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Women still calling the shots at the Omaha Star after 81 years


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Women still calling the shots at the Omaha Star after 81 years

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Native Omaha Days is a biennial, first-week-in-August nostalgia trip for current and former residents reliving the black-is-beautiful experience of their youth. Among the many touchstones of African-American life here is the newspaper serving that community, the Omaha Star.

From its 1938 founding by Mildred Brown, the paper’s continued a legacy of black women publishers and editors. When Brown died in 1989. niece Marguertia Washington took the helm. Upon her 2016 passing, Phyllis Hicks took the reins. With Hicks retiring in early 2019, Frankie Williams has assumed interim publisher-editor roles as the paper’s come under the ownership of the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center.

Brown’s matriarchal presence still looms large. The apartment-office she kept at the Star is a shrine in this National Register of Historic Places building. The loud. proud Brown was often the only woman present in the circle of power she convened there.

“She was performing in a man’s role,” Frankie Williams said,” and did it very well.”

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Brown’s trademark white carnation corsage was her calling card at myriad social-community events she made it her business to attend.

Scores of youth worked for her as carriers and sales staff. She paid for many young people’s education and mentored many others.

Paul Bryant credits “Aunt Millie” with supporting him through his “starving student” days. He came to admire her social entrepreneurship.

“Mildred Brown was a fighter who used intellect, tenacity and moral authority to win. She was a visionary trailblazer decades ahead of her time.”

In 1968 Frankie Williams sold ads and edited a teen page for the Star while a Central High School. She recalls Brown holding court.

“This was a gathering place for community leaders.” Williams said of the paper’s offices. When news broke of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, she witnessed a procession of leaders seek Brown out there. “It was such a solemn, somber experience, It was silence and then talking and then – where do we go from here. Mildred led the conversation. Hers was definitely a voice of reason. She was a thinker and strategist. I wouldn’t say calm, though, She was a very forceful person.”

Williams and others were on the receiving end of “tough conversations” with Brown.

“I remember the day she told me to order her carnation corsage. I decided she should have a pink one instead of the white. Well, that was something I got called back here for,” Williams said from that same back room. “She told me it wasn’t my decision to make.”

Terri Sanders, a board member of the Mildred Brown Center, grew up in awe of the regal Brown, whom she remembers as “someone to be admired that you could pattern yourself after working in the community.”

The paper’s heyday is long past as it struggles finding sustainability in this tenuous time for print media.

Williams aims to increase visibility. The paper held a July 27 gala screening of The Wiz at Bryant Park and will have a conspicuous display in the Native Omaha Days stroll and parade.

For Williams, heading up the Star is a “full-circle” event. Brown wanted Williams to one day succeed her. It was too far off and daunting a prospect for an 18-year-old to process then. After decades working in youth services in Atlanta and Omaha, Williams returned to the fold 11 years ago to assist Washington and Hicks.

“The paper started going through some really tough times. One of the staff resigned because Marguerita (Washington) just wasn’t able to make payroll,” Williams recalled. When Washington died, Hicks managed her estate. Thus, Williams assumed “more and more Star responsibilities.” Now that she’s in the post Brown groomed her for, she’s fully aware of being a steward.

“I am grateful to be here. I can’t be Mildred. nor would I try to be. The thing I can do is carry her torch and make sure the legacy lives on. I want to take care of it.”

She agrees with Terri Sanders “the paper’s in good hands” with the Study Center.

“There were a lot of people interested in purchasing it, and still are. But I’m happy it happened like this.” Williams said. “I would not have wanted it to go to someone who didn’t understand the legacy and would have no value in Mildred other than the name.”

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Sanders feels the Study Center board and Star staff share a mission. “Part of our job is to reacquaint or introduce people to the Omaha Star and why it is important.”

The Study Center awards scholarships, operates the Junior Journalist Program and feeds the Star interns.

“We’ve had several interns and scholarship recipients go on to do well,” said Sanders, including, most prominently, her own daughter Symone Sanders, a national Democratic Party consultant and news panelist.

Two generations earlier, Urban One founder Cathy Hughes got her media start with Brown, whose example inspired her own entrepreneurial drive.

Despite female-centric leadership. the paper’s been a vehicle for such strong male voices as Ernie Chambers, Matthew Stelly, Walter Brook and Leo Louis and the late Charles B. Washington.

“Mildred Brown’s desire was for the paper to thrive after her departure. I know she would be pleased the Star is still in print,” said Paul Bryant.

Reshon Dixon, who resides in Atlanta, is among the legion of native Omahans living elsewhere who still take the Star to stay connected with Black Omaha goings-on.

