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Jazz to the Future – The Revitalization of a Scene

July 3, 2019 2 comments

JAZZ to the Future illustration

 

Jazz to the Future – The Revitalization of a Scene

story by Leo Adam Biga

Illustration by Derek Joy

Originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com/articles/jazz-to-the-future)

 

Legacy Informs Revival

Veteran drummer Curly Martin came of age in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when North O brimmed with players and venues. Today, he’s a flashpoint for shedding light on the history and making jazz relevant again. He is adamant “you can’t be taught jazz or blues.”

“We had mentors. Preston Love was one of my biggest mentors. I was a junior in high school, 16 years old, when I got the gig with his band. I got permission to go on the road and said bye to Tech High.”

He insists the only way to learn is to “just hang out and play, man.”

“My whole thing is about the music and passing on the knowledge,” says Martin, who’s forming a foundation to mentor youth, The Martin Mentoring Lab. He’s presented jazz labs at Hi-Fi House in the Blackstone District and is doing the same at The Jewell in the Capitol District.

“I believe the audience is in Omaha—they just don’t know what they’ve been missing because it’s been gone for so long,” says Kate Dussault, formerly of Hi-Fi House. “Omaha has this really unique opportunity right now, which is why we’re creating this foundation as a place where people can come and learn by osmosis.”

In Martin, Dussault found a kindred spirit.

“He reveres jazz like I do—as black classical music. Curly’s determined to bring jazz back to Omaha and [Hi-Fi House is] doing everything we can to help him.”

His son Terrace Martin, a noted musician and producer in Los Angeles, is leading a similar charge on the coast. 

“It’s a whole new clique going on,” Curly says. “All these young musicians catching hold and putting all this together—passing the work and knowledge around.”

The Grammy-nominated album Velvet Portraits, featuring Curly and Terace, was recorded at producer Rick Carson’s Omaha-based Make Believe Studios. Carson says Terrace, with artists like Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper, are leading “a jazz resurgence,” adding, “The jazz they’re playing isn’t straight-ahead jazz, it’s this jazz mix-up of hip hop, funk, R&B, and soul.”

“Terrace is sitting right at the nexus of hip hop and jazz,” Dussault says. “He’s a sought-after producer who works with Kendrick Lamar and Herbie Hancock. He’s part of that whole crew bringing this new sort of jazz and making playing jazz cool again to young people.”

That synergy travels to Omaha in work Terrace, Curly, and others do at Hi-Fi, Make Believe, Holland Performing Arts Center, and The Jewell. None of this new activity may have happened, Dussault notes, if Martin hadn’t asked Hi-Fi “to help him bring back jazz at the club level.”

“At the time, in my estimation, jazz truly was dead in Omaha,” she says. “Love’s Jazz was doing a little smooth jazz and you had great shows at the Holland, but you can’t develop a jazz audience at $35 and $65 a ticket. So we came up with a concept of doing shows where Curly and company perform jazz and tackle history he thought otherwise would never be told. He’s really a big believer if kids don’t see it, they can’t aspire to play it—and then we’ll never turn this around.”

Dussault committed “to celebrate the history with Curly and guys he grew up with that had a pretty important impact on the canon of jazz, blues, R&B, even rock. We brought back his friends. We underwrote the shows and we were full almost every time.”

Make Believe captures interviews and performances of Martin and guest musicians. The result is an archive of artists who lived North O’s jazz and blues past.

Filling the Void

Recent standing-room-only Holland performances confirm what Martin and Dussault already knew. “There’s an audience for this music—but you have to reintroduce it,” she says. “Omaha has to work on audience development.” She adds that there has been serious neglect of the scene, not just in Omaha but around the country. “It needs to be respected, coddled, and brought back.”

Omaha Performing Arts executive director Joan Squires saw the same void. Filling that gap became the mission of its Holland Jazz Series and 1200 Club.

“Nobody was presenting, in any real consistent way, the major touring jazz artists and ensembles here, and we felt it was important we do it,” Squires recalls. “Jazz is an important art form and something we’re very committed to. We do it not just for what’s on the stage but also for the education components the artists bring to our community.”

OPA’s jazz program launched in 2007. The main stage concert hall series features “a mix of very established jazz masters and renowned artists along with up-and-coming talent,” she says.

Jazz on the Green fell under OPA’s domain when Joslyn Art Museum sought someone to take it over.

“We jumped at the chance, because it’s certainly a big part of our mission and it’s a beloved series,” Squires says. “Midtown Crossing’s opening made for a perfect location. All the pieces came together to take that series to a whole new level. We’ll regularly get 8,000 to 10,000 people at a performance. It’s extraordinary.”

Omaha saxophonist Matt Wallace, who toured with Maynard Ferguson and played the prestigious Blue Note and Birdland, likes the city’s new jazz landscape.

“In general, I think the scene is very healthy right now between the players we’re producing and the available venues. The whole scene depends on schools doing well and having places to play. It’s very systemic. If one part is missing, there’s an issue. I’m very encouraged by what’s happening.”

He’s impressed by The Jewell, which opened last fall.

“What happens with most clubs is they get one of two things right—either it sounds great or it looks great. This club actually got all of it right. Another thing I like is that when you walk in you get a history of artists who played at the Dreamland—Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington.”

Jewell owner Brian McKenna’s club is a conduit to Omaha’s jazz past.

“There are two stories here,” McKenna says. “There’s the generation of Curly Martin and the previous generation of Preston Love. Each became enchanted with the sounds and players of their eras. They met the artists who came through and ended up playing with them.”

Back in the Day

Martin and his buddies learned to play jazz on the North Side, jamming alongside big-time touring artists. They became respected industry journeymen. Martin has brought some—Stemsy Hunter, Calvin Keys, Ron Beck, and Wali Ali—back to gig with him in Omaha.

North 24th Street landmark Allen’s Showcase, Martin says, “was a musicians’ hangout. It was just about music, period. You went to the Showcase for one reason only—to hear the best of the best. That’s what black music was about. That was the place for the players. The Sunday jam session was notorious. It went from 10 in the morning till 1 the next morning. You had time to play, go home, change clothes, eat, come back.”

