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Paul Serrato finds balance as musician and educator​


Paul Serrato finds balance as musician and educator

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

Grain elevators, not skyscrapers, fill the view outside Paul Serrato’s home now that the jazz pianist-composer is back in Omaha after decades in New York City.

Serrato was a New York sideman, soloist and band leader. When not performing, he haunted clubs to see countless legends play. An avid collector, he helped himself to rare posters of great jazz lineups at iconic spots like the Village Gate in East Harlem.

He also spent untold hours composing and trying out original tunes and arrangements. He’s released nine albums on his Graffiti Productions label. He cut his tenth in February with his regular Big Apple crew. The new CD will have a fall national release.

Serrato also wrote for and accompanied underground cabaret and off-Broadway performers.

Education is a parallel passion for Serrato, who has degrees in music (Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts) and urban education (Adelphi University). Since the 1980s he’s taught adult ESL. He taught in various New York boroughs. Since resettling in Omaha five years ago he’s been an adjunct instructor at Metropolitan Community College’s south campus.

“I love teaching ESL. I love working with international students,” he said. “It’s taught me to respect other people, especially immigrants. I’ve always been interested in other cultures, other languages. It was a natural fit for me to migrate to teaching ESL and to pursue it to the end that I have.

“I’m a great believer in bilingual education.”

He’s distressed state funding cutbacks threaten something so impactful for students.

“There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction in knowing we’re helping them to acculturate-integrate into the larger scene.”

He’s outraged by draconian Trump administration measures against illegal immigrants and by Trump’s own hateful rhetoric on immigration.

Serrato has immigrant students compose essays about their new lives in America. He’s moved by their stories.

“It inspires me that I can guide them and give them an opportunity to release their emotions and feelings. It’s like nobody’s ever asked them before. Some of the papers are so remarkable. They spill it all out – eloquently, too – their feelings about being immigrants, living here, the difficulties, the good things.”

Last year he organized a program at Gallery 72 in which his Omaha students read personal accounts that his New York students wrote in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers. Serrato and his NYC students were only a few blocks from ground zero that fateful day. They watched the tragedy unfold before their eyes.

“I had my international adult students write about their impressions of that day. They were from all these different countries. They wrote eloquently about what they witnessed. I saved their essays and decided to turn it into EYEWITNESS: New York Testimonies. Though they all experienced the same event, we hear it filtered through the sensibilities of their diverse cultures.”

Serrato’s “Broadway Electronic” and “Blues Elegy” compositions provided ambient music for the readings.

“I was very proud of how that event turned out. My Metro students did a great job.”

He said the international student mix he teaches “makes me feel like I’m back in New York.”

His cozy southeast Omaha home is a tightly packed trove. Framed posters and album covers adorn walls. Photos of students, family, friends and jam cats are pinned to boards. Stacks of books occupy tables.

His music life began in Omaha, where he showed early muscial aptitude and formally studied piano.

“I began doing talent contests around town. Schmoller & Mueller piano store had a Saturday morning talent show on the radio. I won first prize a couple times.”

The Creighton Prep grad was brought up the son of a single mother who divorced when he was three.

“She was a pretty remarkable woman considering what she had to go through. There were no resources in those days for single moms.”



The Chicano artist has indulged his Latino roots via study and travel. He made pilgrimages to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to steep himself in boss and samba. His tune “Blues in Rio” originated there. A YouTube video produced by musician friend Donald Mohr features that tune matched with photos from Serrato’s Brazilian sojourns.

Bumming around Europe, he made it to Spain and grew “smitten with bullfighting’s art and pageantry.” “I began returning to Spain annually for the long taurine season as an aficionado. I’d lock up my New York apartment and fly off. My life as an artist’s model and bookstore manager in Greenwich Village made it easily possible. Such was the Boho (bohemian) life.”

His Latino roots music and world jazz immersion influences following a classical music track. He gave recitals in Omaha. Then he heard intoxicating sounds on his family’s short wave radio that changed his life.

“I thought I wanted to be a concert pianist until I started hearing recordings by Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson,
whose records were being spun out of Chicago. I was very like blown away by these great jazz pianists.

“Hearing that stuff opened up a big door and window into other possibilities.”

