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Omaha’s Love Family hosts celebration and street naming for Preston Love Sr.


Omaha’s Love Family hosts celebration and street naming for Preston Love Sr.

Friday, July 13

6 p.m.

24th and Lake

Preston Love Sr. Street

Speakers to include John Beasley and Curly Martin sharing stories about the late jazz musician, composer, arranger, band leader, educator, commentator and author. Preston Love Sr. was a charter member of the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, the namesake of Loves Jazz & Arts Center and the author of the critically acclaimed memoir “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later.”

Musical tribute concert immediately following at Loves Jazz & Arts Center by some of Omaha’s finest artists. Featuring songs performed and loved by Preston Love.

$7 donation

ON A PERSONAL NOTE:

When I began writing about North Omaha’s African-American community 20 years ago or so, Preston Love Sr. was one of the first persons I reached out to. He became a source for the and the subject of many of those early stories. He was a wise and loquacious sage with a real sense of history about his music, his people and his community.

The first article I got published in a national magazine was about Preston.

A good share of my work about him appeared around the time of the release of his long-in-the-making and highly regarded memoir, “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later.”

Upon his death, I was asked to write an in memoriam piece for The Reader.

A few years ago, I wrote a new piece compiled from my many stories about him, and read it at Loves Jazz before a packed house.

I have also written some about his son Preston Love Jr. and his daughters Portia Love and Laura Love.

Whether you knew the man and his legacy or not, here is a list of articles I featured him in that hopefully provide a fair representation of the man and the artist:

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/05/05/preston-love-a-t…late-hepcat-king/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/03/preston-love-192…ed-at-everything

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/03/omaha-blues-and-…end-preston-love

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/03/preston-love-his…l-not-be-stilled

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/03/mr-saturday-night

There are several more stories in which I quoted him about everything from Native Omaha Days to soul food or referenced him in relationship to North Omaha’s live music scene and the area’s attempted revitalization.

 

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A MOTHER’S DAY TRIBUTE Mother-Daughter Music Legacy and Inheritance: Jeanne and Carol Rogers

May 8, 2016 1 comment

As musical families go, the Rogers of Omaha have few peers. The mother, Jeanne Rogers, and her three sons and one daughter have all achieved a level of notoriety in their professional music careers, including each being an individual inductee in the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. This musical lineage has its strongest and most poignant link in the relationship between the family matriarch Jeanne and her daughter Carol Rogers. There is a powerful mother-daughter music legacy and inheritance that is powerful and only made more powerful by the fact that Jeanne today suffers from Alzheimer’s and Carol is her legal guardian. Jeanne is cared for in a nursing facility and Carol lives in her mother’s last home, where Jeanne’s presence still infuses the space. Carol and her brothers grew up in an earlier home their mother owned and it was in that music filled dwelling the siblings became initiated into the world of jazz, blues, soul and so much more. They listened in to the jam sessions and stories that their mother and her hepcat friends plied the night away with. When they were old enough the siblings made and played music of their own in that house and in talent shows and gigs around town. One by one the siblings made a name for themselves in music here and beyond Omaha. Carol’s singing career took her around the world. But when her mother fell ill she came back home to be here with her.

The following Mother’s Day Tribute is culled together from two separate stories I previously wrote: one about Carol Rogers and one about Jeanne Rogers. You can link to those stories at–

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=jeanne+rogers

 

 

A MOTHER’S DAY TRIBUTE
Mother-Daughter Music Legacy and Inheritance: Jeanne and Carol Rogers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Culled together from two previous stories I wrote

 

Jeanne Rogers headed a household full of music in North Omaha. The jazz singer and pianist, who suffers from dementia today, made music such a family inheritance that all of her children ended up being professional musicians like herself. Jeanne sang with area big bands and gigged as a solo jazz pianist-vocalist. A talent for music didn’t fall far from the tree, as her daughter Carol and her sons have all made a living in music and joined their mother as Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame inductees.

Carol has enjoyed a national and international singing career. And like her mom, who became an educator, Carol teaches, too. After years touring the world and making her home base in California, where she sang, recorded and taught, Carol moved back to her hometown of Omaha in 2013 in order to be near her mother. Carol feels things worked out the way they were supposed to in bringing her back home to be with her mom. She never forgets the inspiration for her life’s journey in music.

“Mom gave us music and she gave us a house full of it all the time.”

Seeing her mom’s mental capacities diminish has been difficult. Seeing her no longer recall the words to songs she sang thousands of times, like “My Funny Valentine,” cuts deeply. No one is prepared for losing a loved one, piece by piece, to the fog of Alzheimer’s. All Rogers or anyone can do is be there for the afflicted.

“I’m glad I’m close by for her sake to remind her she’s loved and hopefully, even though she doesn’t recognize me, give her a familiarity.”

Even when Jeanne became an Omaha Public Schools educator and administrator, she never left music behind. Indeed, she used it as a tool to reach kids. Carol, who as a girl used to accompany her mom to school to help her and other teachers set up their classrooms, followed in her footsteps to become a teacher herself, including running her own “kindergarten school of cool” that all her kids went through.

Carol, 61, also grew up under the influence of her grandmother Lilian Matilda Battle Hutch, She remembers her as an enterprising, tea-totaler who on a domestic worker’s wages managed buying multiple homes, subletting rooms for extra income. She sold Avon on the side.

“She could see opportunity and she was on the grind all the time. They called her ‘The General’ because she’d rifle out her demands – You comn’ in? I need you to go in the backyard and weed some stuff.’”

When Jeanne developed dementia, Carol’s trips back home increased to check on her mother and eventually take charge of her care. When Jeanne could no longer remain in her own home, Carol placed her in nursing facilities. She rests comfortably today at Douglas County Health Center. Carol’s since come back to stay. She and two of her kids reside in her mother’s former northeast Omaha home.

As a homage to her educator mother, Carol has a kitchen wall double as a chalk board with scribbled reminders and appointments.

“Chalk is how she relayed things,” Carol said of her mom.

Kelly: Singer, whose mom has Alzheimer's, comes home to Omaha for 'the long goodbye'

Carol Rogers, with her mother Jeanne Rogers

About a decade ago I interviewed Jeanne Rogers about her life in music. Here is part of the story I wrote from that interview:

“Music is my life. I can’t live without music.” Omaha jazz singer-pianist Jeanne Rogers recites the words as a solemn oath. As early as age 4, she said, her fascination with music began. This only child lived in her birthplace of Houston, Texas then. She’d go with her mother Matilda to Baptist church services, where young Jean was enthralled by the organist working the pedals and stops. Once, after a service, Jean recalls “noodling around” on the church piano when her mom asked, “‘What are you doing, baby?’ ‘I’m playing what the choir was singing.’ So, she tells my daddy, ‘Robert, the baby needs a piano.’ They let me pick out my piano. I still have it. All my kids learned to play on it. I just can’t get rid of it,” said Rogers, who proudly proclaims “four of my five kids are in music.”

Blessed with the ability to play by ear, she took to music easily. “I’d hear things and I’d want to play ‘em and I’d play ‘em,” she said. She took to singing too, as her alto voice “matured itself.” After moving with her family to Omaha during World War II, she indulged her passion at school (Lake Elementary) and church (Zion Baptist) and via lessons from Florentine Pinkston and Cecil Berryman. At Central High she found an ally in music teacher Elsie Howe Swanson, who “validated that talent I had. Mrs Swanson let me do my thing and I was like on Cloud Nine,” she said. Growing up, Rogers was expected by the family matriarchs to devote herself to sacred or classical music, but she far preferred the forbidden sounds of jazz or blues wafting through the neighborhood on summer nights.

“Secular was my thing,” she said. When her mother or aunt weren’t around, she’d secretly jam.

The family lived near the Dreamland Ballroom, a North 24th Street landmark whose doors and windows were opened on hot nights to cool off the joint in an era before AC. She said the music from inside “permeated the whole area. I would listen to the music coming out and, oh, I thought that was the nicest music. Mama couldn’t stop me from listening to what the bands were playing. That’s the kind of music I wanted to play. I wanted to play with a band. I was told, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that. Nothing but trash is up in that ballroom. There’s no need your going to college if that’s all you want to play.’ But, hey, I finally ended up doing what I wanted to do. And playing music in the nightclubs paid my way through college.”

Do-gooders’ “hoity-toity,” attitude rubbed her the wrong way, especially when she “found out folks in church were doing the same thing folks in the street were.”

Rogers, who became a mother quite young, bit at the first chance to live out her music dream. When someone told her local bandleader Cliff Dudley was looking for a singer she auditioned and won the job. “That’s how I got into the singing,” she said. “I was scared to death.” She sang standard ballads of the day and would “do a little blues.” Later, when the band’s pianist dropped out, she took over for him. “And that’s how I got started playing with the band.” Her fellow musicians included a young Luigi Waites on drums. The group played all over town. She later formed her own jazz trio. She’d started college at then-Omaha University, but when the chance to tour came up, she left school and put her kids in her mother’s care.