The Dreamland Ballroom was where people went to see the major artists at the time. “We knew it as a blues place—Little Richard, Etta James, BB King…You never could dance in the damn ballroom because it was packed tight,” Martin says. “You know where us young musicians were at—right up to the stage looking up.”

“That’s how we met ‘em all. We had a chance to sit-in and play with them.…Later on, when we got 20, 21, they remembered us. That’s how we got gigs.”

Once musicians sufficiently honed their craft here, they left to back big-name artists on major concert tours and hit records. They found success as sidemen, session players, composers, producers, and music directors. Some, like Buddy Miles, became headliners.

The same scenario unfolded a generation earlier at the Dreamland, Club Harlem, Carnation Ballroom, and McGill’s Blue Room. Anna Mae Winburn, Preston Love, and Wynonie Harris broke out that way.

On the North O scene, mostly black talent played in front of integrated audiences on the strip dubbed The Deuce. Driving riffs, hot licks, and soulful voices filled myriad live music spots.

“Everybody was coming north,” Martin says.

“When I came up, we were not leaving Omaha for New York or Los Angeles. There was that much work. There were that many great musicians and venues. Then there were all the cats coming back and forth through Omaha. We were seeing the best in the world…why go anywhere?”

An infrastructure supported the scene in terms of black hotels, rooming houses, and restaurants. A&A Records was “a kick-ass music store with eight listening booths.”

“We had all that going on,” Martin says. “I’d come out of my house every morning and hear music on every corner. It was a fairytale, man. At night, you had to dress up—suit and tie, shoes shined. It was classy. Twenty-fourth and Lake was like being on Broadway. It was like that back in the day.”

Further making the scene special were clubs such as Backstreet, Apex Lounge, The Black Orchid, and The Green Light. At Off Beat Supper Club emcees introduced Cotton Club-like revues and floor shows. “It was killing,” Martin says. “It was the most popular black club in North Omaha.”

After-hours joints added another choice for late nights out. High stakes games unfolded at the Tuxedo Pool Hall. The Ritz and Lothrop movie theaters and social halls provided more entertainment options.

“North Omaha was a one-stop shop when it came to music. There was more to it than just jazz. That was just part of it. The history of North Omaha is not simple at all, especially about the music. There was just tons of music.”

And transcendent talent.

From Gene McDaniels hitting gold with “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” to Lalomie Washburn writing Chaka Khan’s mega-hit “I’m Every Woman,” it’s clear the talent was there.

“Cats getting record deals with Chess Records in Chicago. I can go on and on,” Martin says. “They were hometown stars in the ‘hood—and we all grew up together.”

Restoring What Was Lost

In the ensuing decades, clubs closed and the economy dwindled.

As the North O scene waned, new metro artists emerged—Dave Stryker, Jorge Nila, Dereck Higgins, Steve Raybine, and the Potash Twins.

There were still veterans around for up-and-comers to learn from.

Matt Wallace learned under Luigi Waites. “Playing with older, more experienced guys your game has to come up—there’s just no way around it,” Wallace says. “I try carrying that on.”

Drummer Gary Foster is grateful to his mentors. “I had so many experiences of people taking their time with me, from Bobby Griffo to Charles Gamble to Luigi to Preston, and Preston’s sons Norman and Richie. They were very open.”

Bobby Griffo, aka Shabaka, “was just a prime mover in the North Omaha modern jazz scene. Anybody that was anybody played with him,” Foster says.

Griffo ran the Omaha Music School and led the big band Arkestra that included prime players Timmy Renfro, Mark Luebbe, Gamble, and Foster.

Omaha’s Jazz Scene Hung On

“The Showcase was still going. The Howard Street Tavern had Tuesday night jam sessions. Luigi normally had a night there (and at Mr. Toad’s). A lot of people came in to play,” Foster recalls. “Jack DeJohnette’s band. The Johnny Otis Revue. Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Hines came to town and did a jam session at Howard Street.”

“That stuff went on all the time. The big one was at Kilgore’s. Chick Corea was in town to play the Music Hall. He wanted to know if there was anything going on and we took him to Kilgore’s. He sat in all night playing drums. He didn’t even touch the keyboard.”

Foster says jazz could also be heard at places like The Gaslight and Julio’s.

“And there were still all kinds of little after-hours clubs. I remember one down by the stockyards. I walked in there with my drums—this young white boy with all these black musicians in an all-black club. When the guys sitting at the bar turned around, their coats opened and they were all carrying pistols. They were like, ‘Don’t worry, you’re with the band, you’re cool, you don’t have to worry about anything here.’”

But things slowed to a crawl from the 1990s on.

“Clubs stopped hiring the caliber of jazz artists they once did,” he says. “There were always good local players playing, but it was just a niche thing. Nobody was really making any money at it. We turned to other music to keep gigging. You had to do what you had to do to make it. We played jazz because we loved it.”

The same 10 jazz players played all the gigs. “That’s why I moved to New York,” Foster says. Stryker, Nila, and Karrin Allyson preceded him there.

Climbing Back

Foster is glad the jazz scene has picked up.

Mark’s Bistro owner Mark Pluhacek helped feed the resurgence with a regular jazz program at Jambo Cat beneath his eatery. Though it gained a following, that wasn’t enough to prevent its closing.

Chuck Kilgore, a musician and former club owner, played at and booked Jambo Cat, which he called “the perfect venue.” Even perfect wasn’t good enough.

The truth, Kilgore says, is that few entrepreneurs are willing to risk an investment when there’s “almost certain” small returns.

“Jazz is mostly subsidized these days the way symphonic music is,” Pluhacek says. “It’s underwritten for it to survive. It’s not what people are listening to in huge volumes, so it has to be supported in other ways.”

Pluhacek enjoyed Jambo’s run while it lasted.

“It all came together. It was wonderful. We realize the importance of it. We hope the energy for jazz just grows and gets better.”

Hope for the Future

Besides the Holland and Jewell, other outlets for jazz include the Ozone Lounge, Omaha Lounge, Havana Garage, Harney Street Tavern, and Mr. Toad’s.

