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


Image result for jocelyn darius rucker

 

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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Journeyman jazz artist indulges passions for music, education and all things creative  


Journeyman jazz artist indulges passions for music, education and all things creative  

©by Leo Adam Biga

Paul Serrato exudes a New York state of mind acquired from decades of Big Apple living.

From the time the classically-trained jmusician discovered jazz via radio during his Omaha youth, he was drawn to America’s arts center. Excelling on piano, he no sooner graduated Creighton Prep then went East, first to Boston, then New York. He arrived in the era of The Beats, Miles Davis and Andy Warhol. He was there for the British invasion, the bust of the 1970s, the boom of the ’90s and the terror of 9/11.

This journeyman jazz pianist gigged in clubs, recorded his original music and composed-performed for off-off-Broadway shows. He worked various jobs before becoming an English as Second Language instructor.

At 83 he makes no concessions to age. Since returning  to Omaha in 2011, he’s continued performing-creating and indulging his appetite for literature, art, film, theater and dance. He’s still releasing CDs on his own Graffiti Productions label. His latest, “Gotham Nights,” has charted nationally. He plans a new jazz project for 2020.

“Age for me is mostly a number,” says Serrato. “I can’t spend time worrying about how I’m supposed to feel or what I should be doing at my age. My life has focus in music and education. I have degrees in both. In music I find excitement and energy as a pianist as well as composing, producing and promotion.

“Presently, I’m writing vocal music. particularly setting poetry to music. I’ve always composed and produced what I wrote. The pattern emerged in high school when I went into a studio and made my first single – a song with a fellow student on vocal.”

He teaches ESL for Metropolitan Community College. He tries “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.” His class assignments encourage students to celebrate their own heritage, too.

The bilingual Serrato stays in touch with former students from around the world.

In 2016 he combined his music and education passions  in a project commemorating 9/11. He was teaching that day near ground zero.

“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.”

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Years earlier, New York’s hothouse of creativity found Serrato working with Warhol Factory personalities Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn.

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

In jazz circles, Serrato got tight with “master Latin percussionist” Julio Feliciano, whom he recalls “as 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 made 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.”

Serrato still records all his music in New York, which serves as a muse for his work.

He enjoys traveling. He once used a guide book to see Europe on five dollars a day. He followed bull fights in Spain and smuggled back copies of banned books from Paris. A former ESL student from Japan twice arranged for him to do music tours there.

He accepts that few jazz artists ever really make it big.

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

He describes “a tectonic shift in the jazz culture” that’s turned this once popular music into a niche thing.

“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 as house manager and sometime performer at the Village Gate in the ’60s you’d have to make it through 2 a.m. gigs. It’s a tough life. No wonder there was alcohol and drugs and everything.”

Gigs are hard to come by here. His music gets labeled “sophisticated” or even “avant-garde.” He insists “Gotham Nights” is accessible with its Latin melodies.

He enjoys encouraging his students to follow their dreams. Having patience in this age of instant gratification is tough but can be rewarding.

“We are living in a culture of fast celebrity and quick social ‘likes’ – and just as quickly forgotten. My advice to any young artist is to keep focused on long-term possibilities. In other words, stick it out for the long-haul. You never can predict when or how your work will pay off. I speak from experience. I got a big payoff a few years ago from HBO for a song I wrote in 1971 they used in ‘Cinema Verite’ with James Gandolfini.”

Until your ship comes, he advises to get busy living and creating.

Visit http://www.paulserrato.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.

David Sanborn Interview: The Jewell’s grand-opening artist shares some of his music takes

February 9, 2019 Leave a comment

David Sanborn Interview: The Jewell’s grand-opening artist shares some of his music takes

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Grammy-winning alto saxophone master David Sanborn helped usher in Omaha’s new live music hot spot, The Jewell, at its February 6-7 grand opening in the Capitol District.

I got a chance to interview him before his quintet played their Omaha gig.

Check out my Reader feature on The Jewell, its owner Brian McKenna and his club’s tribute to the North Omaha live music scene legacy on my blog, leoadambiga.com, or on the paper’s website, http://www.thereader.com.

 

David Sanborn Interview

 

Saxophonist David Sanborn long ago made his musical bones, yet still marvels at his good fortune.

“Yeah, every day I’m grateful I’m able to actually make a living doing something i love to do,” Sanborn said. “I’m kind of amazed that at my age I’m still able to do that.”

 

His natural curiosity finds him ever exploring his instrument and craft.

“It’s a discipline you never completely master because it’s all about process, so the more you play, the more you hear. It just keeps opening up. There’s always another door to open, another corner to turn, another world to discover. That’s the great thrill of music  – you never get to the end of it. You’ve got to develop a sense of humility about it if you’re going to keep from going crazy.”

 

His exploration resides in both the sound and the silence.

“It’s just new ways of looking at harmony, new ways of looking at space, and use of notes, and understanding in a deeper way the relationship of silence and sound. The sound and the silence are of equal value.”

 

David Sanborn Quintet to Grace Enlow Recital Hall

 

Music is mystery.