Harbor Conservatory in Spanish Harlem became his mecca. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition with a concentration on Latin music styles.

“It’s like the repository of the jazz and Latin music in New York after the World War II diaspora. It’s an incredible place. You walk into that school and you walk into another world, of Latin jazz music, which I love.”

His intensive study of Spanish has extended to Latin literature and art.

He cites congo player Candido Camero as “a great inspiration.” “He could play anything. Candido made a record, Mambo Moves, with Erroll Garner, one of my favorite pianists. They play such great duets. I’ve always loved that record. I’ve tried to incorporate some of those ideas into my own music.

“I compose pieces in the bossa style, though filtered through a New York jazz lens.”

Just as Serrato’s never done learning, he’s never done teaching,

“I love education. It’s absolutely vital to me. I’m teaching all the time, as many jazz musicians do. We’re all educators.”

Visit www.paulserrato.com.

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

Leo Adam Biga

 

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Stage-screen star Vanessa Williams in concert with the Omaha Symphony

April 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Stage-screen star Vanessa Williams in concert with the Omaha Symphony

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in April 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The following story appeared in advance of the diva’s April 21 concert with the Omaha Symphony but after attending the show I can now report that she and her band in performance with the orchestra were off-the-chain that night. I have always admired Vanessa Williams for her beauty but I never followed closely or even casually her singing and acting career and so I never really formed an opinion about her as a performing artist. Well, count me as a convert to her immense talent after thoroughly enjoying her vocal artistry and stage presence. She delivered a world-class performance to the delight of the diverse crowd on hand. Her voice, her range and her stage craft and command are as good as anything I’ve ever witnessed live. This was her first performance in Omaha and I certainly hope it’s not her last.

 

Singer-actress Vanessa Williams, 55, brings a regal serenity wherever she goes.

The always put-together Tony, Grammy, Emmy nominee makes her metro debut headlining the April 21 Omaha Symphony Gala Concert at Holland Performing Arts Center. For the 8 p.m. gig benefiting the symphony’s community engagement programs serving youth, she’ll sing her own hit tunes (“Save the Best for Last,” “Colors of the Wind”) as well as American Songbook classics.

She looks forward to a backstage visit from an uncle who lives in Omaha.

The Broadway musical star, concert hall veteran, recording artist, film-television player and humanitarian has won multiple NAACP Image Awards.

“I’ve felt the embrace of the African-American community from the get-go – besides incidents where people felt I wasn’t black enough,” she said.

She’s proud of her behind-the-scenes reputation as a steadying influence.

“I’m usually the leader of calm. People say when I’m a part of an ensemble, it’s a calm and happy set. I know how to deal with people. I don’t like drama and I don’t engage.”

Thirty-four years into her career, she shows no signs of slowing. In February, she appeared in the New York City Center Encores production Hey, Look Me Over. She sang a tune idol Lena Horne originated in the show Jamaica.

Here, Williams will interpret standards immortalized by Horne and other icons.

She recently completed a three-week Asian tour. Then she went to Dallas to shoot an ABC episodic dramedy pilot, First Profits, about women cosmetics moguls. If picked-up, it will mark her fourth ABC series, following Ugly Betty,Desperate Housewives and 666 Park Avenue.

“It’s kind of like going back home. The character I play is a force to be reckoned with. I’m excited.”

She loves moving from one genre to another.

“It’s great because it exercises a lot of different muscles for me. It never gets stale and I get a chance to reach different audiences. Playing a small jazz club I can do some intimate, personal stuff. Doing a symphony concert allows beautiful, lush orchestrations I don’t get to hear all the time, so for me it’s a special treat. Then acting behind a camera, I get a chance to step into another character.

“The reason I get to do so many things is that I take care of my voice, I’m professional, I show up on time, I know my material. That’s how you have longevity in this business – being prepared and dependable.”

Performing is play. Preparing to play, especially doing eight shows a week on Broadway, can be a grind.

“The biggest effort is getting to the theater and going through the process of putting on your makeup and costume, especially when you’re exhausted or your voice doesn’t feel right or you’re dealing with distractions. Once you hear the downbeat, then it all goes away. You feel the electricity from the audience, the camaraderie of the cast, and it’s easy.”

