Archive

Archive for the ‘Musician’ Category

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.

Advertisements

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.

Music is legacy and salvation for classical cowboy Hadley Heavin

September 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Music is legacy and salvation for classical cowboy Hadley Heavin

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the October 2018 issue of New Horizons

Hadley Heavin encountered a personal crossroads in the 1970s. He was a Vietnam War veteran with a background playing blues-rock guitar and competing in rodeo -– pursuits he thought he’d left behind. Little did he know he was about to embark on an improbable road less traveled as a classical cowboy.

He’s long taught classical guitar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He also taught at College of Saint Mary, Creighton University, Union College and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’s given countless master classes, residencies and recitals. He and his band Tablao were fixtures at Espana and Little Espana.

Forty-five years ago though he was adrift. It was a dark period of his life. The light in his life returned when he discovered classical guitar. He no sooner taught himself to play that style when, in storybook fashion, he was discovered by Spanish master Segundo Pastor. The maestro passed onto his protege the art form’s direct lineage from its multi-generational source.

Heavin lived nearly a year in Madrid, where daily lessons and hard work made this country boy weaned on American roots music a virtuosic classical player. The men’s lives were intertwined for a decade. Heavin healed and reinvented himself as a performer and educator, taking up riding and roping again.

Musical roots

Heavin’s life has a way of coming around in full circles. Growing up an all-around athlete and a musician in the Ozarks, he became known for both his horsemanship and musicianship. His grandfather, father and uncles all played guitar professionally – swing and jazz – and young Hadley emerged the family prodigy, playing with his father’s band before gravitating to blues and rock. He played some drums but guitar was his destiny.

“Making music was just something we did,” Heavin said, “I was a little freak because I could play really well. I grew up in an environment thinking everybody was like this. I couldn’t believe it when a kid couldn’t sing or carry a tune or do something with music.”

About his father, E.C. Heavin, he said, “I haven’t heard anybody any better than he was. I had a lot of admiration for the kind of music he played. He knew the guitar perfectly. He couldn’t read music, but he could walk up on stage and play anything. He was amazing.”

Hadley’s Uncle Frog still cuts some mean licks at 90.

Athletic ability was another birthright. Frog played pro baseball as did Heavin’s mother.

Losing himself in the war

Hadley made the football team at the University of Kansas as a walk-on and showed promise on the Midwest rodeo circuit. Then he got drafted into the U.S. Army. His carefree existence vanished. Trained to be a killing machine, he fulfilled tours of life or death duty. The searing experience made the music inside him stop. He was unsure if it would ever return.

As a forward observer and artillery fire officer with 1st Field Force, he shuttled from one hot LZ to another with an M79 grenade launcher.

“I was what they called a ‘bastard.’ I would work with all different units. They would just send me wherever they needed me. I was on hill tops, some I can remember like LZ Lily. I was at Dactau and Ben Het during the siege. We were surrounded for like 30 days. I was in the jungle the whole time, mostly in the north, in Two Corps, close to the border of Laos and Cambodia.

“I saw base camp twice.”

Wounded by an AK47 round in a fire fight, he came home to recover. Stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, he impulsively entered the bare back at a local rodeo.

“I drew a pretty rank horse, plus I hadn’t ridden in years and I was still sore from my war injuries. The horse came out and bucked towards the fence and my spur hung in the fence and hung me upside down, facing the opposite way. He was kicking me in the back as he was bucking away. I got hurt. I could hardly walk that night. When I got back to base they were mad at me because I couldn’t pull my duty. Here I was a decorated combat vet, and they were going to court-martial me.”

Cooler heads prevailed and he completed his military service with an honorable discharge. Like so many combat brethren, he returned home broken.

“I was having bad PTSD. I didn’t know where my life was going. I wasn’t necessarily a violent person but that’s what I was used to. It kind of becomes no big deal at some point in your life. It becomes a big deal after the fact when you’ve got PTSD.”

He resents the morally bankrupt orders he followed.

“Emotionally, I was a mess from the war just as much for the atrocities I was forced to commit than what actually happened to me because there’s always collateral damage. You see that and you see that you’re responsible for it. It doesn’t turn off. It never does.

“I had some years there where I had a hard time because I felt I was part of something that was wrong.”