It’s how she keeps up with events and deaths.

Sustaining the paper on ad revenues and subscriptions alone is “never enough,” Williams said. “We’re just making enough to keep the doors open.”

Another revenue stream is the fee-based online archive

accessed by students, academics, historians and journalists across the nation, Sanders said.

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Williams aims to increase subscriptions by moving from a column-heavy, soft news pub to a harder news biweekly. “It’s a work in progress,” she said. “Everyone is feeling their way, but I feel assured everyone is working to enhance what we’ve done in the past.”

“Our advantage is we are a trusted source,” she said. “Being relevant is even more important to maintain credibility. One of the tag-lines Marguerita and Phyllis used is: we report positive news. But we’re doing a disservice if we’re not trying to educate and inform our readers. We need to report pertinent news. With the political climate the way it is, we would do a disservice to our community not to talk about the hard topics.

“We have the census and election coming up. It’s our responsibility to educate our community on how the candidates and census impact our lives. We have to be relevant. In the fall we’ll start featuring photos of murder victims whose killings have not been solved and of missing people of color. This stuff is going on around us and we cannot act like it’s not happening.”

Williams is ever conscious of legacy.

“When I make decisions I do think about how Mildred Brown would have handled this.”

Williams said the National Newspaper Publishers Association Brown helped form “takes pride that this is a paper founded by a female and led by females for 81 years.” She added, “It just has to continue like that. It would tarnish the legacy for it not to. It’s our responsibility to groom whoever is next.”

“Black women started it, black women have led it, and it is my hope that will continue throughout the life of the paper.” Sanders said. “To lose that would be to lose the flavor of what the Omaha Star is and was.”

“I think it is wonderful women still run the Star.” Bryant said. “My prayer is that they have as much impact on the community as Mildred Brown did. “

Reshon Dixon seconds the sentiment by saying the legacy is “a testimony to the community.”

Native Omahan Amber Ruffin, writer-performer on Late Night with Seith Meyers, said, “I love the fact the Star has been led by black women for its whole existence. It makes me feel proud to be a black Omahan.”

Williams feels the future is “bright.” She’s impressed by young North O leaders. Perhaps one of them will be the torchbearer taking the paper to its centennial.

“We have a pool of young people to mentor and to help along their journey, and hopefully when the time comes one of them will be able to step up.”

Visit https://theomahastar.com.

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

Street prophets and poets depict ‘A Day in the Life’ of the homeless in new play by Portia Love


 

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Portia Vivienne Love

 

Street prophets and poets depict ‘A Day in the Life’ of the homeless in new play by Portia Love

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

A new play by Omaha writer Portia Vivienne Love gives voice and face to a subject she has first-hand experience with – homelessness.

She actually wrote A Day in the Life before she was a resident of Stephen Center shelter in 2018. She wound up there, she said, through “life circumstances” that “could happen to anyone.” The reality of homelessness being only a crisis away for many average Americans is a key message of her work, which shows August  4 and 5 at B Side of Benson Theatre.

“I hope this play will help audiences see not all homeless people are at fault,” said Love, a poet. short story author and murder mystery novelist. “The majority of homeless people are not lazy. Many have mental health issues that perpetuate their homelessness.

“It is my wish everyone would spend one night in a shelter. A number of myths and misguided opinions about the homeless would be changed.”

Dispelling stereotypes is personal for Love, too, as she once regarded the homeless as shiftless bums unwilling to work. She even said so in the presence of a friend, who promptly schooled her on the myriad life situations that force folks to live on society’s margins.

“I was one of those people who said, ‘Why don’t they just get a job?’ I was an idiot.”

Her education took many forms. She worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor in Omaha and Los Angeles with clients recently released from prison. They introduced her to their challenge of making it on the outside amidst employment, education, housing and healthcare barriers.

As homelessness became a big story, she heard and read more tales of people’s struggles.

“I started to find out who these people were through their stories and it impacted me very strongly.”

Love’s wired to care for those in need. She invites into her home strangers to celebrate the holidays.

“I can’t stand to see people alone on the holidays. so I have them over my place. I get that from my mother. We always had somebody else living with us because she could not stand to see any child without.”

Love’s the daughter of the late Betty Love and Omaha musician great Preston Love Sr.  She sang with her father’s band. Her brothers Norman and Richie Love are also musicians. So is her half-sister Laura Love. Portia’s surname befits her nature.

“I have deep empathy for people. I just hate to see people hurting and going through some of the things they go through. I have a heart for people in crisis. I always have, I always will, and I’m glad I’m that way.”

