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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.

Abstract Mindz: Group gives artists a voice and showcase


Abstract Mindz: Group gives artists a voice and showcase

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico (el-perico.com)

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Abstract Mindz founder Jose Antonio “Tony” Barrales, 25, wants to give young artists what he didn’t have growing up.

The Omaha Central High School graduate started the artist collaborative in 2013, he said, to give underrepresented youth “an opportunity to showcase their talent.”

“There were tons of people in the South Omaha community whose work wasn’t being seen and who weren’t being offered the opportunities others were. I had this idea to create an arts group that would hopefully become a gallery in the future. No one would be rejected based off their art style, age, ethnicity.

“There’s a ten year build-up of passion behind this group. Growing up in traditional Mexican homes trying to pursue art as a career wasn’t something our parents deemed worth pursuing or spending money on.”

In addition to lack of support at home, he and others found inequity at school, where, he said “certain students got opportunities others didn’t,” such as mentoring. “That’s when my passion to create the group was really sparked because I was one of those overlooked kids. I was like, Hey, I’m doing artwork, too – why am I not getting a shot to show what I’ve got. I saw other people who deserved their shot and didn’t get it, and they gave up.”

Barrales wants to affirm others.

“There’s real talent out there, but people feel like they can’;t make it on their own or there’s no one to help them out. i just want people to have a free wall space where they can express who they are and show people what they do.”

Artist Ari Marquez, 28, helps run the collaborative.

“Art was like my escape for expressing my emotions. A lot of our members are the same,” she said. T”hey don’t like to verbalize what they’re feeling or going through. Instead of saying it, they draw or paint or photograph it.

“Sharing their work can help with the healing process from hardships and darkness they have. It’s hopefully an escape to express themselves in ways that maybe the adults in their lives wouldn’t accept. Some of the kids are expressing a scream for help or attention. We create a safe space for them to express without being judged.”

It’s a catalyst for work to be made and seen.

“We’ve learned there’s a whole bunch of kids who have this secret talent no one knows about,” Barrales said.

“They have that passion to do things, but they might be scared to try or don’t know who to talk to about creating opportunities for themselves.”

 

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Barrales knows from experience “it’s really hard establishing yourself in the art community.” You’re bound to be asked, what have you done? and where have you shown?

“Most of our artists do abstract art, graffiti art – things that are more urban. We want them to know that can be marketable. We have artists who’ve gone to local galleries with their portfolios only to be turned away because the professionals said their art style is not what they show in their spaces.

“That’s something we want to change. This urban art is really popping in other cities and we want it to be seen that same way here.”

He’s working on the organization becoming an LLC.

“We’re looking at getting our own dedicated gallery. We want to be based in South Omaha. Most art galleries around here are collectives, We’re shooting for the same thing. We want this to grow to where we have mentoring programs and can support locations in Fremont and Lincoln, so people can have showcases in their own communities.”

Without a space of its own, Abstract Mindz has thus far relied on partnerships to show work in loaned spaces.

“Luckily we’ve found a welcoming space in the Bancroft Street Market. Our first show in 2015 was there. We had 15 artists. Each sold one piece. That motivated us to continue.”

More shows there followed. A Day of the Dead exhibit included performance by the local band.Mariachi Patria Juvenil. The largest and longest running show displayed 50 pieces for a month at Hotel LR.

Bellevue Social Center hosted another exhibit.

South Omaha entrepreneur Macros Mora donated a booth space for the group at the Cinco de Mayo market.

Local playwright Ellen Struve has worked with the group in different ways..

“She’s been sending us to the right people to talk to. She’s been great in helping with our outreach,” Barrales said. “She also presented us a great opportunity to participate in her new play EPIC for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. We were one of the groups she did story circles with. We told our own personal stories to help create the backstory for her play.

“The high school-age kids really loved it. She did an activity to open them up to speak. It’s something they usually don’t do. They felt really comfortable in that circle. They are amazed knowing their story is implemented in this play.”

Abstract Mindz members range from high school and college students to college grads working full-time jobs. Their ranks include Shantee Zamora, Sergio Gomez, Salem Munoz and Gerado “Polo” Diaz.

Abstract Mindz presented a solo show of Diaz’s work.

“He was a little more mature in his craft and body of work,” Barrales said, “so we gave him an individual showcase. He’s one of the main artists we have who wants to make this his career.”

Members pay minimal dues and get help with framing, portfolios and marketing.

The group’s planned next show, Visual Sounds, is in need of a venue. Participating artists were asked to create a large piece based on a song of their choice.

“This collaboration of music and visual arts will be our first interactive gallery. As spectators view each artwork they can put on headphones to listen to the correlating song.”

A place and date is in the works.

Follow Abstract Mindz on Facebook.

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

Venerable jazzman Paul Serrato has his say

March 25, 2019 Leave a comment

Venerable jazzman Paul Serrato has his say

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the April 2019 New Horizons

 

Paul Serrato

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Paul Serrato

 

 

Coming of age

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

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

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

Music gave him his identity at Omaha Creighton Prep.