Then there’s the physical toll.

“I have a broken immune system because of Agent Orange. It became hard for me to travel. I started getting sick in my 50s. Every time I’d fly somewhere to play a concert I’d play with a fever or something. That got really old. It’s curtailed my travel.”

Adding insult to injury, he said the VA “won’t help – you’ve got to be near death before they’ll help you with that.” In the meantime, he said, the effects “can destroy your life and career.” His request for treatment went before an evaluation board who denied him care.

“I’m just shocked this country doesn’t treat its veterans very well. They just aren’t. I’ve been to the VA hospital. It’s not like going to a normal hospital. You’re just a number. These patients are the guys that fight for their country. They should have the same health care as everyone. Everybody says thank you for your service. Well, that doesn’t help very much. Why don’t you vote for somebody that’s going to help the veterans?”

Coming back to music

In his post-war funk he quit music, roping and riding. But those passions kept calling him back.

“I suffered because by then my father was gone and my mother couldn’t support me. Somehow I played guitar and kept myself fed.”

He was working a job unloading trucks in Springfield, Missouri when, on a whim, he went to see a classical guitarist perform. It changed his life.

“I was enthralled and it just came over me like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “Right then and there I knew what I was going to do with my life. The feeling that came over me fulfilled me more than anything else ever had up to that time. A part of it was, I needed something, Classical guitar was the thread that gave me something to hang onto just to get through life and the pain.”

He taught himself via recordings and books. Then he found an instructor who took him as far as he could.

“As soon as my hands could take it I practiced six to eight hours a day working a full-time job.”

Attending school on the GI Bill, he convinced the music dean at then-Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State) to start a degree guitar program for him.

“I had such a passion for it that I was going to find a way  – whatever it took.”

Once in a lifetime opportunity

Then, a meeting changed his life again. Touring legend Pastor saw Heavin play a concert on campus. He asked to meet Heavin. Pastor complimented the talented beginner and told him what to work on. Pastor returned a year later to instruct Heavin for two weeks and then offered taking him on as his only student in Spain.

Dumbstruck and flattered by this once in a lifetime opportunity, Heavin still needed thousands of dollars to realize it, He approached school department heads and each passed him off onto someone else. His last resort was the head of religious studies, Gerrit tenZhthoff, a Dutch war hero who resisted the Nazis.

“I told him my story – that I played for this man (Pastor) who’s the best in the world and I would be his only student. As I was explaining this he jumped out of his chair and said, ‘This is wonderful, this is amazing.’ He got me the scholarships, got me everything I needed. He even made it so that I kept getting credit while I was away in Spain. He did all of it.”

MSU has recognized Heavin as an honored alumnus.

Heavin leaned on tenZhthoff for more than funding.

“I actually used to go and tell my problems to him. He was always there for me helping me through the shit. He was just a great guy. I owe my existence in the way that I’ve lived my life to people like him and to the maestro. I was just sort of there and fell into some stuff.”

Finding himself and his purpose

Pastor became his next mentor.

“The maestro and my time in Spain was my salvation. The guitar saved me. When I arrived there was an apartment for me. The maestro’s wife was like my mom. His son was like my brother. I realized shortly after I got there I was his only student. He rarely took them. There were Spanish boys waiting in line to study with him.

“He put all of himself into that one student. That’s why he didn’t take on many. It was really like a fairy-tale…”

Heavin struggled with why he should be so fortunate.

“The thing that’s odd about it is that I had only been playing about a year when the maestro invited me to Spain. It was confusing because there were Spanish boys who could play better than I.”

It nagged at him the entire time he was there.

“I kept asking, ‘Why did you pick me?’ And he would never answer it. I suspected he may may have just felt sorry for me because I was a Vietnam vet and I wanted to play guitar and he saw the gleam in my eye.”

Then, the night before his study-abroad fellowship was up and he had to return home, Heavin walked with Pastor down a wet, cobblestone street in Old Madrid.

“He said, ‘You keep asking why I picked you over all the Spanish boys. Well, truthfully, the Spanish boys are good guitarists and will always be good guitarists.’ Then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘But you will be a great guitarist.’ Until then, I was too naive to know if I was any good or not. But he knew. It gave me everything I needed to go forward.”