“If you look at music as interrupting the silence, the sound only has meaning in the silence that surrounds you,” he said. “What you’re doing as any artist is manipulating space. You have to honor those spaces where you’re not. Especially if you’re playing in a group, it’s not all about what you’re doing, it’s how you interact with people and where you play and don’t play. It’s a conversation you want to keep interesting, dynamic and engaged.”

In terms of new directions he’s ventured into as an artist, he said, “I don’t know if it’s so much a matter of my tastes changing or what I’m interested in pursuing has changed, but I mean the basic thrust of it is that I’m curious about things, about life in general and because music is the centerpiece of my life, about music.

The seeking and learning never stops.

“It’s always going to change. Somebody’s going to have something else to say. It depends on the venue, how the audience reacts to you. You need to respond to all of that. So if you look at it that way, it never gets old, and it’s always new and you’re always discovering new things.”

As for jazz, he said, “the idea of collective improvisation and what the rules are are constantly being redefined.”

 

“You can’t keep recreating a style or an era of the music because then it’s just a museum piece. Jazz is an evolving, vital, art form. The reason it holds such fascination is because it’s a very challenging art form where you’re composing on the spot. That’s a high wire act. It’s tremendously rewarding.”

Just as jazz is it’s own reward, he feels jazz travels its own journey and remains as relevant today as when it started. It may have a relatively small following compared to other music forms, but it’s hardly an endangered genre.

“It depends on what you think jazz is,” Sanborn said. “If jazz is a concept, if jazz is a philosophy, then it’s not going to end. It responds to the times. It incorporates elements from other types of music. if you want to break down music in terms of types. I don’t like to do that. But jazz is always going to be evolving.

 

“What we call jazz now would not necessarily have been called jazz in 1930. Maybe not. But jazz in 1930 or 1920 is not necessarily what jazz is today. So is it dead? Well, I don’t think so. I don’t think anybody would think so. If you think of jazz as a fixed thing – like this is jazz – you’d be missing the point. The same with pop or classical. It’s just music. It’s people telling their story. And they use different means to tell their story.

 

“What we loosely call jazz is one way of doing it. It reflects a certain time and place and geography. All of that.”

Washington Garcia’s international music career finds perfect balance in Omaha

December 26, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Washington Garcia’s international music career finds perfect balance in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

UNO School of Music Director Washington Garcia’s destiny was set the first time he tickled the keys of his grandmother’s piano at age 4 in his native Ecuador.

“I’ve always considered myself blessed to know my purpose in life from very early on,” Garcia said. “That’s a gift not many people have. My family knew my mission was to come to the United States one day. They trained me from a young age to prepare for it. They had me learn English. They mentored me so I would mature to be in a leadership position.”

Though born into a musical family, he’s the only one to have made music a career. His father’s a retired neurosurgeon. His mother, a retired accountant.

His talent was so evident that by 6 he enrolled in Ecuador’s National Conservatory of Music. His first public performance came at 7. Recognizing the prodigy in their midst, conservatory leaders created a program for him. He advanced quickly enough to debut with the Ecuadorian National Symphony Orchestra at only 15.

He won several prestigious piano competitions. He made his international debut in Chile. He’s since performed all over Europe as well as in Canada, Israel, Mexico, Colombia, Japan and China.

Whatever he’s done and wherever he’s gone, he’s felt his parents’ support.

“They knew instinctively music was going to be my tool to connect Ecuador with the world. My parents opened many doors for me because of their perseverance.”

He enjoys national hero status in his native land as a recipient of the Outstanding Cultural Achievement medal – the highest recognition the Ecuadorian National Assembly awards an individual for artistic excellence.

Getting this far has meant sacrifice.

“I didn’t really have a normal childhood practicing piano five or six hours a day in addition to going to private piano and English lessons, doing regular school courses and homework and attending the National Conservatory.

“These were highly intensive academic and artistic activities I invested all of myself into. I don’t regret it. I would do exactly the same thing again.”

He feels in music he’s found the great common ground.

“Music has the power to connect us all,” he said. “When I travel abroad, language is a barrier, but the moment I perform music it connects us. Music is the language of the soul. I’ve created so many relationships and associations with people who don’t speak a word of English. They understand immediately that music is a bridge between cultures.”

The University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Music he leads is all about making connections.

Said Garcia, “Music has so many angles that impact community. We place music teachers in the schools. Our faculty tour the nation and world. We host an international music festival and visiting teaching artists.”

“We have been able to enhance our visibility on a national and international level. It allows us to bring the world to Omaha. We’re like an ambassador for the city.”

Coming to Omaha culminated a love affair with America. He first came to the U.S. in the late 1990s as a Kennedy Center Fellow in Washington D.C. That led him to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he earned his master’s and doctorate.

“I was the institute”s youngest Latin American graduate in piano performance.”

He taught there before being hired by Texas State University. He became assistant director of TSU’s music school. Then “the right opportunity” appeared at UNO. A national search for the founding director of UNO’s newly established school of music led recruiters to Garcia. He and his wife Valeria moved to Omaha in December 2015. He assumed the post the following January.