The mother of four, who successfully manages her Type 1 diabetes, said she consciously “doesn’t try” striking a positive image but instead projects her authentic self.

“I think it’s a byproduct of who you are. I am who I am and I’m lucky I had great parents who instilled great values in me and I get a chance to demonstrate that. I think it’s also reflected in my children (one of her daughter’s is singer-actress Jillian Hervey).”

In 2012, she and her mother, Helen Williams, released a memoir they co-authored, You Have No Idea, in which Vanessa revealed being molested by a woman as a child. Though raised Catholic, she got an abortion as a teen. She became “a trailblazer” as the first black Miss America, only to have erotic photos she posed for published without her consent. Stripped of her crown, she recovered from the scandal.

“I’m seen as a survivor after being famous overnight at 20 and then having to create a career when, within 11 months, it all changed drastically. It shows fortitude, perseverance, talent. That’s what’s revered. That’ll never go away. That’s a badge of honor I continue to carry.”

She supports today’s women’s advocacy movements born from sexual harassment allegations against men, including some prominent film-TV-music figures.

“I know these are very positive and strong women helping to bring awareness to the issues,” she said.

She cautions branding all men with a broad-brush.

“I don’t want an attitude where every man is bad, a threat, a predator, untrustworthy. I’ve worked with some incredibly talented, wonderful, warm men – producers, directors, writers, actors – who are my good friends.”

She weathered divorce from NBA player-turned-actor Rick Fox – the father of three of her children.

She married businessman Jim Skrip in 2015.

Williams has come to represent what black women she admires symbolize.

“Lena Horne, Diahnn Carroll, Debbie Allen, Eartha Kitt.

All legendary women stellar in their career and active with civil rights. Their own personal struggles were such lessons for us and our generation. They paved the way.”

She’s a nurturing “mother bear” to younger artists.

“I’m always the one everyone comes to for advice. I love to connect people and make things happen.”

She’s encouraged by how many women of color have become creative forces behind the camera

“Progress is definitely apparent in movies and television,

Certainly, there’s plenty of opportunity now, which is fantastic.”

She’s may even direct one day.

Meanwhile, she despairs America’s divide. “The hate speak and the divisiveness,” she said, “is just really saddening”

Escape with her in music on the 21st.

For tickets, visit omahasymphony.org.

Identical twin horn players set to lead Omaha jazz revival

March 27, 2018 Leave a comment

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Potash Twins

Identical twin horn players set to lead Omaha jazz revival

©Story by 
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Omaha once reigned as a major live music hub where scores of legendary artists came to perform. Many resident musicians who got their chops here used Omaha as a springboard to forge fat careers on 
the coasts.

The local African-American music scene was particularly lively from the 1930s into the 1970s, with jumping venues and jam sessions galore.

Then, that halcyon time faded away.

Now, identical twins Ezra and Adeev Potash of Omaha, two fast-rising horn players with crazy close ties to such living-legend jazz greats as Wynton Marsalis and Jon Faddis, are intent on reviving that long dormant scene. Nominated for Best Jazz for the 2014 Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards, they recently became co-artistic directors at the Love’s Jazz & Arts Center in Omaha. The twins, who turned 20 this fall, booked an all-star lineup of local artists at LJAC through 2013, headlining some dates themselves.

But it’s all a prelude for something grander. In collaboration with LJAC executive director Tim Clark the brothers are busy raising funds to underwrite a 2014-2015 lineup of jazz superstars. Many prospective guest artists are personal friends and colleagues of the twins in New York City, where the Westside High School graduates study music.

The brothers and Clark want nothing less than to create a world-class jazz club at the center, whose jazzman namesake, Omaha’s own Preston Love Sr., played with Count Basie and came of age in local nightspots like the Dreamland Ballroom. All the jazz giants played there or at Allen’s Showcase and other
long-gone venues.

Clark says, “What’s so exciting about the twins is their enthusiasm and their sincere desire to preserve one of America’s original art forms, jazz, and to put Omaha back on the map as a national jazz hub. They’re very serious about their craft and making jazz a priority in Omaha. They bring a breath of fresh air.”