Writing for her is also a matter of the heart.

“In every writing workshop I do, I say, ‘Write from the heart.’  You’re not going to affect anybody if you don’t write from the heart and with passion.”

She wrote A Day in the Life a decade ago. She didn’t set out to write it as a play. “But,” she said, “in the end the best way I thought to approach this was as a play and to have chatacters step forward to tell you what has happened in their life to make them homeless.

It remains her only play.

Though her own brush with homelessness is not specifically referenced, it resonates with real-life woes depicted in the drama.

“My play is about life circumstances creating homelessness,” she said, whether through loss of job, loved one, a divorce or medical emergency.

“In my case, both of my daughters were in transition. I was out here floundering and didn’t have a place to stay, so I was going from one friend’s house to my daughters’ house, and here and there. Then someone told me Stephen Center would help me get housing, so I called there. They didn’t have a bed that night but said they said to call in the morning. I did and they had a bed.

“It’s not a situation you want to be in. The feeling I had while there was, I have my own space, I’m not in  anybody’s way, and I’m going to follow the rules necessary for me to be here right now. The 6 p.m. curfew was hard for me.”

On the other hand, she loved “living with this group of people and learning their stories. “

Center staff helped find her a low-rent apartment.

The fact someone as accomplished as Love (she has bachelor’s and master’s degrees) found herself homeless is emblematic of her plays’s theme. It’s why she designed the piece with homeless characters emerging from a street crowded with people of every walk of life to reveal their truth.

“My play takes place on a street corner. People are on their way to work, to the store, and some step up to the front of the stage from the crowd to tell their story.”

The characters include men, women and children. Some adults lament lost careers and families. Others rue losing themselves to addiction. These street prophets and poets riff to the beat of distant drums. A poem Love wrote well before the play is the show’s first soliloquy. It speaks to shattered dreams and the dichotomy of so much want amidst so much plenty.

“I decided it needs to be in this play because it speaks to what this play is all about. I think it really captures people that live in ghettos and impoverished areas.”

Long after writing the play, Love intersected with homelessness in ways that gave a point of comparison.

“Once I had the experience of living in a homeless shelter under my belt, I went back to the play to see if it was realistic, and I was kind of amazed how on track I was. I don’t know how, but I was really on the money.”

She’s also compared notes by gauging what she with what she lived driving a van for a homeless ministry.

“I formed relationships with these homeless men.” she said. “They loved me because I treated them like people.”

Again, she discovered that she’d gotten it right.

Today, she doesn’t need to look far to find people adrift. “Down the street from where I live a lot of homeless people stand with signs.” She sometimes talks to them and shares a hot meal.

Satisfied she painted an accurate interpretation, she heeded a mandate B Side director Amy Ryan, also known for her big heart, gave to produce the play there. Love then reached out to Jessica Scheuerman, who ran the Carver Bank where she did a residency, to help fundraise and market. Love also got the Nebraska Writers Collective, for whom she’s done workshops, to serve as her fiscal agent.

Casting the show, Love wanted authenticity, not training.

“I didn’t want actors. I wanted people who feel these parts because they’ve been there, identify with it, and will make the audience feel it. In readings and rehearsals it’s been powerful to see them execute their parts. Several people were silent after reading their parts before sharing how what’s in the script resonated with something that happened in their lives.”

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D. Kevin William, among the few professional actors in the piece, delivers the” Under the Rainbow” speech.

“He just captures all the right rhythms and inflections and feelings,” Love said.

Prepping the play has consumed most of Love’s time. It’s taken her away from marketing her new book of poetry, That’s All I Have to Say. She leads youth and adult writing workshops. When not writing for publication, she creates original works of art with her poems and sells them through her own Just Write 4 Me.

But for now, the play’s the thing.

“My whole focus has been on this and I don’t want to take the focus off. This play has been such a weight on my heart. I am so glad I finally have the opportunity to share it.”

Shows are at 7 p.m. at the B Side, 6054 Maple Street.

Tickets are $15. Bring a food or clothing donation for a $1 ticket discount at the door. Proceeds and donations will benefit Stephen Center, Siena Francis House and MICAH House.

Follow the writer at https://www.facebook.com/portia.v.love.

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

North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) presents An Arts Crawl 8


North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) presents An Arts Crawl 8

Who: North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA)

What: Annual Arts Crawl

When: Friday, August 9 from 6 to 9 pm.