The reality of life on the road didn’t live up to the glamour she’d imagined. “That’s a drag,” she said of living out of suitcases. Besides, she added, “I missed my kids.” Letters from home let her know how much she was missed and that her mother couldn’t handle the kids anymore. “She needed me,” Rogers said. “I mean, there were five kids, three of them hard-headed boys. So I came back home.”

The Jewell Building once housed the Dreamland Ballroom

She resumed college, resigned to getting an education degree. “All I wanted to do was play the piano in the band. But I ended up doing what I had to do,” she said.

To support her studies she still played gigs at local clubs. And she nurtured her kids’ and their friends’ love of music by opening up the family home to anyone who wanted to play, turning it into a kind of informal music studio/academy.

“My house on Bristol Street was the house where everybody’s kids came to play music,” she said. Her twin boys Ronnie and Donnie Beck practiced with their bands upstairs while younger brother Keith Rogers’ band jammed downstairs. Their sister, singer Carol Rogers, imitated soul songstresses. Some youths who made music there went on to fine careers, including the late guitarist Billy Rogers (no relation). Ronnie played with Tower of Power and still works as a drummer-singer with top artists. Donnie left Omaha with drummer Buddy Miles and now works as a studio musician and sideman. Keith is a veteran music producer. His twin sister Carol performed with Preston Love and Sergio Mendes, among other greats.

Years later Carol recalled growing up in that bustling household on Bristol Street where she couldn’t help but be immersed in music between her siblings rehearsing and her mother and her musician friends jamming. That 24-7 creative hub imbued her with a love for performing.

“In the summertime it was just crawling with people because my brothers had instruments. In the basement they were always practicing. It got so I couldn’t study without a lot of noise. I still sleep with noise. If you didn’t get home in time and there was food you didn’t eat because the people who were in the house ate. It was first come-first served. That used to make me mad.

“But there was music. Folks would come. A typical weekend, Billy Rogers, not any relation, would come and jam. Everybody who was anybody came in and jammed. I didn’t know who they all were, all I knew there was always noise.”

She confirms the Rogers’ home was the place neighborhood kids congregated.

“My mother would boast that kids’ parents would say, ‘Why is my child always at your house?’ Because they’re welcome and there’s music. And so that’s just the way it was. That’s the way I remember the house. I didn’t have to go looking for people or excitement – it came to the house. There was always something going on.”

Her mother grew up near enough the old Dreamland Ballroom to hear the intoxicating rhythms of the black music greats who played there.

“That’s when she got bitten by the jazz bug,” Carol said. “She would go to sleep hearing the music playing at Dreamland.”

Carol enjoyed an even more intimate relationship with music because of the nightclub atmosphere Jeanne orchestrated at home.

“Oh, these jam sessions that mama would have. All I know is we would have to be whisked to bed. Of course, we could hear them at night. They would never go past 10 or so. Occasionally she would let us come down and just watch, which was a privilege. There’d be Basie Givens, who she played with forever, Clean Head Base, Cliff Dudley, the names go on of all the people who would come in. And they’d just jam, and she’d sing and play piano.

“It was a big party and to-do thing at the house. I would go to sleep hearing her and her friends play the jam sessions. Coming downstairs in the morning there was always somebody crashed out on the floor.

When Jeanne was doing better a decade ago, she still played and sang in public. My story about her continued:
Jeanne plays with her children when they come to town. In 2000 she went to Calif. to cut her one and only CD, “The Late Show,” which her son Ronnie produced. He pushed her hard on the project, but she likes the results. “My son’s a nitpicker and a stickler, but that’s what gets the job done.” One of the kids who was always at her place, Vaughn Chatman, is an attorney and the founder of the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, which Rogers and her three sons are inductees in.
 
She still plays a concert now and then but mostly for Sunday services at Church of the Resurrection, adding a piano jazz beat to traditional hymns. “I like it because it’s a come-as-you-are church. It’s a nice place to be.” She also volunteers at Solomon Girls Center and sometimes gives piano lessons.
 
She may not have wanted it, but she ended up a teacher and principal (Druid Hill) in the Omaha Public Schools. “It turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve done,” she said. She used music to reach students. “The kids loved it because I would play the blues for them when they were doing their math lessons and stuff. Other kids would come by the door and my kids would say, ‘Bet you wish you were in here.’” Whether at home, in the classroom, at the altar or on a nightclub bandstand, she makes music part of her life.

 

Carol didn’t have plans to come back to Omaha but when her mother’s illness progressed, she had no choice.

“I knew I had to come back for my mom because I became her guardian.”

Seeing her mom’s mental capacities diminish has been difficult. Seeing her no longer recall the words to songs she sang thousands of times, like “My Funny Valentine,” cuts deeply. No one is prepared for losing a loved one, piece by piece, to the fog of Alzheimer’s. All Rogers or anyone can do is be there for the afflicted.

“I’m glad I’m close by for her sake to remind her she’s loved and hopefully, even though she doesn’t recognize me, give her a familiarity.”

Two of Carol’s four children live with her in Omaha and they, too, have inherited the musical gene and give Jeannie yet more family and love to be around.

Preston Love: A Tribute to Omaha’s Late Hepcat King

May 5, 2016 2 comments

Here is a tribute to the late Preston Love Sr. I culled together from various stories I wrote about him over the last decadeof his life. I actually read this as part of an event at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center named after him in his hometown of Omaha, with whom he had a complicated relationship.

 

Preston Love: A Tribute to Omaha’s Late Hepcat king

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

An early January evening at the Bistro finds diners luxuriating in the richly textured tone and sweetly bended notes of flutist-saxophonist Preston Love Sr., the eternal Omaha hipster…

By eleven, the crowd’s thinned, but the 75-year-old jams on, holding the night owls with his masterful playing and magnetic personality. His tight four-piece ensemble expertly interprets classic jazz, swing and blues tunes he helped immortalize as a Golden Era lead alto sax player, band leader and arranger.

Love lives for moments like these, when his band really grooves and the crowd really digs it:

“There’s no fulfillment…like playing in a great musical environment. It’s spiritual. It’s everything. Anything less than that is unacceptable. If you strike that responsive chord in an audience, they’ll get it too – with that beat and that feeling and that rhythm. Those vibes are in turn transmitted to the band, and inspire the band.”

For him, music never gets tired, never grows old. More than a livelihood, it’s his means self-expression, his life, his calling.

Music’s sustained during a varied career. Whether rapping with the audience in his slightly barbed, anecdotal way or soaring on a fluid solo, this vibrant man and consummate musician is totally at home on stage.

Love’s let-it-all-hang-out persona is matched by his tell-it-like-it-is style as a music columnist, classroom lecturer and public radio host. He fiercely champions jazz and blues as significant, distinctly African-American art forms and cultural inheritances. This direct inheritor and accomplished interpreter feels bound to protect its faithful presentation and to rail against its misrepresentation.

His autobiography, “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later,” gave him his largest forum and career capstone.

“It’s my story and it’s my legacy to my progeny.”

He’s long criticized others appropriating the music from its black roots and reinventing it as something it’s not.

“It’s written in protest. I’m an angry man. I started my autobiography…in dissatisfaction with whats transpired in America in the music business and, of course, with the racial thing that’s still very prevalent. Blacks have almost been eliminated from their own art. That’s unreal. False. Fraudulent.

“They’re passing it off as something it isn’t. It’s spurious jazz. Synthetic. Third-rate. Others are going to play our music, and in many cases play it very well. We don’t own any exclusivity on it. But it’s still black music, and all the great styles, all the great developments, have been black, whether they want to admit it or not. So why shouldn’t we protect our art?

“When you muddy the water or disturb the trend or tell the truth even, you make people angry, because they’d rather leave the status quo as it is. But I’m not afraid of the repercussions. I will fight for my people’s music and its preservation.”

When he gets on a roll like this, his intense speaking style belongs both to the bandstand and the pulpit. His dulcet voice carries the inflection and intonation of an improvisational riff and the bravura of an evangelical sermon, rising in a brimstone rant before falling to a confessional whisper.

Love feels his far-flung experience uniquely qualifies him to address the American black music scene of his generation.

“The fact that mine’s been a different, unlikely and multifaceted career is why publishers became interested in my book.”

From a young age, he heard the period’s great black performers on the family radio and phonograph and hung-out on then teeming North 24th Street to catch a glimpse and an autograph of visiting artists playing the fabled Dreamland Ballroom and staying at nearby rooming houses and hotels.

