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Tiempo Libre kicks off Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing in Omaha

July 4, 2011 1 comment

One of the neat things about being a journalist covering arts and cultural happenings is the opportunity it provides to intersect with emerging or rising talents. In the case of this article for El Perico I got to speak with Jorge Gomez, the leader of the breakout Latin band  Tiempo Libre, who kick off this season’s Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing series in Omaha. The timba-jazz infused, Miami-based group performs July 7, and the series featuring regional and national jazz acts runs through August 11. If you haven’t heard of Tiempo Libre, as I hadn’t, you’ll soon learn why you should take notice in the space of my short article. First of all, the group has only been together 10 years and yet they’ve already earned three Grammy nominations. They’e opened for and collaborated with some world class artists. Their music draws from many different sources and influences. These musicians are highly skilled and steeped in a classical foundation. They are also inventive enough to blend their native Cuban rhythms with all manner of musical styles. And they have a great story of what fired their imaginations in Cuba and of living out their dream now as a headline act around the world.

 

Tiempo Libre kicks off Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing in Omaha

by Leo Adam Biga

As soon to be published in El Perico

Growing up in Cuba members of the hot Miami-based Latin band, Tiempo Libre, studied classical music at Havana conservatories. Popular music, especially American, but even their native timba, was deemed subversive and thus forbidden. Hungry for what they were denied, the players clambered atop roofs at night with homemade antennas to pick up faint Miami radio broadcasts.

The staticky sounds of Michael Jackson, Chaka Chan, Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, Manhattan Transfer and Earth Wind and Fire filled the tropical air. “It was fuel for our dreams. It opened a new door for us,” says Jorge Gomez, Tiempo Libre lead vocalist, keyboardist and musical director. “We listened, we recorded and during the day we put the music on and everybody in the neighborhood came to my house. We danced and sang and played dominos, everything. It was a new hope for us.”

Today, Gomez and his Grammy-nominated bandmates are touting their new Afro-Cuban fusion album, My Secret Radio, and its celebration of those clandestine raves. Fresh from performing at an Italian music festival, Tiempo Libre opens the Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing season Thursday. Their pulsating rhythms begin at 7 p.m. at Turner Park (31st and Dodge Streets).

The band describes their gigs as parties rather than concerts, says Gomez, “because by the end of the show everybody’s going to be singing and dancing with us. It happens all the time, and that’s the whole idea — to have fun. It’s all about the energy people are going to feel. That’s the best reason to play music .”

The free performance kicks off the weekly series that runs through August 11.

This is Tiempo Libre’s first Omaha show but the group’s well known for breakout recordings on Sony Masterworks and high profile appearances on Dancing with the Stars and the Tonight Show and at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Their genre busting work includes collaborations with classical artists Sir James Galway and Joshua Bell and Venezuelan composer Ricardo Lorenz.

 

 

The band first made a splash in 2002 opening for Cuban music legend Celia Cruz.

Formed a year before, Tiempo Libre only came together after its seven members separately fled Cuba. Their individual journeys included long stays in other countries before their paths merged again in 2000 in Miami. They were all working with different artists then “and in our free time we came together to make the band, ” says Gomez, hence the name Tiempo Libre or “free time.”

He’s proud the band has disproved predictions timba cannot thrive outside Cuban-centric Miami. “It’s fantastic the way people respond to it,” he says. Playing before enthusiastic audiences around the world, he says, “it’s incredible how beautiful the music can be between people who don’t even speak the same language.” By mixing timba with other styles, Tiempo Libre breaks down artificial barriers, as in the live orchestra work Rumba Sinfonica and the album Bach in Havana.

“Timba style is a mix between jazz and Cuban music. For example, if you put Buena Vista Social Club with Chic Corea, that’s timba style,” he says. “The harmony’s going to be deeper in the jazz roots but the rhythm is going to be, of course, Cuban rhythms, like rumba, ch-cha-cha, bolero. We play a mix of everything — timba, jazz, classical.”

Gomez says as the band’s exposed to ever more diverse musical influences, the more there is to blend with Cuban rhythms, including a new Placido Domingo Jr. album they’re collaborating on.

“We are living our dream playing all the music, all the mix that’s in there, adding a lot of Cuban flavor.”

Noted for their rigorous musicianship, yet free-spirited manner, Gomez says, “the way we’re playing now is so different from the beginning. We feel so secure. Now it’s all about how to enjoy yourself and transmit that energy to everybody around you. It’s unbelievable, the sensation. It’s a beautiful life.”

Now that Cuba’s more free, Gomez expects Tiempo Libre will perform back home.

“That’s part of our dream, too,” he says. “We want to play there in our neighborhood, for our friends.”

And perhaps inspire others to live their dreams. “Exactly, that’s the idea,” he says.

Jazz on the Green features other Latin-style bands this summer, including Incendio on July 14.

Visit jazzonthegreenomaha.com.

Nomad Lounge, An Oasis for Creative Class Nomads

June 21, 2011 6 comments

Nick Hudson is one of several Omaha transplants who have come here from other places in recent years and energized the creative-cultural scene. One of his many ventures in Omaha is Nomad Lounge, which caters to the creative class through a forward-thinking aesthetic and entrepreneurial bent and schedule of events. This Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) piece gives a flavor for Hudson and why Nomad is an apt name for him and his endeavor. Three spin-off ventures from Nomad that Hudson has a major hand in are Omaha Fashion Week, Omaha Fashion Magazine, and the Halo Institute.  You can find some of my Omaha Fashion Week and Omaha Fashion Magazine writing on this blog.  And look for more stories by me about Nick Hudson and his wife and fellow entrepreneur Brook Hudson.

 

 

 

 

Nomad Lounge, An Oasis for Creative Class Nomads

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

Another side of Omaha’s new cosmopolitan face can be found at Nomad Lounge, 1013 Jones St. in the historic Ford Warehouse Building. The chic, high-concept, community-oriented salon captures the creative class trade. Tucked under the Old Market’s 10th St. bridge, Nomad enjoys being a word-of-mouth hideaway in a shout-out culture. No overt signs tout it. The name’s stenciled in small letters in the windows and subtly integrated into the building’s stone and brick face.