Where: North 30th Street Corridor in North Omaha

Why: For the love of art and community

How: Walk it or drive it

 

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North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) presents An Arts Crawl 8

North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) concludes its 2019 season with the Arts Crawl from 6 to 9.p.m. on Friday, August 9 with exhibitions and demonstrations on and off the North 30th Street Corridor.

This progressive art exhibition right in the heart of North Omaha is a family-friendly community event. It is free of charge. The Arts Crawl is in its eighth year after taking a hiatus last year.

Whether you walk it or drive it, the NOSA Arts Crawl has something for everyone between six venues encompassing ethnic folk art, icons, quilts, paintings, drawings, photographs and sculpture. The makers include immigrant and refugee artists and Native American artists as well as emerging and established African-American artists from the North O community. Works by adult and youth artists will be featured.

At some venues, artists will make work and describe their process. Live music and dance add to the mix at other venues. It’s a chance to meet artists. purchase work and learn about under the radar talents.

If you work up an appetite and need to quench your thirst, there’s finger food and refreshments, on the house, at each stop.

The venues are: 

Charles B. Washington Branch Library

2868 Ames Avenue (Just east of 30th and Ames)

Kicking things off is a 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. opening reception that showcases an exhibition of handmade quilts by the Omaha group, Quilters We Are.

Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha Campus

30th and Fort Streets

Building 21 (The Mule Barn) – Expanding the Circle” exhibition features art by Native American students and their mentors.

Building 23 (Career and Academic Skills Center) – An exhibition displaying MCC’s collection of art.from various African nations.

Church of the Resurrection

3004 Belvedere Blvd. (30th and Kansas)

Noted Icon artist Jane Tan Creti of Omaha will be on hand to display her work and to educate about the meaning and making of icons.

Nelson Mandela School

6316 North 30th Street (30th and Curtis)

View works by adult artists and by Nelson Mandela students.

Trinity Lutheran Church/Heartland Family Service

6340 North 30th Street (30th and Redick)

An exhibition of contemporary and traditional art by established and emerging artists, including work from members of refugee communities in Omaha.

Check out the Arts Crawl Facebook event page.

Follow NOSA at https://www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts.

Join Friends Who Like North Omaha Summer Arts at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1012756932152193,

For more information, call NOSA director Pamela Jo Berry at 402-502-4669.

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North Omaha Summer Arts is a completely free, community-based arts festival now in its ninth year. It includes a gospel concert in the park, writing workshops and retreats, pop-up art events, and the Arts Crawl. The festival runs from June through mid-August. NOSA founder and director Pamela Jo Berry is a North Omaha resident, mixed-media artist and art educator.

 

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.

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


Image result for NOSA north omaha summer arts

 

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.

Commemorating Black History Month – Links to North Omaha stories (Part IV of four-part series)


Commemorating Black History Month

Links to North Omaha stories from 1998 through 2018

 

 
Articles on social justice, civil rights, race, history, faith, family, community, business, politics. education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera

A weekly four-part series

Final week: Part IV – Soul food and soul sports

 

https://leoadambiga.com/2019/01/16/the-long-road-to…ear-as-a-bluejay

Charles Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/10/onepeachof-a-pitcherpeaches…
 

 

Local Black Filmmakers Showcase: Next up – short films by Jason Fischer on Tuesday, March 5 at 6 p.m.


Local Black Filmmakers Showcase

A February-March 2019 film festival @ College of Saint Mary, 7000 Mercy Road

6 p.m. | Gross Auditorium in Hill Macaluso Hall

Featuring screen gems by Omaha’s own Omowale Akintunde and Jason Fischer

Support the work of these African-American community-based cinema artists

 

Next up – three short films by Jason Fischer

Screening on Tuesday, March 5:

•The art film “I Do Not Use” pairs searing, symbolic images to poet Frank O’Neal’s incendiary words.

•The documentary “Whitney Young: To Become Great” uses the civil rights leader’s life as a model for kids and adults to investigate what it takes to be great.

•And the award-winning “Out of Framed: Unseen Poverty in the Heartland” documents people living on the margins in Omaha.

 

Screenings start at 6 p.m.

Followed by Q & A with the filmmaker moderated by Leo Adam Biga.

Tickets and parking are free and all films are open to the public.

For more information, call 402-399-2365.

Still to come – a screening of Omowale Akintunde’s award-winning documentary “An Inaugural Ride to Freedom” about a group of Omahans who traveled by bus to the first Obama inauguration. Plus a bonus documentary on the second Obama inauguration. Followed by Q&A with the filmmaker moderated by Leo Adam Biga. Date and time to be determined. Watch for posts announcing this wrap-up program in the Local Black Filmmakers Showcase.

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