Not only did Pastor give him a career, Heavin said, “he gave me back myself.”

“He became like my father. We got really close.”

Pastor opened doors to him in Spain that otherwise would have been closed.

“What surprised me mostly when I got there is that he would have me go with him to these recitals he performed for the governors of the provinces in these beautiful concert halls. He would introduce me to very stately, formal people with diamonds on their cigarette holders. I was out of my league. He would me talk me up to these people. i just kept my mouth shut because I was a fish out of water.

“What he was doing was introducing me to the fact I didn’t need to be intimidated. Afterward he would say, ‘I always tell them what they want to hear and then I laugh about it later.’ In other words, don’t take it seriously. Deal with the people you have to deal with and try to understand them so that nobody’s offended. To him a concert was there to make everyone feel better, no matter who they were.”

The jovial Pastor charmed the upper crust in one setting and street people in another. With Pastor’s help, Heavin regained his own sense of humor.

“You can’t take life too seriously.”

Segundo Pastor

Second home

He found acceptance in Spain even after his ally and teacher died.

“After he passed away I did a tour with my friend Pedro, who was also a guitarist, playing the maestro’s music. We played in some of the same places the maestro had taken me to. We even played in his hometown where he was buried. We were very well received. We would always open the program with duets. Then one of us would close the first half by playing solo. Then the other one would play solo. Then we’d finish up with duets. Almost all the music was what the maestro played or wrote. It was a homage to his life.

“I remember walking out on stage at a music school to play solo. I looked out in the audience – there were a lot of guitarists there – and everybody was sitting up straight with their arms crossed, like, Who is this American? It made me a little tentative. But when I got done playing I got a standing ovation and everybody came walking up to me, kind of ignoring Pedro. Everybody was hugging me. Meanwhile. Pedro was over there getting mad. But when Pedro and I played in the States, he was the exotic one, so it was like a tradeoff, only the Americans were a little more forgiving.”

Earlier, Heavin toured Spain and America with Pastor. They once played Carnegie Hall together. He even brought Pastor to perform in Omaha.

During his time in Spain with the maestro, Heavin was introduced to the great guitar builders in Madrid, including the legendary Manuel Contreras.

“I got to know them personally. I played their guitars.”

He also got in on the end of a romantic era when artists – musicians, painters, writers – would get together in cafes to throw down beer or wine while talking about politics or bullfighting or art.

“But those days are gone,” he laments. “The last time I was back there I was talking to some young people about this musician or that musician and they didn’t know who I was talking about. They didn’t even know who Manuel de Falla was (one of Spain’s preeminent composers of the 20th century). I’m glad I got to experience that culture at the time that I did.”

Memories of Pastor are embedded in him. He absorbed the maestro’s mannerisms. The way Heavin plays and teaches, he said, is “very similar” to Pastor.

Heavin recalls a New York City recital they did together. Beforehand, Heavin peaked out from behind a curtain to see a jam-packed hall whose overflow crowd was even seated in folding chairs on stage.

“He saw me looking worried because of all the people and he asked, ‘Hadley, are you nervous?’ I said, ‘Yes, maestro, I’m very nervous.’ He said, ‘Why? Only five guitarists have died on stage.’ I started laughing and I played really well that night. So I’ve used that numerous times on students before they go on stage.”

Once. while visiting Pastor in the town of Caunce, he was reminded how much he took after his teacher.

“His son and I were walking behind him. Segundo said  something funny and I started laughing just like him and his son took my arm and said, ‘It is necessary for you to play the guitar like my father. It is not necessary for you to be like my father.'”

Having learned Spanish in Spain. he became fluent. “But I’m not so good at it anymore because I don’t use it. When i start using it, it starts coming back.”

A part of him would have loved making his home in Spain. But his family’s here. He helped raise his daughter Kaitlin with his ex-wife. Kaitlin is lead singer in his band Tablao. About a decade ago he remarried and now he has grandkids to dote on.

He teaches part-time, plays local gigs (you can soon catch him at The Hunger Block), ropes and rides. He was a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist for decades,  but his touring days are over.

“I enjoy not worrying about stuff so much anymore –making that flight or getting somewhere.”

