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Venerable jazzman Paul Serrato has his say

March 25, 2019 Leave a comment

Venerable jazzman Paul Serrato has his say

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the April 2019 New Horizons

 

Paul Serrato

 

Journeyman jazz pianist, composer, arranger and recording artist Paul Serrato has packed much living into 83 years. The accouterments of that long, well-lived life fill to overbrimming the textured South Omaha house he resides in.

The humble dwelling is in the shadow of Vinton Street’s mural-adorned grain silos. They are distant echoes of the skyscrapers of New York, where for decades he plied his trade gigging in clubs and cabarets and writing-performing musical theater shows.

After all that time in Manhattan, plus spending bohemian summers in Europe, he returned to Omaha eight years ago upon the death of his mother. He inherited her snug bungalow and it’s there he displays his lifetime passion for arts and culture. Books, magazines, albums, DVDs, VHS tapes and CDs fill shelves and tables. Photos, prints, posters and artworks occupy walls.

Each nook and cranny is crammed with expressions of his eclectic interests, There’s just enough space to beat a measured path through the house and yet everything is neat and tidy under the fastidious eye of Serrato.

“This is how we live in New York in our cluttered, small apartments,” he said.

In a music room is the Yamaha keyboard he composes on and gigs with as well as manuscripts of completed and in-progress instrumental works. Though he’s recorded many CDs released on his own record labels, many of his tunes have never been made  public.

“I couldn’t bring it all out. That’s how it is for any artist.”

His latest release “Gotham Nights” on his Graffiti Productions label has charted nationally since January.

Some of his catalogue is licensed for television. He finds it “exciting” to hear his music on TV or radio. Tracks from “Gotham Nights” have aired on the nationally syndicated “Latin Perspective” public radio program.

Serrato has made provisions for his archives to go to his alma mater, Adelphi University, when he dies.

“They’ve been very supportive, very receptive about accepting my archives,” he said.

His home contains reminders of his second career teaching English as a Second Language to international students, including photos and letters from former students with whom he corresponds. All these years teaching immigrants and refugees, combined with his many travels, gives Serrato friends in faraway places.

“It’s really wonderful,” he said. “I’m very fortunate. We keep in touch. We send each other gifts . I have more close friends around the world than I do in Omaha.”

A friendship with a former student from Japan led to Serrato making two concert tours of the Asian nation.

He began working as an ESL instructor long ago in New York. He earned a master’s degree in Urban Education from Adelphi. He now teaches ESL for Metropolitan Community College in Omaha.

 

Paul Serrato

 

 

Coming of age

Serrato’s always shown an aptitude for learning. Growing up, he was drawn to the big upright piano his aunt played in church. It wasn’t long before he gained proficiency on it.

“I can remember myself so distinctly fascinated by the piano, wanting to play it, going over and pounding on the keys. That’s how I got to playing the piano as a toddler. From an educational point of view, it’s interesting how children can gravitate to an environment or a stimulus when they see adults doing things.”

Not being good at sports and not having advantages more well-off kids enjoyed, he said, “Music gave me the confidence I could do something. My early childhood was rather deprived. We moved around a lot. It wasn’t until I was 9 we got settled. My mother bought a piano and paid for classical lessons. She was a pretty remarkable woman considering what she had to go through raising a kid on her own.”

Music gave him his identity at Omaha Creighton Prep.

“I could start to come out as a musician and I found people liked what I did. They applauded. I was like, Hey, man, I’m good, I can do this. That’s how I got started on the track.”

All it took for him to shine was affirmation.

“That’s how it is, that’s how it always is.”

iHe was starved for encouragement, too, coming from a broken family of meager meansHe performed classical recitals and competed in talent shows at school and community centers, even on radio. “I won a couple of first prizes on KOIL” He played on a WOW show hosted by Lyle DeMoss. All of it made him hungry for more.

His classical training then took a backseat to captivating new sounds he heard on jazz programs out of Chicago on the family’s old Philco radio set.

“That was an eye-opener, definitely because at that point I had only studied classical piano – Chopin, Debussy. I hadn’t been exposed to hearing guys like Oscar Peterson or Art Tatum and Erroll Garner. Hearing that stuff opened up a big door and window into other possibilities.”

He began composing riffs on popular song forms, mostly big band and Broadway show tunes.

“That’s what jazz players did and still do – take standard songs and interpret them. That’s the classic jazz repertoire. I still love Cole Porter. I still play his stuff. I have a whole Cole Porter portfolio.”

New York, New York

After high school Serarto’s awakening as an aspiring jazz artist pulled him east. After a stint at Boston University he went to New York. It became home.