Education is also key to engaging an audience.

LJAC hopes to have artists at The Jewell work with elementary school students, and OPA is introducing the genre to pre-schoolers through Jazz at Lincoln Center’s WeBop program. Another facet of cultivating audiences is radio jazz programming. Artists still depend on air play.

“What’s changed is musicians’ ability to get their music out there,” KIOS-FM jazz host Mike Jacobs says. “We get a lot of music produced and marketed by musicians themselves. The major labels have gotten away from doing straight-ahead jazz. A lot of artists produce a hybrid jazz-pop sound. They’re like gateway artists to the classic stuff.”

Jacobs’ KIOS colleague Christopher Cooke is cautiously optimistic The Jewell and other jazz spaces will re-energize things here. He hopes to one day see a “real summer jazz festival in Omaha.”

Meanwhile, Martin helps to build appreciation for the past and a foothold for the future. “It’s about the music coming first. I’ve been blessed and I have to pass it on,” he says.

“Curly was around for a scene that doesn’t exist anymore,” Carson says, “and he’s still connected to the people who made that music…No one is putting him and those dudes on the pedestal. But they’re world-class musicians. They’re clearly exceptional talents.”

Martin wants North O’s renaissance to be informed by what went before.

“How you going to know what we need, when you don’t know what we had?”


This article was printed in the July/August 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

On cusp of stardom, Omaha singer-songwriter Jocelyn follows to thine own self be true path


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On cusp of stardom, Omaha singer-songwriter Jocelyn follows to thine own self be true path

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the June 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Beloved Omaha singer-songwriter Jocelyn, who’s just turning 22, has been a star-in-the-making since playing street corners and open mics as an old-soul teen prophet. Her winsome presence, yearning voice, melodic guitar licks and heartfelt lyrics about personal empowerment can move even jaded listeners.

In early 2018 she won over the suits of major record label BMG with an intimate acoustic set in their L.A, offices. Guided by her management, Omaha-based Midlands Music Group,, she signed with BMG and joined an artist roster that includes Bruno Mars. Armed with creative control, Jocelyn’s worked with producers and session players in L.A. and Nashville studios for her debut feature album releasing this summer.

A tour is in the works.

“I genuinely just want to have a good time making this music,” Jocelyn said, “and that’s really who BMG is.  That’s why we went with them. I could have chosen different record labels, but I didn’t. I went with BMG because the vibe was right.”

She doesn’t worry about losing her authentic self in the grip of a corporate music machine.

“The overall look and sound and feel is all coming from me,” she said. “and the people at the label are all nurturing it and helping me grow into the best version of myself. I’ve always had say in everything. Always. It’s been a great ride.

“I’m just hanging out with these people and telling them my life story. I’ve always been an open person and it’s really just about connecting. I’ve made a lot of connections and good friends. Everybody’s just pushing each other to do better, giving out suggestions, ideas. That’s really the process.”

 

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The single tracks “Speak Up” and “Never Change” from the album feature Jocelyn in full affirmation mode. The recurring theme in her work is “positivity.”

“I feel like the music I put out helps balance whatever is going on in people’s minds. That’s what I have to do in order to balance out my own mind. Hey, this is how I do therapy to get through my problems. I’m sharing with the rest of the world the love that I have and that I give myself.”

Her material counters “the negativity people want to push on you,” she said.

“Speak Up” is her anti-bullying anthem. “Never Change,” co-written with Nelly Joy Reeves and Eric Arjes, is her plea to “don’t change who you are.” Both songs come out of her own experiences being bullied and marginalized.

“There’s noise everywhere in how people think of you, how they judge you,” she said. “I’ve had so many people tell me that I’m doing things wrong in their eyes, and I’m like, you have no idea what I’m experiencing.

“There’s all these moments you have to stay positive –

and that’s what the record’s about.”

Her solid chops and loyal fans have earned her Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards recognition as Best Pop Artist and Artist of the Year. Her charisma carries far beyond these borders. Live or streaming, she captures people everywhere with her energy and sincerity. Even her tattoo that reads Unchain Me (the title of one of her original songs) fits her bohemian free spirit to a tee.

In 2016 an online video of Jocelyn performing her song “Just Like Everybody Else” went viral – one of many events giving her a national following.

“It was the first poppy song I’ve ever written. It was one of those breakthrough moments.”

Most importantly, she’s attracted music industry veterans who believe in her potential. Since entering the MMG mentoring program at 16 she’s scored several high-profile opportunities, including a 2017 “Celebrity Undercover Boss” episode at The Speakeasy in Austin, Texas. A disguised Darius Rucker, aka Jackie Middleton, praised her talent. Rucker also pledged his support.

“The show made Jocelyn look great,” her MMG manager, Jeff McClain, said..

Rucker continues serving as a mentor. At his invitation Jocelyn recently flew to South Carolina to co-write songs with him and his crew for a new project.

“It was really cool,” she said. “It was a little intimidating at first, but you learn to speak your mind. It’s a different process because you’re writing for Darius. It’s a lot of conversations among songwriters.”

She said Rucker is “someone I look up to,” adding, “I aspire to the goals he’s attained.”

In 2017 Jocelyn opened for Rucker at a Stir Cove concert before 5,000 hometown fans. It proved a defining moment. Prior to her set on that baking hot day she left her guitar out in the sun. On-stage, she tried tuning her warped instrument to no avail. She handled the frustration with an aplomb that belied her 19 years.

In the immediate aftermath, though, she felt a failure.

“I pouted on it, I cried about it. But it was a great learning experience. It’s like make sure that shit doesn’t happen again.”

Her manager gave her a different perspective.

“I was watching a star being born on that stage,” McClain said. “Even though it was all going wrong, what she did was amazing at her age. She was in front of a home crowd of 5,000 people and she kept it together. She was professional, she went through with the show. I told her you will never in your entire career be under more pressure than you just were there. If you can handle that, you can handle anything.”

Jocelyn came to appreciate her own resilience.

“I played that show, I kept going, I didn’t stop.”

