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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.

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Omaha’s jazz past and present merge at The Jewell 

February 9, 2019 1 comment

Omaha’s jazz past and present merge at The Jewell 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Brian McKenna, a drummer and former Sony Music Studios executive, pays homage to North Omaha’s rich jazz history at his new downtown club, The Jewell, in the Capitol District.

The fine dining-live music establishment’s February 6-7 grand opening features Grammy Award-winner David Sanborn and his Jazz Quintet.

McKenna’s appreciation for North O’s legacy music scene is evident throughout the swank space. Oversized reproductions of archival photos picture icons who played the Dreamland Ballroom. The black and white images add warmth to an already intimate room distinguished by a contoured stage backdrop meant to represent a jewel’s kaleidoscopic patterns. The club takes its name from Jimmy Jewell Jr., who booked the killer acts that made the Dreamland on North 24th Street a venue of some renown in jazz circles.

Dreamland operated on an upper floor of the Jewell Building, which today is home to nonprofit agencies, and back in the day housed a street level barber shop and pool hall. Leave it to a transplant from New York to put the Dreamland, which closed in 1965, front and center again. McKenna, an Eastman School of Music graduate, first learned about the venue in school. He was intrigued how it was a Midwest circuit stop for touring legends Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Lionel Hampton and many more.

Now the Jewell carries forward the Dreamland’s heritage.

“To revitalize it a little bit is kind of cool. That’s why I called it The Jewell – to bring that back and to do right by North Omaha,” said McKenna, who’s located his club in the Capitol District to take advantage of folks staying in downtown’s 3,000 hotel rooms. Besides, North Omaha already has Love’s Jazz & Art Center.

Still, he said, “This is not going to happen without North Omaha’s blessing. I have 11 investors from different pockets of the city, including North Omaha. I’m taking ads out in the Omaha Star. I’m trying to really embrace this authentic storyline, so that we can work together to make sure this is a community celebration.”

He wants The Jewell to be a platform for sharing this undertold narrative about North O’s live music culture.

“Along the way I’ve been telling this story and a lot of people don’t know this story. To keep it genuine, we’ve got to really spell it out.”

When McKenna and his Fremont, Nebraska native wife moved to Omaha in 2015 to raise their daughter, he researched Jimmy Jewell Jr., the Dreamland, other historic local music hives and the many noted musicians who resided or visited here. Once the Jewell idea crystalized, he sounded out North O leaders (Mike Maroney, Al Goodwin) and players (Curly Martin) for their knowledge and approval in creating a venue that’s both tribute to the past and showcase for established and emerging talent.

Having left Sony in 2008 to form his own music management company, McKenna Group Productions, which he now operates out of Omaha and New York, and fueled by his fascination with the history here, he found a project to challenge himself.

 

Brian McKenna at The Jewell.jpg

 

Brian McKenna at The Jewell

 

 

“I figured out something that wasn’t here at the level I thought it should be and that was a proper sit-down fine dining music venue,” he said. “But I knew it wasn’t going to work unless we really found the thread – and that was North Omaha.

“We’re going to hopefully carry that torch and really expose what used to be and try to bring some people back and then deliver that to future generations. The next generations need to know that this was a great scene, a beautiful scene. There’s a huge story there.”

McKenna marvels at what Jimmy Jewell Jr. did.

“He was able to get the biggest names. I mean, c’mon, man. It’s not easy to convince managers and agents,

but he was selling out the venue from 1930 all the way to 1965. Kudos to Jimmy Jewell Jr. for doing that.”

McKenna’s collecting stories. How on an extended Omaha stay, Nat King Cole wrote the hit “Straighten Up and Fly Right” –  “i’ve got some artists that will be doing tributes to Nat King Cole” – and how artists arrived by bus and stayed in private black homes or black boardinghouses, lionized by adoring neighbors. After gigs, star musicians jammed with local players.

Meanwhile, hometown musicians honed their chops here before going off to solo, sidemen, studio session careers. Victor Lewis, Arno Lucas, Carol Rogers, Calvin Keys, Lois McMorris, the late Buddy Miles and others broke out. Those who left (Wali Ali) or returned (Curly Martin) now have a new place to gig at.