 

The cowboy thing

His escape from academia is still the outdoors.

“The cowboy thing comes from when I was 4-years old watching Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies. We grew up with a real simple outlook on how life’s supposed to be from these good guy and bad guy Western values. It’s pretty complex now. There’s a lot of variables that I think are hard for people to deal with.

“I loved horses. I always wanted a horse from the time I was four. When I was in high school I couldn’t afford a horse so I started rodeoing – riding bare back broncs and bulls.”

He fell head over spurs for it.

“It was a short-lived career because I went in the Army.”

He eventually got back into riding and roping. Today, he mostly enters team roping jackpots and Western horse shows. He has lots of stories. Like the time he was on a gelding at Kent Martin’s horse ranch.

“I backed him in the box and I roped two or three steers. I was heeling on him and he’d come around the corner and buck a little. But I was kind of showing off, thinking, ‘Aw, that’s nothing.’ Then there was one steer that ran really hard. I still thought, ‘We’ll be alright.’ Well, we’re going around the corner and he just started bucking. The steer was getting away from us and I was leaning out over the front trying to rope this steer and the next thing I know I went off right over the front of his head and landed on my shoulder. He stepped on the other shoulder as he was bucking over the top.”

As Heavin lay sprawled in the dirt, sore and dazed, Martin came riding up on his horse, not to offer sympathy, but good-natured cowboy sarcasm.

“Looking down at me, Kent said, ‘Get up, Hadley.’ I said, ‘I can’t right now.’ Then he said, ‘I’m going to charge you a tanning fee if you lay there lay any longer.'”

Martin doesn’t let it go at that. He describes the fall tis way: “The wind changed directions just gradually and caught Hadley just wrong, and he fell off.”

Heavin takes the ribbing in stride, saying, “That’s the way cowboys are. Everybody gets bucked off and   everybody gets injured. It’s no big deal.”

Martin does concede that Heavin “rides pretty good.”

Just as in Spain, Heavin travels in many circles in Nebraska and gets on with everybody. It’s bred in him.

“My whole family were Southern Democrats. We had all kinds of friends, even in the South.” As a progressive living in a Red State, he’s used to debating his Republican friends. “Luckily they tolerate me because I stand up to the stuff they say. We argue. They say things like, ‘We should kick him out of this roping club.'”

He doesn’t mince words about American adventurism.

“I understand Afghanistan was a response to 9/11 and we needed to be able to strike out against something. Iraq, I didn’t understand. That country’s much worse than it would have been if we had left it alone. I didn’t agree with that war. We get our people killed, we spent billions and billions and billions of dollars and we got guys like (Dick) Cheney making a fortune off it.

“I think (George W.) Bush’s heart was probably in the right place, but I think he was mislead. He went in there thinking there were weapons of mass destruction.”

Few of his students and fellow faculty know he’s a vet.

“I don’t tell those people much about this stuff,” he said within earshot of Martin, who quipped, “Hadley’s a closet cowboy.”

Heavin still burns from an old headline that described him as a “real rootin’-tootin’ classical guitar playing cowboy. “I took a lot of heat over that.” He prefers “classical cowboy.”

Music educator

Music offers escape from daily worries, world affairs and partisan politics. He’s been teaching classical guitar almost as long as he’s played it.

“I started teaching as an undergraduate, just privately, in Missouri. While studying for my masters at the University of Denver, I taught all the undergraduates in guitar and coached the ensembles.

“I came to UNO in 1982.”

Combining performing with teaching is tough.

“One robs you of the other. If I were out there performing a lot I wouldn’t be as good a teacher. I would have to be very selfish. I wasn’t a very good a teacher back when I toured because I wasn’t around as much. I’d go off on tour to play and then I’d come back and try to do makeup lessons and it’s really hard to do.

“Touring robs you of putting energy into other people when you have to have that yourself to go on stage and play as perfectly and as musically as you can. It’s a lot of energy, especially with classical guitar. It’s just a difficult instrument to play. After I started winding that down, teaching became more and more important. It’s a high priority for me.

“I’ve got former students out there teaching now and they teach kids that eventually come to me. It’s all coming full circle.”

Some former students are accomplished players, such as Ron Cooley, who plays with Mannheim Steamroller.