“Twenty-fourth street was the total hub of the black neighborhood here. This street abounded with great players of this art form.”

By his teens, he was old enough to see his idols perform at the Orpheum and Dreamland.

“All of the great black geniuses of my time played that ballroom. Jazz was all black then…and here were people you admired and worshiped, and now you were standing two feet from them and could talk to them and hear their artistry. To hear the harmony of those black musicians, with that sorrowful, plaintive thing that only blacks have, and a lot of blacks don’t get it. That pain in their playing. That indefinable, elusive blue note. That’s what jazz is.

“The Benny Goodmans and those guys never got it.”

The music once heard from every street corner, bar, restaurant, club has been silenced or replaced by discordant new sounds.

That loss hurts Love because he remembers well when Omaha was a major music center, supporting many big bands and clubs and drawing musicians from around the region. It was a launching ground for him and many others.

“This was like the Triple A of baseball for black music. The next stop was the big leagues.”

He regrets many young blacks are uninformed about this vital part of their heritage.

“If I were to be remembered for some contribution, it would be to remind people what’s going on today with the black youth and their rap…has nothing to do with their history. It’s a renunciation of their true music — blues, rhythm and blues and jazz.”

He taught himself to play, picking up pointers from veteran musicians and from masters whose recordings he listened to “over and over again.” Late night jam sessions at the Blue Room and other venues were his proving ground, He began seeing music as a way out.

“There was no escape for blacks from poverty and obscurity except through show business. I’d listen to the radio’s late night coast-to-coast broadcasts of those great bands and go to sleep and just dream of going to New York to play the Cotton Club and dream of playing the Grand Terrace in Chicago. I dreamed of someday making it – and I did make it. Everything else in my life would be anticlimactic, because I realized my dream.”

He made himself an accomplished enough player that Count Basie hired him to play with his band.

“I had the natural gift for sound – a good tone – which is important. Some people never have it. I was self-motivated. No one had to make me practice…And being good at mathematics, I was able to read music with the very least instruction.”

Music keeps him youthful. He’s no “moldy fig,” the term boppers coined to describe musicians out-of-step with the times.

He burns with stage presence with his insouciant smile and his patter between sets that combines jive, scat and stand-up. Then there’s his serious side. He coaxes a smooth, bittersweet tone from the sax and flute developed over a lifetime.

If nothing else, he’s endured, surviving fads and changing musical tastes, adapting from the big band swing era to Motown to funk. He’s risen above the neglect he felt in his own hometown to keep right on playing and speaking his mind.

“I refuse to be an ancient fossil or an anachronism, I am eternally vital. I am energetic, indefatigable. It’s just my credo and the way I am as a person.”

A Soul Man to the end.

“I think the term ‘soul’ was first applied to us as a people to describe the feeling of our expressions and attitudes and language. It means a lot of heart and a depth of feeling. It refers to the pathos in our expression, musically and colloquially.”

He says a genius for spontaneity is a hallmark of blacks in creative endeavors — from music and dancing to cooking.

“The limitations we lived under gave birth to these embellishments and improvisations. That’s what we did. We were masters of embellishment.”

He left his hometown many times, but always came back. Back to where his dream first took flight and came true. Back to the mistress – music – that still holds him enthralled. To be our conscience, guide, inspiration.

That January night at the Bistro, a beaming Love, gold horn slung over one shoulder, tells his audience, “I love this. I look forward coming to work. Preston Love’s an alto player, and you want to hear him play alto, right? Listen to this.” Supplying the downbeat, he fills the room with the golden strain of “Mr. Saturday Night.” Play on, Mr. Saturday Night, play on.

Life comes full circle for singer Carol Rogers

August 28, 2015 3 comments

A good portion of my life is spent interviewing and profiling artists and creatives of one type or another.  It’s a good challenge for me to try and give readers an authentic representation of the subject and his/her persona, spirit, character, and voice without reducing them to stereotype or generic personality.  I really strive to have you feel and hear the individual as I come to know them.  My encounters with these talented folks are often rich experiences for the lively give and take that happens as I more or less give them free rein to be themselves.  I want them to express themselves without holding back or self-censoring  One of my more recent experiences along these lines was with singer Carol Rogers and I thoroughly enjoyed our time together.  She is all positve love, light, and energy and she has a distinctive way of expressing herself that is poetic and soulful, earthy and esoteric, all at once.  I believe I’ve captured her many colors in this new cover piece for the September 2015 New Horizons.  Look for it at newstands or call 402-444-6654 for a free subscription to the monthy paper.  Make the call and you’ll have the issue with her story and every forthcoming issue sent to your home or business.

NOTE: For the same newspaper, New Horizons, I profiled Carol’s mother, singer-pianist Jeanne Rogers, and some other Omaha black women in music.  Jeanne was the music director and pianist at one of my regular places of worship in Omaha, Church of the Resurrection.

Here is a link to that earlier story on my blog-

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=black+women+in+music

 

Life comes full circle for singer Carol Rogers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the September 2015 New Horizons

 

Since putting down Omaha roots again after years away pursuing her music career, free-spirited singer Carol Rogers is sure she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be.

This hipster hails from a revered musical heritage family that’s done great things with their craft. Like her brothers Donnie, Ronnie and Keith, she made a name for herself here but enjoyed her biggest success elsewhere. Her big break came earning a spot singing and recording with Brazilian star Sergio Mendes. It meant performing in English and Portuguese across myriad musical styles. Her virtuosity has inspired some in the biz to call her “a vocal god.”

Her stage persona and song interpretation can be sweet, salty or sultry. She can scat, sing jazz, R&B, soul, blues, country, pop, rock, even heavy metal. She once covered “Rage Against the Machine.”

Her association with Mendes put her in the company of celebrities and dignitaries. That heady period fulfilled a lifelong desire to feed the beat-of-a-distant-drummer leanings she’s always felt.

Despite growing up surrounded by the sounds of Motown’s black divas, Rogers said, “I used to think I was Doris Day. I would come down the stairs, ‘Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be,’ and my brothers would wait for me at the bottom of the stairs to pummel me with, ‘Who do you think you are? Wake up, you skinny chicken head, wake up.’ So I kind of lived in a fantasy land. I never really saw myself like everyone else looks at themselves. I like to do things differently. I kind of was a hippy without the drugs because I liked the way they dressed.”

“Even as a young woman I couldn’t look like everybody else. To this day I feel most comfortable when I have on lots of colors.”

Her funky sensibility extends to a window treatment in her home that has a gingham curtain with a paisley print against a red wall, though she said she’s self-conscious enough to wonder if visitors think “I’m decorating like a crack-head in a brothel.” At the end of the day, she said, “I just want to celebrate and excite as I go and come.”

It’s why after dying her hair she’s let it go gray, proudly wearing the beauty of her age in dreadlocks that frame her queenly features.

“I began to embrace my gray. It’s a crown of righteousness if it’s accompanied by good works.”

Her righteous energy found expression in a Ladies Sing the Blues concert at Loves Jazz & Arts Center when she arrived in character as an elder negotiating a walker to the stage. Once there, she shed costume, wig and prosthetics to reveal her youthful, high-octane self and sleek legs. She then proceeded to tear up the joint with a full-throated, hip-swaying, table-topping blues performance in the spirit of Big Mama Thornton and Shemekia Copeland.

“Coming in with the girls, I knew I was going to break it down into something completely different,” Rogers said. “Yeah, I’m an entertainer. I think that’s what makes me different from other folks. I’m not afraid to put on fake boobs and a fake butt and act a little silly. I want to explore my uniqueness as an entertainer and to never compromise my professionalism.

“I don’t fit into anybody’s mold and I will not acquiesce.”

 

 

Rogers in stairwa (reduced)

 

 

During the kinetic A Happening concert she did at Carver Bank with new age musician Dereck Higgins she adorned herself in head band and glitter to help affect just the right groovy mood for this retro rave.

She feels certain her bohemian spirit is divinely directed, saying. “God was deciding my mind frame to think outside the box.”

The family matriarch who made music a family inheritance for Carol and her brothers is their mother Jeanne Rogers. She was a woman who did her own thing as well. Jeanne sang with area big bands and gigged as a jazz pianist-vocalist. A talent for music didn’t fall far from the tree, as Carol and her brothers have all made a living in music and joined their mother as Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame inductees.

Carol’s four children “all have voices,” too. Bethany, a recording sound engineer by trade, is especially gifted. Mom proudly watched her daughter “tear it up” one Sunday at One Way Ministry Apostles Doctrine Church, where the family worships.

Even when Jeanne became an Omaha Public Schools educator and administrator, she never left music behind. Indeed, she used it as a tool to reach kids. Carol, who as a girl used to accompany her mom to school to help her and other teachers set up their classrooms, followed in her footsteps to become a teacher herself, including running her own “kindergarten school of cool” that all her kids went through.

Carol, 61, also grew up under the influence of her grandmother Lilian Matilda Battle Hutch, She remembers her as an enterprising, tea-totaler who on a domestic worker’s wages managed buying multiple homes, subletting rooms for extra income. She sold Avon on the side.

“She could see opportunity and she was on the grind all the time. They called her ‘The General’ because she’d rifle out her demands – You comn’ in? I need you to go in the backyard and weed some stuff.'”

When Jeanne developed dementia, Carol’s trips back home increased to check on her mother and eventually take charge of her care. When Jeanne could no longer remain in her own home, Carol placed her in nursing facilities. She rests comfortably today at Douglas County Health Center. Carol’s since come back to stay. She and two of her kids reside in her mother’s former northeast Omaha home.

 

 

Kelly: Singer, whose mom has Alzheimer's, comes home to Omaha for 'the long goodbye'

 

As a homage to her educator mother, Carol has a kitchen wall double as a chalk board with scribbled reminders and appointments.

“Chalk is how she relayed things,” Carol said of her mom.

Both sides of a living room door are also chalk boards, only Rogers calls them “blessing boards. She has guests leave inscriptions and affirmations on one side and she writes scriptural passages on the other side. She calls it “seasoning” the door.

There in her home, one August morning, Rogers recounted her personal journey as an artist and a woman of faith who’s been born again. She recalled growing up in a bustling household on Bristol Street where she couldn’t help but be immersed in music between her siblings rehearsing and her mother and her musician friends jamming. That 24-7 creative hub imbued her with a love for performing.

“In the summertime it was just crawling with people because my brothers had instruments. In the basement they were always practicing. It got so I couldn’t study without a lot of noise. I still sleep with noise. If you didn’t get home in time and there was food you didn’t eat because the people who were in the house ate. It was first come-first served. That used to make me mad.

“But there was music. Folks would come. A typical weekend, Billy Rogers, not any relation, would come and jam. Everybody who was anybody came in and jammed. I didn’t know who they all were, all I knew there was always noise.”

The Rogers’ home was the place neighborhood kids congregated.

“My mother would boast that kids’ parents would say, ‘Why is my child always at your house?’ Because they’re welcome and there’s music. And so that’s just the way it was. That’s the way I remember the house. I didn’t have to go looking for people or excitement – it came to the house. There was always something going on.”

Her mother grew up near enough the old Dreamland Ballroom to hear the intoxicating rhythms of the black music greats who played there.

“That’s when she got bitten by the jazz bug,” Carol said. “She would go to sleep hearing the music playing at Dreamland.”

Carol enjoyed an even more intimate relationship with music because of the nightclub atmosphere Jeanne orchestrated at home.

“Oh, these jam sessions that mama would have. All I know is we would have to be whisked to bed. Of course, we could hear them at night. They would never go past 10 or so. Occasionally she would let us come down and just watch, which was a privilege. There’d be Basie Givens, who she played with forever, Clean Head Base, Cliff Dudley, the names go on of all the people who would come in. And they’d just jam, and she’d sing and play piano.

“It was a big party and to-do thing at the house. I would go to sleep hearing her and her friends play the jam sessions. Coming downstairs in the morning there was always somebody crashed out on the floor.

 

 

Rogers & board (reduced)

 

 

As a girl, Rogers was aware of the racism and discrimination that confined African-Americans to Omaha’s Near North Side.

“I didn’t venture past 72nd (Street) much.”

But she also saw how music broke down such barriers.

“Music was colorless and it brought everybody together. White folks would come into the neighborhood to play at my mother’s house. Italians, Jews were coming in. It was like a United Nations. Anybody could play, you came in.”

The diversity she was exposed to at home and at Omaha Central High School helped prepare her for the cultural smorgasbord she found with Mendes on international tours and in cosmopolitan Los Angeles.

It took a lot to finally get this restless singer to come back home to stay. She went through a stage when life was a series of gigs and parties. Then she settled down to raise her four kids as a single mom, eventually making her living as a much-in-demand vocal instructor.

She still works with artists today.

The truth is that even though Rogers is settled here now, there’s still a part of her yearning to go off somewhere. It’s why she’s in Rio de Janeiro this month working with an aspiring performing artist.

Now that she’s back home, she’s gigging at different venues around town. This is where it all started for her. Some of her earliest musical expressions came performing in youth Show Wagon concerts in Omaha city parks and in talent shows at the Omaha Civic Auditorium. She starred in Central High Road Shows. She appeared at Allen’s Showcase in North Omaha. She made her first television appearance on KETV’s Black on Black community affairs program.

The Omaha native first flew the coop as a teen with the Omaha Can Do Ambassadors on a tour to Greenland, Iceland and Canada.

Rogers, whose musical influences never seemed in synch with the times or her culture, as witnessed by her idolizing Judy Garland and Doris Day, eventually fixed on a suitable model.

“I wanted to be Diana Ross,” she said. “I wanted to stand up and sing, ‘Baby, baby…’ Yeah, that was my dream.”

She never found the solo career she craved but she did tour the U.S. with C.W, McCall in the wake of the “Convoy” hit record. Chip Davis later of Mannheim Steamroller fame, was the producer-composer-arranger. Playing red-neck honky-tonks with McCall she couldn’t be out front with her big personality because African-Americans weren’t always welcomed. Receding further into the background and having her spirit dampened was killing her.

She quit C.W. McCall and returned to Omaha, where she was the area’s most requested studio background singer for records and commercials, but she once again found the city too stultifying for her free spirit. This caged bird not only needed to fly but to soar far away.

She went out to Calif. to audition for Stevie Wonder but never really got a fair shake, not even meeting the famed artist. Dejected by that experience, she despaired what to do next.

“I was very depressed here because I knew I had to do something else. I said, I need something more. A true story: I was lying in bed knowing I should go to church – I hadn’t been born again at the time – when God’s voice told me to go back to California. There was no doubt in my mind who had spoken to me. I immediately put everything I wanted in my Volkswagen and left and and I haven’t had to look back. That mission was successful.”

She managed a face to face audition with Sergio Mendes, who needed singers for an upcoming tour. It came down to her and another girl and Carol won the spot. Rogers said it worked to her advantage she didn’t realize just how big a star Mendes was before trying out.

“Naivete was the angel’s wings I floated on with him. I had no idea how huge he was, otherwise I’d have panicked. I auditioned in the latter part of June 1976 and on July 4 he called to say, ‘If you want the job, it’s yours.’ I put the phone down and screamed.”

She said she reminded him that she’d earlier sent in an audio tape of her voice that he never acknowledged, to which he responded, “I never even listened to it and per that tape I would have never hired you.”

As the whirlwind touring commenced, she said she soon discovered like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Whew! But I was ready.” During nearly 25 years working together, she and Mendes became muses to each other.

“We fit because I was ready to totally immerse myself into something. I was fascinated with black people speaking another language. The ability to immerse myself in something and travel the world and get paid for it, well, it was a great education, it was a Ph.D.”

 

 

Rogers cover (reduced)

 

 

She got the adventure she sought but like many who get what they ask for, she found that career success alone didn’t complete her.

“I went through some things in L.A. Severely depressed for some years. Working top dollar but depressed because something was missing – I was separated from the Lord. I was still traveling with Sergio when I was reborn in 1980 coming off a long tour in Japan.

“I baby sat a friend’s house and I needed something to read, so I went to a bookstore and got Billy Graham’s book, How to be Born Again. I read it and knew that when Jesus went to that cross he died for me, too, It absolutely blew me away. I spontaneously started writing Christian songs.”

The words and music came flowing out of her as if supplied by a higher source.

“You see, when you’re first born again the Lord sojourns with you and he talks to you. Today, my faith is now seasoned with trials and rejoicing in trials.”

She found great satisfaction teaching at a prestigious L.A. performing arts school. At a certain point she developed a sort of alter ego for her teaching role – Mama O.

“Mama O came about when I needed an identity to separate me from the students. Everybody respects mama, so I decided I’m going to be Mama. And Mama what?. So, Mama O, in deference to my time in Brazilian culture.

“That got to my psyche so powerfully that I felt more powerful as a teacher. I’m not just Carol Rogers, no, I’m Mama. When Mama tells you to do something, you better do it. Mama won’t loan you no money, because I’m not that kind of mama. Mama might give you a little lecture because that’s what mamas do. But Mama’s going to show you how it’s done and Mama’s going to ask you to do it exactly.”

She said that bigger-than-life persona is “the rock side of me, the metal side of me.” Since relocating back to Omaha in 2013, Rogers said, “Mama’s a bit quieter here because nobody believes her. After I start teaching again (which she plans to do at the collegiate level) I would like to be called Mama O again.”

Even with work and faith, the L.A. scene became trying.

“California became my Canaan experience. Friendship is hard to find. Backsliding is very easy. But if you’re called and you know you’re born again, nobody can pluck you from God’s hand. Now, the deeper story. Everything closed for me in my life. You know when God closes a door but opens another? That’s exactly what was happening to me.”

She said though she was “a favorite, award-winning” teacher at the school where she taught, she endured a backlash from administrators because her forceful personality made her stand out. Students asked for her specifically.

“Kids would come thousands of miles from Europe, India, Japan and say, ‘We want Mama.’ They called me Mama. They were told, ‘Well, she’s taken, you can’t have her.’ I said, ‘Fix it, give me some more hours.'”

The young singers she worked with on all aspects of performance represented many vocal-music styles and Rogers determined she wouldn’t teach something unless she could do it herself.

“I had to do it all, even heavy metal. How can I tell to do something if I don’t show you I can do it? I was adamant about that and it set me apart from my contemporaries at school and for that reason the director of the school said, ‘You’re an easy target, we want everybody to be alike. But you stand out like a sore thumb.'”

As her situation there became tenuous, she was touched by students siding with her. But each time she spoke out, tensions only increased. She felt like the administration wanted to dampen her originality in order to make her conform.

“When my job began to become corporate, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t exercise my God-given uniqueness.”

So, she left, and in 2013 she finalized her move to Omaha.

“I didn’t want to come back to Omaha but I knew i had to come back for my mom because I became her guardian. I needed to be here in all of the Midwest’s mystery and awe and hummingbird moths and thunderstorms. I was telling my daughter during a beautiful thunderstorm that the lightning was God’s paparazzi.'”

She said she never imagined her two children living with her would ever take to Neb., but they have.

“They both marvel at the thunderstorms and the cicadas in the trees and the squirrels and wild turkeys running around. My oceans are the cicadas at night, the diminuendo and the crescendo.”

It’s not just her family who’s fond of Midwest living.

“If I describe this place to my Calif. friends – ‘Everything I need for a taco is running around free ‘ they think it’s paradise.”

She’s disheartened though Omaha now suffers from inner city woes like persistent gun violence that didn’t really exist back in her day. Like many from her generation, she longs for a return to the It-takes-a-village-to-raise-child culture she grew up in.

With some perspective now, she feels things worked out the way they were supposed to in bringing her back home to be with her mom. She never forgets the inspiration for her life’s journey in music.

“Mom gave us music and she gave us a house full of it all the time.”

Seeing her mom’s mental capacities diminish has been difficult. Seeing her no longer recall the words to songs she sang thousands of times, like “My Funny Valentine,” cuts deeply. No one is prepared for losing a loved one, piece by piece, to the fog of Alzheimer’s. All Rogers or anyone can do is be there for the afflicted.

“I’m glad I’m close by for her sake to remind her she’s loved and hopefully, even though she doesn’t recognize me, give her a familiarity.”

As if dealing with her mother’s odyssey were not enough, Rogers no sooner got situated here than the home she inherited from her suffered a disaster while she was away.

“I came back to find the pipes burst over the winter. The water in the basement was up to my knees. Then the tears began to roll because I’m thinking, You don’t know how much insurance will pay off. That winter was so terrible that they couldn’t get to me for five days. By the time they got to me this place stank of mildew and mold.”

There was insurance but it didn’t come near to covering the damage.

“I didn’t know what i was going to do but I knew God didn’t bring me this far for nothing.”

She attributes providence with bringing the home from disaster to rebirth and the blessings that came with it.

“A Christian couple to whom the Lord has given many gifts love my vocal ministry and they gave me $50,000 to put this house back together. The demolition guys came in like piranhas and took everything down to beams and joists. I could see the attic from downstairs.”

She was put up at a Residence Inn for five months while the heavy work was done. The result is essentially a brand new home.

“Everything is new,” she said. “As the guys were installing the appliances I was crying. Why? Because God has granted me favor beyond favor. The Lord impressed upon my heart the scripture that says, ‘In Christ, all things become new.’ It just doesn’t mean your spirit – you can get some new stuff, too. That’s OK.”

She’s given the home a Biblical name.

“I call my home Lazarus Resurrected because by the time they got to it, it stank, but Jesus resurrected it. My mission statement of this home is to serve. Just like my mother’s house did but with a little bit more decorum. Can’t just anybody get in and out of here.

“And once music begins I’m sure I’ll have more people coming through. Inevitably the basement will become my kick-it space like it was once before. I’ll be able to put instruments down and not fear water finding it’s mark again.”

Playing hostess will be new for her, she said, “because in L.A. I was too busy to have company. I’d come home after driving to and from and would want to collapse. So I’m learning hospitality and welcoming it. I look forward to it because this house is blessed, it’s anointed. It’s blessed me. It was an inherited blessing from my mother, it has to continue and it will. My kids are here.”

 

 

Rogers in chair (reduced)

 

 

She feels blessed, too, whenever she takes the stage.

“In this day in age when you’re inundated with the electronic ability to insulate yourself, I never ever count it anything less than a privilege to be heard by a live audience. That being the case, I have to prepare. I’m not so fast at learning things anymore, so it takes a long time to prepare these days,

“Yeah, it’s a privilege to be able to share my feelings and my life experience through my singing. Sometimes my nerves derail me but usually that means I needed to pay a little bit more attention to details.”

Just as she’s most alive when she freely expresses her uniqueness, she helps voice students find and nurture their own uniqueness.

The student she’s working with in Brazil has all the necessary vocal chops, Rogers said, but needs confidence in herself and in her ability to perform in front of live audiences. Rogers draws her own vast experience to try and get students to look at performing as a collaboration or communion. She likens it to a figure eight.

“The band is behind me and at the apex is me and then the audience is in front of me. Everything they do when I’m on stage comes through me and it’s just a circular exchange of credibility – we believe you, we give you our energy. And the band’s supporting me. What a privilege to have people backing me. They’ve got my back.

“To be in front at that apex, sharing it and feeling it come back to me through them is such a high. That is what I really concentrate on. It’s cathartic, especially as I’ve learned to sing the blues.”

Hanging on a wall of her home is a metal artwork depicting an after the club scene with unmanned band instruments and overturned chairs. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture her at the apex with a hot three-piece band behind her and a live wire crowd in front of her.

Rogers still records from time to time. On a 2011 visit to Omaha she met local jazz pianist, composer, arranger Chuck Marohnic at Countryside Community Church when she insinuated herself into a piece he was playing. He immediately asked her to be one of the singers from around the nation lending their voices to his Jazz Psalms Project that features original music for all 150 psalms in the Bible’s Book of Psalms.

“I’d never been asked to do something like this before,” she said, referring to jazz arrangements of scriptures. Ironically, her mother introduced jazz tinges to traditional hymns at Church of the Resurrection in Omaha when she was music director there.

For the Jazz Psalms Project Rogers said, “We did everything live. Oh, what a high. And the guys were great, including Chuck at the piano. It was absolutely amazing all of us playing together.”

Upon return from her coaching stint in Brazil she’ll no doubt grace various nightspots with her unique talents starting in the fall.

It’s a good time for Carol Rogers. She’s more comfortable in her own skin than she has been in a long while.

“Being home has helped. Having two of my kids here has helped. Also seeing God work miracles, ah, that’ll make you get your head right.”

This ever curious searcher just wants to keep creating and stretching herself. Her exploration, she said, “never done.”

Just don’t ask her to stay in the shadows.

“I want my light to shine.”

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

Luigi’s Legacy: Omaha jazz artist Luigi Waites fondly remembered

July 18, 2011 24 comments

I wrote the following two pieces in memory of the late, much-beloved Omaha jazz artist Luigi Waites.  I only met the man once and I only saw him perform a few times, but I knew a lot of people who knew him and his music well.  I had always meant to do a full-blown profile of him but it just never worked out.  These short recaps of his career will have to do.  I wish now I had pressed forward in doing something with him.  It’s a reminder that particularly with older subjects the time to interview them is now, because one never knows when they might be gone. And once gone, the wisdom of that elder goes with them.

 

 

Luigi’s Legacy: Omaha jazz artist Luigi Waites fondly remembered

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine

 

The April 6, 2010  death of Omaha jazz percussionist, vibraphonist, band leader and music educator Luigi Waites brought an outpouring of tributes to this Classic Omaha Hep Cat.

Luigi, whose first name identified him for legions of fans, became an ambassador for jazz in his hometown of Omaha. Unlike the bombast of another local jazz icon, the late Preston Love Sr., Luigi was sedate. Contrasting personalities aside, these “brothers” came out of the same African-American social-cultural milieu to carve out careers.

The humble Luigi made friends wherever he laid down licks. It’s not surprising then his passing prompted memorials befitting a beloved hero. He touched innumerable lives with his timeless music and generous spirit.

Long ago divorced, the 82 year-old was survived by six children.

Wearing his signature floppy hat, Luigi exuded a Zen master’s inscrutable calm. His signature performance spot, Mr. Toad in the Old Market, lasted some 1,700 Sundays. Manager Rick Renn said what he’ll cherish most about Luigi is his “absolutely unique personality, adding: “He was just comfortable with everybody and he made everybody comfortable; he was one of these people who you met for the first time and you loved about a minute later; he was unusual, he was cryptic, he was always making you think.”

Whether playing a bar or festival, doing a school residency or giving private music lessons, Luigi was always teaching. Bandmates say he turned gigs into symposiums, encouraging an open exchange of ideas and approaches.

“You knew he was serious when you watched him play. You knew he was going, as the great ones do, into his element,. You’d sit and watch him on the vibes, the concentration on his face, but at the same time the fun he was having,” said Renn.

For years Luigi traveled the Midwest for the National School Tours program and Nebraska Arts Council. He provided music lessons, often for free, all over Omaha. His touring multicultural drum and drill corps, The Contemporaries, served at-risk kids. Professional side man and session player Arno Lucas credits his stint with the Contemporaries for saving him from the streets. He considered Luigi “a true mentor.”

For years, too, Luigi booked all the entertainment for the Summer Arts Festival downtown. He was also a clinician for Sonar, Trixon and Ludwig drums.

The lifetime learner never stopped being a student himself, whether teaching himself to play drums, later the vibes, or trying new things with his group, Luigi Inc.

He had some formal music training, courtesy a hitch in the U.S. Army and attending the Midwestern Conservatory of Music. Like many musicians of his era though he picked up his chops informally, traveling the country and Europe, but mostly in his hometown, where a vibrant live music scene back in the day saw him haunt the local night spots, sitting in on jam sessions galore and playing in various bands.

Luigi never lost his enthusiasm or curiosity. Late in life the amateur photography buff learned digital techniques from Omaha professional photographer Herb Thompson.

“He was always just very young at heart,” said Thompson, who mentored Luigi for a Nebraska Arts Council project that resulted in an exhibition.

Thompson said the only time he saw Luigi slow down was after the ailing musician underwent chemo treatments. The artist finally lost his battle with cancer, but till the end was making plans — for a new CD, for new photography projects.

 

 

 

 

A memorial service at Omaha North High School and the funeral at St. Cecilia Cathedral drew hundreds each.

“Neither of those was really a sad occasion, they were more a celebration,” said Thompson. “People just said how much they loved him, how much he meant to them. It was a cross-section of this city who celebrated the life of a man who had contributed so very much to his community. I don’t think there’s anyone in the black community of a certain age who hadn’t been touched by Luigi. Another thing that struck me is that it’s obvious he crossed racial barriers. It came out in almost all of the comments folks made at the tribute but also in the kind of racial mixture you had there.”

Playwright Monica Bauer can attest to Luigi gracefully defying social constraints. She was among many whites who took music lessons from him. In the 1960s he was teaching at Swoboda Music Center at 20th and Q. Few blacks worked in the heavily Czech area and despite some raised eyebrows from neighbors, owner Johnny Swoboda hired and kept Luigi, and the two became friends.

If anybody had objected to Luigi’s presence, Swoboda would have stood by his man. “We were buddies,” said Swoboda. “He made quite an impression on all kinds of people. It’s quite a legacy.” Swoboda’s children became the first white Contemporaries.

Bauer echoed the sentiments of many in describing Luigi as “a terrific music teacher” with a “kind and compassionate” manner. His students say he taught philosophical life lessons as much as music. She said she “learned how to be an artist” and a mensch from him. “Luigi always told me, ‘Be kind to everybody, and they will be kind to you.’ I took those words with me through two Ivy League degrees, three Master’s degrees, and a Ph.D.”

Her play My Occasion of Sin dramatizes Luigi’s social action of taking on white students in the racially tense ‘60s. He didn’t see it as making a statement. He was just being Luigi.

 

 

 

 

Luigi Gone But Not Forgotten

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

As much as the music he made. the generous spirit of iconic Omaha drummer and vibraphonist Luigi Waites is likely be remembered even more. Waites died early Tuesday morning at Immanuel Hospital. He was 82.

His 70-year performing career encompassed much of the Omaha live music scene but extended well beyond his hometown borders. He’s perhaps best known for the more than 1,700 Sunday night shows he and his group, Luigi Inc., performed at Mr. Toad in the Old Market. Luigi was also a fixture at the Dundee Dell. As a Summer Arts Festival board member, he booked the event’s entertainment.

As early as age 12 he began playing drums and soon gigged at local nightclubs, where his mother served as his escort. He studied at the Midwestern Conservatory of Music in Chicago and worked as a clinician for drum manufacturers. He influenced many youths through the touring multicultural marching corps he formed in 1960, The Contemporaries. He applied R&B rhythms to the traditional military-style marching band aesthetic. Professional musicians Arno Lucas and Victor Lewis “graduated” from The Contemporaries.

In a 2007 interview Lucas spoke for many when he said “Luigi was the guy who made it possible for me to stay focused and to keep out of trouble.” Lucas recalled Waites as a “mentor, teacher, step-father.”

For decades Waites did artist-in-the-schools presentations.

His many honors included 1996 Nebraska Artist of the Year from the Nebraska Arts Council and 2009 Best Jazz Artist from the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards, which previously honored him with a lifetime achievement award. Waites was also inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame.

The father of six leaves behind some recordings but mainly a legacy of teaching and sharing. He lives on in YouTube excerpts of his Mr. Toad shows.

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Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown

July 4, 2011 44 comments

With the 2011 Native Omaha Days, July 27-August 1, just around the corner I am posting stories I’ve written about this every two years African American heritage and homecoming event and how it serves a kind of litmus test for the black community here to take stock of itself in terms of where it’s been, where it is today, and where it’s heading. The following story appeared just as the 2009 Native Omaha Days concluded. I spoke to a number of individuals for their take on the state of Black Omaha at a time when there is both much despair and much promise for the predominantly African American northeast Omaha community. I interviewed folks who grew up here and stayed here and those who left here but who retain deep ties here and come back for events like the Days in order to get a cross-section of perspectives on what the past, present, and future holds for North Omaha. This much discussed community, where generational problems of poverty and underachievement are rampant but where many success stories have also been launched, is finally getting the kind of attention it’s long required. Initiatives like the African American Empowerment Network are helping drive a planned revitalization that seems much closer to reality today than it did even two years ago. The role of Native Omaha Days shouldn’t be overlooked because it does bring together thousands of current and former Omaha residents whose individual and collective vision and energy are helping fuel what is about to be a major North Omaha revival. That doesn’t mean all the challenges that face that community will be eradicated overnight. It took decades for those problems and wounds to become embedded and it will take decades to heal them, and events like Native Omaha Days help give a purpose and focus to affecting change.

 

Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The 2009 African-American heritage celebration Native Omaha Days concluded Monday. Natives came from across America to indulge memories of this touchstone place. The biennial, week-long Days lends itself to gauging the African-American experience here — past, present, future.

Taking stock has added import with North Omaha at a tipping point. Ambitious new housing and commercial developments, job training programs, educational reform efforts and gang intervention initiatives are in the works. All in response to endemic problems of poverty and unemployment, low job readiness, poor academic performance, high dropout rates, epidemic-level STDs and ongoing drug traficking-gang violence. North O has a strong sense of identity and purpose yet struggles with scarce opportunities. The persistent challenges of segregation and inequality have led many natives over time to leave for better prospects elsewhere, but a sense of home and family keeps their ties to Omaha strong.

The Days brings thousands of natives back to meet up with friends and relatives for homecomings, large and small. Last week’s public events included: a mixer at the Native Omahans Club; a parade along North 30th Street; a dance at the Mid-America Center; appearances by NBA star Dwayne Wade and actress Gabrielle Union at North High School; and a picnic at Levi Carter Park.

Visitors helped swell the numbers at Jazz on the Green, at clubs and bars on the north side and at black church services. Celebrants were out in force too at school reunions. Then there were untold family reunions and block parties that unfolded in people’s homes and yards, in the streets, and in parks all over the city.

Northeast Omaha was jumping as visitors mixed with residents to sight-see or just kick it. Kountze Park, the Native Omahans Club, the Love’s Jazz & Arts Center, the Bryant Center, Skeets Barbecue and other haunts were popular gathering spots. Joe Tess on the south side was a popular stop. Streams of cars toured the black community’s historical corridors. Many made the rounds at post-card amenities like the riverfront, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardend and Henry Doorly Zoo.

Nobody seems to know how many expatriates arrive for The Days. That’s a shame, as these visitors represent resources for a strapped city and state hurting from a brain drain and a small tax base. Many natives who come back are the same upwardly mobile blacks Omaha has trouble retaining, a costly decades-long trend. The city’s black population is small to begin with, so every talented native lost is felt acutely by a community with a paucity of black entrepreneurs and professionals for a city this size.

Hometown girl Felicia Webster has twice left for the East Coast but has since returned to live here with her young son. She wonders what would happen if residents collaborated with visitors on visioning new initiatives, ventures, projects, even start-up businesses aimed at reviving North Omaha.

“I feel Native Omaha Days right now is a good opportunity and a wonderful manifestation of African-American people coming together of one accord and building and talking and socializing. It would be nice to just have a really huge collective on what could actually happen with development here,” said Webster, a spoken word artist, “because, you know, people come from everywhere that are doing all kinds of things. They can bring their knowledge and tools with them to share something fresh, new and vital here. I personally would like to see that.”

 

 

 

Image result for felicia webster

Felecia Webster

 

 

What about The Days serving as a catalyst for brainstorming-networking forums that capitalize on the skill sets and entrepreneurial ideas and investment dollars of natives near and far? All geared toward building the kind of self-sufficiency that black leaders point to as the most sustainable path for black prosperity.

Nate Goldston III  left Omaha as a young man and went on to found Gourmet Services in Atlanta, Ga., one of the nation’s largest food service companies. He’s doing just what Webster advocates by working with locals on stimulating new development. The self-made millionaire has been advising the Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the North Omaha Development Project on the landscape for new North O investment. He’s bullish on the prospects for that long depressed district.

“I think it’s going to grow, but you’ve got to plant the seeds first and that’s what were interested in helping do with some business development there in the food service area,” Goldston said by phone from Atlanta.

He’s close to finalizing plans for a brick-and-mortar Gourmet Services backed project here to provide entrepreneurial opportunities for local African Americans.

“If we can bring this business opportunity there and put some young people in place and let them have a little piece of the action and begin to develop a franchise type operation, and then allow them to go on and grow it themselves, manage and own at the same time, that’ll bring that missing link and fill that gap in the economic development portion. At least a small portion of it,” he said.

He said it’s the kind of grassroots development that’s required. “It’s not the Chamber’s job to develop North Omaha. North Omaha needs to be developed by people from or attached to North Omaha, and the kinds of things that need to go in need to be done from within as opposed to from without.” Goldston’s impressed with the “pro-business, pro-development, pro-North Omaha” focus of the Chamber and city. “They just need the right teammates, they need the right partners to help them do it, and that’s the first time I’ve ever noticed that collaborative attitude in Omaha. I think there’s a real chance there.”

New Omaha City Planning Director Rick Cunningham, who most recently lived on the East Coast, is a native who hopes to implement Mayor Jim Suttle’s vision for a revitalized north side. “His agenda includes a strong commitment to North Omaha,” Cunningham said of Suttle. “He has a goal for 24th and Lake Street to become a new Dundee for Omaha.”

Cunningham knows first-hand Northeast Omaha’s prolonged decline. He also knows “there have been pockets of success,” including the Blue Lion Center at 24th and Lake he served as project manager for under Omaha architect and mentor Ambrose Jackson. He said most North O redevelopment has come from “investments in new rooftops, in new housing,” and while that needs to continue he said there must be a focus on creating more employable residents and attracting businesses and services that generate new jobs and commerce. “To bring Omaha into a very livable community with an environment that all residents and visitors can enjoy we’ve got to make sure we’ve got a diverse economy.”

He looks forward to being part of solutions that “return North 24 to the vibrancy it had, when 24th and Lake was the heart and soul. We will be engaged in that effort.” He looks forward to meeting with community partners from the public and private sectors to “build synergy in accomplishing those goals.” He said the city cannot afford to let North Omaha wallow. “If there is an area that suffers in Omaha than the entire city suffers,” he said. “It’s important we revitalize the core area. Those communities that are alive and thriving have inner cities that are alive.”

 

 


Nate Goldston III

 

 

Goldston vividly recalls when North O had a greater concentration of black-owned businesses than it does today, but he said even in its heyday Omaha’s black community had few major black entrepreneurs.

“Omaha’s African-American community has always been job-oriented as opposed to entrepreneurial-oriented,” he said. “I see great opportunity and I see opportunity that’s been missed only because I don’t know that we’ve been blessed with a lot of entrepreneurs that have had the path or the ability to develop businesses in the area. We had the model of the bars, the nightclubs, the pool halls.”

He could have added restaurants, barbershops, beauty salons, clothing stores and filling stations. There were also black professionals in private practice — doctors, dentists, attorneys, accountants, pharmacists, architects.

Their example “gave me inspiration and hope,” said attorney Vaughn Chatman, a native Omahan who made it back for The Days from Calif. North 24th Street was once a thriving hub of black and white-owned businesses. Few, however, survived the ‘60s riots and their aftermath. Urban renewal did in more. Once the packing house and railroad jobs that employed many blacks vanished, few good-paying  employment options surfaced. “My friends and I had no desire to leave Omaha until opportunities for us began to disappear,” said Chatman . “Most, if not all my friends, faced with lack of opportunity have left Omaha. My friends and relatives (still) there tell me the quality of life for them and their generation has not gotten any better despite the best efforts of a number of individuals and organizations.”

Several new businesses have popped up but many have come and gone over time. Despite some redevelopment North 24th is largely barren today.

“That positive feeling of inspiration and hope is what I miss the most about the North Omaha I grew up in,” said Chatman.

 An old-line exception is the Omaha Star, a black weekly now 70-plus years strong. Founder Mildred Brown was one of America’s few black women publishers. She earned a national reputation for her crusading work during the civil rights movement. Goldston learned valuable lessons working for the Star as a kid.

“The Omaha Star was my entree to entrepreneurship,” he said. “That’s what taught me to create a marketing sense, the ability to be able to develop a customer base and customer service and the whole nine yards.”

Cathy Hughes is another Star veteran who credits her experience there and at Omaha black-owned radio station KOWH with helping give her the impetus to be a broadcast owner and eventually build her Radio One empire.

“It encouraged me to go ahead and to try to own my own radio station because I saw some folks in Omaha do it,” she said by phone from her Maryland home. “You lead by example. When you do something, you never know who you’re touching. you never know who you’re having an impact on. I saw Bob Gibson and Rodney Wead and Bob Boozer and Gale Sayers come together and buy a radio station, so I knew it was possible, and now I’m the largest black-owned broadcast corporation in America and the only African-American woman to head a publicly traded corporation. None of that would have been possible if I hadn’t seen the examples I saw in Omaha, if I hadn’t seen Mildred Brown keeping her newspaper not only afloat but providing her with a very comfortable existence for that day and time.”

 

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Cathy Hughes

 

 

Hughes, like Goldston, is pleased by gains that have been made via new housing developments, streetscape improvements and the Love’s Center, but is dismayed there aren’t more Mildred Brown figures in Omaha by now. In Hughes’ estimation Omaha should be much further along than it is in black entrepreneurship.

“It has a long ways to go,” she said.

Hughes is also concerned that strong community leaders like North O developer Al Goodwin, educator Katherine Fletcher and job training director Bernice Dodd are no longer on the scene. She’s warily watching the new generation of local black leadership to assess their commitment to redevelopment.

Goldston said black businesses in Omaha are not as visible as they once were.

“Those things have all gone away,” he said, adding that Omaha “is miles apart” from the dynamic black business culture found in Atlanta. “I think other opportunities were just not there (in Omaha) at that time to start and build a business.”

All these years later, he said, few if any Omaha businesses have made the Black Enterprise 100 list of the largest African-American owned businesses.

Most black-owned Omaha businesses of any size are not located on the north side today. Out of sight, out of mind. Hard to emulate what you don’t see. “I think we flourish when we see reflections of ourselves in the community where we live,” said Webster. “And when you don’t see that, what do you have to strive for?”

Introducing students to Omaha black achievers via school curricula is something Vaughn Chatman, founder of the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, advocates.

Webster presents programs in schools that attempt to expand kids’ vision. “I want them to see a bigger picture, a bigger view of the world than what they normally see, and I hope that by my being African-American young boys and girls are seeing reflections of themselves in me of what they possibly could attain,” she said.

Hughes and Goldston are concerned about the education gap that finds black students on average lagging behind whites. The truancy and drop-out rates for blacks are higher. The two are alarmed by how far Omaha’s inner city schools trail their suburban counterparts. “We’re going to have to really cure that before anybody can make any progress,” said Goldston, who’s challenged a national organization he once led, 100 Black Men, with making a difference in schools.

