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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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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.

Preston Love: His voice will not be stilled

June 3, 2010 2 comments

This is one of those foundational stories I did on Omaha jazz and blues legend Preston Love. Together with my other stories on him I give you a good sense for who this passionate man was and what he was about.  The piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I should mention that Love’s autobiography, which is referenced in the story, was well-reviewed by the New York Times and other major national publications.  Preston always wanted to leave a legacy behind, and his book, “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later,” is a fine one.   The very cool Loves Jazz & Arts Center in the heart of North Omaha’s historic jazz district is named in honor of him.  More stories by me about Preston Love can be found on this blog site. I also feature a profile I did on his daughter, singer-songwriter-guitarist Laura Love.

 

 

 

Preston Love: His voice will not be stilled

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

 

One name in Omaha is synonymous with traditional jazz and blues — Preston Love Sr., the native son musician most famous for playing lead alto saxophone with the legendary Count Basie in the 1940s.

The ebullient Love, still a mean sax player at 75, fiercely champions jazz and blues as rich, expressive, singularly African-American art forms and cultural inheritances.  This direct inheritor and accomplished interpreter of the music feels bound to preserve it, to protect its faithful presentation and to rail against its misrepresentation.

He has long been an outspoken critic of others appropriating the music from its black roots and reinventing it as something it’s not.  Over the years he’s voiced his opinion on this and many other topics as a performer, columnist, radio host, lecturer and oft-quoted music authority. Since 1972 his Omaha World-Herald “Love Notes” column has offered candid insights into the art and business sides of music.

From 1971 until early 1996 he hosted radio programs devoted to jazz.  The most recent aired on KIOS-FM, whose general manager, Will Perry, describes Love’s on-air persona: “He was fearless.  He was not afraid to give his opinion, especially about what he felt was the inequality black musicians have endured in Omaha, and how black music has been taken over by white promoters and artists.  Some listeners got really angry.”

With the scheduled fall publication of his autobiography “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later,” by Wesleyan University Press in Middletown, Conn., he will finally have a forum large enough to contain his fervor.

“It’s written in protest,” Love said during a recent interview at the Omaha Star, where he’s advertising manager.  “I’m an angry man.  I started my autobiography to a large degree in dissatisfaction with what has 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 because the people presenting it know nothing about it.  We’ve seen our jazz become nonexistent.  Suddenly, the image no longer is black.  Nearly all the people playing rhythm and blues, blues and jazz in Omaha are white.  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 Love gets on a roll like this, his intense speaking style belongs both to the bandstand and the pulpit.  His dulcet voice carries the rhythmic inflection and intonation of an improvisational riff and the bravura of an evangelical sermon, rising in a brimstone tirade one moment and falling to a confessional whisper the next.  Suzanna Tamminen, acting director of Wesleyan University Press, says, “One of the wonderful things about Preston’s book is that it’s really like listening to him talk.  A lot of other publishers had asked him to cut parts out, but he felt he had things to say and didn’t want to have to change a lot of that.  So we’ve tried to have his voice come through, and I think it does.”

Love pours out his discontent over what’s happened to the music in the second half of the book. Love, who’s taught courses at the University of Nebraska at Omaha on the history of jazz and the social implications of black music, says he “most certainly” sees himself as a teacher and his book as an educational document.

In his introduction to the book, George Lipsitz, an ethnic historian at the University of California-San Diego and a Wesleyan contributing editor, compares Love to the elders of the Yoruba people in West Africa” “According to tradition, elders among the Yoruba…teach younger generations how to make music, to dance, and create visual art, because they believe that artistic activity teaches us how to recognize ‘significant’ communications.  Preston Love…is a man who has used the tools open to him to make great dreams come true, to experience things that others might have considered beyond his grasp.

“He is a writer who comes to us in the style of the Yoruba elders, as someone who has learned to discern the significance in things that have happened to him, and who is willing to pass along his gift, and his vision to the rest of us.  His dramatic, humorous and compelling story is significant because it uses the lessons of the past to prepare is for the struggle of the future.  It is up to us to pay attention and learn from his wisdom.”

Some may disagree with Love’s views, but as KIOS Perry points out, “All they can do is argue from books.  None of them were there.  None of them have gone through what’s he gone through. They have nothing to compare it with.”  Perry says Love brings a first-hand “historical perspective” to the subject that cannot be easily dismissed.