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

All it took for him to shine was affirmation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York, New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever work he could find, Serrato did.

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

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

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

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

Everything he experienced in NYC fed him creatively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

All that jazz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Life can take a toll.

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

 


 

 

Playing by his own rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’ve been very good to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local Black Filmmakers Showcase featuring screen gems by Omaha’s own Omowale Akintunde and Jason Fischer

February 26, 2019 Leave a comment

Local Black Filmmakers Showcase featuring screen gems by Omaha’s own Omowale Akintunde and Jason Fischer

Support the work of these African-American community-based artists

 

February-March  2019

College of Saint Mary

6 p.m. | Gross Auditorium in Hill Macaluso Hall

The work of award-winning Omaha filmmakers Omowale Akintunde and Jason Fischer highlight this four-day festival at College of Saint Mary.

On Tuesday February 26, Akitnunde’s “An Inaugural Ride to Freedom” charts a trip Nebraskans made to D.C. for Obama’s historic first inauguration. On Wednesday, February 27, it’s the world premiere of Akintunde’s television pilot “It Takes a Village,” which turns black situation comedy on its head. On Thursday, February 28, his impressive dramatic feature debut “Wigger,”shot entirely in North Omaha, explores racism through the prism of a white dude whose strong identification with black culture ensnares and empowers him amidst betrayal and tragedy.

On Tuesday, March 5 three short films by Fischer take center stage. The art film “I Do Not Use” pairs searing, symbolic images to poet Frank O’Neal’s incendiary words. The documentary “Whitney Young: To Become Great” uses the civil rights leader’s life as a model for kids and adults to investigate what it takes to be great. “Out of Framed: Unseen Poverty in the Heartland”documents people living on the margins in Omaha.

Screenings start at 6 p.m. Q &As follow the February 27. February 28 and March 5 showings.

All films begin at 6 p.m. and will be screened in Gross Auditorium at College of Saint Mary, 7000 Mercy Road 68106.

Tickets and parking are free and all films are open to the public.

For more information, call 402-399-2365.

Local Black Filmmakers Showcase

Tuesday, February 26th

“An Inaugural Ride to Freedom”

Wednesday, February 27th

Premier screening:

“It Takes a Village”

Director Q&A with Omowale Akintunde

February 28th

“Wigger”

Director Q&A with Omowale Akintunde

Tuesday, March 5

Short Films (originally scheduled for Feb. 25)

“I Do Not Use”

“Whitney Young To Become Great”

“Out of Frame: Unseen Poverty in the Heartland”

Director Q&A with Jason R. Fischer

Improbable music journey leads Maldonado to Nebraska as an Omaha Omaha Fellow

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Jose Maldonado pictured with another Opera Omaha Fellow Kate Pomrenke

 

 

Improbable music journey leads Maldonado to Nebraska as an Opera Omaha Fellow

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico,com)

Jose Luis Maldonado concedes the improbability of how he became an opera singer. But that just makes him more eager to share his tale because if it could happen to him, than who knows how many other potential vocalists are out there without even realizing it?

Part of his role as a first-year Opera Omaha Fellow in the Holland Community Opera Fellowship is exposing young people to an art form that may be foreign to them.

The California native grew up around the East L.A. area, where the strains of opera are rarely heard. He comes from a musical family. His father played piano in L.A. salsa bands. His grandfather, Jesus Francisco Maldonado, played saxophone in Mexico, where he’s known in Cuahutemoc Chihuahua as El Botas.

Jazz and Sinatra were some of Maldonado’s other musical influences. From an early age he set his sights on following his grandfather as a saxophonist. He studied hard and became proficient.

In high school his varied activities in band, sports, student government, public speaking and tutoring led his football coach to call him “a renaissance man.”

By his junior year he’d formulated a plan for college. He would study music and business (his father’s in real estate) with an ultimate goal of attending USC and playing in the Trojan marching band.

But then fate threw him a curve. With no suitable artist to sing the national anthem for an all-school assembly, he volunteered, even though it meant singing in public for the first time before thousands. Until then, all he’d done was imitate Rat Pack crooners for friends. He nailed the anthem by mimicking Robert Merrill but it was Jose’s rich baritone that won over the crowd

Then, at his senior graduation, a teacher made him promise to take a voice class in college before she handed over his diploma. He vowed he would. He kept his vow at Rio Hondo Community College but only as a courtesy. Then an unexpected thing happened.

“I ended up really enjoying it. The vibrant teacher. Ann Gresham, made it more than singing. She lured me back to the class every semester by saying, ‘If you want to know your real voice, you should come back next semester,’ because I was still mimicking.”

He credits touring music shows she created that he performed in at schools with honing his stage presence and sparking his interest in community outreach, which is the focus of his Opera Omaha Fellow work.

As much as he liked singing, he considered it a hobby, not a career path. He was still stuck on his USC dream . But his best-laid plans got disrupted after he sang a German song for his final.