In addition to administrative duties, he’s a full tenured professor of piano at UNO.

“I run my life based on mission and one of my missions is to teach and give to others what I have received in terms of artistic and academic knowledge.”

He arrived in the middle of the school year during an accreditation review.

“It was a challenge,” he said, “but I’ve always loved challenges as opportunities to learn and grow from. Still, it almost felt like somebody dropped me from a plane and I had no idea if I had a parachute or not. I pulled the plug on what looked like a parachute. It opened and then I looked for the safest place to land. I landed and  started running and I haven’t stopped since.

“It’s been a really fast pace. We’ve accomplished a lot of initiatives and collaborations. We would like to establish the School of Music as one of the top academic and artistic institutions in Nebraska and the nation. We have    everything it takes – a great faculty and support from the community and the university – to make this happen.”

Like his faculty, he also performs. He’s played with the Omaha Symphony and he does special engagements nationally and internationally.

Every performance is an opportunity to serve.

“I pray every time before I perform that God will help me inspire those who hear me with the gift of music. I want to be for young people who desire a career in music but may not have the means what my parents were for me.”

He feels fortunate.

“The U.S. gave me a free education, a job and continues giving me the opportunity to serve others. That is why this is my home. When I go to Ecuador or anywhere abroad  I feel like a visitor. After a week I’m ready to go back home.

“My wife and I know we have a mission to complete here in Omaha. This is our family.”

He and Valeria have a 2-year-old child and are expecting their second child in December.

Visit washingtongarcia.com.

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

Keiko Matsui: Music of the heart

December 9, 2018 Leave a comment

Keiko Matsui: Music of the heart

©by Leo Adam Biga,

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of The Reader (www/thereader.com)

Keiko Matsui

 

When the Dave Koz and Friends Christmas tour wends its way to Omaha’s Orpheum Theatre on Monday, December 10, Keiko Matsui will be among the guest artists.

 

A native of Japan, Matsui is a composer and pianist whose music defies easy categorization. The industry labels her ethereal, emotive, rhapsodic sounds as smooth jazz, new age or adult contemporary. She burst on the scene by earning Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Artist of the Year nod i 1996.

After 30-plus years of global recording and touring, she identifies as a world citizen. She won’t be the only international artist at the 7:30 p.m. Omaha show though, as South African guitarist-singer Jonathan Butler will join American saxophonists Koz and Mindi Abair and American vocalist Shelea.

Each artist on the bill has followed an independent path.

Matsui’s journey has seen her break down barriers. Born in Tokyo, the classically trained Matsui draws on jazz, rock, pop and other forms in a blend of Western and Eastern influences that transcends boxes, For Matsui. making music is a direct expression of her innermost being that intimately connects to people.

“Maybe the music business people need to categorize – but not me,” she said by phone from her Southern California home. “It is just my music and I express myself through it. Of course, you might find some influences in it from different genres, but I really hope my melodies touch the human heart.”

This mantra informed the title of her last album, “Journey to the Heart.” Now she’s doing the final mix on a new album set to release in February. As usual, this new work will feature all original compositions.

“Each album is like a mirror whose music is reflecting me – my thoughts, my experiences and my emotions at that time. For me, it’s not just an album. It is a statement expressing myself – how I am,, how I want to be.”

Always open to discovery, on “Journey to the Heart” she collaborated with noted Cuban musicians who toured with her. For her new album and forthcoming tour she’s exploring a hybrid of acoustic and electric sounds with musicians she goes back with a long time.

“It’s like a reunion,” she said.

Matsui sincerely believes in the ability of music to heal and to unite. She feels its salve is more important than ever in a world of great hurt and division.

“There are so many problems on this Earth. Everyone has a reason and a theory. Whatever it is, music will affect it some way,” she said. “I feel music has magical power to change something on this Earth. I really feel this is my mission. I receive the melodies and I create the albums and I deliver my music by traveling to different places. I travel across the U.S., Europe, Africa and Asia, so I see many different audiences.

“At every concert in every country I really feel the experience that my music unites – no matter people’s nationality or ethnic  background. Music goes beyond those things. Music has no borders.”

She often hears from fans who use her music as a soothing, meditative aid. Some physicians report using it in operating and birthing rooms. Artists tell her they create to it. Matsui appreciates its many applications.

“I’ve learned through these experiences that my music really touches people and connects to their lives very deeply. I feel honored and grateful my music is living with someone else.”

But the composer-instrumentalist doesn’t consciously try to conjure a tune. It just happens.

“I never intentionally set out to write a single song. They just come to me. I hear the melody and I catch the melody and I go where the melody goes. I have pure freedom to create anything. I can draw on a blank canvas. I feel there is infinite possibility.

“It is not like me trying to compose melodies. It is like a very mystical thing I receive. Sometimes I hear it in my dreams. When I wake up and the melody’s still there, then that’s it – this has a special bond. Sometimes a song is really speaking to me in my head. It’s ringing all the time. Then I’m like, I’ve got it, I will record you.”

Her creative method is about quiet, stillness and receptivity.