Those who share Love’s experience and knowledge, including rhythm and blues great and longtime friend, Johnny Otis, agree with him.  “Those of us who came though an earlier era are dismayed,” Otis said by phone from his home in Sebastopol, Calif., “because things have regressed artistically in our field.  Preston is constantly trying to make young people understand, so they’ll do a little investigation and get more artistry in their entertainment.  He’s dedicated to getting that message out.”

 

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But Love’s book is far more than a polemic.  It’s a remarkable life story whose sheer dramatic arc is daunting.  It traces his deep kinship with jazz all the way back to his childhood, when his self-described “fanaticism” developed, when he haunted then flourishing North 24th Street’s popular jazz joints to glimpse the music legends who played there.

He grew up the youngest of nine in a ramshackle house in North Omaha.  Love’s mother, Mexie, was widowed when he was an infant.  Music was always part of his growing up.  He listened to his music idols, especially Count Basie and Basie’s lead alto sax man, Earle Warren on the family radio and phonograph.  He taught himself to play the sax brought home by his brother “Dude.”  He learned, verbatim, Warren’s solos by listening to recordings over and over again.  By his med-teens he was touring with pre-war territory bands, playing his first professional gig in 1936 at the Aeroplane Inn in Honey Creek, Iowa (hence the title of his book).

At Omaha’s Dreamland Ballroom he saw his idols in person, imagining himself on the bandstand too — hair coiffured and suit pressed — the very embodiment of black success.  “We’d go to see the glamour of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.  We aspired to escape the drabness and anonymity of our own town by going into show business,” Love recalls.  “I dreamed of someday making it…of going to New York to play the Cotton Club and of playing the Grand Terrace in Chicago.”

He encountered both racism and kindness touring America.  The road suited him and his wife Betty, whom he married in 1941.

The couple’s first child, Preston Jr., was born 54 years ago and the family grew to include three more off-spring: Norman and Richie, who are musicians, and Portia, who sings with her father’s band.

Life was good and Love, who eventually formed his own band, enjoyed great success in the ’50s.  Then things went sour.  Faced with financial setbacks, he moved his family to Los Angeles in 1962, where he worked a series of jobs outside music.  His career rebounded when he found work as a studio musician and later as Motown’s west coast band leader in the late ’60s, collaborating with such icons as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.  He returned to Omaha in 1972, only to find his music largely forgotten and his community in decline.  While often feeling unappreciated in his hometown, he basked in the glow of triumphant overseas tours, prestigious jazz festival performances and, more recently, reissues of classic recordings. Today, he’s an elder statesman, historian and watchdog.

 

 

 

 

To grasp just how much the music means to him, and how much it saddens him to see it lost or mutilated, you have to know that the once booming North 24th Street he so loved is now a wasteland.  That the music once heard from every street corner, bar, restaurant, and club has been silenced altogether or replaced by discordant new sounds.

The hurt is especially acute for Love because he remembers well when Omaha was a major jazz center, supporting many big bands and clubs and drawing premier 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,” he says.  “The next stop was the big leagues.”

He vividly recalls jazz giants playing the Dreamland and the pride they instilled:  “All of the great black geniuses of my time played that ballroom — Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl “Father” Hines, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker.  Jazz was all black then, number one, and here were people you read about in magazines and heard on radio coast-to-coast, and admired and worshipped, and now you were standing two feet from them and could talk to them and hear their artistry.”

Love regrets many young blacks are uninformed about this vital part of their heritage.  “If I were to be remembered for some contribution,” he says, “it would be to remind people that what’s going on today with the black youth and their rap and all that bull has nothing to do with their history.  It’s a renunciation of their true music — blues, rhythm and blues and jazz.  You couldn’t get the average young black person today to listen to a record by anyone but one of the new funk or rap players.  It’s getting to be where black people in their 20s and 30s feel that way, too.”

He says “the power structure” running the music business in cities like Omaha plays on this malaise, marketing pale reproductions of jazz and blues more palatable to today’s less discriminating audiences:

“Everything’s controlled from out west and downtown in our music.  It’s based on personalities, politics and cronyism.  Even though it’s often a very poor imitation of the original, it passes well enough not only for whites, but for black too.  The power structure has the ability to change the meaning of everything and compromise truth.  It’s a disservice to this art and to this city.  Every old jazz friend of mine who comes here says the same thing” ‘What happened to your hometown, Preston?'”