 

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Her confidence shined through her 2018 “Showtime at the Apollo” appearance. Not only did she not get booed off stage by that notoriously tough crowd, she got a warm response with her righteous cover of Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney’s “Forty Five Seconds.”

“I blacked out. No, straight up, the emotions were so intense in my body that I couldn’t feel anything.”

Her poise and command is what Jocelyn champion Aly Peeler, saw in her at 15.

“She played for me and at that moment I was like, this girl’s a star,” said Peeler, an Omaha musician with her own following. “At such a young age she was so composed and expressed such complicated ideas. She knew who she was. That’s what I thought was so beautiful.”

As Jocelyn got more polished, Peeler said, she proved she could “own a room” – quieting even the most boisterous crowd with her musical poetry.

“She captivates an audience. She gets people to listen.”

Those qualities are what sold MMG on her in 2013.

“She was just absolutely wonderful to watch. She had so much raw talent. It was just obvious. You sensed it,” McClain said.

MMG shows promising young artists the ropes on the condition they do well in school. Only Jocelyn was failing. “Well, we’re not working with you, I told her,” McClain said. “I was like, ‘Aw, damn,” Jocelyn said.

“The exact same work ethic you use to get the As, you use to get the gold record,” McClain said. “If you want to be in this industry, as hard as it is, you have to do the work. She diid and she’s kept it going ever since.”

“I always loved learning, but I did not grow up with the discipline, the work ethic, so when Jeff gave me that challenge,” Jocelyn said, “I was like, I want to do that. It just felt right.”

“If you make it several months in the program things are probably going to happen for you,” McClain said. “Then we start to discuss actual management, which we did with her. We signed her in 2014. At that point we started making calls and opening doors.”

Nothing that’s happened since has been an accident,

“Jocelyn is where she’s at because of a lot of hard work, but also support and encouragement,” Peeler said. “I have nothing but love and respect for all she’s done.”

That’s not saying there weren’t bumps in the road.

“One time we had written a song and I didn’t want a certain lyric to be a certain way,” Jocelyn recalled. “Mind you, I’m 16 at the time and stubborn. If I didn’t get my way, I’d freak out. I said no to a lot of things in the beginning.

“Aly (Peeler) and I went on a walk  She was trying to cool down the fire within me. She said a song is like a child. It goes off into the world and it influences other people and it gets influenced. It is constantly growing. I liked that.”

“We’ve had some real conversations,” Peeler said.

 

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Of her journey, Jocelyn said, “Theres only growth, patience, teaching, learning going on in this process.”

She counts McClain and Peeler among “older friends who have been really there for me when I needed them

and that have affected my life in a positive way.”

Following her team’s advice, she puts herself out there. Connections she’s made at Fox and Paramount offer “great potential we’ll capitalize on later,” McClain said.

Even with mega fame a real possibility, Jocelyn’s committed to Omaha.

“Home is where the heart is and my heart is in a lot of people here. I’m at home anywhere I go in the city. I feel love. This is the stomping grounds.”

What’s come her way already could be a real head trip, but Jocelyn’s being chill. “It’s as simple as simple can be,” she said. Everyone around her feels she’s grounded enough to handle whatever comes next.

Meanwhile, she and McClain are leveraging her success to explore the creation of mentoring programs with the Millard Public Schools (she’s a Millard South grad) and Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. The goal is “teaching what it really takes to make it in whatever you want to do,” she said.

“The messaging of Jocelyn’s album,”is spot-on” with initiatives around young professionals and creatives reaching their dreams, McClain said.

Her self-love, anti-hate messages also plug into the MeToo, LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter Movements.

Jocelyn encourages fellow Generation Zers to realize their dreams right here.

“One of my friends said she didn’t like it here because it doesn’t have this and that, and I said, ‘Well, then, create it here. Be the first person to bring it here.’ Why leave? If you do, come back when you’re done. Help build.”

Should breakout success happen the way it’s expected, she hopes “Omaha’s the next city” everyone wants to be in.

Visit https://www.jocelynmusic.com.

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

 

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Journeyman jazz artist indulges passions for music, education and all things creative  


Journeyman jazz artist indulges passions for music, education and all things creative  

©by Leo Adam Biga

Paul Serrato exudes a New York state of mind acquired from decades of Big Apple living.

From the time the classically-trained jmusician discovered jazz via radio during his Omaha youth, he was drawn to America’s arts center. Excelling on piano, he no sooner graduated Creighton Prep then went East, first to Boston, then New York. He arrived in the era of The Beats, Miles Davis and Andy Warhol. He was there for the British invasion, the bust of the 1970s, the boom of the ’90s and the terror of 9/11.

This journeyman jazz pianist gigged in clubs, recorded his original music and composed-performed for off-off-Broadway shows. He worked various jobs before becoming an English as Second Language instructor.

At 83 he makes no concessions to age. Since returning  to Omaha in 2011, he’s continued performing-creating and indulging his appetite for literature, art, film, theater and dance. He’s still releasing CDs on his own Graffiti Productions label. His latest, “Gotham Nights,” has charted nationally. He plans a new jazz project for 2020.

“Age for me is mostly a number,” says Serrato. “I can’t spend time worrying about how I’m supposed to feel or what I should be doing at my age. My life has focus in music and education. I have degrees in both. In music I find excitement and energy as a pianist as well as composing, producing and promotion.

“Presently, I’m writing vocal music. particularly setting poetry to music. I’ve always composed and produced what I wrote. The pattern emerged in high school when I went into a studio and made my first single – a song with a fellow student on vocal.”

He teaches ESL for Metropolitan Community College. He tries “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.” His class assignments encourage students to celebrate their own heritage, too.

The bilingual Serrato stays in touch with former students from around the world.

In 2016 he combined his music and education passions  in a project commemorating 9/11. He was teaching that day near ground zero.

“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.”

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Years earlier, New York’s hothouse of creativity found Serrato working with Warhol Factory personalities Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn.

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

In jazz circles, Serrato got tight with “master Latin percussionist” Julio Feliciano, whom he recalls “as 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 made 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.”