“When I am composing I am not thinking anything and I am not forming any words because I just want to have the freedom. By listening, my music can go anywhere I sit down at the piano waiting to hear something from   somewhere. I feel I am touching notes from the silence in this magical ceremony and time. It’s very spiritual.

“Once I start hearing it then I catch the melodies of the piece and I write it down on music sheets or I record it on my iphone. I collect about 100 or so motifs before I start really narrowing down to the 10 best songs. I go through the same process for every album. There are all these things happening when I am  in the creative mode and this upcoming album was mostly like that. That for me is a good sign.”

Music is her livelihood, but so much more.

“Of course. I am making a living with my music,” Matsui said, “but for me music is not a business, it’s not just a job. For me this is a special opportunity to connect to other souls. Some of my really loyal fans who have been living with my music for over 30 years are really spiritual and they really dig into the elements. I really feel we have a special bond.”

Devoted Matsui fans will no doubt be out in force for her rare Omaha appearance, where she’ll likely win new fans, too. The communion she feels she and her music makes with audiences extends on-stage.

“During the show I am pouring my heart and soul into it. I’m using lots of energy and expressing lots of emotion and I am receiving the same from my fans. It is like exchanging energy together. We share an emotional experience together.”

Visit TicketOmaha.com or call 402.345.0606 for tickets and details.

Follow the artist at http://www.keikomatsui.com.

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

 

KeikoMatsui_MainVisual

 

Chip Davis: The man behind the Steamroller machine

November 26, 2018 3 comments

 

The man behind the Steamroller machine

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of New Horizons

Music is a birthright for Grammy Award-winning American Gramophone and Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis.

The Omaha transplant has built an international following with his music, which has earned some half a billion dollars in retail sales over four decades. Millions more have come from performing multimedia concert dates across the U.S. and the world.

An acknowledged entrepreneurial and branding whiz, he’s leveraged his music’s appeal to partner with Walt Disney Company, NBC, Universal Studios, NASA and the National Parks System.

In terms of fame and riches, only one other Nebraska musician can rival Davis singer-composer Paul Williams, a Grammy and Oscar-winner. But where Williams is a solo act, Davis fronts a multi-dimensional machine under the Mannheim Steamroller name.

Davis maintains a large production-recording-distribution complex in North Omaha. It covers five acres and four buildings, three of which are interconnected. He sponsors two national touring bands performing Steamroller’s popular Christmas catalogue. The tours nearly rival the Nebraska Theatre Caravan’s tours of A Christmas Carol.

Due to a bum arm from neck surgery, Davis no longer tours, though he still makes surprise appearances. His touring musicians travel via luxury buses, but the grueling every night schedule is too strenuous for him.

His private Hawker 900 XP jet gets him wherever he needs to go quickly and in comfort. He keeps a vacation home in Florida.

In December he’ll fly to Orlando to conduct a 60-piece orchestra at Universal Studios playing the music from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The concerts are held in an outdoor bandshell he calls “absolutely beautiful.”

He creates and oversees a branded line of non-music products, including food items that range from a spay-on meat baste to a cinnamon hot chocolate mix.

Breaking the mold

This third-generation musician from small town Ohio is credited with helping give birth to the New Age genre for his signature fusion of classical and rock. Before that though he was hard on the path of becoming a symphony orchestra player. But then a funny thing happened on the way to his dream. He went from the world of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart to the great American Songbook to a rock opera to advertising jingles to winning country music writer of the year to hitting upon his synthesized Steamroller sound of baroque meets easy listening.

It wasn’t the first time someone in his musical family made a detour. His parents made their own break from classical to commercial. His father Louis played saxophone in the Glenn Miller touring band. His mother Betty played trombone in the NBC Symphony and in Phil Spitalny’s All Girl Orchestra.

His family’s connections to American popular music run deep. His country doctor grandfather loved the (John Philip) Sousa marches and the lead trombonist in the Sousa band taught Chip’s mother in high school.

His folks. plus an aunt and uncle, studied at the University of Michigan’s prestigious music school. His father taught music, led choirs and built instruments. His  mother also taught music. Davis intended following suit as a teacher and classical performer.

Influences

Reflecting on how much of his own musical predisposition is inherited and how much is a result of environment and exposure, he said, “I think there’s probably a combination of both. I grew up around it. Third generation both sides of my family.  Music was flowing in my veins from the time I was born. In fact, my mother said when I was 6-months old I could hum the melody to ‘Silent Night,’ which is pretty crazy at that age. So I must be just full of music.”

The precocious only child started on piano at 4 with his grandmother as his first teacher. He conducted in front of the family console radio. At 6 he composed a four-part chorale ode to his pet dog, Stormy, who died.

“It broke my heart.”

In addition to being immersed in music and feeling compelled to create it, he said, “I had some of the best teachers you could ever have.” His accomplished father taught music theory-music history and was Chip’s main teacher through high school.

“I had all of that and then I went to the University of Michigan’s famous music school.”

For his primary instrument, Davis chose bassoon though he’s best known as a percussionist. It may surprise some this instrumental icon was a singer through his early 20s.