Webster said she was fortunate to have parents who stressed education and showed her “the world was bigger than Omaha.” Omaha’s segregation meant she would often frequent places and be the only black person there. Cathy Hughes had the same experience coming of age here. “That’s challenging,” said Webster. The first time Webster left, for Philadelphia, in the early ‘90s, Omaha was viewed as a dull place by many young people — black and white.

“A lot of my close friends did end up leaving and going to more heavily populated cities, and I think a lot of that had to do with not only wanting to explore the world but what opportunities they saw. For some, it was a larger African-American presence. For others, it was bigger metropolitan areas where you felt like you were getting paid what you were worth and could fulfill what you desired.

“Coming back this time I can see Omaha is really growing but I think Omaha is still a work in progress. I have friends with degrees who are still making $12 an hour, and I think that’s a challenge. They can’t find jobs with livable wages. And I find I’m still the only person that looks like me when I go certain places.”

Webster likes that Omaha has far more going on now than even five years ago, but she said she misses Philly’s constant slate of cultural activities and larger base of African-Americans to share them with. The big city scene “reignites” her.

Author Carleen Brice (Orange Mint and Honey, Children of the Waters) is a native living in Denver, Colo. with mixed feelings about Omaha.

“It’s always complex being from a small city and having big dreams,” said Brice. “I can’t speak for others, but I felt I needed to leave Omaha to achieve what I wanted to achieve. Part of that had to do with my specific family background. When my parents divorced, we went through some bad times and so I associate Omaha with those negative memories as well as with the positive ones.

 

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Carleen Brice

 

 

“What I sense the most in Omaha is a kind of small thinking, small dreaming. Strange since Omaha does have a lot going for it. But I also think every city is what you make of it. I live in Denver and think it’s great, but I have friends who grew up here and feel very much like it’s a tiny, backwards city. I’ve begun to think that if I moved back to Omaha I could experience it differently, without feeling so blinded by my past.”

Still, Brice said she senses North Omaha’s quality of life is worse today. “I know my grandmother is saddened by the decline of that part of the city. My friends don’t see much improvement in how people actually interact or how they are treated, which makes them feel depressed. Back to that word depressed again. It’s sad, but true, I think Omaha is depressed.”

Beaufield Berry is a playwright and actress who’s come and gone from her hometown several times. She’s here again. She feels a big part of what holds Omaha back is its “small town ideas” that don’t readily embrace diversity. She believes North Omaha will not reach its potential until the cycle of inequity and despair is broken.

“For Omaha’s black population to really thrive I think you’ve got to start at the poverty line. You have to start at where the people may not have the role models that other kids do. You have to make it so they can see a father figure or an older brother making the right decisions.”

 

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But Berry sees much to be hopeful about, too. “On the flip side of that I see so many amazingly talented young people of all different races who are really working towards something, who can really make a difference, not only with their work but with their words, with their presence, and I want to see more of that. I think that’s how Omaha, black or white, will start to thrive citywide.”

Webster sees Omaha progressing but like many blacks she’d like to see more done.

“I think with a collective idea and voice from all kinds people that it could kind of put a faster spark into it happening. It could manifest into something where everybody that lives here really enjoys it. I think it would be amazing.

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful celebration, now, and all the days gone by

July 4, 2011 45 comments

As the July 27-August 1 Native Omaha Days festival draws near I am posting articles I’ve written about this African-Ameican heritage and homecoming event and about closely related topics. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared some years ago, at at time when predominantly African American North Omaha was experiencing a large increase in gun violence and media reports laid out the widespread poverty and achievement gaps affecting that community. In response to dire needs, the African American Empowerment Network was formed and a concerted process begun to to bring about a revitalized North Omaha. Native Omaha leaders and others expressed hope that events like Native Omaha Days and the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame might serve to unify, heal, and instill pride to help stem the tide of hopelessness and disrespect behind the violence. Things have improved recently and North O really does seen the verge of coming back, thanks in large part to efforts by the Empowerment Network, but the stabilizing role of events like Native Omaha Days shouldn’t be forgotten or dimissed.

 

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Native Omaha Club photo by lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful celebration, now and all the days gone by

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

Organizers of the 16th biennial Native Omaha Days call it the largest gathering of African-Americans in Nebraska. That in itself makes it a significant event. Thousands fill Salem Baptist Church for the gospel fest, spill into North 24th Street for the social mixer/registration and the homecoming parade, boogie at the Qwest Center dance and chow down on soul food at a Levi Carter Lake Park picnic.

This heritage celebration held every other summer is a great big reunion with many family-class reunions around it. Parties abound. Hotels, casinos, eateries, bars fill. Jam sessions unwind. Bus tours roll. North 24th cruising commences. Stories and lies get told. It’s people of a shared roots experience coming together as one.

Unity is on the minds of natives as their community is poised at a historic juncture. Will North 24th’s heyday be recaptured through new economic-education-empowerment plans? Or will generational patterns of poverty, underemployment, single parent homes, crime and lack of opportunity continue to hold back many? What happens if the cycle of despair that grips some young lives is not broken?

“The Native Omaha homecoming is very important, but a lot of young people don’t know what it’s all about, and that really bothers me,” said Hazel Kellogg, 74, president of the sponsoring nonprofit Native Omahans Club, Inc.. “They’re the future and what we’re trying to do is make them realize how important it is to hang in with your community and to keep your community pulling together for the betterment of our people. OUR people, you know?

“We have a big problem on the north side with violence and crime and all that, and I want to reach out to young people to let them know this homecoming is all about family and friends coming home to be together and enjoy a weekend of good clean fun. Eventually the young people are going to be heading up Native Omaha Days and they need to know what it’s all about.”

She said she hopes the event is a catalyst for ongoing efforts to build up the community again. After much neglect she’s encouraged by signs of revitalization. “I’ve been through it all. I’ve been through the riots. For a long time it moved in a negative direction. Now, I’m very hopeful. We need the whole community to come together with this. Together we stand.”

Vaughn Chatman, 58, shares the same concerns. He left Omaha years ago and the problems he saw on visits from Fair Oaks, Calif., where he now lives, motivated him to found the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. The Hall seeks to restore the sense of community pride he knew. An induction ceremony held during the Days honors area black artists, athletes, activists, entrepreneurs and leaders. He feels young blacks can only feel invested in the future if exposed to successful folks who look like they do. He works with the Omaha Public Schools to have local black achievers discussed in classroom curricula as a way to give kids positive models to aspire to.

“Back in the day” is an oft-heard phrase of the week-long fest. Good and bad times comprise those memories. Just as World War II-era Omaha saw an influx of blacks from the South seeking packinghouse-railroad jobs, the last 40 years has seen an exodus due to meager economic-job prospects.
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photo by Cyclops-Optic (Jack David Hubbell)

 

Centered in northeast Omaha, the black community hub became North 24th, where  Jewish and black-owned businesses catered to every good and service and a vital live music scene thrived. Hence, many Days activities revolve around 24th, which declined after the late ‘60s riots. A few blocks have seen improvements, but much of this former “Street of Dreams” is run down or empty. Gang violence in the district is a problem. It’s concerns like these now spurring coalitions of residents and expatriate natives like Chatman to craft sustainable solutions.

For a change, Karen Davis sees “substance” in the new initiatives targeting rebirth. Enough to make the Native Omahans Club officer feel the area “can be back to where it was or even more. Businesses have come down or moved back, and I think it’s a good thing for us,” she said.

The Native Omahans Club is quartered in a former lounge at 3819 North 24th. During the Days the building and street outside overflow with people reminiscing. Visitors mix with residents, exchanging handshakes, hugs, laughter, tears. Scenes like this unfold all over — anywhere neighborhood-school chums or relatives catch up with each other to relive old times.

“We haven’t seen each other in years, so it’s just a fellowship — what we used to do, what we used to look like…It’s just big fun,” said Davis.

Like countless Omahans, Davis and Kellogg each have friends and family arriving for the Days. No one’s sure just how many out-of-state natives return or the economic impact of their stays, but organizers guess 5,000 to 8,000 make it in and spend millions here. Those hefty numbers lead some to say the event doesn’t get its just due from the city. No matter, it’s a family thing anyway.

“People come in from all over for Native Omaha Days. My family comes from Colorado, Minnesota. It’s a time I can get together with them. I have a friend from Arizona coming I haven’t seen in 20 years. I’ll be so glad to see her. Those are the things that really just keep my heart pumping,” Kellogg said. “It’s just a gala affair.”

For details on the Days visit www.nativeomahans.com or call 457-5974.

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