McKenna digs how Count Basie hired Preston Love Sr. at the Dreamland to tour with his orchestra and how Anna Mae Winburn headlined there and later lead the International Sweethearts of Rhythm all-female swing band that McKenna studied in college.

“We need to talk about this,” McKenna said. “We’re going to really be celebrating the historical sense but also bringing the new players, too, like Esperanza Spalding and Christian McBride. Every time I go back East and talk to them about North Omaha, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah – there was a scene there.’ We’ve got to put the spotlight on that. That’s what I want to do. On our social media we’re posting a lot of that historical stuff. We’ve got to educate folks that we had this here.”

He’s also insisting artists make pilgrimages to the Jewell Building, whose display of photos from the Dreamland’s heyday, said McKenna, “gives me chills.”

David Sanborn is eager to learn.

“I’m sorry to say I’m unaware of the history of jazz in Omaha. It’ll certainly be new to me and an interesting experience,” Sanborn said.

McKenna’s taking steps to immerse visiting artists in the community by contractually requiring they do outreach through master classes or workshops. “I have relationships with UNO, the Holland Center and Love’s for this educational component.”

His support of the local music community extends to reserving Wednesdays for area performers.

Programming-wise, the club’s “not going to be a hundred percent jazz,” he said, adding, “There are  singer-songwriters coming through.”

The Jewell’s about good quality music, whatever the genre. Just no hard rock.

“It’s good to be diverse like that. Good music is good music.”

Further rooting the club to this place is Assistant General Manager Monique Alexander, a North Omaha native with a legacy connection to Duke Ellington as a distant cousin.

McKenna, who rose through the Sony ranks as a researcher, librarian and eventually vice president of audio operations and marketing. is applying his expertise to the entire endeavor.

“I felt I should do something that taps into that experience. Managing artists is great but you’ve got to do something in the community, too.”

He’s modeled The Jewell after Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York. Dakota in Minneapolis and Jazz St. Louis.

His industry contacts with agents, managers and talent bookers should aid in attracting top tier artists.

“We will get Wynton Marsalis out here, I guarantee you that. But the timing’s got to be right.”

He’s confident the club’s high standards of decor, house instruments (a Steinway piano, a custom Gretsch drum kit, a killer base) and acoustics (a floating ceiling to isolate vibrations from above), combined with its historical focus, will attract name talents.

“They will do whatever it takes to perform at great venues.”

McKenna’s left nothing to chance.

“It needs to be nurtured and developed. It’s not going to be rushed. It’s gotta be done right. To put this together has not been an easy thing. It’s been very detailed oriented. Every single move I’m making means something.”

The cozy, 150-seat venue boasts great sight-lines, with patrons only a few feet from the stage.

“When you’re that close it’s a different thing,” he said. “That’s the treat – to be that close to these types of artists. They’ll talk to you in a different way than they will performing in a big house. That’s what I love about this club – it’s a whole different vibe.”

He’s leveraging The Jewell’s sustainability on business travelers-tourists as well as locals looking for a signature night out. The club, at 1030 Capitol Avenue, is accessible from the Marriott and The Capitol Plaza.

It has its own dedicated chefs (Jon Seymour and Mark Budler) food and beverage director (Brent Hockenberry), hosts and servers in putting out its New Orleans-influenced menu.

McKenna expects to draw diverse audiences.

“People of all different cultures and walks of life will congregate similar to what happened at the Dreamland Ballroom. People will come to eat, drink and hear great music.”

The club worked out the kinks during a soft opening that launched January 17. Sanborn will help officially usher in The Jewell at a ribbon-cutting. He and his quintet will play 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. shows both nights. Sanborn’s trademark alto saxophone will blend with acoustic bass, drums, piano and trombone in performing works from his personal repertoire and from the late jazz composer-instrumentalist, Michael Brecker.

For tickets and upcoming featured artists, visit https://jewellomaha.com.

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

 

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