“We’re going to try to raise the money to do the season right,” says Ezra, who plays trombone, tuba, and sousaphone.“We’re meeting with donors to prove to them our passion and our vision to get what we need to become a sustainable jazz club. The thing we want people in Omaha to know is that we have the connections to bring in the biggest names in jazz. The only way we can make it happen is if Omaha gives us the resources to make it happen. We’re really close to getting it.

“Now is the time. Omaha’s really thriving as a city and becoming known for its arts. Jazz is a historical music with strong Midwest roots. North Omaha was a center of jazz, and it can be that again.”

Adeev, who plays trumpet, says, “We want to make Love’s Jazz an attraction for not only the Midwest but around the country. You won’t have to go to 18th and Vine in Kansas City or to the Dakota Club in Minneapolis to listen to great jazz.”

There are plans to upgrade the acoustics at LJAC to “make it a state-of-the-art performance space,” says Ezra.

As unlikely as it sounds that two suburban Jewish-Americans barely out of their teens should lead a jazz revival in the heart of Omaha’s black community, it’s just par for the course for the twins. At 15, their chutzpah translated into a private lesson with trumpet master Marsalis after sneaking backstage at the Lied Performing Arts Center in Lincoln following a gig by his Lincoln 
Center Jazz Orchestra.

They appreciate what they have with Marsalis, who’s introduced them to other jazz icons, some of whom they’ve played with.

“Because of our relationship with Wynton we’re able to meet, hang out with, and learn from the best musicians in the world,” says Ezra. “We have a lot of awesome opportunities. We’re always eager to learn. And we like sharing with Omaha what we’re exposed to.”

Faddis confirms the brothers are “not shy” in approaching accomplished players like himself, Marsalis, and Jonathan Batiste for “pointers.” That networking has the brothers getting schooled by the best in the field.

“We’re living jazz history,” says Adeev, who studies under Faddis. “Wynton is the modern Coltrane. Jon Faddis is the disciple of Dizzy Gillespie. I feel honored to be part of the legacy they’ll leave me.”

Clark describes the twins as ambassadors, but the brothers also enjoy the limelight. In March, they performed at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where they led an impromptu New Orleans-style “second line” parade down Sixth Street that National Public Radio featured. A film crew following them for a proposed reality TV series was there and at the May Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders Meeting, where the brothers performed. They also did a recent talk at October’s TEDx Omaha event on the Creighton University campus.

Their talk and performance there focused on the intuitive communication and bond twins enjoy, an asset that is magnified on stage. “Twins in general like to finish each other’s sentences,” says Adeev, “and that kind of works the same in jazz.”

A series commemorating Black History Month – North Omaha stories Part III

February 14, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Commemorating Black History Month
Links to North Omaha stories from 1998 through 2018.
Articles on social justice, civil rights, race, history, faith, family, community, business, politics. education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera
 
A weekly four-part series
This week: Part III –  history, art, music, theater, film, culture, entertainment, society
 

Roni Shelley Perez staking her claim as Nebraska’s next “Broadway baby”

February 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Roni Shelley Perez staking her claim as Nebraska’s next “Broadway baby”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon appearing in El Perico

 

Nebraska is far from the theater capital of the world, yet many natives have trod the Broadway boards – from Henry Fonda to Sandy Dennis to Andrew Rannells. Actress-singer Roni Shelley Perez, 21, hopes to join their ranks. The Omaha Marian and University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate has graced several area stages and is now pursuing her dream in New York City during winter audition season.

This daughter of native Filipino parents has prepared for this all her life.

“I’ve been singing since I was very young. I sang-along to Barney songs ay 3. I started playing guitar at 8,” said Perez.

She also plays the ukelele.

She began performing for family functions and Filipino community gatherings at 11.

“I used to play guitar and sing Filipino covers.”

It earned her spending money.

But performing is, first and foremost, “a healing art” for Perez. “Stories told in songs can be relatable. People going through that same situation need to hear these stories. It’s hard for people to be vulnerable, so to see someone else vulnerable helps them to know it’s okay to feel.,” she said. “Performing arts can be very impactful. It’s a shareable, very much a collective experience.”

In SNAP Productions’ mounting of In the Heights at Omaha South High last spring, Perez’s character Nina mirrored her own life as the eldest child of aspirational immigrant parents in a tight ethnic community.

