affecting change.

Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (thereader.com)

The 2009 African-American heritage celebration Native Omaha Days concluded Monday. Natives came from across America to indulge memories of this touchstone place. The biennial, week-long Days lends itself to gauging the African-American experience here — past, present, future.

Taking stock has added import with North Omaha at a tipping point. Ambitious new housing and commercial developments, job training programs, educational reform efforts and gang intervention initiatives are in the works. All in response to endemic problems of poverty and unemployment, low job readiness, poor academic performance, high dropout rates, epidemic-level STDs and ongoing drug traficking-gang violence. North O has a strong sense of identity and purpose yet struggles with scarce opportunities. The persistent challenges of segregation and inequality have led many natives over time to leave for better prospects elsewhere, but a sense of home and family keeps their ties to Omaha strong.

The Days brings thousands of natives back to meet up with friends and relatives for homecomings, large and small. Last week’s public events included: a mixer at the Native Omahans Club; a parade along North 30th Street; a dance at the Mid-America Center; appearances by NBA star Dwayne Wade and actress Gabrielle Union at North High School; and a picnic at Levi Carter Park.

Visitors helped swell the numbers at Jazz on the Green, at clubs and bars on the north side and at black church services. Celebrants were out in force too at school reunions. Then there were untold family reunions and block parties that unfolded in people’s homes and yards, in the streets, and in parks all over the city.

Northeast Omaha was jumping as visitors mixed with residents to sight-see or just kick it. Kountze Park, the Native Omahans Club, the Love’s Jazz & Arts Center, the Bryant Center, Skeets Barbecue and other haunts were popular gathering spots. Joe Tess on the south side was a popular stop. Streams of cars toured the black community’s historical corridors. Many made the rounds at post-card amenities like the riverfront, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardend and Henry Doorly Zoo.

Nobody seems to know how many expatriates arrive for The Days. That’s a shame, as these visitors represent resources for a strapped city and state hurting from a brain drain and a small tax base. Many natives who come back are the same upwardly mobile blacks Omaha has trouble retaining, a costly decades-long trend. The city’s black population is small to begin with, so every talented native lost is felt acutely by a community with a paucity of black entrepreneurs and professionals for a city this size.

Hometown girl Felicia Webster has twice left for the East Coast but has since returned to live here with her young son. She wonders what would happen if residents collaborated with visitors on visioning new initiatives, ventures, projects, even start-up businesses aimed at reviving North Omaha.

“I feel Native Omaha Days right now is a good opportunity and a wonderful manifestation of African-American people coming together of one accord and building and talking and socializing. It would be nice to just have a really huge collective on what could actually happen with development here,” said Webster, a spoken word artist, “because, you know, people come from everywhere that are doing all kinds of things. They can bring their knowledge and tools with them to share something fresh, new and vital here. I personally would like to see that.”

Image result for felicia webster

Felecia Webster

What about The Days serving as a catalyst for brainstorming-networking forums that capitalize on the skill sets and entrepreneurial ideas and investment dollars of natives near and far? All geared toward building the kind of self-sufficiency that black leaders point to as the most sustainable path for black prosperity.

Nate Goldston III  left Omaha as a young man and went on to found Gourmet Services in Atlanta, Ga., one of the nation’s largest food service companies. He’s doing just what Webster advocates by working with locals on stimulating new development. The self-made millionaire has been advising the Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the North Omaha Development Project on the landscape for new North O investment. He’s bullish on the prospects for that long depressed district.

“I think it’s going to grow, but you’ve got to plant the seeds first and that’s what were interested in helping do with some business development there in the food service area,” Goldston said by phone from Atlanta.

He’s close to finalizing plans for a brick-and-mortar Gourmet Services backed project here to provide entrepreneurial opportunities for local African Americans.

“If we can bring this business opportunity there and put some young people in place and let them have a little piece of the action and begin to develop a franchise type operation, and then allow them to go on and grow it themselves, manage and own at the same time, that’ll bring that missing link and fill that gap in the economic development portion. At least a small portion of it,” he said.

He said it’s the kind of grassroots development that’s required. “It’s not the Chamber’s job to develop North Omaha. North Omaha needs to be developed by people from or attached to North Omaha, and the kinds of things that need to go in need to be done from within as opposed to from without.” Goldston’s impressed with the “pro-business, pro-development, pro-North Omaha” focus of the Chamber and city. “They just need the right teammates, they need the right partners to help them do it, and that’s the first time I’ve ever noticed that collaborative attitude in Omaha. I think there’s a real chance there.”

New Omaha City Planning Director Rick Cunningham, who most recently lived on the East Coast, is a native who hopes to implement Mayor Jim Suttle’s vision for a revitalized north side. “His agenda includes a strong commitment to North Omaha,” Cunningham said of Suttle. “He has a goal for 24th and Lake Street to become a new Dundee for Omaha.”

Cunningham knows first-hand Northeast Omaha’s prolonged decline. He also knows “there have been pockets of success,” including the Blue Lion Center at 24th and Lake he served as project manager for under Omaha architect and mentor Ambrose Jackson. He said most North O redevelopment has come from “investments in new rooftops, in new housing,” and while that needs to continue he said there must be a focus on creating more employable residents and attracting businesses and services that generate new jobs and commerce. “To bring Omaha into a very livable community with an environment that all residents and visitors can enjoy we’ve got to make sure we’ve got a diverse economy.”

He looks forward to being part of solutions that “return North 24 to the vibrancy it had, when 24th and Lake was the heart and soul. We will be engaged in that effort.” He looks forward to meeting with community partners from the public and private sectors to “build synergy in accomplishing those goals.” He said the city cannot afford to let North Omaha wallow. “If there is an area that suffers in Omaha than the entire city suffers,” he said. “It’s important we revitalize the core area. Those communities that are alive and thriving have inner cities that are alive.”

Nate Goldston III

Goldston vividly recalls when North O had a greater concentration of black-owned businesses than it does today, but he said even in its heyday Omaha’s black community had few major black entrepreneurs.

“Omaha’s African-American community has always been job-oriented as opposed to entrepreneurial-oriented,” he said. “I see great opportunity and I see opportunity that’s been missed only because I don’t know that we’ve been blessed with a lot of entrepreneurs that have had the path or the ability to develop businesses in the area. We had the model of the bars, the nightclubs, the pool halls.”

He could have added restaurants, barbershops, beauty salons, clothing stores and filling stations. There were also black professionals in private practice — doctors, dentists, attorneys, accountants, pharmacists, architects.

Their example “gave me inspiration and hope,” said attorney Vaughn Chatman, a native Omahan who made it back for The Days from Calif. North 24th Street was once a thriving hub of black and white-owned businesses. Few, however, survived the ‘60s riots and their aftermath. Urban renewal did in more. Once the packing house and railroad jobs that employed many blacks vanished, few good-paying  employment options surfaced. “My friends and I had no desire to leave Omaha until opportunities for us began to disappear,” said Chatman . “Most, if not all my friends, faced with lack of opportunity have left Omaha. My friends and relatives (still) there tell me the quality of life for them and their generation has not gotten any better despite the best efforts of a number of individuals and organizations.”

Several new businesses have popped up but many have come and gone over time. Despite some redevelopment North 24th is largely barren today.

“That positive feeling of inspiration and hope is what I miss the most about the North Omaha I grew up in,” said Chatman.

 An old-line exception is the Omaha Star, a black weekly now 70-plus years strong. Founder Mildred Brown was one of America’s few black women publishers. She earned a national reputation for her crusading work during the civil rights movement. Goldston learned valuable lessons working for the Star as a kid.

“The Omaha Star was my entree to entrepreneurship,” he said. “That’s what taught me to create a marketing sense, the ability to be able to develop a customer base and customer service and the whole nine yards.”

Cathy Hughes is another Star veteran who credits her experience there and at Omaha black-owned radio station KOWH with helping give her the impetus to be a broadcast owner and eventually build her Radio One empire.

“It encouraged me to go ahead and to try to own my own radio station because I saw some folks in Omaha do it,” she said by phone from her Maryland home. “You lead by example. When you do something, you never know who you’re touching. you never know who you’re having an impact on. I saw Bob Gibson and Rodney Wead and Bob Boozer and Gale Sayers come together and buy a radio station, so I knew it was possible, and now I’m the largest black-owned broadcast corporation in America and the only African-American woman to head a publicly traded corporation. None of that would have been possible if I hadn’t seen the examples I saw in Omaha, if I hadn’t seen Mildred Brown keeping her newspaper not only afloat but providing her with a very comfortable existence for that day and time.”

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Cathy Hughes

Hughes, like Goldston, is pleased by gains that have been made via new housing developments, streetscape improvements and the Love’s Center, but is dismayed there aren’t more Mildred Brown figures in Omaha by now. In Hughes’ estimation Omaha should be much further along than it is in black entrepreneurship.

“It has a long ways to go,” she said.

Hughes is also concerned that strong community leaders like North O developer Al Goodwin, educator Katherine Fletcher and job training director Bernice Dodd are no longer on the scene. She’s warily watching the new generation of local black leadership to assess their commitment to redevelopment.

Goldston said black businesses in Omaha are not as visible as they once were.

“Those things have all gone away,” he said, adding that Omaha “is miles apart” from the dynamic black business culture found in Atlanta. “I think other opportunities were just not there (in Omaha) at that time to start and build a business.”

All these years later, he said, few if any Omaha businesses have made the Black Enterprise 100 list of the largest African-American owned businesses.

Most black-owned Omaha businesses of any size are not located on the north side today. Out of sight, out of mind. Hard to emulate what you don’t see. “I think we flourish when we see reflections of ourselves in the community where we live,” said Webster. “And when you don’t see that, what do you have to strive for?”

Introducing students to Omaha black achievers via school curricula is something Vaughn Chatman, founder of the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, advocates.

Webster presents programs in schools that attempt to expand kids’ vision. “I want them to see a bigger picture, a bigger view of the world than what they normally see, and I hope that by my being African-American young boys and girls are seeing reflections of themselves in me of what they possibly could attain,” she said.