Said Serrato, “There’s three kinds of New Yorkers: the native New Yorker who’s born there; the commuter who comes in from Long Island to work or play; then there are those like myself who go there for a purpose – to achieve a goal – and for personal fulfillment. New York draws in all these dynamic young people who go to feed themselves creatively/.”

The sheer diversity of people and abundance of opportunity is staggering.

“You meet people of all different persuasions, professions, everything.

Finding one’s kindred spirit circle or group, he said, “is so easy in New York.” “You don’t find it, it finds you. I made lots of friends. I’d meet somebody in a coffee shop and it would turn out they were producing a play and needed somebody to write music. I’d say, ‘I write music’. ‘Oh, why don’t you do it?’ they’d say.

“For example, I ended up collaborating on many projects with Jackie Curtis, who later became an Andy Warhol superstar. We met at a Greenwich Village bookstore I managed. Totally serendipitous. He was very young. We struck up a conversation. I said, ‘I write songs.’ He said, ‘Oh we could do a musical together.’ We did the first one, O Lucky Wonderful, as an off-off-Broadway production, on an absolute shoestring.”

Serrato worked with other Warhol personalities, including Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn.

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

He also teamed with comedian Craig Vandernberg, “who did a great spoof on Las Vegas crooners.”

Whatever work he could find, Serrato did.

“I had different kinds of jobs. I was a bartender, a bouncer, a waiter, an artist’s model. That’s how I supported myself. You have to hustle and do whatever it takes. That’s the driving force. That’s why you’re in New York. That’s why it’s competitive and  there’s that energy because you look around and you see what’s possible.

“You’re in the epicenter of the arts. All that stuff was my world – visual arts, performance arts. There’s all this collision of cultural forces and people all interested in those things.”

Serrato believes everyone needs to find their passion the way he found his in music.

“That just happens to be my domain. I tell my students, ‘Hopefully, you’ll find your domain – something you can feel passionate about or connected to that will drive you and give you the energy to pursue that.’ I love to guide young people.”

Everything he experienced in NYC fed him creatively.

“As an artist’s model I met all these wonderful artists and art teachers. That’s when my passion for visual art and painters really got implanted.

When it comes to artistic vocations, he said, “many are called, few are chosen.”

“If you are truly engaged as an artist, you have confidence – you know you’re connecting.”

He eventually did well enough that he “would take off for months in the summer and go to Europe to follow bullfights and go to Paris.” “Then I’d come back and just pick up where I left off.”

“In those days living in New York was not as prohibitive as it is now economically. The rents have since priced a lot of people out.”

On his summer idyls abroad he followed a guide book by author Arthur Frommer on how to see Europe on five dollars a day and, he found, “you could just about do it.”

“His book had all the cheap places you could stay and eat. It worked, man. It was fabulous.”

Always the adventurer, he smuggled back copies of banned books.

 

All that jazz

Jazz eventually became his main metier. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Jazz Studies and Latin American Music from Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts in East Harlem.

Jazz is a truly American art form. Though its following is shrinking, he said the music retains “plenty of vitality.”

“The fact that it’s not mainstream music is probably to its benefit because that means you can be individual, you don’t have a lot of hierarchy breathing down your neck saying do it this way, do it that way. So a jazz artist can sort of be what he or she wants to be.

“It’s a personal expression. It’s not a commodity the way corporately sanctioned music can be.”

A few jazz artists have managed to gain broad crossover appeal.

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

“There’s been such a tectonic shift in the jazz culture. Mid-20th century jazz artists – (Thelonious) Monk, (Dave) Brubeck – used to make the covers of national magazines. Who would put a jazz musician on the cover of a national magazine today? Do you ever see jazz musicians on the late night TV shows? You see rock, pop or hip-hop artists. In a lot of people’s minds, jazz is not that important because it doesn’t make much money and doesn’t get much media attention, so we work however we can. But it’s always been a struggle, even in the golden era.”

The Life can take a toll.

“I remember at the Village Gate in the ’60s. I was house manager and performed there sometimes. You’d have a 2 a.m. show. You had to make it through these gigs. It’s a tough life. No wonder there was alcohol and drugs and everything. It’s always been a tough life.”

 


 

 

Playing by his own rules

Making quality music, not fame, remains Serrato’s ambition. In New York he got tight with similarly-inclined musicians, particularly “master Latin percussionist” Julio Feliciano.

“He was Yorkirican – a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent. Just full of energy and vitality and ideas. He contributed his deep musicianship to my many recording sessions and New York gigs. We enjoyed that vibe that enables the most successful collaborations. That also includes Jack ‘Kako’ Sanchez. They were a percussion team. It’s evident on my record ‘More Than Red,’ which spent many weeks on the national jazz charts.