Serrato still records all his music in New York, which serves as a muse for his work.

He enjoys traveling. He once used a guide book to see Europe on five dollars a day. He followed bull fights in Spain and smuggled back copies of banned books from Paris. A former ESL student from Japan twice arranged for him to do music tours there.

He accepts that few jazz artists ever really make it big.

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

He describes “a tectonic shift in the jazz culture” that’s turned this once popular music into a niche thing.

“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 as house manager and sometime performer at the Village Gate in the ’60s you’d have to make it through 2 a.m. gigs. It’s a tough life. No wonder there was alcohol and drugs and everything.”

Gigs are hard to come by here. His music gets labeled “sophisticated” or even “avant-garde.” He insists “Gotham Nights” is accessible with its Latin melodies.

He enjoys encouraging his students to follow their dreams. Having patience in this age of instant gratification is tough but can be rewarding.

“We are living in a culture of fast celebrity and quick social ‘likes’ – and just as quickly forgotten. My advice to any young artist is to keep focused on long-term possibilities. In other words, stick it out for the long-haul. You never can predict when or how your work will pay off. I speak from experience. I got a big payoff a few years ago from HBO for a song I wrote in 1971 they used in ‘Cinema Verite’ with James Gandolfini.”

Until your ship comes, he advises to get busy living and creating.

Visit http://www.paulserrato.com.

Free Gospel Concert in the Park Kicks Off North Omaha Summer Arts


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Free Gospel Concert in the Park Kicks Off North Omaha Summer Arts

 

North Omaha Summer Arts is back for year nine with:

A Gospel Concert in the Park

Saturday, June 15 at Miller Park, 5 to 7:30 p.m., Free

OMAHA, NE––North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) celebrates nearly a decade of free arts programming in 2019. The summer-long festival kicks off its ninth year on Saturday, June 15 with the annual A Gospel Concert in the Park.

Omaha-based-soloists and ensembles. led by the Church of the Resurrection and Trinity Lutheran Church choirs, will raise their voices to the sky in praise. Music of the soul and spirit takes center stage at this grassroots, no-frills, family-friendly gospel concert in Miller Park.

There is no admission charge.

The 5 to 7:30 p.m. concert happens in the southeast section of the park, at approximately 24th and Kansas Avenue, right across from the ball-field.

Whether you get comfy on a blanket or a lawn chair, you are invited to sit back and let the sounds of inspiration wash over you. And if the spirit so moves, then raise your hands or get up and dance. Somebody, though, remember to say amen.

Hot dogs and refreshments (or bring your own picnic dinner).will feed the body along with the soul.

Look for more NOSA events, including writing workshops, art pop-ups and the annual August Arts Crawl.

Visit https://www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts.

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.

Omaha’s jazz past and present merge at The Jewell 

February 9, 2019 1 comment

Omaha’s jazz past and present merge at The Jewell 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the February 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Brian McKenna, a drummer and former Sony Music Studios executive, pays homage to North Omaha’s rich jazz history at his new downtown club, The Jewell, in the Capitol District.

The fine dining-live music establishment’s February 6-7 grand opening features Grammy Award-winner David Sanborn and his Jazz Quintet.

McKenna’s appreciation for North O’s legacy music scene is evident throughout the swank space. Oversized reproductions of archival photos picture icons who played the Dreamland Ballroom. The black and white images add warmth to an already intimate room distinguished by a contoured stage backdrop meant to represent a jewel’s kaleidoscopic patterns. The club takes its name from Jimmy Jewell Jr., who booked the killer acts that made the Dreamland on North 24th Street a venue of some renown in jazz circles.

Dreamland operated on an upper floor of the Jewell Building, which today is home to nonprofit agencies, and back in the day housed a street level barber shop and pool hall. Leave it to a transplant from New York to put the Dreamland, which closed in 1965, front and center again. McKenna, an Eastman School of Music graduate, first learned about the venue in school. He was intrigued how it was a Midwest circuit stop for touring legends Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Lionel Hampton and many more.

Now the Jewell carries forward the Dreamland’s heritage.

“To revitalize it a little bit is kind of cool. That’s why I called it The Jewell – to bring that back and to do right by North Omaha,” said McKenna, who’s located his club in the Capitol District to take advantage of folks staying in downtown’s 3,000 hotel rooms. Besides, North Omaha already has Love’s Jazz & Art Center.

Still, he said, “This is not going to happen without North Omaha’s blessing. I have 11 investors from different pockets of the city, including North Omaha. I’m taking ads out in the Omaha Star. I’m trying to really embrace this authentic storyline, so that we can work together to make sure this is a community celebration.”

He wants The Jewell to be a platform for sharing this undertold narrative about North O’s live music culture.

“Along the way I’ve been telling this story and a lot of people don’t know this story. To keep it genuine, we’ve got to really spell it out.”

When McKenna and his Fremont, Nebraska native wife moved to Omaha in 2015 to raise their daughter, he researched Jimmy Jewell Jr., the Dreamland, other historic local music hives and the many noted musicians who resided or visited here. Once the Jewell idea crystalized, he sounded out North O leaders (Mike Maroney, Al Goodwin) and players (Curly Martin) for their knowledge and approval in creating a venue that’s both tribute to the past and showcase for established and emerging talent.

Having left Sony in 2008 to form his own music management company, McKenna Group Productions, which he now operates out of Omaha and New York, and fueled by his fascination with the history here, he found a project to challenge himself.

 

Brian McKenna at The Jewell.jpg

 

Brian McKenna at The Jewell

 

 

“I figured out something that wasn’t here at the level I thought it should be and that was a proper sit-down fine dining music venue,” he said. “But I knew it wasn’t going to work unless we really found the thread – and that was North Omaha.

“We’re going to hopefully carry that torch and really expose what used to be and try to bring some people back and then deliver that to future generations. The next generations need to know that this was a great scene, a beautiful scene. There’s a huge story there.”

McKenna marvels at what Jimmy Jewell Jr. did.