For years he only taught adults, but now he’s started teaching younger people and enjoys it.

He also teaches older than average students.

“I’ve got a 72-year-old lady, Sue Russell, that takes lessons and she’s really good. She’s been studying with me for probably 20 years. She plays Flamenco and classical. She’s awesome.

“I have a cardiologist, John Cimino, who’s studied with me for 20 years. He’s amazing. He practices every day despite his busy schedule.”

Long graduated students still rely on his expertise to fix technical problems others cannot. One former student came to him after his new teacher could not explain how to correct a flaw with his fingering.

“I said, ‘Here’s what you do,’ and I explained to him the physiology of it and how he could make it work and he just sat there and did it. That’s what other teachers miss

and that’s from 40 years of teaching.

“Some of the best players can’t teach at all. They’ll be sitting there teaching somebody in front of people and this student obviously has a big issue with a certain finger and the teacher will just say, ‘Well. you’re doing that wrong,’ but they can’t tell them how to do it. That’s what I’m good at.”

Expressive playing is big with Heavin. One of his all-time guitar idols, Steve Ray Vaughan, exemplified it.

“Musically I’m really big into the emotional side of playing. I’ve got a good balance between the physical and emotional. But it’s really hard to teach guitar. You can give all kinds of exercises to do. Some guys will do the work and nothing ever really happens. There has to be a thought process in a student’s head to actually make that happen.”

He recognizes Pastor’s teaching in his own instruction.

“Like he did with me, if someone’s doing something wrong I’ll shake my finger and say, ‘No!’ That taught me how to focus and to take this more seriously. It permeates my teaching today. And a lot of times I ask questions. I’ll stop them in a piece and say, ‘What are you doing?’ That’s how I get their focus.

“Until they start questioning something, they don’t listen. I’ll gradually hone in on the issue before getting to it too quickly. I’ll say, ‘Your wrist is cocked a certain way which causes your A finger to hit at a different angle,’ and then I’ll ask to see their hand. I might say, ‘That nail looks like it’s filed differently than the others.’ I’ll drill them and write out an exercise for them to do to fix that problem and show them how it’s supposed to feel. The hardest thing to do is to teach somebody how to feel something, but I’m really good at it.”

He rarely imparts the classical lineage he represents.

“I’m a little careful with that. I don’t just hand that to everybody. If I’ve got a student working hard and in their last year, then I start dealing with that lineage. I will have them play a piece by Francisco Tarrega. Then we’ll deal with all the technical issues. Then I’ll talk about this lineage thing. ‘What you’re going to hear from me now is as if you were sitting with Tarrega himself because the man I studied with studied with the man who studied with Tarrega, and this has been passed on.

“It’s not just me they’re getting it from, they’re getting it from all of us in the line. The students that figure that out and treasure that are the ones that go off to other schools and blow everybody away,”

He has students watch top guitarists on YouTube to illustrate that even technically brilliant players can lack subtlety  “Those players have it totally wrong. They’re not that close to the source so they don’t know how it’s played. It’s technical but not expressive.”

Heavin breaks it down for students.

“I’ll tell them what’s wrong with it. I’ll say, ‘Here’s what Tarrega wants–- he wants this to be very rhythmic through this phrase because this is going to be a recurring rhythmic unity in the piece. But we don’t do it all the time. It’s what we come back to each time to set it up again. Even a lot of great players don’t know.’

“That’s when they start feeling they’re getting something here that’s different. Some of them are never going to get it and maybe they’re doing it for different reasons. The guitar’s not really their major or where they’re going to end up, so I don’t necessarily put that on them  because it’s almost a responsibility once you have it.”

His world-class level instruction fits well within a UNO Music Department he says has “risen to a high level.”

“Hadley’s exceptional professional experience enhances our programs in a unique way,” said UNO School of Music Director Washington Garcia. “Visiting guest artist Manuel Barrueco, one of the greatest concert guitarists of all time, left Omaha raving about the talent of our students, all due to Hadley’s work and unconditional commitment to their artistic and academic development. As an artist, Hadley carries that tradition of many great masters and is a reflection of talent at its best.”