The glow from decorative red lights at night are about the only tip-off for the lively goings-on inside. That, and the sounds of pulsating music, clanking glasses and buzzing voices leaking outdoors and the stream of people filing in and out.

Otherwise, you must be in-the-know about this proper gathering spot for sophisticated, well-traveled folks whose interests run to the eclectic. It’s all an expression of majority owner Nick Hudson, a trendy international entrepreneur and world citizen who divides his time between Omaha and France for his primary business, Excelsior Beauty. Nomad is, in fact, Hudson’s nickname and way of life. The Cambridge-educated native Brit landed in Omaha in 2005 in pursuit of a woman. While that whirlwind romance faded he fell in love with the town and stayed on. He’s impressed by what he’s found here.

“I’m blown away by what an amazingly creative, enterprising, interesting community Omaha is,” he said. He opened Excelsior here that same year — also maintaining a Paris office — and then launched his night spot in late 2006.

If you wonder why a beauty-fashion industry maven who’s been everywhere and seen everything would do start-up enterprises in middle America when he could base them in some exotic capital, you must understand that for Hudson the world is flat. Looking for an intersection where like-minded nomads from every direction can engage each other he opted for Omaha’s “great feeling, great energy.”

“We’re all nomadic, were all on this journey,” he said, “but there are times when nomads come together, bringing in different experiences to one central place and sharing ideas in that community. And that’s exactly what it is here. Nomad’s actually about a lifestyle brand and Nomad Lounge is just the event space and play space where that brand comes to life for the experimental things we do.”

He along with partners Charles Hull and Clint! Runge of Archrival, a hot Lincoln, Neb. branding-marketing firm, and Tom Allisma, a noted local architect who’s designed some of Omaha’s cutting-edge bars-eateries, view Nomad as a physical extension of today’s plugged-in, online social networking sites. Their laidback venture for the creative-interactive set is part bar, part art gallery, part live performance space, part small business incubator, part collaborative for facilitating meeting-brainstorming-partnering.

“That whole connecting people, networking piece is really exciting to us because it’s not just being an empty space for events, we’re actually playing an active role in helping the creative community continue to grow,” said Hudson.

 

 

Nick Hudson

 

 

Social entrepreneurship is a major focus. Nomad helps link individuals, groups and businesses together. “It’s a very interesting trend that’s going to be a big buzz word,” Hudson said. “Nomad is a social enterprise. It’s all about investing in and increasing the social capital of the community, creating networks, fostering creativity. My biggest source of passion is helping people achieve their potential.”

“He’s definitely done that for me,” said Nomad general manager-events planner Rachel Richards. “He’s seen my passion in event planning and he’s opened doors I never thought I’d get through.”

The Omaha native was first hired by Hudson to coordinate Nomad’s special events through her Rachel Richards Events business. She’s since come on board as a key staffer. With Hudson’s encouragement she organized Nomad’s inaugural Omaha Fashion Week last winter, a full-blown, first-class model runway show featuring works by dozens of local designers. “That was always a dream of mine,” she said.

Under the Nomad Collective banner, Hudson said, “the number of social entrepreneurs and small enterprises and venture capitalist things that are coming from this space from the networking here is just phenomenal. Increasingly that’s going beyond this space into start-up businesses and all sorts of things.” Nomad, he said, acts as “a greenhouse for ideas and businesses to expand and grow.”

Nomad encourages interplay. Massive cottonwood posts segment the gridded space into 15 semi-private cabanas whose leather chairs and sofas and built-in wood benches seat 8 to 20 guests. Velvet curtains drape the cabanas. It’s all conducive to relaxation and conversation. Two tiny galleries display works by local artists.

There’s a small stage and dance floor. The muted, well-stocked bar features international drink menus. Video screens and audio speakers hang here and there, adding techno touches that contrast with the worn wood floors, the rough-hewn brick walls and the exposed pipes, vents and tubes in the open rafters overhead. It all makes for an Old World meets New World mystique done over in earth tones.

Hudson embraces Nomad’s flexibility as it constantly evolves, reinventing itself. In accommodating everything from birthdays/bachelorettes to release/launch parties to big sit-down dinners to more intimate, casual gatherings to social enterprise fairs and presenting everything from sculptures and paintings to live bands and theater shows to video projection, it’s  liable to look different every time you visit. Whatever the occasion, art, design, music and fashion are in vogue and celebrated.

Dressed-up or dressed-down, you’re in synch with Nomad’s positive, chic vibe.

“It’s this whole thing about being premium without being pretentious,” said Hudson. “Nomad is stylish, it’s trendy, it’s great quality. All our drinks are very carefully selected. But it’s still made affordable.”

In addition to staging five annual premiere events bearing the Nomad brand, the venue hosts another 90-100 events a year. Richards offers design ideas to organizations using the space and matches groups with artists and other creative types to help make doings more dynamic, more stand-alone, more happening.

 

 

 

 

Clearly, Nomad targets the Facebook generation but not exclusively. Indeed, Hudson and Richards say part of Nomad’s charm is the wide age range it attracts, from 20-somethings to middle-agers and beyond.

Nomad fits into the mosaic of the Old Market, where the heart of the creative community lives and works and where a diverse crowd mixes. Within a block of Nomad are The Kaneko, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, the Blue Barn Theatre and any number of galleries, artist studios, fine restaurants and posh shops. Nomad’s a port of call in the Market’s rich cultural scene.

“It’s such a great creative community. We want to help make our little contribution to that and keep building on all the great things going on,” said Hudson.