Hughes and Goldston are concerned about the education gap that finds black students on average lagging behind whites. The truancy and drop-out rates for blacks are higher. The two are alarmed by how far Omaha’s inner city schools trail their suburban counterparts. “We’re going to have to really cure that before anybody can make any progress,” said Goldston, who’s challenged a national organization he once led, 100 Black Men, with making a difference in schools.

Webster said she was fortunate to have parents who stressed education and showed her “the world was bigger than Omaha.” Omaha’s segregation meant she would often frequent places and be the only black person there. Cathy Hughes had the same experience coming of age here. “That’s challenging,” said Webster. The first time Webster left, for Philadelphia, in the early ‘90s, Omaha was viewed as a dull place by many young people — black and white.

“A lot of my close friends did end up leaving and going to more heavily populated cities, and I think a lot of that had to do with not only wanting to explore the world but what opportunities they saw. For some, it was a larger African-American presence. For others, it was bigger metropolitan areas where you felt like you were getting paid what you were worth and could fulfill what you desired.

“Coming back this time I can see Omaha is really growing but I think Omaha is still a work in progress. I have friends with degrees who are still making $12 an hour, and I think that’s a challenge. They can’t find jobs with livable wages. And I find I’m still the only person that looks like me when I go certain places.”

Webster likes that Omaha has far more going on now than even five years ago, but she said she misses Philly’s constant slate of cultural activities and larger base of African-Americans to share them with. The big city scene “reignites” her.

Author Carleen Brice (Orange Mint and Honey, Children of the Waters) is a native living in Denver, Colo. with mixed feelings about Omaha.

“It’s always complex being from a small city and having big dreams,” said Brice. “I can’t speak for others, but I felt I needed to leave Omaha to achieve what I wanted to achieve. Part of that had to do with my specific family background. When my parents divorced, we went through some bad times and so I associate Omaha with those negative memories as well as with the positive ones.

 

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Carleen Brice

“What I sense the most in Omaha is a kind of small thinking, small dreaming. Strange since Omaha does have a lot going for it. But I also think every city is what you make of it. I live in Denver and think it’s great, but I have friends who grew up here and feel very much like it’s a tiny, backwards city. I’ve begun to think that if I moved back to Omaha I could experience it differently, without feeling so blinded by my past.”

Still, Brice said she senses North Omaha’s quality of life is worse today. “I know my grandmother is saddened by the decline of that part of the city. My friends don’t see much improvement in how people actually interact or how they are treated, which makes them feel depressed. Back to that word depressed again. It’s sad, but true, I think Omaha is depressed.”

Beaufield Berry is a playwright and actress who’s come and gone from her hometown several times. She’s here again. She feels a big part of what holds Omaha back is its “small town ideas” that don’t readily embrace diversity. She believes North Omaha will not reach its potential until the cycle of inequity and despair is broken.

“For Omaha’s black population to really thrive I think you’ve got to start at the poverty line. You have to start at where the people may not have the role models that other kids do. You have to make it so they can see a father figure or an older brother making the right decisions.”

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Beaufield Berry

But Berry sees much to be hopeful about, too. “On the flip side of that I see so many amazingly talented young people of all different races who are really working towards something, who can really make a difference, not only with their work but with their words, with their presence, and I want to see more of that. I think that’s how Omaha, black or white, will start to thrive citywide.”

Webster sees Omaha progressing but like many blacks she’d like to see more done.

“I think with a collective idea and voice from all kinds people that it could kind of put a faster spark into it happening. It could manifest into something where everybody that lives here really enjoys it. I think it would be amazing.”

 

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

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Native Omaha Club photo by lachance (Andrew Lachance)

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful celebration, now and all the days gone by

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (thereader.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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photo by Cyclops-Optic (Jack David Hubbell)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Even though I grew up in North Omaha and lived there until age 43 or so,  I didn’t experience my first Native Omaha Days until I had moved out of the area, and by then I was 45, and the only reason I did intersect with The Days then, and subsequently have since, is because I was reporting on it.  The fact that I didn’t connect with it before is not unusual because it is essentially though by no means exclusively an African American celebration, and as you can see by my picture I am a white guy. Then there’s the fact it is a highly social affair and I am anything but social, that is unless prevailed upon to be by circumstance or assignment. But I was aware of the event, admittedly vaguely so most of my life, and I eventually did press my editors at The Reader (www.thereader.com) to let me cover it. And so over the past eight years I have filed several stories related to Native Omaha Days, most of which you can now find on this blog in the run up to this year’s festival, which is July 27-August 1. The story below is my most extensive in terms of trying to capture the spirit and the tradition of The Days, which encompasses many activities and brings back thousands of native Omahans – nobody’s really sure how many – for a week or more of catching up family, friends, old haunts.

NOTE: The parade that is a highlight of The Days was traditionally held on North 24th Street but has more recently been moved to North 30th Street, where the parade pictures below were taken by Cyclops-Optic, Jack David Hubbell.

My blog also features many other stories related to Omaha’s African American community, past and present. Check out the stories, as I’m sure you’ll find several things that interest you, just as I have in pursuing these stories the last 20 years or so.

Vera Johnson, Native Omahans Club founder, (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

Back in the Day: Native Omaha Days is reunion, homecoming, heritage celebration and party all in one

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (thereader.com)

A homecoming. That’s what Native Omaha Days, a warm, rousing, week-long black heritage reunion, means to the thousands of native sons and daughters coming back in town for this biennial summer celebration. Although the spree, which unfolded July 30 through August 4 this year, features an official itinerary of activities, including a gospel night, a drill team competition, a parade, a dance and a picnic, a far larger slate of underground doings goes on between the many family and class reunions, live concerts and parties that fill out the Days. Some revelers arrive before the merriment begins, others join the fun in progress and a few stay over well after it’s done. A revival and carnival in one, the Days is a refreshing, relaxing antidote to mainstream Omaha’s uptight ways.

North Omaha bars, clubs and restaurants bustle with the influx of out-of-towners mixing with family and old friends. North 24th Street is a river of traffic as people drive the drag to see old sites and relive old times. Neighborhoods jump to the beat of hip-hop, R&B and soul resounding from house parties and family gatherings under way. Even staid Joslyn Art Museum and its stodgy Jazz on the Green take on a new earthy, urban vibe from the added black presence. As one member of the sponsoring Native Omahans Club said of the festival, “this is our Mardi Gras.”

Shirley Stapleton-Odems is typical of those making the pilgrimage. Born and raised in Omaha — a graduate of Howard Kennedy Elementary School and Technical High School — Stapleton-Odems is a small business owner in Milwaukee who wouldn’t miss the Days for anything. “Every two years I come back…and it’s hard sometimes for me to do, but no matter what I make it happen,” she said. “I have friends who come from all over the country to this, and I see some people I haven’t seen in years. We all meet here. We’re so happy to see each other. It’s a reunion thing. It’s like no matter how long you’re gone, this is still home to us.”

As Omaha jazz-blues guru Preston Love, a former Basie sideman and Motown band leader and the author of the acclaimed book A Thousand Honey Creeks Later, observed, “Omahans are clannish” by nature. “There’s a certain kindredness. Once you’re Omaha, you’re Omaha.” Or, as David Deal, whose Skeets Ribs & Chicken has been a fixture on 24th Street since 1952, puts it, “People that moved away, they’re not out-of-towners, they’re still Omahans — they just live someplace else.” Deal sees many benefits from the summer migration. “It’s an opportunity for people to come back to see who’s still here and who’s passed on. It’s an economic boost to businesses in North Omaha.”

Homecoming returnees like Stapleton-Odems feel as if they are taking part in something unique. She said, “I don’t know of any place in the country where they have something like this where so many people over so many generations come together.” Ironically, the fest’ was inspired by long-standing Los Angeles and Chicago galas where transplanted black Nebraskans celebrate their roots. Locals who’ve attended the L.A. gig say it doesn’t compare with Omaha’s, which goes to the hilt in welcoming back natives.

Perhaps the most symbolic event of the week is the mammoth Saturday parade that courses down historic North 24th Street. It is an impressionistic scene of commerce and culture straight out of a Spike Lee film. On a hot August day, thousands of spectators line either side of the street, everyone insinuating their bodies into whatever patch of shade they can find. Hand-held fans provide the only breeze.

Vendors, selling everything from paintings to CDs to jewelry to hot foods and cold beverages to fresh fruits and vegetables, pitch their products under tents staked out in parking lots and grassy knolls. Grills and smokers work overtime, wafting the hickory-scented aroma of barbecue through the air. Interspersed at regular intervals between the caravan of decorated floats festooned with signs hawking various local car dealerships, beauty shops, fraternal associations and family trees are the funky drill teams, whose dancers shake their booties and grind their hips to the precise, rhythmic snaring of whirling dervish drummers. Paraders variously hand-out or toss everything from beads to suckers to grab-bags full of goodies.

A miked DJ “narrates” the action from an abandoned gas station, at one point mimicking the staccato sound of the drilling. A man bedecked in Civil War-era Union garb marches with a giant placard held overhead emblazoned with freedom slogans, barking into a bullhorn his diatribe against war mongers. A woman hands out spiritual messages.

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Long the crux of the black community, 24th Street or “Deuce Four” as denizens know it, is where spectators not only take in the parade as it passes familiar landmarks but where they greet familiar figures with How ya’ all doin’? embraces and engage in free-flowing reminiscences about days gone by. Everywhere, a reunion of some sort unfolds around you. Love is in the air.

The parade had a celebrity this time — Omaha native actress Gabrielle Union (Deliver Us From Eva). Looking fabulous in a cap, blouse and shorts, she sat atop the back seat of a convertible sedan sponsored by her father’s family, the Abrams, whose reunion concided with the fest’. “This is just all about the people of north Omaha showing pride for the community and reaching out to each other and committing to a sense of togetherness,” said Union, also a member of the Bryant-Fisher family, which has a large stake in and presence at the Days. “It’s basically like a renewal. Each generation comes down and everyone sits around and talks. It’s like a passing of oral history, which is…a staple of our community and our culture. It’s kind of cool being part of it.”

She said being back in the hood evokes many memories. “It’s funny because I see the same faces I used to hang out with here, so a lot of mischievous memories are coming back. It’s like, Do you remember the time? So, a lot of good times. A lot of times we probably shouldn’t of been having as young kids. But basically it’s just a lot of good memories and a lot of lessons learned right here on 24th.”

The three-mile parade is aptly launched at 24th and Burdette. There, Charles Hall’s now closed Fair Deal Cafe, once called “the black city hall,” provided a forum for community leaders to debate pressing issues and to map-out social action plans. Back in the day, Hall was known to give away food during the parade, which ends at Kountze Park, long a popular gathering spot in north Omaha. Across the street is Skeets, one of many soul food eateries in the area. Just down the road a piece is the Omaha Star, where legendary publisher Mildred Brown held court from the offices of her crusading black newspaper. Across the street is the Jewell Building, where James Jewell’s Dreamland Ballroom hosted black music greats from Armstrong to Basie to Ellington to Holiday, and a little further north, at 24th and Lake, is where hep cat juke joints like the M & M Lounge and McGill’s Blue Room made hay, hosting red hot jam sessions.

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Recalling when, as one brother put it, “it was real,” is part and parcel of the Days. It’s all about “remembering how 24th and Lake was…the hot spot for the black community,” said Native Omahans Club member Ann Ventry. “We had everything out here,” added NOC member Vera Johnson, who along with Bettie McDonald is credited with forming the club and originating the festival. “We had cleaners, barber shops, beauty parlors, bakeries, grocery stores, ice cream stores, restaurants, theaters, clothing stores, taxi companies, doctors’ offices. You name it, we had it. We really didn’t have to go out of the neighborhood for anything,” Johnson said. Many businesses were black-owned, too. North O was, as lifelong resident Charles Carter describes it, “it’s own entity. That was the lifestyle.”

For James Wightman, a 1973 North High and 1978 UNL grad, the homecoming is more than a chance to rejoin old friends, it’s a matter of paying homage to a legacy. “Another reason we come back and go down 24th Street is to honor where we grew up. I grew up at the Omaha Boys Club and I played ball at the Bryant Center. There was so much to do down on the north side and your parents let you walk there. Kids can’t do that anymore.” Noting its rich history of jazz and athletics, Wightman alluded to some of the notables produced by north Omaha, including major league baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers, jazzman Preston Love, social activist Malcolm X, actor John Beasley and Radio One founder and CEO Catherine Liggins Hughes.

For Helen McMillan Caraway, an Omaha native living in Los Angeles, sauntering down 24th Street brings back memories of the music lessons she took from Florentine Kingston, whose apartment was above a bakery on the strip. “After my music lesson I’d go downstairs and get a brownie or something,” she said. “I had to steer clear of the other side of the street, where there was a bar called McGill’s that my father, Dr. Aaron McMillan, told me, ‘Don’t go near.’” Being in Omaha again makes the Central High graduate think of “the good times we used to have at Carter Lake and all the football games. I loved that. I had a good time growing up here.”

For native Omahan Terry Goodwin Miller, now residing in Dallas, being back on 24th Street or “out on the stem,” as natives refer to it, means remembering where she and her best girlfriend from Omaha, Jonice Houston Isom, also of Dallas, got their first hair cut. It was at the old Tuxedo Barbershop, whose nattily attired proprietors, Marcus “Mac” McGee and James Bailey, ran a tight ship in the street level shop they ran in the Jewell Building, right next to a pool hall and directly below the Dreamland. Being in Omaha means stopping at favorite haunts, like Time Out Foods, Joe Tess Place and Bronco’s or having a last drink at the now closed Backstreet Lounge. It means, Goodwin Miller said, “renewing friendships…and talking about our lives and seeing family.” It means dressing to the nines and flashing bling-bling at the big dance and, when it’s over, feeling like “we don’t want to go home and grabbing something to eat and coming back to 24th Street to sit around and wait for people to come by that we know.”

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Goodwin Miller said the allure of renewing Omaha relationships is so strong that despite the fact she and Houston Isom live in Dallas now, “we don’t see each other there, but when we come here we’re together the whole time.”

Skeets’ David Deal knows the territory well. From his restaurant, which serves till 2 a.m., he sees native Omahans drawn, at all hours, to their old stomping grounds. He’s no different. “We’re just coming down here to have a good time and seeing people we haven’t seen in years.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as “sitting around and watching the cars go by, just like we used to back in the good old days.”

North Omaha. More than a geographic sector, it is the traditional, cultural heart of the local black community encompassing the social-historical reality of the African-American experience. Despite four decades of federally-mandated civil rights, equal opportunity, fair housing and affirmative action measures the black community here is still a largely separate, unequal minority in both economic and political terms and suffers a lingering perception problem — born out of racism — that unfairly paints the entire near northside as a crime and poverty-ridden ghetto. Pockets of despair do exist, but in fact north Omaha is a mostly stable area undergoing regentrification. There is the 24-square block Miami Heights housing-commercial development going up between 30th and 36th Streets and Miami and Lake Streets, near the new Salem Baptist Church. There is the now under construction North Omaha Love’s Jazz, Cultural Arts and Humanities Complex, named for Preston Love, on the northwest corner of 24th and Lake. The same sense of community infusing Native Omaha Days seems to be driving this latest surge of progress, which finds black professionals like attorney Brenda Council moving back to their roots.

Former NU football player James Wightman (1975-1978) has been coming back for the Days the past eight years, first from Seattle and now L.A., and he said, “I’m pretty pleased with what’s going on now in terms of the development. When I lived here there was a stampede of everybody getting out of Omaha because there weren’t as many opportunities. I look at Omaha’s growth and I see we’re a rich, thriving community now.” During the Days he stays, as many do, with family and hooks up with ex-jocks like Dennis Forrest (Central High) and Bobby Bass (Omaha Benson) to just kick it around. “We’re spread out in different locations now but we all come back and it’s like we never missed a beat.” The idea of a black pride week generating goodwill and dollars in the black community appeals to Wightman, who said, “I came to spend my money on the north side. And I’ll be back in two years.”

Wightman feels the Days can serve as a beacon of hope to today’s disenfranchised inner city youth. “I think it sends a message to the youth that there are good things happening. That people still come back because they feel a sense of family, friendship and connection that a lot of young people don’t have today. All my friends are in town for their school-family reunions and we all love each other. There’s none of this rival Bloods-Crips stuff. We talk about making a difference. It’s not just about a party, it’s a statement that we can all get along with each other.”

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“It just shows there’s a lot of good around here,” said Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown, who represents largely black District 2, “but unfortunately it’s not told by the news media.” Scanning the jam-packed parade route, a beaming Brown said, “This is a four-hour event and there’s thousands of people of all ages here and they’re smiling and enjoying themselves and there’s no problems. When you walk around you see people hugging each other. There’s tears in some of their eyes because they haven’t seen their friends, who’ve become their family.”

Family is a recurring theme of the Days. “My family all lives here.” said John Welchen, a 1973 Tech High grad now living in Inglewood, Calif. For him, the event also “means family” in the larger sense. “To me, all of the friends I grew up with and everyone I’ve become acquainted with over the years is my extended family. It’s getting a chance to just see some great friends from the past and hear a lot of old stories and enjoy a lot of laughter.”

Native Omahans living in the rush-rush-rush of impersonal big cities look forward to getting back to the slower pace and gentler ways of the Midwest. “From the time I get off the plane here I notice a difference,” said Houston Odems, who flies into Omaha from Dallas. “People are polite…kind. To me, you just can’t beat it. I tell people all the time it’s a wonderful place to have grown-up. I mean, I still know the people who sold me my first car and the people who dry-cleaned my clothes.”

Although the Days traces its start back to 1977, when the Native Omahans Club threw the first event, celebrations commemorating the ties that bind black Omahans go back well before then. As a young girl in the ‘50s, Stapleton-Odems was a majorette in an Elks drill team that strutted their stuff during 24th Street parades. “It’s a gathering that’s been gong on since I can remember,” she said.

Old-timers say the first few Native Omaha Days featured more of a 24/7, open-air, street-party atmosphere. “We were out in the middle of the street all night long just enjoying each other,” said Billy Melton, a lifelong Omahan and self-styled authority on the north side. “There was live entertainment — bands playing — every six blocks. Guys set up tents in the parks to just get with liquor. After the dances let out people would go up and down the streets till six in the morning. Everybody dressed. Everybody looking like a star. It was a party town and we knew how to party. It was something to see. No crime…nothing. Oh, yeah…there was a time when we were like that, and I’m glad to have lived in that era.”

According to Melton, an original member of the Native Omahans Club, “some people would come a week early to start bar hopping. They didn’t wait for Native Omaha Days. If certain people didn’t come here, there was no party.”

Charles Carter is no old-timer, but he recalls the stroll down memory lane that was part of past fests. “They used to have a walk with a continuous stream of people on either side of the street. What they were doing was reenacting the old days when at nighttime 24th Street was alive. There were so many people you couldn’t find a place to walk, much less park. It was unbelievable. A lot of people are like me and hold onto the thought this is the way north Omaha was at one time and it’s unfortunate our children can’t see it because there’s so much rich history there.”

Then there was the huge bash Billy Melton and his wife Martha threw at their house. “It started early in the morning and lasted all night. It was quite a thing. Music, liquor, all kinds of food. It was a big affair,” Melton said. “I had my jukebox in the backyard and we’d have dancing on the basketball court. Endless conversations. That’s what it’s all about.”

Since the emergence of gang street violence in the mid-80s, observers like Melton and Carter say the fest is more subdued, with nighttime doings confined to formal, scheduled events like the gospel night at Salem and the dance at Mancuso Hall and the 24th Street rag relegated to the North Omahans Club or other indoor venues.

A reunion ultimately means saying goodbye, hence the close of the Days is dubbed Blue Monday. Most out-of-towners have left by then, but the few stalwarts that remain mix with die-hard residents for a final round or two at various drinking holes, toasting fat times together and getting high to make the parting less painful. After a week of carousing, out-of-town revelers wear their exhaustion like a badge of honor. “You’re supposed to be tired from all this,” Houston Isom said. “There’s no such thing as sleeping during this week. I can’t even take a nap because I’ll be worried I might be missing something.” Goodwin Miller builds in recovery time, saying, “When I go home I take a day off before I go back to work.” She and the others can’t wait to do it all over again two years from now.

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One of  my favorite events to write about is something called Native Omaha Days, which is really a bunch of events over the course of a week or two in mid to late summer, held every two years and in essence serving as a great big celebration of Omaha’s African American culture and heritage. There’s a public parade and picnic and a whole string of concerts, dances, and other activities, but at the root of it all is the dozens, perhaps hundreds of family and school reunions and various get togethers, large and small, that happen all over the city, but most especially in the traditional heart of the black community here – North Omaha. I’ve done a number of stories over the years about the Native Omaha Days itself or riffing off it to explore different aspects of Omaha’s black community.   The story below for The Reader (www.thereader.comI is from a few years ago and focuses on one extended family’s celebration of The Days. as I like to refer to the event, via a reunion party they throw.

Native Omaha Days

The Ties that Bind: One family’s celebration of Native Omaha Days

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (thereader.com)

The warm, communal homecoming known as Native Omaha Days expresses the deep ties that bind the city’s African-American community. It’s a time when natives long moved away return to roll with family and friends.

Beyond the cultural activities marking the festival, which officially concluded this week with the traditional “Blue Monday” farewells at northside watering holes, it’s an occasion when many families and high schools hold reunions. Whether visiting or residing here, it’s not unusual for someone to attend multiple public and private gatherings in the space of a week. The reunions embody the theme of reconnecting folks, separated by miles and years, that permeates The Days, whose activities began well before the prescribed Aug. 3 start and end well past the Aug. 8 close.

No singular experience can fully capture the flavor of this biennial love-in, but the Evergreen Family Reunion — a rendezvous of many families in one — comes close. Evergreen’s not the name of a people, but of the rural Alabama hamlet where families sharing a common origin/lineage, including the Nareds, Likelys, Olivers, Unions, Holts, Butlers, Turners and Ammons, can trace their roots.

For older kin reared there, Evergreen holds bitter memories as an inhospitable place for blacks. Those who got out, said Evergreen-born and Omaha-raised Richard Nared, were forced to leave. “Most of us came here because we had to,” he said. “A lot of my relatives had to leave the South in the middle of the night. I was little, but I did see some of the things we were confronted with, like the Ku Klux Klan.” The Nareds migrated north, as countless others did, to escape oppression and to find, as New York-raised Clinton Nared said, “a new freedom” and “a better life.”

Celebrating a fresh start and keeping track of an ever-expanding legacy is what compelled the family to start the reunion in the first place, said Rev. Robert Holt, who came in for the affair from California. The reunion can be traced to Moses Union and Georgia Ewing, who, in around 1928, “decided they would bring the family together so there would be no intermarriage. It started out with about 10 people and it grew. We’ve had as many as 2,000 attend. I don’t care where it is, I go.”

As Rev. Frank Likely of Gethsemane Church of God in Christ said in his invocation before the family fish fry on Friday, the reunion is, in part, a forum for discovering “family members we didn’t even know we had.” Then there’s “the chance to meet people I haven’t seen in 40 or 50 years,” said Rev. E.C. Oliver, pastor of Eden Baptist Church. “That’s what it means to me. A lot of them, I’ve wondered, ‘Were they still alive? What were they doing?’ It’s a good time for catching up and for fellowship,” said Oliver, who arrived from Evergreen without “a dime in my pocket.”

Clinton Nared‘s taken it upon himself to chart the family tree. Reunions, he said, reveal much. “Each year I come, I get more information and I meet people I never met before,” he said. “There’s so much history here.” Niece and fellow New Yorker Heather Nared said, “Every year I find out something different about the family.”

Of Richard Nared’s three daughters — Debra, Dina and Dawn — Dina’s been inspired to delve into the family’s past. “I needed to meet my people and to know our history,” she said. “I’ve been to more reunions than the rest of them. I even went to Evergreen. I thought it was beautiful. I loved the South. Before my oldest relatives died off, I got to sit and talk to them. It was fun. We had a good time.”

Over generations the family line spread, and offshoots can be found today across the U.S. and the world. But in the South, where some relatives remain, the multi-branched tree first sprouted in America. “We live all over. Now and then we come back together,” Richard Nared said. “But Evegreen’s where it all began. They used to call it Big Meeting.”

Gabrielle Union Is Teaching Dwyane Wade Basic Life Skills

Gabrielle Union

Held variously in Detroit, Nashville, Evergreen and other locales, the reunion enjoys a run nearly rivaling that of the Bryant-Fisher clan, an old, noted area black family related by marriage to an Evergreen branch, the Unions, whose profile has increased due to the fame of one of its own, film/TV actress Gabrielle Union. A native Omahan hot off The Honeymooners remake and an Ebony cover and co-star of the upcoming ABC drama Night Stalker, she made the rounds at The Days and reunion, causing a stir wherever she went — “You seen Gabrielle? Is she here yet? We’re so proud of her.”

A display of how interconnected Omaha’s black community remains were the hundreds that greeted the star at Adams Park on Friday afternoon, when a public ceremony naming the park pond after her turned into — what else? — a reunion. Her mother, Theresa Union, said of the appreciative throng, “Most of these people, believe it or not, are her relatives, either on my side or on her father’s side. We are a very big part of North Omaha’s population.” Gabrielle’s father, Sylvester Union, said his famous daughter comes to the family galas for the same reason everyone does: “It’s a legacy we’re trying to keep going,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to communicate and share and stay in touch. To me, that’s what it’s about — bonding and rebonding.”

The actress wasn’t the only celebrity around, either. Pro football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers and Radio One founder Catherine Liggins Hughes were out and about, meeting and greeting, giving props to their hometown, family and fellow natives. This tight black community is small enough that Sayers and Hughes grew up with the Unions, the Nareds and many other families taking part. They were among a mix of current and former Omahans who gave it up for the good vibes and careers of 40 musicians inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame at an Aug. 4 banquet. The Days is all about paying homage to Omaha’s great black heritage. As Sayers said, “People in Chicago and different places I go ask me where I’m from and when I say, ‘Omaha, Nebraska.,’ they look at me like I’m crazy. ‘You mean there’s blacks in Omaha?’ I explain how there’s a very rich tradition of African-Americans here, how we helped develop the city, how there’s a lot of talent that’s come out of here, and how proud of the fact I am to be from Omaha, Nebraska.”

Gale Sayers

This outpouring of pride and affection links not only individual families, but an entire community. “Family ties is one of the most powerful things in black history. It runs deep with us,” Richard Nared said. During The Days, everyone is a brother and a sister. “We’re all one big family,” Omahan John Butler said.

Helping host the 2005 Evergreen affair were the Nareds, whose sprawling Pee Wee’s Palace daycare at 3650 Crown Point Avenue served as the reunion registration center and fish-fry/social-mixer site. Born in Evergreen with his two brothers, William and John, Richard Nared is patriarch of a family that’s a pillar in the local black community. The Nareds were instrumental in starting the Bryant Center, once Omaha’s premier outdoor basketball facility now enjoying a revival. Richard helped form and run the Midwest Striders track club. William was a cop. John, a rec center director. Richard’s sister-in-law, Bernice Nared, is Northwest High’s principal. Daughter-in-law Sherrie Nared is Douglas County’s HIV Prevention Specialist.

The Friday fry event broke the ice with help from the jamming funk band R-Style. Some 300 souls boogied the night away. “More than we expected,” Debra Nared said. About 50 folks were still living it up on the edge of dawn. As adults conversed, danced and played cards, kids tumbled on the playground.

The family made its presence known in the Native O parade the next morning with a mini-caravan consisting of a bus and two caddies, adorned with banners flying the family colors. T-shirts proclaimed the family’s Evergreen roots. A soul-food picnic that afternoon at Fontenelle Park offered more chances for fellowship. Gabrielle and her entourage showed up to press the flesh and partake in ribs, beans, potato salad and peach cobbler. She posed for pictures with aunties, uncles, cousins. A weekend limo tour showed out-of-towners the sights. A coterie of relatives strutted their stuff at the big dance at Omaha’s Qwest Center that night. A Sunday church service and dinner at Pilgrim’s Baptist, whose founders were family members from Evergreen, brought the story full circle.

Heard repeatedly during the reunion: “Hey, cuz, how ya’ doin’?” and “You my cuz, too?” and “Is that my cuz over there?”

Annette Nared said, “There’s a lot of people here I don’t know, but by the time the night’s over, I’ll meet a whole lot of new relatives.” Looking around at all the family surrounding her, wide-eyed Dawn Nared said, “I didn’t know I had this many cousins. It’s interesting.” Omahan Sharon Turner, who married into the family, summed up the weekend by saying, it’s “lots of camaraderie. It’s a real good time to reconnect and find out what other folks are doing.”

For Richard Nared, it’s all about continuity. “Young people don’t know the family tree. They don’t know their family history unless someone old enlightens them,” he said. “Kids need to know about their history. If they don’t know their history, they’re lost anyway.”

It’s why he called out a challenge to the young bloods to keep it going. “This is a family affair,” he said. “I want the young people here to carry things on. Let’s come together. Let’s make this something special from now on.”

North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) presents An Arts Crawl 8


North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) presents An Arts Crawl 8

Who: North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA)

What: Annual Arts Crawl

When: Friday, August 9 from 6 to 9 pm.

Where: North 30th Street Corridor in North Omaha

Why: For the love of art and community

How: Walk it or drive it

 

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North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) presents An Arts Crawl 8

North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) concludes its 2019 season with the Arts Crawl from 6 to 9.p.m. on Friday, August 9 with exhibitions and demonstrations on and off the North 30th Street Corridor.

This progressive art exhibition right in the heart of North Omaha is a family-friendly community event. It is free of charge. The Arts Crawl is in its eighth year after taking a hiatus last year.

Whether you walk it or drive it, the NOSA Arts Crawl has something for everyone between six venues encompassing ethnic folk art, icons, quilts, paintings, drawings, photographs and sculpture. The makers include immigrant and refugee artists and Native American artists as well as emerging and established African-American artists from the North O community. Works by adult and youth artists will be featured.

At some venues, artists will make work and describe their process. Live music and dance add to the mix at other venues. It’s a chance to meet artists. purchase work and learn about under the radar talents.

If you work up an appetite and need to quench your thirst, there’s finger food and refreshments, on the house, at each stop.

The venues are: 

Charles B. Washington Branch Library

2868 Ames Avenue (Just east of 30th and Ames)

Kicking things off is a 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. opening reception that showcases an exhibition of handmade quilts by the Omaha group, Quilters We Are.

Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha Campus

30th and Fort Streets

Building 21 (The Mule Barn) – Expanding the Circle” exhibition features art by Native American students and their mentors.

Building 23 (Career and Academic Skills Center) – An exhibition displaying MCC’s collection of art.from various African nations.

Church of the Resurrection

3004 Belvedere Blvd. (30th and Kansas)

Noted Icon artist Jane Tan Creti of Omaha will be on hand to display her work and to educate about the meaning and making of icons.

Nelson Mandela School

6316 North 30th Street (30th and Curtis)

View works by adult artists and by Nelson Mandela students.

Trinity Lutheran Church/Heartland Family Service

6340 North 30th Street (30th and Redick)

An exhibition of contemporary and traditional art by established and emerging artists, including work from members of refugee communities in Omaha.

Check out the Arts Crawl Facebook event page.

Follow NOSA at https://www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts.

Join Friends Who Like North Omaha Summer Arts at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1012756932152193,

For more information, call NOSA director Pamela Jo Berry at 402-502-4669.

_ _ _

North Omaha Summer Arts is a completely free, community-based arts festival now in its ninth year. It includes a gospel concert in the park, writing workshops and retreats, pop-up art events, and the Arts Crawl. The festival runs from June through mid-August. NOSA founder and director Pamela Jo Berry is a North Omaha resident, mixed-media artist and art educator.

 

The fringe of it all: Omaha Fringe Festival fulfills founder Tamar Neumann’s dream


The fringe of it all: 

Omaha Fringe Festival fulfills founder Tamar Neumann’s dream

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the July 2019 edition of The Reader (thereader.com)

 

If fringe occupies the outer edge of things, then expect a grab-bag of eclectic stage work during the first Omaha Fringe Festival, July 24-27, at UNO.

Omaha Fringe founder Tamar Neumann’s inspiration for her open-access, unbound event is the Minnesota Fringe Festival. She got hooked on it working in Minneapolis as a theater critic and Chameleon Theatre Circle administrator.

She developed the event as part of her thesis work for her UNO Master of Arts in Theatre degree,

Neumann, who teaches writing, is a former playwright. She’s recently transitioned into being a dramaturge. Upon moving to Omaha in 2016 she was bummed to discover no fringe fest here and determined to start one.

“I really like fringe festivals,” she said. “I think they’re exciting and fun. They have a way of bringing all these people together that other theater festivals don’t. I think it’s because you don’t have that adjudication piece, so kind of anything goes. It’s kind of wild.”

Her fledgling Omaha fest netted 25 applications from area individuals and ensembles. Ten productions were chosen by lottery. The work ranges from performance art shows to narrative stage productions. There are no costs to the artists, who receive 75 percent of box office receipts. Neumann sees the event as a platform for encouraging and monetizing new work.

“I noticed there were a lot of works being created here by a lot of really great playwrights, but there wasn’t always a lot of room for people to get paid for their work.

It’s a community with a lot of volunteers and not a lot of professionals.”

 

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Naturally, her start-up is a fraction of the large, years-in-the-making Minnesota Fringe she’s modeled hers on.

“Theirs is smashing. It’s two weeks long with over 200 productions. It takes over the city (Minneapolis). It’s crazy, it’s huge, it’s super fun.”

The nearest fringe to Omaha is Kansas City.

it turns out, fringe is a real thing around the U.S. and the world that started in Edinburgh, Scotland after World War Ii and spread. Creighton University professor of theater Amy Lane has made a study of the scene and gives a run-down of what to expect.

“Fringe is like a choose-your-own-adventure experience for the audience with several shows playing at the same time – and the options are always adventurous,” Lane said. “Fringe artists embrace the new, the experimental, the weird, the avant garde, the cutting edge. It’s like a cultural sampler platter. And it’s fun. Theatre can have a reputation of being elitist, stodgy, inaccessible, but fringe is the opposite. Fringe is a carnival where you get to decide which rides you’d like to try.”

It’s these qualities Neumann’s strived to present here.

“The thing I love about fringe festivals is how diverse they can be,” Neumann said. “You have a wide range of theater and performance styles and I feel like we really got that. We’ve got full plays, short plays, a standup comic, dancers, one-man shows. I feel like we’ve got a really good mix of artists and themes.”

Each Omaha Fringe work will be performed multiple times over the four-day fest, with shows running from morning through evening.

An established outside-the-box arts organization, Omaha Under the Radar, has taken Fringe under its wing, sharing marketing and other resources with its young partner in edginess. Radar’s own fest runs concurrent with Omaha Fringe, only at different sites.

Neumann enlisted Radar’s Amanda DeBoer Bartlett and stalwart metro theater figures Amy Lane, Cindy Melby Phaneuf and Lara Marsh to learn the festival ropes.

When Neumann broached the idea with Phaneuf, who teaches at UNO, she was encouraged “to go for it.”

Bartlett saw it as an opportunity to pay forward the support her own organization’s received. “It’s so scary and exhausting to go out on a limb and build an event from scratch, and I admire Tamar for taking this on with such tireless sincerity. Her heart and mind are in the right place. She wants to make something beautiful and positive for Omaha – so really I couldn’t say no to helping her out.”

Besides, Bartlett said, her group and Fringe share the same “zeitgeist” and “crossover appeal”as showcases for “creative risks” and “independent thought:” and in “uplifting the voices of local artists.”

“UNO Theatre sees it as part of its mission to connect with the community,” Phaneuf  said.

In addition to mentoring from arts veterans and support by the host University of Nebraska at Omaha Theatre Program, Neumann credits operations manager Aaron David Wrigley for making it a reality.

“He joined me in the middle of our Kickstarter campaign and I literally would not be running this festival without him. He does all the technical and logistics stuff. We’re a team of two in the trenches.”

The process of organizing the event, Nuemann said, has rekindled a passion for theater that had waned.

“In high school I discovered in theater a group of people who welcomed me and understood me. I enjoyed the community theater created and the freedom inhabiting another role created. As I grew older and became more of an audience member than a creator, I found joy in theater because of its immediacy.

“Fringe has reinvigorated me. When I first moved down here I didn’t go to much theater, but in this past year I’ve seen so much and I’ve been able to embrace it again. I feel like I’ve reinvented myself by finding something I’m truly passionate about. I’ve always loved theater, but it kind of disappeared for a time, and creating this festival  has helped me find that passion again.”

Along the way, she said, “I’ve learned so much about the Omaha theater community. I connected with so many people. It’s really empowering to know that I created this – that this is happening.”

She fully intends making Fringe “an annual thing.” That depends, she acknowledged, on “the community supporting and embracing it.” After this first fest wraps, she said, “I’ll take a step back and evaluate what worked and what didn’t work and how I want to move forward.”

 
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The Lineup:

Improv Art by Big Canvas

Artists will create original pieces of art inspired by the antics of Big Canvas improv comedians and audience members’ own creativity. This in-the-moment. interactive art experience will culminate in an unveiling.

Celebration: A Belly Dance Show

Della Bynum and the ladies from her Chrysalis Studio will perform this ancient midriff dance that celebrates the feminine and the cycles of life. Onlookers may be invited to join in as the rhythm moves them.

Hummingbird – A Theatrical Tribute to Robin Williams

Playwright Jason Levering directs his own script in this love letter to Robin Williams that imagines the comic’s last hours of existential angst. This Crook Factor Productions show has a free form befitting its subject.

Secondhand Love

Standup comic Andrew Morton riffs on some of his life journeys of the physical, hiking variety and of the mental health what-is-fantasy-versus-reality variety.

MOABIRTHC

Playwright and actress Colleen O’Doherty is joined by other performers in her celebration of physicality in theater, comedic and otherwise. Bodies in motion through space and time lead to interesting possibilities.

TBA: Tired, Barren and Alone

Jean-Paul Zuhur performs this one-man show he’s also written that is a contemporary take on Dante’s Inferno.

20 Questions

Doug Hayko pushes the limits of discourse and vulnerability in this exploration of the moments right before and after his HIV-positive diagnosis and coming out. The conceptual piece lives in the intense emotions between theater and reality. For mature audiences only.

Carnival

Tim Barr’s one-man show from his own Jungle Productions 2 revolves around deep research he’s done into the life of carneys and the subculture of carnivals. It’s Carousel meets Nightmare Alley.

Darkness Like a Dream

Anna Jordan and her new Found Ensemble present this full production retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in In the forest of ancient Athens. Lovers run from persecution and tyranny. The gods rage. Tragedians rehearse an ill-fated play. Monsters are born and mortals are magicked. A sinister thread weaves everyone’s stories together – revealing a darkness in the forest and in themselves.

Little Wars

The festival’s star entry may be this UNO Studio Theatre production from Jeremy Stoll and fellow grad students that addresses homo sapiens’ hard-wired desire to “make war. From armed warfare to schoolyard beefs, this work of devised physical theatre explores the nature of human conflict by imagining it as ritual.

The play’s toured Nebraska. Its cast and production team will next bring Little Wars to the mother of all fringe festivals – Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August.

Fringe unfurls at UNO’s Weber Fine Arts Building (Dodge Street campus).

For Fringe schedule and tickets, visit www.facebook.com/omahafringefest.