“Like Nina, there was all this pressure on me growing up to ‘Go, you can do this.’ That role answered a lot of questions for myself.”

She found support as a UNO Goodrich Scholarship Program recipient.

“Goodrich was like a family and definitely one of the best things I took from my undergrad. They believed in me and took a chance on me.”

Her parents were initially dubious when she majored in vocal performance and musical theater.

“Every immigrant parent is hoping for the American dream and I’m going into a field where financial stability is not really a thing. They were scared for me to go into music. But then as soon as opportunities started happening (scholarships, prizes, accolades), they realized, ‘Hey, you can do this.’ I feel like I’ve been doing it for so long and it’s been such a huge part of my life that I can make it into a career.”

The mainstream success Filipina performers enjoy, ala singer-actress Lea Salonga, gives added hope.

“She’s a big influence. She represents the Filipino community in musical theater.”

Filipino actresses have made waves in Hamilton in New York and London. “All these people are just very inspiring.” Then there’s singer-actress Sarah Geronimo. “Growing up, my mom would always play her music and I always looked up to her. She has a beautiful voice. I wanted to sing like her. I wanted to be like her.”

Perez dreams of Broadway but for now her goal is to “just perform professionally” as a working artist. “If it;s there, then I want to turn it into something bigger. I don’t even know what I’m capable of yet.”

It’s doubtful any performer from Neb. has been more prepared at such a young age. She boasts years of high-level training and performing. At 18, she won the part of Mary Magdalene in an Omaha Community Playhouse production of Jesus Christ Superstar. She’s worked with New York stage professionals at the Open Jar Institute, NYU Steinhardt’s Summer Study in Musical Theatre and Shetler Studios’ workshop of Zanna Redux.

“I’ve been going to New York every year now to see where I am ability-wise. I’ve been making connections.”

In Omaha, she got scholarships to Broadway Dreams Foundation Summer Intensive Workshops in 2013 and 2014, studying under and performing with Tony Award nominees and winners. It grew her confidence.

“It showed me what I need to continue working on but also it was like, ‘Hey, if I’m able to perform with them right now, I’ll be able to stand my ground and eventually get to their level too.’ It’s been very encouraging and definitely humbling. Like, I’m clearly not the best, but I can work at it and come to that level.”

She’s participated in master classes through Omaha Performing Arts. The 2016 National Student Auditions competition winner has been recognized by the Playhouse, Theatre Arts Guild and Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards. Last year, she and a classmate won first place in the Musical Theatre Division of the National Opera Association’s Collegiate Opera Scenes Competition.

She attributes her drive to her hard-working parents, who own their own business.

“I want to give back and work just as hard. I can’t even fathom coming from a third-world country to the United States with poor English and trying to start a family and career. It’s very inspiring and always on my mind as I take on new roles and shows.”

At 20, Perez earned the lead in Heathers at Omaha’s Blue Barn Theatre. Her character sings the entire show, so she trained to build vocal stability and stamina. It was both her first lead and first paid acting gig.

“That role came very close to my heart,” she said. “I’m grateful the Blue Barn took a chance on me.”

She returned there this past summer as the title character in Priscilla.

Her most “demanding and rewarding role” came last fall in UNO’s production of Spring Awakening.

“This one really tested my vulnerability and sacrifice. I had to let everything go. That was very hard to do.

Everything I’m doing is giving me a better version of     myself or helping me be my best. There’s always something to learn – always. I love a good challenge.”

Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, who’s twice directed Perez. is convinced she has what it takes to make it.

“I expect it and I’m exhilarated for the moment when that happens,” Clement-Toberer said. “She was born to do this. She’s got the vision of what she wants to do, and if there are nos along the way, it’s not going to stop her.”

Perez herself said she’s going after it now “because I think I do have what it takes to succeed.”

Follow her at www/ronishelleyperez.com.

TODAY: A Gospel Concert in the Park – “We will worship our Lord in the Open Spaces”


North Omaha Summer Arts presents A Gospel Concert in the Park


Our 7th summer of North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) is just around the corner and we cannot wait to serve you all.

First up is our annual Gospel Concert in the Park (held in Miller Park). This year’s concert is Saturday, June 17th from 5:00 to 7:30 p.m.

All events are free and open to the entire community.

See details by clicking the poster below.

 

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