“I sang in a boys choir when I was about 10-years old in Oregon after our family moved there.”

He was invited to sing with the Vienna Boys Choir.

The family moved back to Ohio, where Davis was in his dad’s high school choir.

At Michigan Davis sang in the glee club and played drums in the marching band. He joined select students performing with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra.

His classical tradition focus was so intense he missed the en vogue music of the 1960s.

“I wasn’t sensitive to it at all. I mean, I certainly knew who Diana Ross and the Supremes were because they were right over in Detroit. I had roommates not in music that would go to concerts at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. But it kind of slipped by me. I was so classically oriented that I didn’t really notice what was going on.”

While his friends listened to the latest hits from Motown and British Invasion rock bands, he stuck to classical.

“I listened to WJR Detroit – a big 100,000 watt AM station –  primarily because Karl Haas (later an NPR fixture) had a classical music program on every day and I would listen to that. I actually learned quite a lot from his explanations of different things, of composers and pieces and the way they’re constructed.”

Music kept him so preoccupied he was oblivious to the Vietnam War and civil rights protests on the Michigan campus, which was a hotbed of student activism.

“I didn’t even notice that.”

He did not participate in the counter-culture revolution at Michigan, but the school gave him the foundation for his professional music career.

“I still have a close connection with them,” he said. “When I was first there as a student the university opened a new music building. Now they’ve added a new wing and I’m fortunate enough to have my name on the Chip Davis Technology Studio. It’s full of computers and things we use for composing today.”

He donated about a million dollars to create the tech suite, which serves as a project workshop, research laboratory and multimedia gallery for courses in Sound Recording and Production, Interactive Media Design, Immersive Media and Performance Systems.

Davis finds it ironic that Michigan became a legacy school – “a lot of family ended up there” – when his family’s from Ohio, not Michigan.

Little did he know a youthful fascination with electronics  would be revisited when his music career took off.

“I had this ridiculous notion in high school I was going to go into electrical engineering – until I found how much math it took. Then I was like, Well, I’m pretty good at music, I guess maybe I’ll do that. I built electrical things, including an oscilloscope, from a Heath kit. For a senior science project I used it to analyze music notes. For example, flute is almost all sign waves.”

He could never have imagined how electronics would intersect with his music years later.

“Right, exactly,” he said in his state-of-the-art recording studio where everything’s digitally programmed.

The room’s on its third control board, though it too has grown nearly obsolete in the new digital age, he said.

“We don’t even use it anymore. Everything’s done on Pro Tools” (an Avid Technology digital audio workstation for Microsoft Windows and macOS). Everything’s in the computer as far as controlling levels and all that.”

Exploration

Ever the searcher, Davis loves the freedom technology affords to explore.

“Something astounding you can do today you couldn’t just a few years ago is sample different instruments. I have a new album coming out called ‘Exotic Spaces.’ I wrote pieces about exotic spaces like the Taj Mahal. I had access through Pro Tools to all these Indian instruments. I wrote with those instruments and I did it in the style of Indian music but with my Mannheim spin.

“I wrote another piece about Egyptian pyramids and I found Egyptian instruments, including one called the nay, which is a flute that almost sounds like a bagpipe.”

Perhaps his “farthest out” experiments have involved capturing natural sounds.

“I’m a scuba diver. I’m way into that,” he said. “I have Navy grade hydrophones because I’m interested in capturing sound under the surface of the ocean. On one dive we recorded a whale singing. On this new album ‘Exotic Spaces’ I use the whale song as the basis for a song I wrote the accompaniment around.

“I almost always write in the key of C because you don’t have sharps and flats and all that unless you want to add them. It’s an easy key signature to maneuver around in. Well, that darn whale was singing in the key of C. I had no idea beforehand. but when I put down the whale song track in the mix  I discovered it was singing in the same key I write in.”

His Ambience series records terrestrial sounds.

“I’ve got microphones out in the woods back on my farm. They’re 200 feet apart in a square and record the sounds of nature out there. The sound engineers here come out and run the gear for me.

“I wanted to go further. I used to go to Canyon Ranch (Arizona) quite frequently as a chill-out place. Once, my crew and I home-based there and went out and recorded desert sounds, which are entirely different from Great Plains sounds. Then we went to the west coast and got the sounds of waves.”

On a Northern Minnesota excursion to record loons he and his crew arrived at Black Duck Lake. Listening devices were strategically placed before inclement weather set in. The team holed up in a cabin listening to what the remote devices picked up.

“Out of the blue, we heard a loon. I said, ‘Hey, hit the record button quick.’ We were getting this great loon sound. Then all of a sudden the door to the cabin opens and my son comes in, saying, ‘Did you get that?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘That’s a loon whistle i got down at the Sinclair station.'”

Integrating music wit nature adds an ethereal depth of atmosphere and background listeners find soothing.

“I write the music over it. I write the music around the sounds. The sounds take precedence. The amount of music content is maybe only a third out of an hour. It’s not music heavy, it’s nature heavy. We’re hardwired to recognize those sounds.”