“That song really changed my perception of what a singer is,” he said. “The way she had me learn this song was so deep and specific. It was not just learning and translating the words but relating it to the culture and why it was written and honoring the composer and the librettist for that poetry.

“At the end of the song I closed my eyes and repeated this phrase (lyric). I felt this energy. I opened my eyes and everybody was in tears. There was silence, then applause. It was just this beautiful experience.”

When the teacher asked to see him privately after class, he thought he’d somehow messed up.

“She asked, ‘You felt that in there, right?’ I said, ‘Yes.’  She said, ‘I know you’ve achieved what you wanted to at the school and you’re going to be moving on. I’m very proud of you. But I would not be doing my job if I didn’t ask you this,’ and she looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Do you want to be an opera singer? Because I can get you there. But it’s going to take a lot of work.’

“I was speechless because I never thought to be a singer. i remember, frozen, looking at her and saying. yes, but I didn’t consciously make a decision. She said great and told me about another college where the state would pay for my lessons. I just kind of nodded and walked away in shock.”

What he’d done didn’t sink in until he got home.

“Back in my room I yelled out, ‘What did I just do?’ Because the opportunity to realize my dream was right there in front of me. I worked really hard to get straight As. Counselors from USC and Rio Hondo made sure I met all the requisites. There it was and I just threw it away to become a singer.”

“But as soon as I yelled out, I felt this epiphany. In my mind I saw this blender with everything I was mixed in it and what poured out was opera singer. I just remember saying, ‘Okay, this is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.’ Like magic, the calling was there for me. I haven’t looked back since.”

He continued music studies at Cal-State Fullerton. The woman responsible for putting him on the path to opera, Ann Gresham, became his private instructor.

An unforgettable experience occurred at Cal-State in a production of The Merry Widow. For the first time. his whole family saw him perform, even grandpa Jesus, who disapproved of his choice to make a life in music.

“My grandfather was not on board with me being a singer because of his experience with the musician’s life. He worried I wouldn’t be able to support myself. I’ll never forget his face when I walked out after the performance. He was just crying. It completely changed his perception. That was impactful for me. Now my Papi Chuy is my biggest fan.

“To be able to convince him that way spoke volumes for how much conviction I have for what I do. He saw I was going to be successful.”

Jose, 29, paid homage to him when, in a gibberish rant his character The Baron makes, he inserted Spanish words in the middle of the German operetta.

From Cal-State, Maldonado went to Manhattan School of Music in New York, where he graduated with his master’s in May. He gave the school’s commencement address. At the ceremony he got to meet two music icons who received honorary degrees: Opera tenor Placido Domingo and Latin jazzman Paquito D’Rivera.

In July he played the lead in a production of Falstaff for the Martina Arroyo Foundation’s Prelude to Performance Opera Festival. Arroyo, a famous soprano, created the foundation to help emerging artists like Jose get professional opera experience.

Since starting his Omaha fellowship in August, he and his peer fellow  have engaged the community. They performed an outdoor concert at Turner Park. They’ve worked with the Learning Community Center of South Omaha and Nelson Mandela School. They performed at Buffett Cancer Center and Gallery 1516. They facilitated classes at the Omaha Conservatory of Music.

Jose is scheduled to perform with the Omaha Youth Symphony at an Omaha Area Youth Orchestras concert  on November 11 at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum.

Wherever he goes, he wants his story of defying expectations to inspire others.

“I didn’t come from a traditional classical background. I’m very proud to say I was made in America with Mexican parts. I’m very proud of my culture. But I’m also an individual, I’m an artist, and I don’t have to be bound by walls or comfort zones or perceptions or interpretations. If i can help shine that upon people and let them choose for themselves what’s possible for them, then I’m doing my job.

“I encourage anybody that feels restricted or limited to break those barriers. Part of it is taking responsibility to take the actions that you can create to step forward and to find those opportunities and angels in your life.”

He wants to continue giving back by creating a cruise line that operates as a business nine months out of the year and that holds an intense summer training program for performing and visual arts students.

“To be able to offer this summer training program completely free is a dream of mine,” he said.

He also aspires to sing with his hometown Los Angeles Opera and at Palacio de Bellas Artes, Teatro Degollado and Teatro Aguas Calientesin Mexico.

Meanwhile, he loves being an Opera Omaha Fellow because it allows him to give back.

“It’s exactly how I began in music. We don’t just come and sing. We build relationships with community partners, We meet their needs. We plant the seeds of opera and we also get to nurture those seeds.”

He appreciates, too, that the two-year fellowship provides professional development opportunities.

“We have coaching every week with Opera Omaha Head of Music Sean Kelly. On top of our salary we get a professional development stipend to use to have voice lessons. It’s inclusive of flights and accommodations. We budget that as we need to continue our growth as vocalists – honing technique and advancing skills

 

That’s something I really cherish. I feel valued not only as an ambassador but as an opera singer.”

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

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