“He was able to get the biggest names. I mean, c’mon, man. It’s not easy to convince managers and agents,

but he was selling out the venue from 1930 all the way to 1965. Kudos to Jimmy Jewell Jr. for doing that.”

McKenna’s collecting stories. How on an extended Omaha stay, Nat King Cole wrote the hit “Straighten Up and Fly Right” –  “i’ve got some artists that will be doing tributes to Nat King Cole” – and how artists arrived by bus and stayed in private black homes or black boardinghouses, lionized by adoring neighbors. After gigs, star musicians jammed with local players.

Meanwhile, hometown musicians honed their chops here before going off to solo, sidemen, studio session careers. Victor Lewis, Arno Lucas, Carol Rogers, Calvin Keys, Lois McMorris, the late Buddy Miles and others broke out. Those who left (Wali Ali) or returned (Curly Martin) now have a new place to gig at.

McKenna digs how Count Basie hired Preston Love Sr. at the Dreamland to tour with his orchestra and how Anna Mae Winburn headlined there and later lead the International Sweethearts of Rhythm all-female swing band that McKenna studied in college.

“We need to talk about this,” McKenna said. “We’re going to really be celebrating the historical sense but also bringing the new players, too, like Esperanza Spalding and Christian McBride. Every time I go back East and talk to them about North Omaha, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah – there was a scene there.’ We’ve got to put the spotlight on that. That’s what I want to do. On our social media we’re posting a lot of that historical stuff. We’ve got to educate folks that we had this here.”

He’s also insisting artists make pilgrimages to the Jewell Building, whose display of photos from the Dreamland’s heyday, said McKenna, “gives me chills.”

David Sanborn is eager to learn.

“I’m sorry to say I’m unaware of the history of jazz in Omaha. It’ll certainly be new to me and an interesting experience,” Sanborn said.

McKenna’s taking steps to immerse visiting artists in the community by contractually requiring they do outreach through master classes or workshops. “I have relationships with UNO, the Holland Center and Love’s for this educational component.”

His support of the local music community extends to reserving Wednesdays for area performers.

Programming-wise, the club’s “not going to be a hundred percent jazz,” he said, adding, “There are  singer-songwriters coming through.”

The Jewell’s about good quality music, whatever the genre. Just no hard rock.

“It’s good to be diverse like that. Good music is good music.”

Further rooting the club to this place is Assistant General Manager Monique Alexander, a North Omaha native with a legacy connection to Duke Ellington as a distant cousin.

McKenna, who rose through the Sony ranks as a researcher, librarian and eventually vice president of audio operations and marketing. is applying his expertise to the entire endeavor.

“I felt I should do something that taps into that experience. Managing artists is great but you’ve got to do something in the community, too.”

He’s modeled The Jewell after Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York. Dakota in Minneapolis and Jazz St. Louis.

His industry contacts with agents, managers and talent bookers should aid in attracting top tier artists.

“We will get Wynton Marsalis out here, I guarantee you that. But the timing’s got to be right.”

He’s confident the club’s high standards of decor, house instruments (a Steinway piano, a custom Gretsch drum kit, a killer base) and acoustics (a floating ceiling to isolate vibrations from above), combined with its historical focus, will attract name talents.

“They will do whatever it takes to perform at great venues.”

McKenna’s left nothing to chance.

“It needs to be nurtured and developed. It’s not going to be rushed. It’s gotta be done right. To put this together has not been an easy thing. It’s been very detailed oriented. Every single move I’m making means something.”

The cozy, 150-seat venue boasts great sight-lines, with patrons only a few feet from the stage.

“When you’re that close it’s a different thing,” he said. “That’s the treat – to be that close to these types of artists. They’ll talk to you in a different way than they will performing in a big house. That’s what I love about this club – it’s a whole different vibe.”

He’s leveraging The Jewell’s sustainability on business travelers-tourists as well as locals looking for a signature night out. The club, at 1030 Capitol Avenue, is accessible from the Marriott and The Capitol Plaza.

It has its own dedicated chefs (Jon Seymour and Mark Budler) food and beverage director (Brent Hockenberry), hosts and servers in putting out its New Orleans-influenced menu.

McKenna expects to draw diverse audiences.

“People of all different cultures and walks of life will congregate similar to what happened at the Dreamland Ballroom. People will come to eat, drink and hear great music.”

The club worked out the kinks during a soft opening that launched January 17. Sanborn will help officially usher in The Jewell at a ribbon-cutting. He and his quintet will play 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. shows both nights. Sanborn’s trademark alto saxophone will blend with acoustic bass, drums, piano and trombone in performing works from his personal repertoire and from the late jazz composer-instrumentalist, Michael Brecker.

For tickets and upcoming featured artists, visit https://jewellomaha.com.

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

 

Washington Garcia’s international music career finds perfect balance in Omaha

December 26, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Washington Garcia’s international music career finds perfect balance in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

UNO School of Music Director Washington Garcia’s destiny was set the first time he tickled the keys of his grandmother’s piano at age 4 in his native Ecuador.

“I’ve always considered myself blessed to know my purpose in life from very early on,” Garcia said. “That’s a gift not many people have. My family knew my mission was to come to the United States one day. They trained me from a young age to prepare for it. They had me learn English. They mentored me so I would mature to be in a leadership position.”

Though born into a musical family, he’s the only one to have made music a career. His father’s a retired neurosurgeon. His mother, a retired accountant.

His talent was so evident that by 6 he enrolled in Ecuador’s National Conservatory of Music. His first public performance came at 7. Recognizing the prodigy in their midst, conservatory leaders created a program for him. He advanced quickly enough to debut with the Ecuadorian National Symphony Orchestra at only 15.

He won several prestigious piano competitions. He made his international debut in Chile. He’s since performed all over Europe as well as in Canada, Israel, Mexico, Colombia, Japan and China.

Whatever he’s done and wherever he’s gone, he’s felt his parents’ support.

“They knew instinctively music was going to be my tool to connect Ecuador with the world. My parents opened many doors for me because of their perseverance.”

He enjoys national hero status in his native land as a recipient of the Outstanding Cultural Achievement medal – the highest recognition the Ecuadorian National Assembly awards an individual for artistic excellence.