The Ambience series is available in four-channel DVDs. Davis sends film crews to capture images of nature that are then married with the nature sounds and music.

“People can play the DVDs in their home theater systems. Within three minutes, you are there. You close your eyes and you’re in the desert, you’re at the ocean. It seems to be real good chill out kind of stuff.”

He’s since applied this nature-music sonic approach to health and healing. His Ambience Medical company creates calming psychoacoustic tracks for use in medical settings. His Ambient Therapy combines specially-recorded sounds of nature with distinctive music content via a patented Ambient Therapy System.

The system is used in post-op treatment rooms at the Mayo Clinic, for example.

He also has a series on seasons.

Nature

This work combining nature with music has intersected with his abiding passion for wildlife conservation. His interest in the natural world, he said, goes back to his childhood, when he “played all the time in the woods.”

His “Yellowstone: The Music of Nature” project raised over $3 million for conservation efforts between the concert tour and album.

“I did ‘True Wilderness’ for Glacier National Park. The head ranger at the time was from my dad’s high school choir. She had grown up in my hometown. One of those quirky things. I did ‘Saving the Wildlife’ in conjunction with Lee Simmons as a fundraiser for the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo’s Species Survival program.”

He recently gave $350,000 to fund an Eagle Mew for the Raptor Woodland Refuge at Fontenelle Forest.

At his 150-acre farm nestled in Ponca Hills north of Omaha, Davis keeps horses and wolves. A buddy built his rustic-chic 10,000 square foot Swiss Chalet-style home there.

From classical to country

The expansive breadth of his musical life may not have blossomed had he not diverged from the classical path. Soon after graduating college he got an opportunity that changed the course of his life and career when he signed to sing with the famed Norman Luboff Choir.

“I met Norman when he came to do a workshop in Toledo. He took new singers on every year. I asked if I could audition and at his invitation I went to his New York apartment to audition. He hired me on the spot.”

Singing tenor with Luboff freed Davis to be more diverse in his own music appreciation and experimentation

“Absolutely. It was the way Norman was. He wrote original compositions but he was a fabulous arranger.

He had songs of the West and songs of the South, and we did those different songs on tour. So I became very familiar with a lot of different styles that my classical      upbringing kept a clamp on. It really opened a floodgate of, Hey, let’s try this.”

Thus, when Davis came to Omaha for an early ’70s workshop, he was ripe for branching off in new directions. While here he met the late noted choral conductor Mel Olson (Master Singers), who informed him Talk of the Town Dinner Theatre needed a music director for a regional production of Hair.

Davis had never seen the musical but was just curious enough about the opportunity to apply. He got the gig.

“They needed somebody to rewrite the arrangements from the Broadway size down to where it could be played by a handful of players. I wasn’t familiar with any of that type of music and I had to learn it and then figure out how to rearrange it. So I did.”

The show proved a smash.

“We did six shows a week. It was supposed to run six weeks and it ran 26.”

Singer-actress Karla DeVito was in that production and Davis became good friends with her. She later performed with national rock acts, on Broadway and in feature films. She’s married to actor Robby Benson.

Omaha began as a waystop for Davis but he found his creative home and career-making work here.

“It completely opened me up. During that time I met the guys at Sound Recorders. They asked me to write jingles for their ad agency clients, On my off days (he was teaching) I started writing jingles. I found out I could make a really good living doing that.”

He became music director at Sound Recorders, where  he met Bozell & Jacobs creative director Bill Fries.

“Bill and I started on the C.W. McCall path and that just took precedence over everything.”

 

“Convoy” Creators Chip Davis and William Fries Roll On To Success

 

Some Steamroller fans are too young to remember, but Davis first made the big-time writing music to a series of Old Home Bread commercials penned by Fries. The folksy campaign was built around a fictional trucker named C.W. McCall, the Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep-on-a-Truckin’ Café and a waitress named Mavis.

“Bill was writing these sagas of C.W. McCall and he was trying to find voice talent to do it the way he heard it in his head and the guys at the studio said, you sound great doing it, just do it yourself. I got involved writing the arrangements and songs .

“The C.W. McCall thing picked up and really took off.

People knew the commercials.”

The spots not only boosted the regional food company’s sales but caught the attention of media, advertising and music executives, especially when the campaign won the ad world’s highest honor – the Clio.

“Then we started writing a lot of original material,” said Davis. “I think we wrote 90 songs altogether.”

Realizing they were onto something big, Davis, Fries and Sound Recorders owner Don Sears formed American Gramophone to capitalize on these country and western musical tales, which they packaged and released as albums and singles.

“When we made the first 45 (record) we got it into all the jukeboxes. We had an ad campaign with a budget of $50. We turned it all into quarters. Everybody at the studio would grab a pocketful of quarters and go punch up the tune on jukeboxes at bars around town so that people could hear it and know that it existed.

“Later, we hired an independent promoter to go out and plug radio. In a very short period of time we sold 350,000 units.”

A subsequent single, “Wolf Creek Pass.'” was a crossover hit – even making Casey Kasem’s nationally syndicated “American Top 40” countdown show..