“I’ll never find another like Julio. It was like (Duke) Ellington with (Billy) Strahorn – the two of us together. We had a tremendous collaboration. He was a Vietnam vet who OD’d on prescription pain killers. It was tragic. So young, so talented, so brilliant. We were like brothers musically and spiritually.”

What Serrato misses most about New York is “the cultural network” he had there that he lacks here.

“Like I have an idea for a musical project right now. In New York I could just pick up the phone and tell these guys, ‘Come over.’ and they’d come over and we’d start working on it. I can’t do that here. I don’t have that kind of musical infrastructure here.

“My studio in New York was a place where we would try out things. It was wonderful for me as a composer. It taught me a lot of discipline in terms of being accurate and clear about what I write.”

Just as musician Preston Love Sr. found when he returned to Omaha after years away, Serrato’s found his hometown less than inviting when it comes to jazz and to the idea of him performing his music.

“I hear people say things like. ‘We love your music, but it’s very sophisticated. We never hear music like this around here. What do you call it?’ I scratch my head when they say those things. I never get this in New York.”

He turns down some offers because, in true New Yorker fashion, he doesn’t drive and public transportation here can’t easily get him to out-of-town gigs.

“I’m not the first New York creative who left the city and had to make an adjustment somewhere else.”

Some discerning listeners have supported his music, including KIOS-FM.

“They’ve been very good to me.”

He’s cultivated a local cadre of fellow arts nuts. He sees shows when he can at the Joslyn, Kaneko, Bemis, Holland and Orpheum. His best buddy in town is another New York transplant, David Johnson. Their shared sensibilities find them kvetching about things.

What Serrato won’t do is compromise his music. His website says it all: Urban Jazz – Not by the Rules. He’s put out CDs on his own terms since returning to Omaha.

“I’m a music producer – of jazz music in particular. So when I have enough music that I think I’m ready to record, I figure out a way to record it. I don’t really have the network here to feel confident enough to do a project like ‘Gotham Nights’ in Omaha. So I rely on my band members in New York. We’ve played together for years. I want to record with them.”

For “Gotham Nights” he booked two four-hour recording sessions in Manhattan.

“It was so successful because I had everything clearly written. I gave it to my guys and the caliber they are, they saw it, and they played it. I knew these guys so well that we didn’t have to rehearse. I gave them the charts and turned them loose and let them go. We all spoke the same musical language – that’s the most important thing. I had eight instrumental tunes. We went through it once, twice at most.”

“Gotham Nights” marks a change for Serrato in moving from artsy to mainstream.

“In the past I’ve had good success, but sometimes I’ve heard, ‘Oh, your music is too avant garde,’ which is like poison. ‘Gotham Nights’ is not avant garde. It reflects my Brazilian influences. It’s Latin jazz filtered through my own musical personality. Very melodic. It’s why it’s so accessible.”

The album is the latest of many projects he’s done that celebrate his muse, New York, and its many notes.

He was there teaching only blocks from ground zero when the twin towers came down on 9/11.

“We had to vacate our building. After we were allowed back in a few weeks later I had my international adult students write about their impressions of that day. They were from Taiwan, Japan, Turkey, Korea, Chile, all these different countries. They wrote eloquently about that and I saved their essays. Fast forward 15 years later and I asked some of my ESL students in Omaha to read these testimonials set to music I composed at a Gallery 72 event commemorating that tragic day. I was very proud of how that event turned out.”

He’s teaching a new ESL class this spring. As usual, he said, he’s trying “to make it comfortable” for recent arrivals “to adapt to a new culture and a new land.”

“Cultural transference or acculturation – that’s an ESL teacher’s job.”

But his class assignments always encourage students to celebrate their own culture, too.

The ever searching Serrato said, “I love other cultures and I love education. I’m a big believer in bilingual education. Teaching’s been a natural evolution for me. All musicians are educators at heart.”

Fellow hin at http://www.paulserrato.com.

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

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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.

 

Paul Serrato finds balance as musician and educator​

June 1, 2018 1 comment

Paul Serrato finds balance as musician and educator

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Grain elevators, not skyscrapers, fill the view outside Paul Serrato’s home now that the jazz pianist-composer is back in Omaha after decades in New York City.

Serrato was a New York sideman, soloist and band leader. When not performing, he haunted clubs to see countless legends play. An avid collector, he helped himself to rare posters of great jazz lineups at iconic spots like the Village Gate in East Harlem.