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

Jazz to the Future – The Revitalization of a Scene

July 3, 2019 2 comments

JAZZ to the Future illustration

 

Jazz to the Future – The Revitalization of a Scene

story by Leo Adam Biga

Illustration by Derek Joy

Originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com/articles/jazz-to-the-future)

 

Legacy Informs Revival

Veteran drummer Curly Martin came of age in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when North O brimmed with players and venues. Today, he’s a flashpoint for shedding light on the history and making jazz relevant again. He is adamant “you can’t be taught jazz or blues.”

“We had mentors. Preston Love was one of my biggest mentors. I was a junior in high school, 16 years old, when I got the gig with his band. I got permission to go on the road and said bye to Tech High.”

He insists the only way to learn is to “just hang out and play, man.”

“My whole thing is about the music and passing on the knowledge,” says Martin, who’s forming a foundation to mentor youth, The Martin Mentoring Lab. He’s presented jazz labs at Hi-Fi House in the Blackstone District and is doing the same at The Jewell in the Capitol District.

“I believe the audience is in Omaha—they just don’t know what they’ve been missing because it’s been gone for so long,” says Kate Dussault, formerly of Hi-Fi House. “Omaha has this really unique opportunity right now, which is why we’re creating this foundation as a place where people can come and learn by osmosis.”

In Martin, Dussault found a kindred spirit.

“He reveres jazz like I do—as black classical music. Curly’s determined to bring jazz back to Omaha and [Hi-Fi House is] doing everything we can to help him.”

His son Terrace Martin, a noted musician and producer in Los Angeles, is leading a similar charge on the coast. 

“It’s a whole new clique going on,” Curly says. “All these young musicians catching hold and putting all this together—passing the work and knowledge around.”

The Grammy-nominated album Velvet Portraits, featuring Curly and Terace, was recorded at producer Rick Carson’s Omaha-based Make Believe Studios. Carson says Terrace, with artists like Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper, are leading “a jazz resurgence,” adding, “The jazz they’re playing isn’t straight-ahead jazz, it’s this jazz mix-up of hip hop, funk, R&B, and soul.”

“Terrace is sitting right at the nexus of hip hop and jazz,” Dussault says. “He’s a sought-after producer who works with Kendrick Lamar and Herbie Hancock. He’s part of that whole crew bringing this new sort of jazz and making playing jazz cool again to young people.”

That synergy travels to Omaha in work Terrace, Curly, and others do at Hi-Fi, Make Believe, Holland Performing Arts Center, and The Jewell. None of this new activity may have happened, Dussault notes, if Martin hadn’t asked Hi-Fi “to help him bring back jazz at the club level.”

“At the time, in my estimation, jazz truly was dead in Omaha,” she says. “Love’s Jazz was doing a little smooth jazz and you had great shows at the Holland, but you can’t develop a jazz audience at $35 and $65 a ticket. So we came up with a concept of doing shows where Curly and company perform jazz and tackle history he thought otherwise would never be told. He’s really a big believer if kids don’t see it, they can’t aspire to play it—and then we’ll never turn this around.”

Dussault committed “to celebrate the history with Curly and guys he grew up with that had a pretty important impact on the canon of jazz, blues, R&B, even rock. We brought back his friends. We underwrote the shows and we were full almost every time.”

Make Believe captures interviews and performances of Martin and guest musicians. The result is an archive of artists who lived North O’s jazz and blues past.

Filling the Void

Recent standing-room-only Holland performances confirm what Martin and Dussault already knew. “There’s an audience for this music—but you have to reintroduce it,” she says. “Omaha has to work on audience development.” She adds that there has been serious neglect of the scene, not just in Omaha but around the country. “It needs to be respected, coddled, and brought back.”

Omaha Performing Arts executive director Joan Squires saw the same void. Filling that gap became the mission of its Holland Jazz Series and 1200 Club.

“Nobody was presenting, in any real consistent way, the major touring jazz artists and ensembles here, and we felt it was important we do it,” Squires recalls. “Jazz is an important art form and something we’re very committed to. We do it not just for what’s on the stage but also for the education components the artists bring to our community.”

OPA’s jazz program launched in 2007. The main stage concert hall series features “a mix of very established jazz masters and renowned artists along with up-and-coming talent,” she says.

Jazz on the Green fell under OPA’s domain when Joslyn Art Museum sought someone to take it over.

“We jumped at the chance, because it’s certainly a big part of our mission and it’s a beloved series,” Squires says. “Midtown Crossing’s opening made for a perfect location. All the pieces came together to take that series to a whole new level. We’ll regularly get 8,000 to 10,000 people at a performance. It’s extraordinary.”

Omaha saxophonist Matt Wallace, who toured with Maynard Ferguson and played the prestigious Blue Note and Birdland, likes the city’s new jazz landscape.

“In general, I think the scene is very healthy right now between the players we’re producing and the available venues. The whole scene depends on schools doing well and having places to play. It’s very systemic. If one part is missing, there’s an issue. I’m very encouraged by what’s happening.”

He’s impressed by The Jewell, which opened last fall.

“What happens with most clubs is they get one of two things right—either it sounds great or it looks great. This club actually got all of it right. Another thing I like is that when you walk in you get a history of artists who played at the Dreamland—Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington.”

Jewell owner Brian McKenna’s club is a conduit to Omaha’s jazz past.

“There are two stories here,” McKenna says. “There’s the generation of Curly Martin and the previous generation of Preston Love. Each became enchanted with the sounds and players of their eras. They met the artists who came through and ended up playing with them.”

Back in the Day

Martin and his buddies learned to play jazz on the North Side, jamming alongside big-time touring artists. They became respected industry journeymen. Martin has brought some—Stemsy Hunter, Calvin Keys, Ron Beck, and Wali Ali—back to gig with him in Omaha.

North 24th Street landmark Allen’s Showcase, Martin says, “was a musicians’ hangout. It was just about music, period. You went to the Showcase for one reason only—to hear the best of the best. That’s what black music was about. That was the place for the players. The Sunday jam session was notorious. It went from 10 in the morning till 1 the next morning. You had time to play, go home, change clothes, eat, come back.”

The Dreamland Ballroom was where people went to see the major artists at the time. “We knew it as a blues place—Little Richard, Etta James, BB King…You never could dance in the damn ballroom because it was packed tight,” Martin says. “You know where us young musicians were at—right up to the stage looking up.”

“That’s how we met ‘em all. We had a chance to sit-in and play with them.…Later on, when we got 20, 21, they remembered us. That’s how we got gigs.”

Once musicians sufficiently honed their craft here, they left to back big-name artists on major concert tours and hit records. They found success as sidemen, session players, composers, producers, and music directors. Some, like Buddy Miles, became headliners.

The same scenario unfolded a generation earlier at the Dreamland, Club Harlem, Carnation Ballroom, and McGill’s Blue Room. Anna Mae Winburn, Preston Love, and Wynonie Harris broke out that way.

On the North O scene, mostly black talent played in front of integrated audiences on the strip dubbed The Deuce. Driving riffs, hot licks, and soulful voices filled myriad live music spots.

“Everybody was coming north,” Martin says.

“When I came up, we were not leaving Omaha for New York or Los Angeles. There was that much work. There were that many great musicians and venues. Then there were all the cats coming back and forth through Omaha. We were seeing the best in the world…why go anywhere?”

An infrastructure supported the scene in terms of black hotels, rooming houses, and restaurants. A&A Records was “a kick-ass music store with eight listening booths.”

“We had all that going on,” Martin says. “I’d come out of my house every morning and hear music on every corner. It was a fairytale, man. At night, you had to dress up—suit and tie, shoes shined. It was classy. Twenty-fourth and Lake was like being on Broadway. It was like that back in the day.”

Further making the scene special were clubs such as Backstreet, Apex Lounge, The Black Orchid, and The Green Light. At Off Beat Supper Club emcees introduced Cotton Club-like revues and floor shows. “It was killing,” Martin says. “It was the most popular black club in North Omaha.”

After-hours joints added another choice for late nights out. High stakes games unfolded at the Tuxedo Pool Hall. The Ritz and Lothrop movie theaters and social halls provided more entertainment options.

“North Omaha was a one-stop shop when it came to music. There was more to it than just jazz. That was just part of it. The history of North Omaha is not simple at all, especially about the music. There was just tons of music.”

And transcendent talent.

From Gene McDaniels hitting gold with “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” to Lalomie Washburn writing Chaka Khan’s mega-hit “I’m Every Woman,” it’s clear the talent was there.

“Cats getting record deals with Chess Records in Chicago. I can go on and on,” Martin says. “They were hometown stars in the ‘hood—and we all grew up together.”

Restoring What Was Lost

In the ensuing decades, clubs closed and the economy dwindled.

As the North O scene waned, new metro artists emerged—Dave Stryker, Jorge Nila, Dereck Higgins, Steve Raybine, and the Potash Twins.

There were still veterans around for up-and-comers to learn from.

Matt Wallace learned under Luigi Waites. “Playing with older, more experienced guys your game has to come up—there’s just no way around it,” Wallace says. “I try carrying that on.”

Drummer Gary Foster is grateful to his mentors. “I had so many experiences of people taking their time with me, from Bobby Griffo to Charles Gamble to Luigi to Preston, and Preston’s sons Norman and Richie. They were very open.”

Bobby Griffo, aka Shabaka, “was just a prime mover in the North Omaha modern jazz scene. Anybody that was anybody played with him,” Foster says.

Griffo ran the Omaha Music School and led the big band Arkestra that included prime players Timmy Renfro, Mark Luebbe, Gamble, and Foster.

Omaha’s Jazz Scene Hung On

“The Showcase was still going. The Howard Street Tavern had Tuesday night jam sessions. Luigi normally had a night there (and at Mr. Toad’s). A lot of people came in to play,” Foster recalls. “Jack DeJohnette’s band. The Johnny Otis Revue. Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Hines came to town and did a jam session at Howard Street.”

“That stuff went on all the time. The big one was at Kilgore’s. Chick Corea was in town to play the Music Hall. He wanted to know if there was anything going on and we took him to Kilgore’s. He sat in all night playing drums. He didn’t even touch the keyboard.”

Foster says jazz could also be heard at places like The Gaslight and Julio’s.

“And there were still all kinds of little after-hours clubs. I remember one down by the stockyards. I walked in there with my drums—this young white boy with all these black musicians in an all-black club. When the guys sitting at the bar turned around, their coats opened and they were all carrying pistols. They were like, ‘Don’t worry, you’re with the band, you’re cool, you don’t have to worry about anything here.’”

But things slowed to a crawl from the 1990s on.

“Clubs stopped hiring the caliber of jazz artists they once did,” he says. “There were always good local players playing, but it was just a niche thing. Nobody was really making any money at it. We turned to other music to keep gigging. You had to do what you had to do to make it. We played jazz because we loved it.”

The same 10 jazz players played all the gigs. “That’s why I moved to New York,” Foster says. Stryker, Nila, and Karrin Allyson preceded him there.

Climbing Back

Foster is glad the jazz scene has picked up.

Mark’s Bistro owner Mark Pluhacek helped feed the resurgence with a regular jazz program at Jambo Cat beneath his eatery. Though it gained a following, that wasn’t enough to prevent its closing.

Chuck Kilgore, a musician and former club owner, played at and booked Jambo Cat, which he called “the perfect venue.” Even perfect wasn’t good enough.

The truth, Kilgore says, is that few entrepreneurs are willing to risk an investment when there’s “almost certain” small returns.

“Jazz is mostly subsidized these days the way symphonic music is,” Pluhacek says. “It’s underwritten for it to survive. It’s not what people are listening to in huge volumes, so it has to be supported in other ways.”

Pluhacek enjoyed Jambo’s run while it lasted.

“It all came together. It was wonderful. We realize the importance of it. We hope the energy for jazz just grows and gets better.”

Hope for the Future

Besides the Holland and Jewell, other outlets for jazz include the Ozone Lounge, Omaha Lounge, Havana Garage, Harney Street Tavern, and Mr. Toad’s.

Education is also key to engaging an audience.

LJAC hopes to have artists at The Jewell work with elementary school students, and OPA is introducing the genre to pre-schoolers through Jazz at Lincoln Center’s WeBop program. Another facet of cultivating audiences is radio jazz programming. Artists still depend on air play.

“What’s changed is musicians’ ability to get their music out there,” KIOS-FM jazz host Mike Jacobs says. “We get a lot of music produced and marketed by musicians themselves. The major labels have gotten away from doing straight-ahead jazz. A lot of artists produce a hybrid jazz-pop sound. They’re like gateway artists to the classic stuff.”

Jacobs’ KIOS colleague Christopher Cooke is cautiously optimistic The Jewell and other jazz spaces will re-energize things here. He hopes to one day see a “real summer jazz festival in Omaha.”

Meanwhile, Martin helps to build appreciation for the past and a foothold for the future. “It’s about the music coming first. I’ve been blessed and I have to pass it on,” he says.

“Curly was around for a scene that doesn’t exist anymore,” Carson says, “and he’s still connected to the people who made that music…No one is putting him and those dudes on the pedestal. But they’re world-class musicians. They’re clearly exceptional talents.”

Martin wants North O’s renaissance to be informed by what went before.

“How you going to know what we need, when you don’t know what we had?”


This article was printed in the July/August 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

On cusp of stardom, Omaha singer-songwriter Jocelyn follows to thine own self be true path


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On cusp of stardom, Omaha singer-songwriter Jocelyn follows to thine own self be true path

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the June 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Beloved Omaha singer-songwriter Jocelyn, who’s just turning 22, has been a star-in-the-making since playing street corners and open mics as an old-soul teen prophet. Her winsome presence, yearning voice, melodic guitar licks and heartfelt lyrics about personal empowerment can move even jaded listeners.

In early 2018 she won over the suits of major record label BMG with an intimate acoustic set in their L.A, offices. Guided by her management, Omaha-based Midlands Music Group,, she signed with BMG and joined an artist roster that includes Bruno Mars. Armed with creative control, Jocelyn’s worked with producers and session players in L.A. and Nashville studios for her debut feature album releasing this summer.

A tour is in the works.

“I genuinely just want to have a good time making this music,” Jocelyn said, “and that’s really who BMG is.  That’s why we went with them. I could have chosen different record labels, but I didn’t. I went with BMG because the vibe was right.”

She doesn’t worry about losing her authentic self in the grip of a corporate music machine.

“The overall look and sound and feel is all coming from me,” she said. “and the people at the label are all nurturing it and helping me grow into the best version of myself. I’ve always had say in everything. Always. It’s been a great ride.

“I’m just hanging out with these people and telling them my life story. I’ve always been an open person and it’s really just about connecting. I’ve made a lot of connections and good friends. Everybody’s just pushing each other to do better, giving out suggestions, ideas. That’s really the process.”

 

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The single tracks “Speak Up” and “Never Change” from the album feature Jocelyn in full affirmation mode. The recurring theme in her work is “positivity.”

“I feel like the music I put out helps balance whatever is going on in people’s minds. That’s what I have to do in order to balance out my own mind. Hey, this is how I do therapy to get through my problems. I’m sharing with the rest of the world the love that I have and that I give myself.”

Her material counters “the negativity people want to push on you,” she said.

“Speak Up” is her anti-bullying anthem. “Never Change,” co-written with Nelly Joy Reeves and Eric Arjes, is her plea to “don’t change who you are.” Both songs come out of her own experiences being bullied and marginalized.

“There’s noise everywhere in how people think of you, how they judge you,” she said. “I’ve had so many people tell me that I’m doing things wrong in their eyes, and I’m like, you have no idea what I’m experiencing.

“There’s all these moments you have to stay positive –

and that’s what the record’s about.”

Her solid chops and loyal fans have earned her Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards recognition as Best Pop Artist and Artist of the Year. Her charisma carries far beyond these borders. Live or streaming, she captures people everywhere with her energy and sincerity. Even her tattoo that reads Unchain Me (the title of one of her original songs) fits her bohemian free spirit to a tee.

In 2016 an online video of Jocelyn performing her song “Just Like Everybody Else” went viral – one of many events giving her a national following.

“It was the first poppy song I’ve ever written. It was one of those breakthrough moments.”

Most importantly, she’s attracted music industry veterans who believe in her potential. Since entering the MMG mentoring program at 16 she’s scored several high-profile opportunities, including a 2017 “Celebrity Undercover Boss” episode at The Speakeasy in Austin, Texas. A disguised Darius Rucker, aka Jackie Middleton, praised her talent. Rucker also pledged his support.

“The show made Jocelyn look great,” her MMG manager, Jeff McClain, said..

Rucker continues serving as a mentor. At his invitation Jocelyn recently flew to South Carolina to co-write songs with him and his crew for a new project.

“It was really cool,” she said. “It was a little intimidating at first, but you learn to speak your mind. It’s a different process because you’re writing for Darius. It’s a lot of conversations among songwriters.”

She said Rucker is “someone I look up to,” adding, “I aspire to the goals he’s attained.”

In 2017 Jocelyn opened for Rucker at a Stir Cove concert before 5,000 hometown fans. It proved a defining moment. Prior to her set on that baking hot day she left her guitar out in the sun. On-stage, she tried tuning her warped instrument to no avail. She handled the frustration with an aplomb that belied her 19 years.

In the immediate aftermath, though, she felt a failure.

“I pouted on it, I cried about it. But it was a great learning experience. It’s like make sure that shit doesn’t happen again.”

Her manager gave her a different perspective.

“I was watching a star being born on that stage,” McClain said. “Even though it was all going wrong, what she did was amazing at her age. She was in front of a home crowd of 5,000 people and she kept it together. She was professional, she went through with the show. I told her you will never in your entire career be under more pressure than you just were there. If you can handle that, you can handle anything.”

Jocelyn came to appreciate her own resilience.

“I played that show, I kept going, I didn’t stop.”

 

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Her confidence shined through her 2018 “Showtime at the Apollo” appearance. Not only did she not get booed off stage by that notoriously tough crowd, she got a warm response with her righteous cover of Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney’s “Forty Five Seconds.”

“I blacked out. No, straight up, the emotions were so intense in my body that I couldn’t feel anything.”

Her poise and command is what Jocelyn champion Aly Peeler, saw in her at 15.

“She played for me and at that moment I was like, this girl’s a star,” said Peeler, an Omaha musician with her own following. “At such a young age she was so composed and expressed such complicated ideas. She knew who she was. That’s what I thought was so beautiful.”

As Jocelyn got more polished, Peeler said, she proved she could “own a room” – quieting even the most boisterous crowd with her musical poetry.

“She captivates an audience. She gets people to listen.”

Those qualities are what sold MMG on her in 2013.

“She was just absolutely wonderful to watch. She had so much raw talent. It was just obvious. You sensed it,” McClain said.

MMG shows promising young artists the ropes on the condition they do well in school. Only Jocelyn was failing. “Well, we’re not working with you, I told her,” McClain said. “I was like, ‘Aw, damn,” Jocelyn said.

“The exact same work ethic you use to get the As, you use to get the gold record,” McClain said. “If you want to be in this industry, as hard as it is, you have to do the work. She diid and she’s kept it going ever since.”

“I always loved learning, but I did not grow up with the discipline, the work ethic, so when Jeff gave me that challenge,” Jocelyn said, “I was like, I want to do that. It just felt right.”

“If you make it several months in the program things are probably going to happen for you,” McClain said. “Then we start to discuss actual management, which we did with her. We signed her in 2014. At that point we started making calls and opening doors.”

Nothing that’s happened since has been an accident,

“Jocelyn is where she’s at because of a lot of hard work, but also support and encouragement,” Peeler said. “I have nothing but love and respect for all she’s done.”

That’s not saying there weren’t bumps in the road.

“One time we had written a song and I didn’t want a certain lyric to be a certain way,” Jocelyn recalled. “Mind you, I’m 16 at the time and stubborn. If I didn’t get my way, I’d freak out. I said no to a lot of things in the beginning.

“Aly (Peeler) and I went on a walk  She was trying to cool down the fire within me. She said a song is like a child. It goes off into the world and it influences other people and it gets influenced. It is constantly growing. I liked that.”

“We’ve had some real conversations,” Peeler said.

 

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Of her journey, Jocelyn said, “Theres only growth, patience, teaching, learning going on in this process.”

She counts McClain and Peeler among “older friends who have been really there for me when I needed them

and that have affected my life in a positive way.”

Following her team’s advice, she puts herself out there. Connections she’s made at Fox and Paramount offer “great potential we’ll capitalize on later,” McClain said.

Even with mega fame a real possibility, Jocelyn’s committed to Omaha.

“Home is where the heart is and my heart is in a lot of people here. I’m at home anywhere I go in the city. I feel love. This is the stomping grounds.”

What’s come her way already could be a real head trip, but Jocelyn’s being chill. “It’s as simple as simple can be,” she said. Everyone around her feels she’s grounded enough to handle whatever comes next.

Meanwhile, she and McClain are leveraging her success to explore the creation of mentoring programs with the Millard Public Schools (she’s a Millard South grad) and Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. The goal is “teaching what it really takes to make it in whatever you want to do,” she said.

“The messaging of Jocelyn’s album,”is spot-on” with initiatives around young professionals and creatives reaching their dreams, McClain said.

Her self-love, anti-hate messages also plug into the MeToo, LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter Movements.

Jocelyn encourages fellow Generation Zers to realize their dreams right here.

“One of my friends said she didn’t like it here because it doesn’t have this and that, and I said, ‘Well, then, create it here. Be the first person to bring it here.’ Why leave? If you do, come back when you’re done. Help build.”

Should breakout success happen the way it’s expected, she hopes “Omaha’s the next city” everyone wants to be in.

Visit https://www.jocelynmusic.com.

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

 

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Omaha native Phil Kenny a player among Broadway co-producers and investors 


Omaha native Phil Kenny a player among Broadway co-producers and investors

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the June 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Phil Kenny resembles the starstruck dentist with songwriting ambitions in the stage classic The Bells are Ringing. Growing up in Omaha, Kenny played the lead in a high school production of Oklahoma! and appeared in a Ralston Community Theater production of Fiddler on the Roof. Listening to the Les Miserables cast album became a ritual. He wrote plays through college with the ambition of penning a Broadway musical, The technology law attorney still pursues that dream today.

He and collaborator Reston Williams, formerly of The Blue Man group, hope one day to get their own four-years-in-the-making musical on its legs in New York.

Far from a frustrated wannabe, Kenny’s made himself a theater insider co-producing major musicals through his 42nd Club investors group. As unlikely as it sounds, this married, devout Mormon father of seven living in Utah has co-produced some of Broadway’s most successful musicals the past few years, including Anastasia and Sunset Boulevard.

In 2018 he even copped a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical with Once on This Island. On a side note, one of its stars, Merle Dandridge, shares a hometown connection: Both she and Kenny are Papillion LaVista High School graduates, though not classmates.

Odds are Kenny will take home another statuette at the June 7 Tonys since three of the five Best Musical nominees are 42nd Club co-produced shows: Hadestown, Tootsie and Beetlejuice. Kenny and Co. also co-produced King Kong – nominated for three Tonys and receiving a special Tony for puppetry.

 

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Phil Kenny and wife Clare

 

Meanwhile, the 42nd Club co-production Be More Chill enjoyed breakout off-Broadway success that’s transitioned into a Broadway run still going strong. The show led all nominees for the 2019 Broadway.com Audience Choice Awards nominations.

For Kenny, crashing the Broadway world as a producer never occurred to him as a thing until two people suggested he try it.

“A number of friends and I have been able to participate in Broadway musicals by investing in and co-producing, which we didn’t even know was an available option,” Kenny said.

The investing opportunity was first broached by Greg Franklin, a veteran investor and co-producer. Then again by Jay Kuo, himself an attorney who ended up co-writing the Broadway musical Allegiance.

“I told them both no initially,” Kenny said. “They didn’t pressure me at all. But after I called Greg (Franklin) to grab lunch and get answers to my questions, I decided to get into it. I found out Broadway investing is less like throwing money away and a donation, and more like a high risk investment where there actually is the potential to make money – and possibly a lot of money if you pick the right shows. That excited and interested me because I feel like I have my finger on the pulse of what people like in a Broadway show.

“My first investment was a play called Living on Love starring opera star Renee Fleming. It ended up closing early and didn’t return any of our investment.  We didn’t have nearly the same type of access to the best shows then as we do now.  We were just excited lead producers were talking to us.”

Then Kenny got more connected.

“When you invest in a Broadway show you frequently get opening night tickets and after-show party passes,” he said. “Those parties are filled with other people who invest $25,000 or more in shows. I made it my business to meet everybody I could.”

With Greg Franklin, he said, “I came up with the idea that if we all grouped together we could then co-produce a musical rather than just be an investor. By co-producing we get a bigger say and might be invited as the table when lead producers are talking about various marketing initiatives or having creative discussions.”

This let’s-put-on-a-show economic model has paid off well enough that the club’s grown to 100 members.

“Most of our investors tend to be outside of New York. The interesting thing about we do is that we have the opportunity to invest in the very best and highest level of commercial theater – shows like Waitress, Matilda and An American in Paris – where the buy-in to invest in big Hollywood projects is cost prohibitive.

“Our members are all accredited investors who’ve invested in Broadway shows in the past. We are very selective about the shows we invest in.”

Scripts are read. Staged readings and workshops viewed. At a minimum, Kenny said, there must be “a great story and memorable music.” “And this isn’t a hard and fast rule,” he added, “but I do like to have some sort of commercial hook in the plot or title.”

 

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Once On This Island

 

He often bets on proven track records, such as an adaptation of a popular movie or a project featuring music that already has a built-in following.

His metrics also include analyzing the slated budget and calculating how many seats must be filled weekly to turn a profit. He prefers shows play in smaller houses of about 1,000 seats where demand exceeds supply, thereby creating extra urgency and buzz.

“Because we’re now at the co-producer level,” he said, “a lot of opportunities now come to us rather than us having to seek them out. Hadestown is one one them, Tootsie is another. A co-producer credit means the lead producer shares producing billing with you if you help with a variety of things, chief among them fundraising by bringing in an investment amount of a certain level – perhaps a half-million or a million dollars.”

Among the perks that go with getting your name above the title is being eligible to win a Tony Award

“Our first nomination was when we co-produced a new musical called The Visit by (John) Kander and (Fred)Ebb – the same composers of Chicago and Cabaret – with a book by Terrence McNally. Our second nominated show was Waitress – a huge commercial success. It’s been the most profitable investment we’ve been a part of. That show was nominated in the same year as Hamilton, so we knew we had zero chance of winning.”

Then came Once on This Island’s upset win. The odds-on favorite was My Fair Lady, which swept all the pre-Tony awards shows.

“Our winning was really a surprise to a lot of people, including us producing partners. I was in the back of the house pacing back and forth with my wife when they read Once on This Island as the winner. That single moment was probably the most exciting of my life – and vie had some pretty exciting moments.I looked at my wife and took her by the hand and we ran down the aisle with our other partners and we got to be up on stage for something we have such great passion for.

“It was just a thrill beyond explanation.”

Another perk: “Each of us was able to bring home our own Tony statuette.”

Kenny’s already joined a select list of Tony winners from Nebraska in Henry Fonda, Sandy Dennis, Swoosie Kurtz and John Lloyd Young. A second win would put Kenny and Kurtz in select company as multiple winners.

Kenny shares the ride with wife Claire.

“We’re both huge musical theater fans,” he said. “Our whole family’s really into it.”

The couple met when he saw her in the chorus of a Utah community theater production of, you guessed it, a musical, and he complimented her backstage. Two weeks later he got her pone number and asked her out. Ten months later, they were married.

Even though Kenny’s met stars like Matthew Broderick and Lin-Manuel Miranda, he said, “A lot of the people I look up to in the Broadway world are people most folks haven’t heard of. They’re lead producers like Hunter Arnold and Tom Kirdahy, They’re bringing incredible art to the stage and taking huge risks. To me, they’re just as much heroes as the people dedicating their lives to the performance aspect of it.”

Kenny concedes he’s “not the normal, every day co-producer” but added, “I’ve found the Broadway community very accepting of me and my faith and our big family.”

He said he doesn’t currently aspire to be a lead producer. “Part of the reason I don’t have that on my bucket list is the fact that I live in Utah. It would be really difficult to launch a whole production from beginning to end not living in New York.”

Among the shows 42nd Club is backing next season is Jagged Little Pill. The musical opens on Broadway in December. It features music from Alanis Morissette’s best-selling album of the same name.

To date, only one show he’s co-produced has made it to Omaha on tour – Waitress – but Anastasia arrives in June 2020.

Visit 42nd.club.

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

Free Gospel Concert in the Park Kicks Off North Omaha Summer Arts


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Free Gospel Concert in the Park Kicks Off North Omaha Summer Arts

 

North Omaha Summer Arts is back for year nine with:

A Gospel Concert in the Park

Saturday, June 15 at Miller Park, 5 to 7:30 p.m., Free

OMAHA, NE––North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) celebrates nearly a decade of free arts programming in 2019. The summer-long festival kicks off its ninth year on Saturday, June 15 with the annual A Gospel Concert in the Park.

Omaha-based-soloists and ensembles. led by the Church of the Resurrection and Trinity Lutheran Church choirs, will raise their voices to the sky in praise. Music of the soul and spirit takes center stage at this grassroots, no-frills, family-friendly gospel concert in Miller Park.

There is no admission charge.

The 5 to 7:30 p.m. concert happens in the southeast section of the park, at approximately 24th and Kansas Avenue, right across from the ball-field.

Whether you get comfy on a blanket or a lawn chair, you are invited to sit back and let the sounds of inspiration wash over you. And if the spirit so moves, then raise your hands or get up and dance. Somebody, though, remember to say amen.

Hot dogs and refreshments (or bring your own picnic dinner).will feed the body along with the soul.

Look for more NOSA events, including writing workshops, art pop-ups and the annual August Arts Crawl.

Visit https://www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts.

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