The second McCall album, “Black Bear Road,” contained a song called “Convoy” with an elaborate CB (Citizens Band) radio narrative. To everyone’s surprise, the single went viral.

“On the album we had ‘Convoy’ buried in the middle, as the seventh cut, because we thought it was too crazy. The DJs found it on their own. The DJs made that work. We didn’t push it at all.”

The success of “Convoy” led to commercial endorsement deals for CB radios, even lawnmowers.

Nashville came calling.

It even led to a 1978 major motion picture, Convoy, that took the song as its title. The legendary but troubled Sam Peckinpah directed the movie for EMI Films. It starred A-listers Kris Kristofferson, Ali McGraw, Burt Young and Ernest Borgnine.

The film shot in New Mexico. At that point in his life Peckinpah was an alcoholic and drug addict. He was nearly fired from the chaotic production and when he submitted a nearly four-hour long cut, the studio did ax him and editor Garth Craven. A new editor, Graeme Clifford, recut the film and drastically shortened it. Davis was then approached to score the film that his song inspired. The studio asked Davis to record a sample track before committing to him.

“They wanted me to record it in L.A. and I said, ‘No, I want to record it in Omaha.’ They were like, ‘All right, go try it.’ I recorded two or three cuts and synched it to film. We knew how to do all that stuff down at Sound Recorders. I took the sample out to L.A. and played it for the suits and they said, ‘You’ve got the job.’ I asked, ‘When do you need it?’ ‘Three weeks.'”

Doing a complete film score in that short of a window pushed Davis to the limit but he loved the challenge.

“It was frame-to-frame scoring. I had to synchronize all the music to the cuts.”

The movie did good box-office, due no doubt in part to its subject coinciding with the CB craze.

 

 

Finding his niche with Mannheim Steamroller

Davis was tempted to try his luck as a freelance film scorer in L.A. but thought better of it.

“It’s right when Mannheim Steamroller was about to start. I thought if I go out to L.A. I’m going to be up against these hot composers like James Horner and John Williams and I just decided that seems pretty competitive and out of my control. But I have a lot more control with my own record label and music back in Omaha, where I have a shot of maybe making   something out of this.”

The money Davis made off McCall funded his 18th century classical rock endeavor. As Davis readied his first Steamroller album, ‘Fresh Aire I,’ he had no idea how it would be received by the masses.

The first inkling he was onto something came from music producer Jimmy Bowen and TV music composer Mike Post, whose engineer John Boyd went to work for Davis.

“I played a couple tracks off of ‘Fresh Aire I’ and they said, ‘That’s what you should be doing. This McCall thing is great, you’ll make a bunch of money on it, your ship’s coming in, but this unique blend of classical and rock is worth exploring.'”

The first market inroad came when Sound Recorders owner Don Sears “got placement for the first ‘Fresh Aire’ album in hi-fi stores,” said Davis. “Then we started going to the Consumer Electronics Show, renting a booth and passing out these albums as demo material.”

Davis and Fries found a formula in McCall that worked in the country category, “but this was a completely different animal,” since no one had ever heard anything quite like ‘Fresh Aire’ before.

“I wanted to call it eclectic because it’s eclectic music. The retailers all thought I said electric,” Davis recalled.

Even Davis wasn’t sure what he had.

“I was so classical that when writing the first ‘Fresh Aire’ album I thought I was writing rock ‘n’ roll. I had no idea it was still sounding like classical music to a lot of people. I didn’t realize what I was doing and that this hybrid mix was coming out as a combination. Just because I put bass and drums with it didn’t make it rock. I kind of forgot I still had harpsichord and string orchestras in it.”

Do it yourself

Being an independent music creator and record producer may have been his greatest stroke of genius.

“The really fortunate thing for me is that the RCAs and industry guys I pitched it too did not take it. If they had taken it and if it didn’t work right away, I would have been dead in the water and never would have recovered. By distributing it ourselves, showing up with a trunk-full of records at Homer’s and other places around town, we got a good jumpstart right here in Omaha. That taught me how to go on with it.”

Besides, “he said, “I had more passion for it I’m sure than they did in New York or Los Angeles because it was my creation. And I had more control.”

He suddenly found himself both a musician and a businessman.

“The music part, I certainly was prepared for, but I had no business training at all. I was really flying seat of the pants trying to figure out how to run a company and how to promote and how to advertise and sell and do distribution and all that.”

What explains the appeal of his music and it selling something like 50 million units to date?

“Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s different and it has a sound of its own.”

Mannheim Steamroller merchandising not only includes food lines but casual clothing, holiday books and personal comfort items like lotions and candles. Davis calls it “connect-the-dots marketing.”

For him, it’s all part of the same creative urge.

“it comes from the same place the music comes from. It’s just another way to do what I do and create. I mean, I love all of it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

His family enjoyed the ride as Steamroller gained momentum and found unexpected mega success.

“When I first started touring with my own band my parents went went me. My dad was part of the crew as the piano tuner. Mom went along, too. They went all over the place with us. They were really proud.”

When Davis needed a harpsichord with a distinct sound, his father built him one.