Getting this far has meant sacrifice.

“I didn’t really have a normal childhood practicing piano five or six hours a day in addition to going to private piano and English lessons, doing regular school courses and homework and attending the National Conservatory.

“These were highly intensive academic and artistic activities I invested all of myself into. I don’t regret it. I would do exactly the same thing again.”

He feels in music he’s found the great common ground.

“Music has the power to connect us all,” he said. “When I travel abroad, language is a barrier, but the moment I perform music it connects us. Music is the language of the soul. I’ve created so many relationships and associations with people who don’t speak a word of English. They understand immediately that music is a bridge between cultures.”

The University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Music he leads is all about making connections.

Said Garcia, “Music has so many angles that impact community. We place music teachers in the schools. Our faculty tour the nation and world. We host an international music festival and visiting teaching artists.”

“We have been able to enhance our visibility on a national and international level. It allows us to bring the world to Omaha. We’re like an ambassador for the city.”

Coming to Omaha culminated a love affair with America. He first came to the U.S. in the late 1990s as a Kennedy Center Fellow in Washington D.C. That led him to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he earned his master’s and doctorate.

“I was the institute”s youngest Latin American graduate in piano performance.”

He taught there before being hired by Texas State University. He became assistant director of TSU’s music school. Then “the right opportunity” appeared at UNO. A national search for the founding director of UNO’s newly established school of music led recruiters to Garcia. He and his wife Valeria moved to Omaha in December 2015. He assumed the post the following January.

In addition to administrative duties, he’s a full tenured professor of piano at UNO.

“I run my life based on mission and one of my missions is to teach and give to others what I have received in terms of artistic and academic knowledge.”

He arrived in the middle of the school year during an accreditation review.

“It was a challenge,” he said, “but I’ve always loved challenges as opportunities to learn and grow from. Still, it almost felt like somebody dropped me from a plane and I had no idea if I had a parachute or not. I pulled the plug on what looked like a parachute. It opened and then I looked for the safest place to land. I landed and  started running and I haven’t stopped since.

“It’s been a really fast pace. We’ve accomplished a lot of initiatives and collaborations. We would like to establish the School of Music as one of the top academic and artistic institutions in Nebraska and the nation. We have    everything it takes – a great faculty and support from the community and the university – to make this happen.”

Like his faculty, he also performs. He’s played with the Omaha Symphony and he does special engagements nationally and internationally.

Every performance is an opportunity to serve.

“I pray every time before I perform that God will help me inspire those who hear me with the gift of music. I want to be for young people who desire a career in music but may not have the means what my parents were for me.”

He feels fortunate.

“The U.S. gave me a free education, a job and continues giving me the opportunity to serve others. That is why this is my home. When I go to Ecuador or anywhere abroad  I feel like a visitor. After a week I’m ready to go back home.

“My wife and I know we have a mission to complete here in Omaha. This is our family.”

He and Valeria have a 2-year-old child and are expecting their second child in December.

Visit washingtongarcia.com.

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

Improbable music journey leads Maldonado to Nebraska as an Omaha Omaha Fellow

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Jose Maldonado pictured with another Opera Omaha Fellow Kate Pomrenke

 

 

Improbable music journey leads Maldonado to Nebraska as an Opera Omaha Fellow

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico,com)

Jose Luis Maldonado concedes the improbability of how he became an opera singer. But that just makes him more eager to share his tale because if it could happen to him, than who knows how many other potential vocalists are out there without even realizing it?

Part of his role as a first-year Opera Omaha Fellow in the Holland Community Opera Fellowship is exposing young people to an art form that may be foreign to them.

The California native grew up around the East L.A. area, where the strains of opera are rarely heard. He comes from a musical family. His father played piano in L.A. salsa bands. His grandfather, Jesus Francisco Maldonado, played saxophone in Mexico, where he’s known in Cuahutemoc Chihuahua as El Botas.

Jazz and Sinatra were some of Maldonado’s other musical influences. From an early age he set his sights on following his grandfather as a saxophonist. He studied hard and became proficient.

In high school his varied activities in band, sports, student government, public speaking and tutoring led his football coach to call him “a renaissance man.”

By his junior year he’d formulated a plan for college. He would study music and business (his father’s in real estate) with an ultimate goal of attending USC and playing in the Trojan marching band.

But then fate threw him a curve. With no suitable artist to sing the national anthem for an all-school assembly, he volunteered, even though it meant singing in public for the first time before thousands. Until then, all he’d done was imitate Rat Pack crooners for friends. He nailed the anthem by mimicking Robert Merrill but it was Jose’s rich baritone that won over the crowd

Then, at his senior graduation, a teacher made him promise to take a voice class in college before she handed over his diploma. He vowed he would. He kept his vow at Rio Hondo Community College but only as a courtesy. Then an unexpected thing happened.

“I ended up really enjoying it. The vibrant teacher. Ann Gresham, made it more than singing. She lured me back to the class every semester by saying, ‘If you want to know your real voice, you should come back next semester,’ because I was still mimicking.”

He credits touring music shows she created that he performed in at schools with honing his stage presence and sparking his interest in community outreach, which is the focus of his Opera Omaha Fellow work.

As much as he liked singing, he considered it a hobby, not a career path. He was still stuck on his USC dream . But his best-laid plans got disrupted after he sang a German song for his final.

“That song really changed my perception of what a singer is,” he said. “The way she had me learn this song was so deep and specific. It was not just learning and translating the words but relating it to the culture and why it was written and honoring the composer and the librettist for that poetry.

“At the end of the song I closed my eyes and repeated this phrase (lyric). I felt this energy. I opened my eyes and everybody was in tears. There was silence, then applause. It was just this beautiful experience.”

When the teacher asked to see him privately after class, he thought he’d somehow messed up.

“She asked, ‘You felt that in there, right?’ I said, ‘Yes.’  She said, ‘I know you’ve achieved what you wanted to at the school and you’re going to be moving on. I’m very proud of you. But I would not be doing my job if I didn’t ask you this,’ and she looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Do you want to be an opera singer? Because I can get you there. But it’s going to take a lot of work.’