Love says his son Norman, a saxophonist living in Denver, largely left Omaha out of frustration — unable to find steady gigs despite overwhelming talent.  Love says black musicians have been essentially shut out certain gigs because of their race.

 

Omaha Bar-B-Q

 

He believes several local musicians and presenters inappropriately use the jazz label.  “The implication is that these guys might be fine jazz players.  It’s an arrogance on the part of people who really don’t have the gift to perform it and don’t have the credibility to present it.  What I’m saying is not an ego trip.  It’s irrefutable.  It is, at least, a professional opinion.”

It’s on points like these Love elicits the most ire because they are, arguably, matters of taste.  For example, Love complains the city’s main jazz presenters don’t book enough black performers and the people booking the events are unqualified.  When it’s pointed out to him that half the acts featured in a major jazz series the past two years have been black and the series’ booker is Juilliard-trained, he dismisses these facts because, in his view, the performers “haven’t been much” and the booking agent’s classical credentials carry little weight in jazz circles.

He acknowledges limited opportunities extend even to North Omaha.  “We have no place to play in our own neighborhood,” he says.  “The club owners here, in most cases, really can’t afford it, but even if they could they don’t know anything about it.  So we’ve been thrown to the wolves by our own people.”

Bill Ritchie, an Omaha Symphony bass player and leader of his own mainstream jazz quartet, agrees that many local jazz players don’t measure up and rues the fact there are too few jazz venues.  The classically-trained Ritchie, 43, who is white, says the boundaries of jazz, rightly or wrongly, have been blurred:  “There’s so much crossover, so much fusion of jazz and rock and pop today, that it’s hard to say where to draw the line.  Preston obviously feels he’s one to draw the line.  I might go a little further on that line than someone like Preston, because he comes from a different era than I do, and somebody younger than me might even stretch that line a little bit further.”

For Love and like-minded musicians, however, you either have the gift for jazz or you don’t.

Orville Johnson, 67, a keyboardist with Love’s band, says jazz and the blues flow from a deep, intrinsic experience common to most African-Americans.  “It’s a cultural thing,” Johnson says. “Jazz is sort of the sum total of life experiences.  It’s the same with the blues.  There’s a thread that runs clear through it, and it’s a matter of life experience that’s particular to black people in America.

“If a person hasn’t lived that life, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to express themselves musically that way.  It’s a sum total of what musicians frequently describe as ‘the dues that we’ve paid.’ It doesn’t have much anything to do with technique.  It’s a matter of being able to express in musical terms your experience.  A university-educated white student who’s been raised perhaps in a middle-class white neighborhood and never known hunger or the frustration of living in a racial society, usually isn’t able to play and get the same feeling.  And that includes a young black person who hasn’t known nearly the hardship that people of my generation or Preston’s generation has known.”

It’s the same message Love delivers in lectures.  Like Johnson, Love feels jazz is an expression of the black soul:  “To hear the harmony of those black musicians, with that sorrowful, plaintive thing that only blacks have.  That pain in their playing.  That blue note.  That’s what jazz is,” he says.  “The Benny Goodmans and those guys never got it.  They were tremendous instrumentalists in their own way.  But that indefinable, elusive blue note — that’s black, and a lot of blacks don’t get it.”

The two men doubt if many of the younger persons billing themselves as jazz and blues musicians today have more than a superficial knowledge of these art forms.  “Take the plantation songs that were the forerunners of the blues,” Johnson says.  “Many of the things they said were not literal.  When they sung about an ‘evil woman.’ frequently that was a reference to a slave master…not to a woman at all.  There’s pretty much a code involved there.  When you study it as I’ve done and Preston’s done, that’s what you discover.”

He and Love feel their music is diluted and distorted by university music departments, where jazz is taught in sterile isolation from its rich street and club origins.

Love bristles at the notion he’s a “moldy fig,” the term Boppers coined to describe older musicians mired in the past and resistant to change.

“As far as being a moldy fig, that’s bullshit.  I’m as alert and aware of what’s going on in music now as I was 60 years ago,” he says.  “I hear quite a few young guys today who I admire.  I’m still capable of great idol worship.  I am eternally vital.  I play my instruments as modern as anybody alive…and better than I’ve ever played them.”