Fringe benefits

Travels for his music have brought him to Great Britain to record with the London Symphony Orchestra, St. Petersburg, Russia to score the Goodwill Games, the Czech Republic to record with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the namesake of his group’s name, Mannheim, as part of a nine-city tour in Germany.

“I’ve been all over the place/”

He’s recorded with notable guest artists such as popular pop singer Johnny Mathis and he produced an album with the late superstar John Denver. Denver went morel mushroom hunting on Davis’ farm.

Davis’ wide-ranging interests have given him access to NASA space subtle launches. He provided the technology to make hyper-accurate film-sound recordings of Discovery and Atlantis launches. He’s met several astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin.

Mannheim Steamroller has performed at the Lighting of the National Christmas Tree ceremony during the Clinton, George W. Bush and Trump administrations.

“I’m around a lot of cool people and get to see a lot of cool things.”

His celebrity isn’t something he dwells on.

“You don’t think about fame when you are concentrating on composing and producing music and building your own record label-company and planning for the future.”

Davis is grateful his music resonates with so many.

“I couldn’t do this without my fans obviously.”

He’s also wise enough to know he’s often been in the right place at the right time.

“I feel very fortunate I’ve had the retail breaks I’ve had. People gave me a shot with my 1984 Christmas album (the first of many Xmas recordings). With their help, we got it out there. I’m really fortunate to have run across these people and to be given those opportunities.”

 

 

 

Ties that bind

There there’s the artists he’s gathered around him for studio sessions and concerts. He credits concertmaster and violinist Arnie Roth with landing stellar classical musicians.

“We’re talking real big-deal players from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra I could never have gotten to myself. French Horn superstar Dale Clevenger played all my sessions. We had just monster players in the studio. I couldn’t have done it without Arnie.

“And my musicians are just intensely loyal.”

For the Steamroller tours, contract musicians are hired at each stop to join the touring players to create a great big sound machine on stage.

The first violin player Davis hired to play, Steve Shipps, is associate dean at UM’s School of Music and he sits in as lead violinist whenever Steamroller plays in that area.

“It’s like a gigantic family of musicians stationed in different places,” Davis said.

Some of Omaha’s best known musicians have collaborated with Steamroller: Jackson and Almeda Berkey, Joey Gulizia, Ron Cooley, Becky Kia, Chuck Penington.

The music connections are everywhere.

Omaha native Jonathan Swoboda plays keyboards in the Universal Studios orchestra Davis conducts. Swoboda’s father was the attorney who trademarked American Gramophone for Davis.

Davis has had the same business partner and the same agent for decades. He became-remains friends with the head buyer who got his work in Target.

“These relationships have lasted,” he said.

A gift shared

Most of all Davis is grateful for the gift of music and the ability to share it. He feels obligated to.

“This music comes into me from somewhere. I don’t know where. I feel like it comes from above or from God or the ultimate creator. I feel its pouring into me and it just kind of leaks out.

“Sometimes it comes to me in my sleep.”

He may awaken in the middle of the night with an idea and stay up all night to write it. He keeps a voice recorder handy to whistle or hum notes that appear.

The framework for his music is always classically based.

“There are very distinct forms like a Rondo form, a Saraband form. I follow those forms but I plug my own notes into them. It’s a super structure.”

Making a difference with his music is icing on the cake.

“Doing things for people like the Ambience project makes me feel I’m repurposing different things I have  been given a shot at doing. To not take advantage of it would be a sin.”

He’s made sizable donations of CDs to U.S. troops, military hospitals, the VFW and military support groups.

For the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum’s 20th anniversary gala on October 19 he conducted Mannheim Steamroller in concert and led the audience in singing the national anthem.

He’s far more comfortable in the studio than on the stage, where there are no do-overs.

“You’re only as good as your last performance. You can make mistakes out there in front of a bunch of people.”

The gregarious Davis is surprisingly shy.

“The thing that bothers me the most is talking to the audience.”

Doing press is another thing he’d rather not do, though he does a lot of it. He’s employed a high-priced interview coach to help him hone his message.

The family musical line hasn’t stopped with Davis. He said his two daughters are “really good singers.” He wrote an album for his youngest, Elyse. She’s yet to commit to music as a career. “I wish she’d pursue music,” he said. “Maybe she will later. It has to be on her own terms.”

Davis himself is still exploring new ground.

He and Mark Valenti co-wrote a boxed-set audio book, The Wolf and the Warlander, inspired by the friendship between a horse and a wolf who’ve grown up together on Chip’s farm.

The two men wrote the book in the Tiki-style hut Davis keeps in Florida.

“When we got done with the last chapter it was sad – we were having such a good time creating,” Davis said.

He could live and work anywhere but Omaha continues being his permanent home. Why leave where it all happened for him?

“The hand of God put me down here in this town and said, ‘You will create,” he said, laughing. Seriously, he added, “I wouldn’t want to be in any other place. There’s a lot of freedom here. A lot of memories.”

Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller will perform Christmas concerts at the Orpheum Theater on December 22 and 23.

Visit http://www.mannheimsteamroller.com.

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

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