“I was speechless because I never thought to be a singer. i remember, frozen, looking at her and saying. yes, but I didn’t consciously make a decision. She said great and told me about another college where the state would pay for my lessons. I just kind of nodded and walked away in shock.”

What he’d done didn’t sink in until he got home.

“Back in my room I yelled out, ‘What did I just do?’ Because the opportunity to realize my dream was right there in front of me. I worked really hard to get straight As. Counselors from USC and Rio Hondo made sure I met all the requisites. There it was and I just threw it away to become a singer.”

“But as soon as I yelled out, I felt this epiphany. In my mind I saw this blender with everything I was mixed in it and what poured out was opera singer. I just remember saying, ‘Okay, this is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.’ Like magic, the calling was there for me. I haven’t looked back since.”

He continued music studies at Cal-State Fullerton. The woman responsible for putting him on the path to opera, Ann Gresham, became his private instructor.

An unforgettable experience occurred at Cal-State in a production of The Merry Widow. For the first time. his whole family saw him perform, even grandpa Jesus, who disapproved of his choice to make a life in music.

“My grandfather was not on board with me being a singer because of his experience with the musician’s life. He worried I wouldn’t be able to support myself. I’ll never forget his face when I walked out after the performance. He was just crying. It completely changed his perception. That was impactful for me. Now my Papi Chuy is my biggest fan.

“To be able to convince him that way spoke volumes for how much conviction I have for what I do. He saw I was going to be successful.”

Jose, 29, paid homage to him when, in a gibberish rant his character The Baron makes, he inserted Spanish words in the middle of the German operetta.

From Cal-State, Maldonado went to Manhattan School of Music in New York, where he graduated with his master’s in May. He gave the school’s commencement address. At the ceremony he got to meet two music icons who received honorary degrees: Opera tenor Placido Domingo and Latin jazzman Paquito D’Rivera.

In July he played the lead in a production of Falstaff for the Martina Arroyo Foundation’s Prelude to Performance Opera Festival. Arroyo, a famous soprano, created the foundation to help emerging artists like Jose get professional opera experience.

Since starting his Omaha fellowship in August, he and his peer fellow  have engaged the community. They performed an outdoor concert at Turner Park. They’ve worked with the Learning Community Center of South Omaha and Nelson Mandela School. They performed at Buffett Cancer Center and Gallery 1516. They facilitated classes at the Omaha Conservatory of Music.

Jose is scheduled to perform with the Omaha Youth Symphony at an Omaha Area Youth Orchestras concert  on November 11 at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum.

Wherever he goes, he wants his story of defying expectations to inspire others.

“I didn’t come from a traditional classical background. I’m very proud to say I was made in America with Mexican parts. I’m very proud of my culture. But I’m also an individual, I’m an artist, and I don’t have to be bound by walls or comfort zones or perceptions or interpretations. If i can help shine that upon people and let them choose for themselves what’s possible for them, then I’m doing my job.

“I encourage anybody that feels restricted or limited to break those barriers. Part of it is taking responsibility to take the actions that you can create to step forward and to find those opportunities and angels in your life.”

He wants to continue giving back by creating a cruise line that operates as a business nine months out of the year and that holds an intense summer training program for performing and visual arts students.

“To be able to offer this summer training program completely free is a dream of mine,” he said.

He also aspires to sing with his hometown Los Angeles Opera and at Palacio de Bellas Artes, Teatro Degollado and Teatro Aguas Calientesin Mexico.

Meanwhile, he loves being an Opera Omaha Fellow because it allows him to give back.

“It’s exactly how I began in music. We don’t just come and sing. We build relationships with community partners, We meet their needs. We plant the seeds of opera and we also get to nurture those seeds.”

He appreciates, too, that the two-year fellowship provides professional development opportunities.

“We have coaching every week with Opera Omaha Head of Music Sean Kelly. On top of our salary we get a professional development stipend to use to have voice lessons. It’s inclusive of flights and accommodations. We budget that as we need to continue our growth as vocalists – honing technique and advancing skills

 

That’s something I really cherish. I feel valued not only as an ambassador but as an opera singer.”

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

Music is legacy and salvation for classical cowboy Hadley Heavin

September 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Music is legacy and salvation for classical cowboy Hadley Heavin

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the October 2018 issue of New Horizons

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

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

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

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

Musical roots

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

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

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

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

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

Losing himself in the war

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

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

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

“I saw base camp twice.”

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

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

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

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

He resents the morally bankrupt orders he followed.

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

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

Then there’s the physical toll.

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

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

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

Coming back to music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once in a lifetime opportunity

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

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

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

MSU has recognized Heavin as an honored alumnus.

Heavin leaned on tenZhthoff for more than funding.

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

Finding himself and his purpose

Pastor became his next mentor.

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

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

Heavin struggled with why he should be so fortunate.

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

It nagged at him the entire time he was there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can’t take life too seriously.”

Segundo Pastor

Second home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The cowboy thing

His escape from academia is still the outdoors.

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

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

He fell head over spurs for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin does concede that Heavin “rides pretty good.”

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

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

He doesn’t mince words about American adventurism.

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

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

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

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

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

Music educator

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

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

“I came to UNO in 1982.”

Combining performing with teaching is tough.

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

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

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

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

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

He also teaches older than average students.

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

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

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

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

and that’s from 40 years of teaching.

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

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

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

He recognizes Pastor’s teaching in his own instruction.

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

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

He rarely imparts the classical lineage he represents.

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

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

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

Heavin breaks it down for students.

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

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

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

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

Having it his way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training a horse and a person is not so different.

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

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

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

It’s been quite a ride.

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

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

 

Omaha blues man Hector Anchondo riding high

August 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Omaha blues man Hector Anchondo riding high

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carlos Santana was another “big influence.”

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

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

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

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

 

Stage Right became a second home.

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

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

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

The natural worked to hone his intuitive gifts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except maybe time.

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

Follow at hectoranchondo.com.

Visit http://www.InTheMarketForBlues.com.

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

 

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