And like the Yoruba elders, he looks to the past to inform and invigorate the present:

“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. A  lot of musicians around her will say privately to me the same things, but they’re afraid to say them publicly.  But I’m not afraid of the repercussions.  I will fight for my people’s music and its preservation.”

Preston Love’s Voice Will Not Be Stilled (short version)


The following story about fabled Omaha jazz man Preston Love Sr., who died in 2004, originally appeared in American Visions magazine. The piece was culled together from a couple earlier stories I had written about Love, both of which can be found on this site: “Mr. Saturday Night “and a much longer version of “Preston Love’s Voice Will Not Be Stilled.”  There are yet more Love stories on the blog. He was forever fascinating.

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Preston Love’s Voice Will Not Be Stilled (short version)

©By Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in American Visions

While Kansas City and Chicago were the undisputed centers for the Midwest’s burgeoning jazz scene in the 1920s and ’30s, Omaha, Neb., was a key launching pad for musicians of the time. “It was like the Triple A of baseball for black music,” recalls Omaha native and Count Basie alumnus Preston Love. “The next stop was the big leagues.”

The flutist-saxophonist grew up the youngest of nine children in a ramshackle house, jokingly called “the mansion,” in a predominantly black North Omaha neighborhood. He listened to his idols (especially Earle Warren) on the family radio and phonograph, taught himself to play the sax his brother “Dude” had brought home, and learned Warren’s solos note for note, laying recordings over and over again.

 

 

 

At Omaha’s fabled but now defunct Dreamland Ballroom, he saw his idols in person, imagining himself on the bandstand, too–the very embodiment of black success. “All of the great black geniuses of my time played that ballroom–Count Basic, Earl Fatha Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker,” he recalls. “We’d get to see the glamour of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong‘ Jazz was all-black then, and here were people you read about in magazines and heard on radio coast to coast and admired and worshipped, and now you were standing 2 feet from them and could talk to them and hear their artistry. I dreamed of someday making it …, of going to New York to play the Cotton Club and of playing the Grand Terrace in Chicago.”

With Warren as his inspiration, Love made himself an acccomplished player. “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.” His first paying gig came in 1936, at age 15, as a last-minute fill-in on drums with Warren Webb and His Spiders at the Aeroplane Inn in Honey Creek, Iowa. Soon, he was touring with prewar territory bands.

His breakthrough came in 1943, when Warren recommended Love as his replacement in the Basie band. Love auditioned at the Dreamland and won the job. It was his entry into the big time. “I was ready,” he says. “I knew I belonged.” It was the first of two tours of duty with Basie. In storybook fashion, Love played the very sites where his dreams were first inspired: the Dreamland and the famous, glittering big city clubs he’d envisioned.

Love enjoyed the spotlight, playing with Basie and the bands of Lucky Millinder, Lloyd Hunter, Nat Towles and Johnny Otis. “Touring was fun,” he says. “You played the top ballrooms, you dressed beautifully, you stayed in fine hotels. Big crowds. Autographs. It was glamorous.” The road suited him and his wife, Betty, whom he had married in 1941. And it still does. “The itinerant thing is what I love. The checking in the hotels and motels. The newness of each town. The geography of this country. The South, with those black restaurants with that flavorful, wonderful food and those colorful hotels. It’s my culture, my people,” he rhapsodizes.

Life was good, and Love, who formed his own band, enjoyed fat times in the ’50s. Then things went sour. Faced with financial setbacks, he moved his family to Los Angeles in 1962, where he worked a series of jobs outside of music. His career rebounded when he found work as a studio musician and as Motown Record Corporation‘s West Coast backup band leader.

He returned to Omaha in 1972, only to find the once booming North 24th Street he so loved a wasteland and the music once heard from every street corner, bar, restaurant and club silenced altogether or replaced by discordant new sounds.

 

 

 

Today, the 76-year-old who earned rave reviews playing prestigious jazz festivals (Monterey Montreaux, Berlin); toured Europe to acclaim; cut thousands of recordings; worked with everyone from Basie and Billie Holiday to Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder; and taught university courses on the history of jazz and the social implications of black music–and who still earns applause at the trendy Bistro supper club in Omaha with his richly textured tone and sweetly bended notes–has written his autobiography. While A Thousand Honey Creeks Later (Wesleyan University Press, 1997) recounts a lifetime of itinerant musicianship, it also serves as a passionate defense of jazz and the blues as rich, expressive, singularly African-American art forms and cultural inheritances.