Having it his way

His cowboy friends know about his classical side. His recitals in Omaha and western Nebraska draw roping cronies.

“They’re full of questions, like, what about your hands?”

To protect his digits, he’s headed most of his roping life. Atop his horse, a header runs with the steer and can kick off when in trouble. Heeling entails catching up to a hard-charging steer moving away. Applying a rope can singe, even take fingers. At his age he’s now allowed to tie on hard and fast, which makes heeling safer.

Wherever he goes in ranch-rodeo country, he can swap stories with horsemen. One such place is the giant Pitzer Ranch in the Sandhills.

A top hand, Riley Renner, “won the very difficult ranch horse competition out there and he did it riding my mare Baley,” Heavin, said sounding like a proud owner.

“They do what they call a cowboy trail where they run this obstacle course. They’re running flat out, too. It’s a timed event. It’s all judged. The thing started at 7 in the morning and didn’t get over until 11 at night. The same horse all day long. My mare is kind of famous for going through that. She’s big and strong and easy.”

Asked if he’s ever played guitar on horseback, Heavin deadpanned. “I don’t mix the two genres.”

He enjoys socializing but if he had his druthers he’d just as soon hang out with horses.

Training a horse and a person is not so different.

“There’s a process you go through that’s not always exactly whispering. It’s more of making the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy, so that the horse believes this is what I need to do. That’s where the trust comes in.”

With students, he said, “I use a lot of horse analogies, like trying too hard and getting too tight. I’ll back them off and say, ‘You’re kind of like a horse that’s nervous in the box. If you try too hard, you end up beating yourself up.  I wait till the horse relaxes.'” Similarly, with students, he said, “I slow everything way down so they can think about every move they make. And it works.”

Pastor’s loving instruction won the trust of his greatest student. Forgiveness freed Heavin to share with others the sublime gift of his music and lineage.

It’s been quite a ride.

Heavin doesn’t consider his story anything special. In his best Western wit, he sums up his life this way: “A guy’s gotta do something between living and dying.”

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

 

Omaha blues man Hector Anchondo riding high

August 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Omaha blues man Hector Anchondo riding high

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the August 2018 Reader (www.thereader.com)

Blues singer-songwriter-guitarist Hector Anchondo has paid the price to live the dream. Calling Omaha home for two decades, he led his Hector Anchondo Band to the 2016 International Blues Challenge finals in Memphis after reaching the semis a year earlier.

In 2017, their Roll the Dice album charted worldwide and the group won Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards recognition for Best Blues.

After years working odd jobs to supplement his music earnings, Anchondo, 38, now supports his family doing what he loves  He also gives back to the adopted hometown that nurtured him as founder of In the Market for Blues festival. Twenty-eight bands will gig at eight Old Market venues Saturday, August 4. His band hits the stage at midnight at T. Henrey’s Pub. A jam session follows.

Things are golden for Anchondo. He’s getting married, He’s becoming a father a second time. He’s written songs for a new album (his eighth). His tour rides are in a 2016 Ford Transit 350 XLT, not the beaters he used to drive. But he was reminded of the fragility of it all last April when the night before a tour was to commence, severe stomach pains landed him at University Hospital. Surgeons removed his gallbladder.

Once through the health crisis, there were crushing medical care costs for which he had no insurance, Anchondo could see it all slipping away. But the Omaha Blues Society held a fundraiser concert at Chrome Lounge and friends launched a YouCaring campaign. He’s healed now and can pay his bills.

Speaking to The Reader from Aspen, Colorado, where he solo toured last month, Anchondo reflected on the journey that’s taken him from his Missouri Ozark hill country origins to this Great Plains base and beyond.

He took up guitar at 16 while living on his family’s farm. He’d never played an instrument before, though he did sing in choir. It was passion at first lick.

“It was like a flip switched on. I took it very serious from the start. I’ve always been about the craft of it,” he said.

He recalls a guitar solo in a Guns N’ Roses video sealing the deal.

“I was like, That is what I’m going to do, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

He grew up influenced by Los Tigres del Norte, traditional American roots sounds, soaring Jimi Hendrix blues riffs and ’90s grunge-hip hop beats.

“I always liked the blues. It’s the emotional expression when you’re on stage – the personality part of it. You can really be yourself.”