He also spent untold hours composing and trying out original tunes and arrangements. He’s released nine albums on his Graffiti Productions label. He cut his tenth in February with his regular Big Apple crew. The new CD will have a fall national release.

Serrato also wrote for and accompanied underground cabaret and off-Broadway performers.

Education is a parallel passion for Serrato, who has degrees in music (Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts) and urban education (Adelphi University). Since the 1980s he’s taught adult ESL. He taught in various New York boroughs. Since resettling in Omaha five years ago he’s been an adjunct instructor at Metropolitan Community College’s south campus.

“I love teaching ESL. I love working with international students,” he said. “It’s taught me to respect other people, especially immigrants. I’ve always been interested in other cultures, other languages. It was a natural fit for me to migrate to teaching ESL and to pursue it to the end that I have.

“I’m a great believer in bilingual education.”

He’s distressed state funding cutbacks threaten something so impactful for students.

“There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction in knowing we’re helping them to acculturate-integrate into the larger scene.”

He’s outraged by draconian Trump administration measures against illegal immigrants and by Trump’s own hateful rhetoric on immigration.

Serrato has immigrant students compose essays about their new lives in America. He’s moved by their stories.

“It inspires me that I can guide them and give them an opportunity to release their emotions and feelings. It’s like nobody’s ever asked them before. Some of the papers are so remarkable. They spill it all out – eloquently, too – their feelings about being immigrants, living here, the difficulties, the good things.”

Last year he organized a program at Gallery 72 in which his Omaha students read personal accounts that his New York students wrote in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers. Serrato and his NYC students were only a few blocks from ground zero that fateful day. They watched the tragedy unfold before their eyes.

“I had my international adult students write about their impressions of that day. They were from all these different countries. They wrote eloquently about what they witnessed. I saved their essays and decided to turn it into EYEWITNESS: New York Testimonies. Though they all experienced the same event, we hear it filtered through the sensibilities of their diverse cultures.”

Serrato’s “Broadway Electronic” and “Blues Elegy” compositions provided ambient music for the readings.

“I was very proud of how that event turned out. My Metro students did a great job.”

He said the international student mix he teaches “makes me feel like I’m back in New York.”

His cozy southeast Omaha home is a tightly packed trove. Framed posters and album covers adorn walls. Photos of students, family, friends and jam cats are pinned to boards. Stacks of books occupy tables.

His music life began in Omaha, where he showed early muscial aptitude and formally studied piano.

“I began doing talent contests around town. Schmoller & Mueller piano store had a Saturday morning talent show on the radio. I won first prize a couple times.”

The Creighton Prep grad was brought up the son of a single mother who divorced when he was three.

“She was a pretty remarkable woman considering what she had to go through. There were no resources in those days for single moms.”



The Chicano artist has indulged his Latino roots via study and travel. He made pilgrimages to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to steep himself in boss and samba. His tune “Blues in Rio” originated there. A YouTube video produced by musician friend Donald Mohr features that tune matched with photos from Serrato’s Brazilian sojourns.

Bumming around Europe, he made it to Spain and grew “smitten with bullfighting’s art and pageantry.” “I began returning to Spain annually for the long taurine season as an aficionado. I’d lock up my New York apartment and fly off. My life as an artist’s model and bookstore manager in Greenwich Village made it easily possible. Such was the Boho (bohemian) life.”

His Latino roots music and world jazz immersion influences following a classical music track. He gave recitals in Omaha. Then he heard intoxicating sounds on his family’s short wave radio that changed his life.

“I thought I wanted to be a concert pianist until I started hearing recordings by Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson,
whose records were being spun out of Chicago. I was very like blown away by these great jazz pianists.

“Hearing that stuff opened up a big door and window into other possibilities.”

Harbor Conservatory in Spanish Harlem became his mecca. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition with a concentration on Latin music styles.

“It’s like the repository of the jazz and Latin music in New York after the World War II diaspora. It’s an incredible place. You walk into that school and you walk into another world, of Latin jazz music, which I love.”

His intensive study of Spanish has extended to Latin literature and art.

He cites congo player Candido Camero as “a great inspiration.” “He could play anything. Candido made a record, Mambo Moves, with Erroll Garner, one of my favorite pianists. They play such great duets. I’ve always loved that record. I’ve tried to incorporate some of those ideas into my own music.

“I compose pieces in the bossa style, though filtered through a New York jazz lens.”

Just as Serrato’s never done learning, he’s never done teaching,

“I love education. It’s absolutely vital to me. I’m teaching all the time, as many jazz musicians do. We’re all educators.”

Visit www.paulserrato.com.

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

Leo Adam Biga

 

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