Besides being a destination for urban adventurers looking to do social networking or conducting business or celebrating a special occasion or just hanging out, Nomad’s a site for charitable fundraisers. Hudson and Richards want to do more of what he calls “positive interventions” with nonprofits like Siena/Francis House. Last year Nomad approached the shelter with the idea for Concrete Conscience, which placed cameras in the hands of dozens of homeless clients for them to document their lives. Professional photographers lent assistance. The resulting images were displayed and sold, with proceeds going to Siena/Francis.

New, on Wednesday nights, is Nomad University, which allows guests to learn crafts from experts, whether mixing cocktails or DJing or practically anything else. It’s a chance for instructors to market their skills and for students to try new things, all consistent with a philosophy Hudson and Richards ascribe to that characterizes the Nomad experience: Do what you love and do it with passion.

Get Crackin’

June 21, 2011 10 comments

Another of my stories focusing attention on Omaha black artists and other high achievers follows with this feature on the rock-blues group Crackin’, whose reunion back here a few years ago was the impetus for the piece. It’s one of several stories I’ve done that profile African Americans from here who have made major impacts in their fields of endeavor. This blog contains many of those stories, and so I invite you to stroll through the gallery of work here and discover them.  It’s all part of the build up to the 2011 Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame Awards on July 29 at Slowdown and the July 27-August Native Omaha Days.

Crackin' on Discogs
Get Crackin’

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

The Hood is replete with stories of musicians who should have made it, if only…

Crackin’, a smoking 1970s multi-racial rock-blues band from Omaha, did get its shot at fame. After a promising start and recordings on major labels, things fizzled and the band disbanded in ‘78. But “within the business people knew who we were and really loved our music,” said Crackin’s Arno Lucas. That rep and the talent to back it up made members in high demand. All have enjoyed serious music careers.

Three decades after splitting up, these stray cats are coming home for August 4-5 reunion concerts at the Omaha Healing Arts Center, 1216 Howard Street. Show times are 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. The reunion coincides with Crackin’s induction in the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. Some players also performed with fellow band-inductee L.A. Carnival.

Headed up by Lester Abrams, Crackin’ was invited to Woodstock, NY to work with idol-maker producer Albert Grossman. Then they went to L.A. to record on the Polydor label before signing with Warners, for whom they released three albums in 1977-78. The band’s lineup changed from Omaha to NY to L.A..

When the group went defunct, guys began doing their own thing.

Keyboardist/vocalist/composer Abrams co-wrote two songs on Michael McDonald’s Grammy-honored album “Minute by Minute.” He’s collaborated with B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Peabo Bryson, Quincy Jones, The Average White Band and The Doobie Brothers. He’s composed for television and film.

Percussionist/vocalist Lucas has been an A-list sideman with Al Jarreau, Luther Vandross, Bette Midler, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Michael Jackson, Burt Bacharach, Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones, Chaka Kahn and Gladys Knight. He’s written songs with Jarreau and for Dionne Warrick.

Bassist Rick Chudacoff and drummer Peter Bunetta own credits as co-producers/co-composers for Patti LaBelle, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Kenny G, and Michael Bolton. They’ve written for the screen, including the Beverly Hills Cop franchise, and have a new stage musical out called City Kids.

Guitarist Brian Ray has collaborated with Etta James, Peter Frampton and Rita Coolidge and his scorching licks now back Paul McCartney. He also penned Smokey Robinson’s lone Grammy-winning tune, One Heartbeat.

Vocalist Leslie Smith is a first-call session artist in L.A.. Guitarist and blues journeyman Bob Bordy has played with a Who’s Who of hitmakers.

An early Crackin’ member was blues legend Bugsy Maugh.

For Lucas, the reunion celebrates a shared legacy and longevity. “When we walked in a room we just basically took it over. So many great personalities stood out. This thing we’re about to do is…a coming together of a group of gifted artists and great friends who truly love each other. We’ve remained friends. Everyone’s maintained a high level of musicianship. It’s going to be worth seeing.”

He was motivated to organize the reunion when he saw friends passing away. “I told the guys, ‘If we don’t get together and do this now, I don’t know the next time …we can…’” It’s an appreciation for the fact “life’s been good to us. We’re lucky to still be doing what we lov — what feeds the soul. And it’s a chance to see some of the people who supported Crackin’ in Omaha.”

Robbie Dupree and Neal Davis are among the special guest artists expected to jam.

Big Bad Buddy Miles

June 21, 2011 22 comments

This is one in a batch of posts I am making in the lead-up to the 2011 Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame on July 29 at the Slowdown. The late Buddy Miles is one in a long list of musicians from Omaha to find stardom or at least solid success in the upper reaches of the music industry.  Miles is one of those who became a legend in his own time and since his untimely death in 2008 his legend is only growing. I did this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the occasion of his induction in the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, which after a hiatus is back this year in conjunction with Native Omaha Days. My blog is thick with stories I’ve done about famous African American figures from Omaha who’ve enjoyed breakout success in the arts, athletics, and many other fields.  You’ll also find stories about many other aspects of African American culture and life in these parts.  Hope you enjoy the pieces as much as I enjoyed writing them.

 

MUSICIAN BUDDY MILES BORN September 5, 1947 (66) Musician Buddy Miles born George Miles in North Omaha, Nebraska. He is most well known as the drummer of the Band of Gypsys which also featured the late guitar legend Jimi Hendrix:

 

Big Bad Buddy Miles

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

Famed blues-rock drummer and singer Buddy Miles is coming home to accept the Omaha Star Award at the August 3 Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame ceremony, where he’ll also perform. The 2005 inductee is using the occasion to deliver a message about the needless waste of young people to violence.

Having grown up in the ‘50-’60s heyday of the hep North 24th Street music scene, he rues the loss of what used to be.

“Back in the day 24th Street is where all the clubs were. It certainly is nothing like it was then. It’s like a ghost town down there now…there’s nothing for kids to do,” he said. “That’s why there’s so much havoc and trouble in Omaha and…in every major city…People don’t know how to go and party anymore. There’s too many senseless shooting.s The time has come that we must band together as one….”

The lifetime train enthusiast hopes to convince Union Pacific Railroad to sponsor a nationwide tour, tracing the railroad’s lines, for him to educate young people “about how important their lives are.” His new CD, The Centennial, is named after the famous U.P. diesel engine at Kenefick Park.

He dreamed of being a train engineer. Instead he “followed in the footsteps” of his father, George A. Miles, Sr., who played upright bass with Ellington, Basie, Parker, Gordon. Buddy began playing drums at age 8. “I’ve been a musician all my life,” he said. “I’ve done nothing else.”

As a teen he gigged with his father’s band, the Bebops, and with Preston Love, Sr. and Lester Abrams. He first made it in New York, hooking up with Wilson Pickett. He jammed in the Village with Eric Clapton. His big break came when Michael Bloomfield plucked him for the Electric Flag, a blues-rock band Miles still considers the best he ever played in. He toured-recorded widely, opening for Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and playing on albums by Hendrix and Muddy Waters. More Hendrix collaborations followed. Jimi produced an album by the Buddy Miles Express. Miles played on Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. Miles formed with Hendrix and Billy Cox the trio, Band of Gypsys, which released one album before Jimi’s death.

 

 

 

  • Them Changes (1970)

 

Jimi and Buddy

Buddy with Jimi Hendrix

JimimHendrix  Eric Burdon Buddy Miles at NEWPORT 1969
 Buddy with Jimi and Eric Burton

 

 

Miles recorded hits and played with such artists as Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. His greatest commercial success came with his version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” for a California Raisins commercial. The gig made the classic song big again and spawned three Miles albums.

A 2005 stroke has not slowed Miles, who lives in Austin, Texas. He’s even throwing down a challenge to Motley Crew bad boy drummer Tommy Lee and the rocker’s MTV Husker bit. “I’ll have a duel with that dude anytime he wants…We can do it at a Nebraska football game, too,” Miles said, “because I’ll drum him a new ass.”

Back in the Day: Native Omaha Days is reunion, homecoming, heritage celebration and party all in one

June 11, 2011 74 comments

Even though I grew up in North Omaha and lived there until age 43 or so,  I didn’t experience my first Native Omaha Days until I had moved out of the area, and by then I was 45, and the only reason I did intersect with The Days then, and subsequently have since, is because I was reporting on it.  The fact that I didn’t connect with it before is not unusual because it is essentially though by no means exclusively an African American celebration, and as you can see by my picture I am a white guy. Then there’s the fact it is a highly social affair and I am anything but social, that is unless prevailed upon to be by circumstance or assignment. But I was aware of the event, admittedly vaguely so most of my life, and I eventually did press my editors at The Reader (www.thereader.com) to let me cover it. And so over the past eight years I have filed several stories related to Native Omaha Days, most of which you can now find on this blog in the run up to this year’s festival, which is July 27-August 1. The story below is my most extensive in terms of trying to capture the spirit and the tradition of The Days, which encompasses many activities and brings back thousands of native Omahans – nobody’s really sure how many – for a week or more of catching up family, friends, old haunts.

NOTE: The parade that is a highlight of The Days was traditionally held on North 24th Street but has more recently been moved to North 30th Street, where the parade pictures below were taken by Cyclops-OpticJack David Hubbell.

My blog also features many other stories related to Omaha’s African American community, past and present. Check out the stories, as I’m sure you’ll find several things that interest you, just as I have in pursuing these stories the last 12 years or so.

 

Vera Johnson,a Native Omahans Club founder, (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

 

 

 

Back in the Day: Native Omaha Days is reunion, homecoming, heritage celebration and party all in one

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

A homecoming. That’s what Native Omaha Days, a warm, rousing, week-long black heritage reunion, means to the thousands of native sons and daughters coming back in town for this biennial summer celebration. Although the spree, which unfolded July 30 through August 4 this year, features an official itinerary of activities, including a gospel night, a drill team competition, a parade, a dance and a picnic, a far larger slate of underground doings goes on between the many family and class reunions, live concerts and parties that fill out the Days. Some revelers arrive before the merriment begins, others join the fun in progress and a few stay over well after it’s done. A revival and carnival in one, the Days is a refreshing, relaxing antidote to mainstream Omaha’s uptight ways.

North Omaha bars, clubs and restaurants bustle with the influx of out-of-towners mixing with family and old friends. North 24th Street is a river of traffic as people drive the drag to see old sites and relive old times. Neighborhoods jump to the beat of hip-hop, R&B and soul resounding from house parties and family gatherings under way. Even staid Joslyn Art Museum and its stodgy Jazz on the Green take on a new earthy, urban vibe from the added black presence. As one member of the sponsoring Native Omahans Club said of the festival, “this is our Mardi Gras.”

Shirley Stapleton-Odems is typical of those making the pilgrimage. Born and raised in Omaha — a graduate of Howard Kennedy Elementary School and Technical High School — Stapleton-Odems is a small business owner in Milwaukee who wouldn’t miss the Days for anything. “Every two years I come back…and it’s hard sometimes for me to do, but no matter what I make it happen,” she said. “I have friends who come from all over the country to this, and I see some people I haven’t seen in years. We all meet here. We’re so happy to see each other. It’s a reunion thing. It’s like no matter how long you’re gone, this is still home to us.”

As Omaha jazz-blues guru Preston Love, a former Basie sideman and Motown band leader and the author of the acclaimed book A Thousand Honey Creeks Later, observed, “Omahans are clannish” by nature. “There’s a certain kindredness. Once you’re Omaha, you’re Omaha.” Or, as David Deal, whose Skeets Ribs & Chicken has been a fixture on 24th Street since 1952, puts it, “People that moved away, they’re not out-of-towners, they’re still Omahans — they just live someplace else.” Deal sees many benefits from the summer migration. “It’s an opportunity for people to come back to see who’s still here and who’s passed on. It’s an economic boost to businesses in North Omaha.”

Homecoming returnees like Stapleton-Odems feel as if they are taking part in something unique. She said, “I don’t know of any place in the country where they have something like this where so many people over so many generations come together.” Ironically, the fest’ was inspired by long-standing Los Angeles and Chicago galas where transplanted black Nebraskans celebrate their roots. Locals who’ve attended the L.A. gig say it doesn’t compare with Omaha’s, which goes to the hilt in welcoming back natives.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the most symbolic event of the week is the mammoth Saturday parade that courses down historic North 24th Street. It is an impressionistic scene of commerce and culture straight out of a Spike Lee film. On a hot August day, thousands of spectators line either side of the street, everyone insinuating their bodies into whatever patch of shade they can find. Hand-held fans provide the only breeze.

Vendors, selling everything from paintings to CDs to jewelry to hot foods and cold beverages to fresh fruits and vegetables, pitch their products under tents staked out in parking lots and grassy knolls. Grills and smokers work overtime, wafting the hickory-scented aroma of barbecue through the air. Interspersed at regular intervals between the caravan of decorated floats festooned with signs hawking various local car dealerships, beauty shops, fraternal associations and family trees are the funky drill teams, whose dancers shake their booties and grind their hips to the precise, rhythmic snaring of whirling dervish drummers. Paraders variously hand-out or toss everything from beads to suckers to grab-bags full of goodies.

A miked DJ “narrates” the action from an abandoned gas station, at one point mimicking the staccato sound of the drilling. A man bedecked in Civil War-era Union garb marches with a giant placard held overhead emblazoned with freedom slogans, barking into a bullhorn his diatribe against war mongers. A woman hands out spiritual messages.

 

 

photo

 

 

Long the crux of the black community, 24th Street or “Deuce Four” as denizens know it, is where spectators not only take in the parade as it passes familiar landmarks but where they greet familiar figures with How ya’ all doin’? embraces and engage in free-flowing reminiscences about days gone by. Everywhere, a reunion of some sort unfolds around you. Love is in the air.

The parade had a celebrity this time — Omaha native actress Gabrielle Union (Deliver Us From Eva). Looking fabulous in a cap, blouse and shorts, she sat atop the back seat of a convertible sedan sponsored by her father’s family, the Abrams, whose reunion concided with the fest’. “This is just all about the people of north Omaha showing pride for the community and reaching out to each other and committing to a sense of togetherness,” said Union, also a member of the Bryant-Fisher family, which has a large stake in and presence at the Days. “It’s basically like a renewal. Each generation comes down and everyone sits around and talks. It’s like a passing of oral history, which is…a staple of our community and our culture. It’s kind of cool being part of it.”

She said being back in the hood evokes many memories. “It’s funny because I see the same faces I used to hang out with here, so a lot of mischievous memories are coming back. It’s like, Do you remember the time? So, a lot of good times. A lot of times we probably shouldn’t of been having as young kids. But basically it’s just a lot of good memories and a lot of lessons learned right here on 24th.”

The three-mile parade is aptly launched at 24th and Burdette. There, Charles Hall’s now closed Fair Deal Cafe, once called “the black city hall,” provided a forum for community leaders to debate pressing issues and to map-out social action plans. Back in the day, Hall was known to give away food during the parade, which ends at Kountze Park, long a popular gathering spot in north Omaha. Across the street is Skeets, one of many soul food eateries in the area. Just down the road a piece is the Omaha Star, where legendary publisher Mildred Brown held court from the offices of her crusading black newspaper. Across the street is the Jewell Building, where James Jewell’s Dreamland Ballroom hosted black music greats from Armstrong to Basie to Ellington to Holiday, and a little further north, at 24th and Lake, is where hep cat juke joints like the M & M Lounge and McGill’s Blue Room made hay, hosting red hot jam sessions.

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Recalling when, as one brother put it, “it was real,” is part and parcel of the Days. It’s all about “remembering how 24th and Lake was…the hot spot for the black community,” said Native Omahans Club member Ann Ventry. “We had everything out here,” added NOC member Vera Johnson, who along with Bettie McDonald is credited with forming the club and originating the festival. “We had cleaners, barber shops, beauty parlors, bakeries, grocery stores, ice cream stores, restaurants, theaters, clothing stores, taxi companies, doctors’ offices. You name it, we had it. We really didn’t have to go out of the neighborhood for anything,” Johnson said. Many businesses were black-owned, too. North O was, as lifelong resident Charles Carter describes it, “it’s own entity. That was the lifestyle.”

For James Wightman, a 1973 North High and 1978 UNL grad, the homecoming is more than a chance to rejoin old friends, it’s a matter of paying homage to a legacy. “Another reason we come back and go down 24th Street is to honor where we grew up. I grew up at the Omaha Boys Club and I played ball at the Bryant Center. There was so much to do down on the north side and your parents let you walk there. Kids can’t do that anymore.” Noting its rich history of jazz and athletics, Wightman alluded to some of the notables produced by north Omaha, including major league baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers, jazzman Preston Love, social activist Malcolm X, actor John Beasley and Radio One founder and CEO Catherine Liggins Hughes.

For Helen McMillan Caraway, an Omaha native living in Los Angeles, sauntering down 24th Street brings back memories of the music lessons she took from Florentine Kingston, whose apartment was above a bakery on the strip. “After my music lesson I’d go downstairs and get a brownie or something,” she said. “I had to steer clear of the other side of the street, where there was a bar called McGill’s that my father, Dr. Aaron McMillan, told me, ‘Don’t go near.’” Being in Omaha again makes the Central High graduate think of “the good times we used to have at Carter Lake and all the football games. I loved that. I had a good time growing up here.”

For native Omahan Terry Goodwin Miller, now residing in Dallas, being back on 24th Street or “out on the stem,” as natives refer to it, means remembering where she and her best girlfriend from Omaha, Jonice Houston Isom, also of Dallas, got their first hair cut. It was at the old Tuxedo Barbershop, whose nattily attired proprietors, Marcus “Mac” McGee and James Bailey, ran a tight ship in the street level shop they ran in the Jewell Building, right next to a pool hall and directly below the Dreamland. Being in Omaha means stopping at favorite haunts, like Time Out Foods, Joe Tess Place and Bronco’s or having a last drink at the now closed Backstreet Lounge. It means, Goodwin Miller said, “renewing friendships…and talking about our lives and seeing family.” It means dressing to the nines and flashing bling-bling at the big dance and, when it’s over, feeling like “we don’t want to go home and grabbing something to eat and coming back to 24th Street to sit around and wait for people to come by that we know.”

 

 

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Goodwin Miller said the allure of renewing Omaha relationships is so strong that despite the fact she and Houston Isom live in Dallas now, “we don’t see each other there, but when we come here we’re together the whole time.”

Skeets’ David Deal knows the territory well. From his restaurant, which serves till 2 a.m., he sees native Omahans drawn, at all hours, to their old stomping grounds. He’s no different. “We’re just coming down here to have a good time and seeing people we haven’t seen in years.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as “sitting around and watching the cars go by, just like we used to back in the good old days.”

North Omaha. More than a geographic sector, it is the traditional, cultural heart of the local black community encompassing the social-historical reality of the African-American experience. Despite four decades of federally-mandated civil rights, equal opportunity, fair housing and affirmative action measures the black community here is still a largely separate, unequal minority in both economic and political terms and suffers a lingering perception problem — born out of racism — that unfairly paints the entire near northside as a crime and poverty-ridden ghetto. Pockets of despair do exist, but in fact north Omaha is a mostly stable area undergoing regentrification. There is the 24-square block Miami Heights housing-commercial development going up between 30th and 36th Streets and Miami and Lake Streets, near the new Salem Baptist Church. There is the now under construction North Omaha Love’s Jazz, Cultural Arts and Humanities Complex, named for Preston Love, on the northwest corner of 24th and Lake. The same sense of community infusing Native Omaha Days seems to be driving this latest surge of progress, which finds black professionals like attorney Brenda Council moving back to their roots.

Former NU football player James Wightman (1975-1978) has been coming back for the Days the past eight years, first from Seattle and now L.A., and he said, “I’m pretty pleased with what’s going on now in terms of the development. When I lived here there was a stampede of everybody getting out of Omaha because there weren’t as many opportunities. I look at Omaha’s growth and I see we’re a rich, thriving community now.” During the Days he stays, as many do, with family and hooks up with ex-jocks like Dennis Forrest (Central High) and Bobby Bass (Omaha Benson) to just kick it around. “We’re spread out in different locations now but we all come back and it’s like we never missed a beat.” The idea of a black pride week generating goodwill and dollars in the black community appeals to Wightman, who said, “I came to spend my money on the north side. And I’ll be back in two years.”

Wightman feels the Days can serve as a beacon of hope to today’s disenfranchised inner city youth. “I think it sends a message to the youth that there are good things happening. That people still come back because they feel a sense of family, friendship and connection that a lot of young people don’t have today. All my friends are in town for their school-family reunions and we all love each other. There’s none of this rival Bloods-Crips stuff. We talk about making a difference. It’s not just about a party, it’s a statement that we can all get along with each other.”

 

 

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“It just shows there’s a lot of good around here,” said Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown, who represents largely black District 2, “but unfortunately it’s not told by the news media.” Scanning the jam-packed parade route, a beaming Brown said, “This is a four-hour event and there’s thousands of people of all ages here and they’re smiling and enjoying themselves and there’s no problems. When you walk around you see people hugging each other. There’s tears in some of their eyes because they haven’t seen their friends, who’ve become their family.”

Family is a recurring theme of the Days. “My family all lives here.” said John Welchen, a 1973 Tech High grad now living in Inglewood, Calif. For him, the event also “means family” in the larger sense. “To me, all of the friends I grew up with and everyone I’ve become acquainted with over the years is my extended family. It’s getting a chance to just see some great friends from the past and hear a lot of old stories and enjoy a lot of laughter.”

Native Omahans living in the rush-rush-rush of impersonal big cities look forward to getting back to the slower pace and gentler ways of the Midwest. “From the time I get off the plane here I notice a difference,” said Houston Odems, who flies into Omaha from Dallas. “People are polite…kind. To me, you just can’t beat it. I tell people all the time it’s a wonderful place to have grown-up. I mean, I still know the people who sold me my first car and the people who dry-cleaned my clothes.”

Although the Days traces its start back to 1977, when the Native Omahans Club threw the first event, celebrations commemorating the ties that bind black Omahans go back well before then. As a young girl in the ‘50s, Stapleton-Odems was a majorette in an Elks drill team that strutted their stuff during 24th Street parades. “It’s a gathering that’s been gong on since I can remember,” she said.

Old-timers say the first few Native Omaha Days featured more of a 24/7, open-air, street-party atmosphere. “We were out in the middle of the street all night long just enjoying each other,” said Billy Melton, a lifelong Omahan and self-styled authority on the north side. “There was live entertainment — bands playing — every six blocks. Guys set up tents in the parks to just get with liquor. After the dances let out people would go up and down the streets till six in the morning. Everybody dressed. Everybody looking like a star. It was a party town and we knew how to party. It was something to see. No crime…nothing. Oh, yeah…there was a time when we were like that, and I’m glad to have lived in that era.”

According to Melton, an original member of the Native Omahans Club, “some people would come a week early to start bar hopping. They didn’t wait for Native Omaha Days. If certain people didn’t come here, there was no party.”

Charles Carter is no old-timer, but he recalls the stroll down memory lane that was part of past fests. “They used to have a walk with a continuous stream of people on either side of the street. What they were doing was reenacting the old days when at nighttime 24th Street was alive. There were so many people you couldn’t find a place to walk, much less park. It was unbelievable. A lot of people are like me and hold onto the thought this is the way north Omaha was at one time and it’s unfortunate our children can’t see it because there’s so much rich history there.”

Then there was the huge bash Billy Melton and his wife Martha threw at their house. “It started early in the morning and lasted all night. It was quite a thing. Music, liquor, all kinds of food. It was a big affair,” Melton said. “I had my jukebox in the backyard and we’d have dancing on the basketball court. Endless conversations. That’s what it’s all about.”

Since the emergence of gang street violence in the mid-80s, observers like Melton and Carter say the fest is more subdued, with nighttime doings confined to formal, scheduled events like the gospel night at Salem and the dance at Mancuso Hall and the 24th Street rag relegated to the North Omahans Club or other indoor venues.

A reunion ultimately means saying goodbye, hence the close of the Days is dubbed Blue Monday. Most out-of-towners have left by then, but the few stalwarts that remain mix with die-hard residents for a final round or two at various drinking holes, toasting fat times together and getting high to make the parting less painful. After a week of carousing, out-of-town revelers wear their exhaustion like a badge of honor. “You’re supposed to be tired from all this,” Houston Isom said. “There’s no such thing as sleeping during this week. I can’t even take a nap because I’ll be worried I might be missing something.” Goodwin Miller builds in recovery time, saying, “When I go home I take a day off before I go back to work.” She and the others can’t wait to do it all over again two years from now.

Once More With Feeling: Loves Jazz & Arts Center back from hiatus

May 5, 2011 16 comments

The Loves Jazz & Arts Center has been one of Omaha‘s little-known gems among arts-cultural organizations and venues. Its programming has been consistently engaging.  But the organization has also been held back by certain deficiencies and challenges that have kept people away and prevented it from realizing its potential. Named in honor of Omaha’s late great jazz and blues man, Preston Love St., the center has also suffered from an identity crisis – never quite figuring out what its specific mission is and thus being diminished by trying to be all things to all constituencies rather than focusing on a few things it can do at a high level.  After an unexplained dormancy or hiatus period, during which time I heard all kinds of speculation about problems at the center and I could not get anyone from the center to explain the situation, I finally managed to speak with the two men currently working on revitalizing the center.  Ernest White and Tim Clark seem to have a good sense for what the organization should be – an art gallery that celebrates Omaha’s jazz heritage and black culture.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) that follows is based on the recent interview I did with these men.

 

 

 

 

Once More With Feeling, Loves Jazz & Arts Center back from hiatus

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Rumors about the impending demise of a north Omaha cultural institution began flying last fall when Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2510 N. 24th St., took an extended break from normal operations.

Even the hint of trouble alarmed the African American community and city-county officials, who view LJAC as a linchpin for an envisioned 24th and Lake revival. The North Omaha Development Project, the Empowerment Network and others target the area as a potential cultural-tourism district.

The reports, while dead wrong, were not unreasonable given that during a nine-month hiatus LJAC made no announcement concerning why it ceased exhibitions and programs. Or why it was open only by appointment and for rental. It turns out the inactivity was not due to financial crisis as some feared; rather, the staff and board undertook a funder-prompted and strategic planning and building process.

LJAC also underwent an audit, which board chair Ernest White says “came out clean.” The result of it all, White said, is a restructured and refocused organization whose makeover is in progress. For the first time in months LJAC is regularly open to the public, presenting gallery displays and live music events.

White could have quelled negative speculation by offering an explanation through traditional or social media. The American National Bank vice president chose silence, he says, to distance LJAC from the rumor mill that dogged the nearby Great Plains Black History Museum.

While questions went unanswered about its dormancy, LJAC participated with other nonprofits in the Omaha Community Foundation’s capacity-building initiative. White says the monthly sessions, led by OCF consultant Pete Tulipana, critically examined staffing, administration, memberships and programs.

White says no funding was withheld as a stick for LJAC to undergo the review, though some funds are “pending” its compliance with recommended changes. (The LJAC would not identify any specifics in terms of pending funds.)

Understaffed and under-funded since its 2005 opening, LJAC hurt itself, White says, by doing a poor job marketing, not signing up members, keeping inconsistent hours and, on at least two occasions, losing approved grant money by failing to file required paperwork.

“There were some things not done, there were some inefficiencies,” he says. “We need to do a better job, we need to be open when we say we’re going to be open, we need to be accessible, and those are things I think we’re already a long ways to fixing.”

Despite “great” exhibits and programs, White says few people knew of them.

The review process, he says, is “brutally honest — here’s your strengths, here’s your weaknesses. They make you do a 10-year plan. They challenge you.” The need for a seasoned administrator led White to ask Neville Murray, executive director since LJAC’s inception, to relinquish that role and remain as curator. When Murray declined, White appointed Omaha entrepreneur Tim Clark as interim executive director.

Clark, who assumed the post in April, says board development is a major priority. He’s looking for board members “to serve in three areas — advocacy, policy and fund raising. We really need to focus more on getting individuals on the board who can help with the fund development. In these very challenging times fund raising is an every day deal. It has to be a board-executive director partnership, and you have to have individuals who have some reach — the capacity to give and go get. They’ve got to have access to dollars.”

“This place needs money,” says Clark, “and every single board member has to step up and do their part. You can’t ask anybody else to help you if your board is not helping.”

The LJAC board continues to be in flux.

Efforts going forward, says Clark, revolve around “trying to retool, build the infrastructure for capacity, for sustainability long term.” He says, “The strategy now will be more looking at how do we build partnerships with school systems, getting more youth involved. We’ve brought on Janet Ashley as program director to help look at our Loves Art School and partnering with targeted elementary schools this summer.”

White says funders want the center to do more educational programming and stay on mission as an art gallery that celebrates black culture and jazz music.

“When people give us money,” says Clark, “we’ve got to give them a return on their investment. They can hold us accountable — we’ve just got to live up to expectations.”

He says LJAC’s securing sponsors and strategic partners to help it realize its potential as a public attraction.

“I think we have a product and a story to tell. We just have to be better at telling that story. We have to be more proactive. I think we’re positioned now to move forward. I’m excited about its future possibilities. I think if we’re successful it stimulates everything around us.

“Have we made some mistakes? Yes, we have. We have some challenges before us. It’s not going to be a cakewalk, but we’re going to roll up our sleeves and tackle them.”

Acknowledging the center’s transitional mode, Clark says, “We’re open for business, but we’re not making a big splash of that until we know we can sustain that. We want to do the work within first. We want to be whole.”

“We want to be viable,” adds White.

LJAC’s new Jazz Fridays series launches May 6, from 5 to 8 p.m., with For the Occasion. Two new exhibits are in the works. For more information, call 402-502-5291.

Favorite Sons: Weekly Omaha pasta feeds at Sons of Italy Hall draw diverse crowd

April 28, 2011 6 comments

I am part Italian. More precisely, I am half Italian on my mother’s side, and half Polish on my father’s side . When in Omaha‘s Little Italy  or when with that strain of the family I make like a good paisan and summon the Calabrese in me. To be honest, I have never gone in much for affiliating myself with groups of any kind, much less with those that celebrate Italian heritage. Don’t misunderstand – I am proud of my heritage and I certainly indulge a love for Italian food, but I don’t go out of my way to cultivate cultural associations or observances. Omaha is home to a chapter of the national Sons of Italy fraternal organization and this chapter’s headquarters operates out of a social hall that’s locally famous for the pasta feeds it puts on. Most of the clientele at these lunches and dinners are non-Italian, but most of the men and women serving and cooking there are.  As for myself, I have eaten there many dozens, perhaps even a few hundred times over the course of 30-odd years. And even though I have been a writer that entire period this is the first time I’ve written about the Sons of Italy experience. The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) tries to express how they roll at Sons.
Favorite Sons, Weekly Omaha pasta feeds at Sons of Italy Hall draw diverse crowd
©by Leo Adam Biga

As appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

If you go to Sons of Italy expecting a “Jersey Shore” or Goodfellas scene, you’ll leave disappointed. If you anticipate a square meal and a fair deal, minus any drama, you’ll leave satisfied, and probably stuffed.

The Nebraska chapter of this national fraternal organization is famous for its Thursday pasta feeds. The weekly 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. lunches draw 600 to 800 diners, says its stout president, Charles “Butch” Turco.

They’ve been feeding folks like this since the early 1960s. At the start, only members, and exclusively men at that, could partake. As guests spread the word, lunches were opened to the public, but still not to women; that is until, Turco says, a threatened discrimination lawsuit prompted the lodge to open its doors to everyone.

There’s a rich history behind Sons dating to 1929. Early on it aided Italian immigrants getting settled. In 1954,world heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano cut the ribbon for the newly remodeled digs. The original building, formerly a horse stable, has been renovated and added onto many times, all the work done by members skilled in various trades.

Today, Sons is a social and community service club. The meals not only help celebrate Italian heritage, but proceeds from the Thursday lunches as well as from weekly Friday night dinners and special fundraisers go to charitable causes, including St. Frances Cabrini Church across the street.

Sons of Italy reeks with nostalgia, right down to the sauce, whose recipe, Turco says, remains unchanged after all these years. Same with the sausage and meatballs. He and the tall kitchen boss, Sam Vazzano, are always around when these staples are made in big batches, to ensure quality and consistency or, as Turco puts it, “so nobody jacks around with it.” Turco won’t give up the secrets of the sauce, quipping, “Like my mother said, ‘When you’re done putting the ingredients in, you give it the sign of the cross.’”

This is not gourmet Italian, rather your nana’s home-cooked Sunday dinner Italian. Or a close approximation. Nothing fancy, just a straight up red sauce over pasta, spaghetti one week, mostaccicioli the next, served, alternately, with meatballs or sausage. There’s a full bar, too.

Turco says everything’s made from scratch (except the pasta and bread). He’s especially proud of the homemade sausage. Sausage days are the hall’s biggest draws.

The pasta may not be cooked al dente, the sauce leans toward bland, and the Iceberg salad drenched in oil and vinegar is overly wet and wilted, but these are quibbles that soon fade in light of the $7.50 price and the warm embrace of the people.

Ah, the people. It’s the kind of egalitarian joint that draws diners from all walks of life to feed at the same trough. Therefore, professionals in business suits chat or gorge beside laborers in overalls. Past and present Little Italy neighborhood residents mingle with downtown, Old Market and South Omaha denizens and artist types. Some suburbanites even make their way down. Judges, lawyers, politicos and businessmen are known to flock there. Regulars abound.

At peak time, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., expect elbow-to-elbow, shoulder-to-shoulder action. In the close confines, a bib or else stain-guard clothes are advisable to protect against spills and splatters. No worries though, your red stain’s a badge of honor.

Wall signs and floor workers remind you, “Don’t throw away the forks.”

It’s largely a 30-something, middle-aged and senior crowd. The same demographic applies to volunteers. Mostly retirees. Turco says the only paid help are four men from the Siena Francis House assigned heavy-lifting duties in the spacious commercial kitchen. The hot, steam-filled space is run with precision. Huge cauldrons of sauce bubble away, stirred with wooden paddles the size of small oars.

The kitchen crew is the heart of the operation. Jack, Pete and Tony work the takeout counter. The two Georges — Matuella and Grillo — are the salad kings. Short Sam and Ernie float from station to station. The average age may be 75. Turco himself is 70. Short Sam and Bernie are both 88. Sam Vazanno, 91. Joey “Bag of Donuts” Costanzo is the notable exception at 48. The men, along with women crew members like Marge Bruno, enjoy the “camaraderie” and “friendship.”

It’s family. It’s tradition. Turco’s father was active in Sons before him. His wife Ann is involved too. More than a few couples, along with parents and their adult children, belong and volunteer there. You don’t have to be Italian to join, just to vote.

Sons of Italy is at 1238 South 10th St. Call 402.345.4639 for the weekly menu. NOTE: The Thursday lunches take a hiatus June through August.

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