“It’s written in protest,” Love explains. “I’m an angry man. I started my autobiography to a large degree in dissatisfaction with what has 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 because the people presenting it know nothing about it. We’ve seen our jazz become nonexistent. Suddenly, the image is no longer black. Nearly all the people playing rhythm and blues, blues and jazz … are white. That’s unreal. False. Fraudulent.”

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

While Love concedes the music is free for anyone to assimilate, he demands that reverence be paid to its origins. In his mind, jazz is separate from fusion and other hybrid musical styles that incorporate jazz elements. For Love, either you have the gift for jazz or you don’t. All the studying, technique and best intentions in the world won’t cut it, without the gift. And while he doesn’t assert that only blacks can excel at jazz, he always returns to the fact that it is, at its core, indigenous black music, an expression of soul: “To hear the harmony of those black musicians, with that sorrowful, plaintive thing that only blacks have. That pain in their playing. That blue note. That’s what jazz is. The Benny Goodmans and those guys never got it. They were tremendous instrumentalists in their own way, but that indefinable, elusive blue note–that’s black.”

Love feels that the music is diluted and distorted by university music departments, where jazz is taught in sterile isolation from its rich street and club origins, and he bristles at the notion that he’s a “moldy fig,” the term boppers coined to describe older musicians mired in the past and resistant to change.

“As far as being a moldy fig, that’s bull—-,” he says. “I’m as alert and aware of what’s going on in music now as I was 60 years ago. I hear quite a few young guys today who I admire. I’m still capable of great idol worship. I am eternally vital. I play my instruments as modern as anybody alive … and better than I’ve ever played them.”

The Smooth Jazz Stylings of Mr. Saturday Night, Preston Love Sr.

June 3, 2010 2 comments

 

An unforgettable person came into my life in the late 1990s in the form of the late Preston Love Sr. He was an old-line jazz and blues player and band leader who was the self-appointed historian and protector of a musical legacy, his own and that of other African American musicians, that he felt did not receive its full due.  Love was a live-life-to-its-fullest, larger-than-life figure whose way with words almost matched his musicianship.  As I began reporting on aspects of Omaha’s African American community, he became a valuable source for me. He led me to some fascinating individuals and stories, including his good friend Billy Melton, who in turn became my good friend. But there was no one else who could compare to Preston and his irrepressible spirit.

 

 

 

 

I ended up writing five stories about Preston.  The one that follows is probably my favorite of the bunch, at least in terms of it capturing the essence of the man as I came to know him.  The piece originally appeared in the New Horizons.  Aspects of this piece and another that I wrote for The Reader, which you can also find on this site, ended up informing a profile on Preston I did for a now defunct national magazine, American Visions.  Links to that American Visions story can still be found on The Web.  I fondly remember how touched I was listening to the rhapsodic praise Preston had for my writing in messages he left on my answering machine after the first few stories were published. After basking in his praise I would call him back to thank him, and he would go off again on a riff of adulation that boosted my ego to no end.

I believe he responded so strongly to my work because I really did get him and his story.  Also, I really captured his voice and pesonality.  And this man who craved validation and recognition appreciated my giving him his due.

Near the end of his life Preston hired me to write some PR copy for a new CD release, and I approached the job as I would writing an article.  I’ve posted that, too.

The last story I wrote about Preston was bittersweet because it was an in memoriam piece written shortly after his death. It was a chance to put this complex man and his singular career in perspective one more time as a kind of tribute to him.  A few years after his death I got to interview and write about a daughter of his he had out of wedlock, Laura Love, who is a fine musician herself. Her story can also be found on this site.

The Smooth Jazz Stylings of Mr. Saturday Night, Preston Love Sr.,

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

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 who headlines with his band at the Old Market supper club Friday and Saturday nights.

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

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,” he said.  “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.”

His passion for music is shared by his wife Betty, 73, the couple’s daughter, Portia, who sings with her father’s band Saturdays at the Bistro   and sons, Norman and Richie, who are musicians, and Preston Jr.

While the Bistro’s another of the countless gigs Love’s had since 1936 and the repertoire includes standards he’s played time and again, he brings a spontaneity to performing that’s pure magic.  For him, music never gets tired, never grows old. More than a livelihood, it’s his means of self-expression.  His life.  His calling.

Music has sustained him, if not always financially, than creatively during an amazingly varied career that’s seen him: Play as a sideman for top territory bands in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s; star as a lead alto saxophonist with the great Count Basie Orchestra and other name acts of the ‘40s; lead his own highly successful Omaha touring troupe in the ‘50s; and head the celebrated west coast Motown band in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.

He’s earned rave reviews playing prestigious jazz festivals (Monterey, Montreux, Berlin). Toured Europe to great acclaim. Cut thousands of recordings, including classics re-released today as part of anthology series.  Worked with a who’s-who list of stars as a studio musician and band leader, from Billie Holiday to Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles to Stevie Wonder.  Performed on network television and radio.  Played such legendary live music haunts as the Savoy and Apollo Theater.

 

 

After 61 years in the business, Love knows how to work a room, any room, with aplomb. Whether rapping with the audience in his slightly barbed, anecdotal way or soaring on one of his fluid sax solos, this vibrant man and consummate musician is totally at home on stage. Music keeps him youthful.  Truly, he’s no “moldy fig,” the term boppers coined to describe musicians out-of-step with the times.

“As far as being a ‘moldy fig’…that’ll never happen.  And if it does, then I’ll quit.  I refuse to be an ancient fossil or an anachronism,” said Love.  “I am eternally vital.  I am energetic, indefatigable,  It’s just my credo and the way I am as a person.  I play my instruments as modern as anybody alive and…better than I’ve ever played them.”

Acclaimed rhythm and blues artist and longtime friend, Johnny Otis,  concurs, saying of Love: “He has impeccable musicianship.  He has a beautiful tone, especially on solo ballads, which is rare today, if it exists at all.  He’s one of the leading lead alto sax players of our era.”

Otis, who lives in Sebastopol, Calif., is white.  Love is black.  The fact they’ve been close friends since 1941 shouldn’t take people aback, they say, but it does.  “Racism is woven so deeply into the fabric of our country that people are surprised that a black and a white can be brothers,” Otis said.  “That’s life in these United States.”

 

 

 

Love’s let-it-all-hang-out performing persona is matched by the tell-it-like-it-is style he employs as a recognized music authority who demands jazz and the blues be viewed as significant, distinctly African-American art forms.   He feels much of the live jazz and blues presented locally is “spurious” and “synthetic” because its most authentic interpreters – blacks – are largely excluded in favor of whites.

“My people gave this great art form for posterity and I’m not going to watch my people and our music sold down the road,” he said.  “I will fight for my people’s music and its presentation.”

Otis admires Love’s outspokenness.  “He’s dedicated to getting that message out.  He’s persistent.  He’s sure he’s right, and I know he’s right.”

Love’s candor can ruffle feathers, but he presses on anyway.  “No man’s a prophet in his hometown,” Love said. “Sometimes you have to be abrasive and caustic to get your point over.”

Orville Johnson, Love’s keyboardist, values Love’s tenacity in setting the record straight.  “He’s a man that I admire quite a bit because of his ethics and honesty.”

Love has championed black music as a columnist with the Omaha World-Herald, host of his own radio programs and guest lecturer, teacher and artist-in-residence at colleges and universities.

With the scheduled fall publication of his autobiography, “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later,” by Wesleyan University Press, Love will have his largest forum yet.  Love began the book in 1965 while living in Los Angeles (where he moved his family in 1962 during a lean period), and revised it through a succession of editors and publishers.  He sees it as a career capstone.

“It’s my story and it’s my legacy to my progeny,” he said.  “They’ll know what I’m like and about by the way I said things, if nothing more.”

 

 

He started the book at the urging of a friend, who typed the manuscript from his handwritten scrawl.  After Love and his family returned to Omaha in 1972, he “totally rewrote” it, adding chapters on his Motown years (1966-1972) and on Omaha.  “I did a lot of it at that desk in there,” he said, indicating his cubbyhole office at the Omaha Star, where he is advertising manager.  Helping him shape the book over the years has been noted jazz authority Stanley Dance and, more recently, Wesleyan contributing editor George Lipsitz, who wrote its glowing introduction.

Love long ago rejected the idea of a ghost writer.  “It’s no longer you then,” he said.  “Even if I wasn’t articulate enough or didn’t have the literary background to write it, I wanted to reflect Preston.  And it sure and the hell does, for better or worse.” As a veteran writer and avid reader, he does feel on solid ground as an author.  He said ideas for the book consumed him.  “All the time, ideas raged in my brain.  And now I’ve said ‘em, and according to Wesleyan, I’ve said them very well.”

An outside reviewer commissioned by Wesleyan described Love’s book as more “than an account of a musician’s career,” but also an important document on “African-American social history, the history of the music business and institutional racism in American popular culture.”

Love is flattered by the praise.  “I’m very proud of it,” he said.  “Before the editorial staff acts on your book, they always bring in an outside reader, and what that person has to say has a big bearing on what’s going to happen.  It had a big bearing on the contract I signed several weeks ago.”

Love feels his far-flung experience has uniquely qualified him to tell his story against the backdrop of the black music scene in America.  “The fact that mine’s been a different, unlikely and multifaceted career is why publishers became interested in my book.”

To appreciate just how full a life he’s led and how far he’s come, one must look back to his start. He grew up the youngest of Mexie and Thomas Love’s nine children in a “dilapidated” house, jokingly called “the mansion,” at 1610 North 28th Street.  His auto mechanic father died in Love’s infancy.  Although poor in possessions, the family was rich in love.

“My mother did the best she could,” he recalls.  “There was no welfare in those days.  No ADC. This brave little woman went out and did day work for 40 cents an hour, and we survived.  There were no luxuries. “But it was a loving, wonderful atmosphere.  Our house was the center of that area.  Naturally, guys courted my sweet, beautiful sisters and girls pursued my gorgeous brothers.”

He was steeped in music 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 or two, 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.  He recalls the Dreamland with great affection:

“All of the great black geniuses of my time played that ballroom.  Jazz was all black then, number one, 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.  That pain in their playing.  That indefinable, elusive blue note.  That’s what jazz is.”

 

 

He’d rush home after a night there to play the sax his brother “Dude” had saved up for and bought.  “Dude” eventually joined a touring band and passed the sax onto his brothers.  Love taught himself to play, picking up pointers from veteran musicians and from the masters whose recordings he listened to “over and over again.”

He began seeing music as a way out.  “There was no escape for blacks from poverty and obscurity except through show business,” Love said.  “I’d listen to the radio’s late night coast-to-coast broadcasts of those great bands and I’d 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 traces the spark for his dream and its fulfillment to an August night in 1938 at the Dreamland, when, at 17, he met his main idol – Earle Warren – Basie’s lead alto sax man. Warren later became Love’s mentor.

“That was the beginning of my total dedication and my fanaticism for this thing called jazz.  He was the whole inspiration for my life.”

With Warren as his inspiration, Love made himself an accomplished musician.  “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.  I did it all on my own.  And being good at mathematics, I was able to read music with the very least instruction.”

His ability to sight read was rare among blacks then and became his “forte.”  His first paying gig came in 1936, at 15, as a last-minute fill-in on drums with Warren Webb and His Spiders at the Aeroplane Inn in Honey Creek, Iowa.  The North High graduate eventually played scores of other small towns just like Honey Creek, hence the title of his book.

His breakthrough came in 1943, when Warren recommended Love as his replacement in the Basie band.  Love auditioned at the Dreamland and won the job.  It was his entry into the big time.  “I was ready,” he said.  “I knew I belonged.”  It was the first of two tours of duty with Basie.  In storybook fashion, Love returned to play the very sites where his dreams were first fired – the Dreamland and Orpheum.  He went on to play many of the famous, glittering big city clubs he’d envisioned.

Love enjoyed the spotlight playing with Basie and the bands of Lucky Millinder, Lloyd Hunter, Nat Towles and Johnny Otis.  “Touring was fun,” he said.  “You played the top ballrooms, you dressed beautifully, you stayed in finer hotels.  Big crowds.  Autographs.  It was glamorous.” Life on the road agreed with he and Betty, whom he married in 1941.  “The itinerant thing is what I love.  The checking in the hotels and motels.  The newness of each town.  The geography of this country.  The South, with those black restaurants with that flavorful, wonderful food and those colorful hotels.  It was my culture, my people.”

His book vividly describes it all.  Including the difficulties of being black in America and the reversals of fortune he’s experienced.  He has some harsh things to say about Omaha, where he’s witnessed the Dreamland’s, demise, North 24th Street’s decline and the black music scene dry up.

He’s left his hometown many times, but has always come 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, our 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.

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