Carlos Santana was another “big influence.”

“I had an immediate connection through our Hispanic background. His Latin grooves caught me right away and I’ve been hooked ever since.

“Eric Clapton was also a big influence. especially his acoustic MTV unplugged album. I could not stop listening to it. Learning the songs was a complete joy.”

He gigged in Missouri before moving to Omaha, where he had family, to try making it in a bigger market.

“There was a lot of not playing music out live because I was starting from scratch. I didn’t know where to begin. Then I started hitting every open mic in town. I would go to those every week without fail. I started meeting other musicians. It was a real tight-knit community.”

 

Stage Right became a second home.

“It was a lot of fun. It was a very nice, accepting, open atmosphere. I also started my own weekly gig at Caffeine Dreams.”

He slept on couches and floors and worked McDonald’s to get by. On stage, veteran players noticed his talent.

“A lot of older musicians came up to me and told me to never stop – that I had a good thing going, I was very fortunate to have lots of encouragement.”

The natural worked to hone his intuitive gifts.

“Sometimes I would practice the same riff or part for hours upon hours until I got it right.”

His pursuit of mastery attracted other artists and he formed a popular band, Anchondo, with some of them. Live performing gigs beckoned and local stations gave their music airplay, especially “She Devil.”

“We were doing a lot of great touring and getting festivals, playing some auditoriums in the Midwest – but barely making any money. We were living dirt poor. Any money I’ve ever made I’ve always invested back into music.”

He’s spared no expense with guitars. Despite having a Fender Strat and a Dobro Resonator (anonymously left on his doorstep), his go-to is a Delaney Austin.

“It was hand-made special for me. The sound quality, the playability, the jumbo frets, the sustain, I could go on and on. Plus, it feels good to be a Delaney-endorsed artist.”

Things were looking up. Then the recession hit and bookings fizzled.

“it just killed us. We stopped playing. I had to do a lot of soul searching, like, Is this when I hang it up?”

Tired of dishwasher, check-out clerk and construction jobs to make ends meet, he recommitted to his dream.

“I just couldn’t stop being a musician.”

He formed a new band, wrote dozens of songs and released the well-received EPs Kicking Up Dust and Young Guns with blues as his new calling card.

He strategically entered his band in the Nebraska Blues Challenge. After losing the first two years, they won the next two, thus qualifying for the international event down South. He describes that hyped stage in the nation’s blues mecca “a game-changer.”

“It meant getting in front of the blues worlds eye. It was a huge learning experience, too, watching other bands that competed.”

He entered “uncharted waters” by hiring L.A.-based radio promoter-record publicist Frank Roszak to get Roll the Dice heard.

“I knew that was the right move to make,” Anchondo said. “I knew I had to strike while the iron was still hot. It was a complete success. I finally had an album being played all over the world. We got some serious exposure out of that. It was a dream come true and something I’d been working for my entire career.”

Meanwhile. he’s trying to enrichen the area blues scene with the In the Market fest – now in year four.

“Every year it’s grown and this year is going to kick a lot of ass,” he said. “All the bands are outstanding.”

He credits E3 Entertainment and the Blues Society for “doing the majority of the work to make the festival happen.”

He said the Blues Society and its BluesEd program “have really grown the Omaha music scene.” His drummer, Khaugman Winfield, is a BluesEd alum.

Anchondo appreciates the Blues Society coming to his aid last spring following emergency surgery.

“It was absolutely wonderful of them. So many people rallied together and helped out. My mind is still blown by all the love and support.”

He’s performing again in Omaha at Baxter Arena September 14 and The Waiting Room November 21.

“I anticipate continuing to be based out of Omaha and keep going with business as usual. Omaha has been such a great and wonderful springboard for my music career.”

He’s been down this road too long to know that “making it” doesn’t ever mean being home free.

“There’s still lots of struggles and sacrificing, but I have a very full life with my family and getting to play music professionally. It’s my full-time job. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Except maybe time.

“I’m trying to set this next album up to where I have a lot more time to perfect certain things and to invest more in my guitar and my vocals.”

Follow at hectoranchondo.com.

Visit http://www.InTheMarketForBlues.com.

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

 

%d bloggers like this: