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Omaha’s Love Family hosts celebration and street naming for Preston Love Sr.


Omaha’s Love Family hosts celebration and street naming for Preston Love Sr.

Friday, July 13

6 p.m.

24th and Lake

Preston Love Sr. Street

Speakers to include John Beasley and Curly Martin sharing stories about the late jazz musician, composer, arranger, band leader, educator, commentator and author. Preston Love Sr. was a charter member of the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, the namesake of Loves Jazz & Arts Center and the author of the critically acclaimed memoir “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later.”

Musical tribute concert immediately following at Loves Jazz & Arts Center by some of Omaha’s finest artists. Featuring songs performed and loved by Preston Love.

$7 donation

ON A PERSONAL NOTE:

When I began writing about North Omaha’s African-American community 20 years ago or so, Preston Love Sr. was one of the first persons I reached out to. He became a source for the and the subject of many of those early stories. He was a wise and loquacious sage with a real sense of history about his music, his people and his community.

The first article I got published in a national magazine was about Preston.

A good share of my work about him appeared around the time of the release of his long-in-the-making and highly regarded memoir, “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later.”

Upon his death, I was asked to write an in memoriam piece for The Reader.

A few years ago, I wrote a new piece compiled from my many stories about him, and read it at Loves Jazz before a packed house.

I have also written some about his son Preston Love Jr. and his daughters Portia Love and Laura Love.

Whether you knew the man and his legacy or not, here is a list of articles I featured him in that hopefully provide a fair representation of the man and the artist:

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/05/05/preston-love-a-t…late-hepcat-king/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/03/preston-love-192…ed-at-everything

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/03/omaha-blues-and-…end-preston-love

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/03/preston-love-his…l-not-be-stilled

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/03/mr-saturday-night

There are several more stories in which I quoted him about everything from Native Omaha Days to soul food or referenced him in relationship to North Omaha’s live music scene and the area’s attempted revitalization.

 

Preston Love: A Tribute to Omaha’s Late Hepcat King

May 5, 2016 2 comments

Here is a tribute to the late Preston Love Sr. I culled together from various stories I wrote about him over the last decadeof his life. I actually read this as part of an event at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center named after him in his hometown of Omaha, with whom he had a complicated relationship.

 

Preston Love: A Tribute to Omaha’s Late Hepcat king

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

An early January evening at the Bistro finds diners luxuriating in the richly textured tone and sweetly bended notes of flutist-saxophonist Preston Love Sr., the eternal Omaha hipster…

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

Love lives for moments like these, when his band really grooves and the crowd really digs it:

“There’s no fulfillment…like playing in a great musical environment. It’s spiritual. It’s everything. Anything less than that is unacceptable. If you strike that responsive chord in an audience, they’ll get it too – with that beat and that feeling and that rhythm. Those vibes are in turn transmitted to the band, and inspire the band.”

For him, music never gets tired, never grows old. More than a livelihood, it’s his means self-expression, his life, his calling.

Music’s sustained during a varied career. Whether rapping with the audience in his slightly barbed, anecdotal way or soaring on a fluid solo, this vibrant man and consummate musician is totally at home on stage.

Love’s let-it-all-hang-out persona is matched by his tell-it-like-it-is style as a music columnist, classroom lecturer and public radio host. He fiercely champions jazz and blues as significant, distinctly African-American art forms and cultural inheritances. This direct inheritor and accomplished interpreter feels bound to protect its faithful presentation and to rail against its misrepresentation.

His autobiography, “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later,” gave him his largest forum and career capstone.

“It’s my story and it’s my legacy to my progeny.”

He’s long criticized others appropriating the music from its black roots and reinventing it as something it’s not.

“It’s written in protest. I’m an angry man. I started my autobiography…in dissatisfaction with whats transpired in America in the music business and, of course, with the racial thing that’s still very prevalent. Blacks have almost been eliminated from their own art. That’s unreal. False. Fraudulent.

“They’re passing it off as something it isn’t. It’s spurious jazz. Synthetic. Third-rate. Others are going to play our music, and in many cases play it very well. We don’t own any exclusivity on it. But it’s still black music, and all the great styles, all the great developments, have been black, whether they want to admit it or not. So why shouldn’t we protect our art?

“When you muddy the water or disturb the trend or tell the truth even, you make people angry, because they’d rather leave the status quo as it is. But I’m not afraid of the repercussions. I will fight for my people’s music and its preservation.”

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

Love feels his far-flung experience uniquely qualifies him to address the American black music scene of his generation.

“The fact that mine’s been a different, unlikely and multifaceted career is why publishers became interested in my book.”

From a young age, he heard the period’s great black performers on the family radio and phonograph and hung-out on then teeming North 24th Street to catch a glimpse and an autograph of visiting artists playing the fabled Dreamland Ballroom and staying at nearby rooming houses and hotels.

“Twenty-fourth street was the total hub of the black neighborhood here. This street abounded with great players of this art form.”

By his teens, he was old enough to see his idols perform at the Orpheum and Dreamland.

“All of the great black geniuses of my time played that ballroom. Jazz was all black then…and here were people you admired and worshiped, and now you were standing two feet from them and could talk to them and hear their artistry. To hear the harmony of those black musicians, with that sorrowful, plaintive thing that only blacks have, and a lot of blacks don’t get it. That pain in their playing. That indefinable, elusive blue note. That’s what jazz is.

“The Benny Goodmans and those guys never got it.”

The music once heard from every street corner, bar, restaurant, club has been silenced or replaced by discordant new sounds.

That loss hurts Love because he remembers well when Omaha was a major music center, supporting many big bands and clubs and drawing musicians from around the region. It was a launching ground for him and many others.

“This was like the Triple A of baseball for black music. The next stop was the big leagues.”

He regrets many young blacks are uninformed about this vital part of their heritage.

“If I were to be remembered for some contribution, it would be to remind people what’s going on today with the black youth and their rap…has nothing to do with their history. It’s a renunciation of their true music — blues, rhythm and blues and jazz.”

He taught himself to play, picking up pointers from veteran musicians and from masters whose recordings he listened to “over and over again.” Late night jam sessions at the Blue Room and other venues were his proving ground, He began seeing music as a way out.

“There was no escape for blacks from poverty and obscurity except through show business. I’d listen to the radio’s late night coast-to-coast broadcasts of those great bands and go to sleep and just dream of going to New York to play the Cotton Club and dream of playing the Grand Terrace in Chicago. I dreamed of someday making it – and I did make it. Everything else in my life would be anticlimactic, because I realized my dream.”

He made himself an accomplished enough player that Count Basie hired him to play with his band.

“I had the natural gift for sound – a good tone – which is important. Some people never have it. I was self-motivated. No one had to make me practice…And being good at mathematics, I was able to read music with the very least instruction.”

Music keeps him youthful. He’s no “moldy fig,” the term boppers coined to describe musicians out-of-step with the times.

He burns with stage presence with his insouciant smile and his patter between sets that combines jive, scat and stand-up. Then there’s his serious side. He coaxes a smooth, bittersweet tone from the sax and flute developed over a lifetime.

If nothing else, he’s endured, surviving fads and changing musical tastes, adapting from the big band swing era to Motown to funk. He’s risen above the neglect he felt in his own hometown to keep right on playing and speaking his mind.

“I refuse to be an ancient fossil or an anachronism, I am eternally vital. I am energetic, indefatigable. It’s just my credo and the way I am as a person.”

A Soul Man to the end.

“I think the term ‘soul’ was first applied to us as a people to describe the feeling of our expressions and attitudes and language. It means a lot of heart and a depth of feeling. It refers to the pathos in our expression, musically and colloquially.”

He says a genius for spontaneity is a hallmark of blacks in creative endeavors — from music and dancing to cooking.

“The limitations we lived under gave birth to these embellishments and improvisations. That’s what we did. We were masters of embellishment.”

He left his hometown many times, but always came back. Back to where his dream first took flight and came true. Back to the mistress – music – that still holds him enthralled. To be our conscience, guide, inspiration.

That January night at the Bistro, a beaming Love, gold horn slung over one shoulder, tells his audience, “I love this. I look forward coming to work. Preston Love’s an alto player, and you want to hear him play alto, right? Listen to this.” Supplying the downbeat, he fills the room with the golden strain of “Mr. Saturday Night.” Play on, Mr. Saturday Night, play on.

Soon Come: Neville Murray’s passion for Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its role in rebirthing North Omaha

August 28, 2011 9 comments

The Loves Jazz & Arts Center in North Omaha is a symbol for the transition point that this largely African-American area is poised at – as decades of neglect are about to be impacted by a spate of major redevelopment. LJAC and some projects directly to the south of it along North 24th Street represented steps in the right direction but since then little else has happened in the way of renewal. Development efforts farther south, east, and west had little or no carryover effect. The subject of this story however is not so much the LJAC as it is its former director, Neville Murray, who was very much the director when I did this piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about three years ago. Murray expressed, just as his successor does today, the hope that the center would serve as anchor and catalyst for a boom in new activity in the area. The center never really realized that goal, but it still could. Murray is a passionate man, artist, and arts administrator with an interesting perspective on things since he’s not from Omaha originally. Indeed, he’s a native Jamaican. But as he explains right at the top of my story, he identifies closely with the African-American experience here and he’s committed to making a difference in the Omaha African-American community – one that’s been waiting a long time for change. If it’s up to him, it will soon come.

Soon Come: Neville Murray’s passion for Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its role in rebirthing North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

“I’m an artist, first and foremost. I think everything else is just kind of a reflection of the art,” said Neville Murray, director of the Loves Jazz & Arts Center (LJAC), 2510 North 24th Street in Omaha. He came to the States in 1975 from his native Jamaica on a track scholarship that saw him compete for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’s made America and Nebraska his second home, but  it is the north Omaha African American community the center serves where his heart lies.

“I consider myself African-American,” he said. “North Omaha is such a tremendous culture. There’s so much talent and there’s so much need. If we can just inspire kids to become artists or to becomeinvolved in the arts or to realize the role the arts can play in their lives…

“We’re really trying to change the dynamic by bringing world class arts programming to north Omaha and to bring in art one would not ordinarily see. Art is a catalyst for change. We’ve seen it downtown. And we think this can be a catalyst for change in our community.”

During a recent interview in the center conference room, which doubles as a storage space with stacks of art works leaning against the walls, he alluded to the year-and-a-half-old LJAC as trying to separate itself from “other organizations in the community” that have failed. The center’s “state of the art facility” is a big start. Another is his long track record as an administrator with the Nebraska Arts Council (NAC), where he worked prior to opening the center in 2005. Well-versed in grant writing and well-connected to the art world, he’s determined to avoid the pitfalls.

“We have to be at a different level in terms of our 501C3 meeting certain criteria with accountability (for programs and grants) and ownership of collections,” he said. “We have to set high standards. For me it’s critical we operate at a high level because of the history of some things.” When asked if he meant the troubled Great Plains Black History Museum a block to the east, he confirmed he did. He said that other venue’s long-standing problems of unarchived materials, unrealized repairs, unpolitic moves and unanswered questions stem from ineffective governance.

“It can’t be a hand-picked board. It needs to be a real board,” he said. “We have a great, pro-active, eight-member board.” The LJAC also has ongoing Peter Kiewit Foundation support. Even with that the center operates on the margin, with revenues coming chiefly from rental fees and grants rather than its light walk-in traffic. Murray was a one-man band for months after his only staffer resigned, leaving him doing everything from curating exhibits to cleaning floors. A Kiewit grant’s made possible the hiring of a new assistant. Still, he acknowledges problems — from the phone not always being manned to the doors not always being open during normal visiting hours to inadequate marketing and membership campaigns.

 

Loves Jazz & Arts Center

 

 

 

“I wear many different hats. There’s only so much you can do. It’s frustrating,” he said. “That has been an issue, you bet. I think that’s just part of our growing pains. Hopefully, that will resolve itself at some point in time. I’m not going to be here forever, but I want to make sure I put in place processes that can ensure the success of this institution into the future.”

Another barrier the center faces is one of identity and image. Some assume its solely focused on the legacy of Preston Love or a venture of the late musicians’s family. Neither is true. Others think it’s primarily a performance space when in fact it’s an exhibition/education space. Still others confuse it as a social service site. None of it deters him. “Ultimately, the goal for this institution is to be one of just a handful of accredited African American arts institutions” in America, he said.

The center grew out of many discussions Murray engaged in with members of the African American community. “We’d been meeting for years with a variety of folks about the need for an institution such as this in north Omaha,” he said.

Murray got to know greater Nebraska and north Omaha in particular as the NAC’s first multicultural coordinator in the 1990s. His work today at the LJAC is a natural extension of how his personal journey as an artist and arts administrator evolved to embrace his own Jamaican identity, the wider African American experience and the need to create more recognition and opportunities for fellow artists of color.

“It enriched me so much being able to travel all over Nebraska and work with indigenous folks to promote the arts,” he said. “To be able to work with different cultures, Latino and American Indian cultures, really inspired me, not just as an artist but in terms of my awareness. I began to realize the arts play a critical role in cultural development. A culture without art is dead. Art is what makes us human.”

Besides, he fell in love with the state’s wide open spaces, variable topography, classic seasons and Northern Hemispheric light. “Nebraska’s such a beautiful state. If you drive straight from here to Colorado you don’t see it. But if you go just a few miles north of I-80 you’re in the Sand Hills and the vistas are just magnificent,” said Murray, whose paintings reflect his “love of nature” in iconic earth-tone images of the Great Plains or pastel seascapes of his tropical homeland.

He came to the NAC at a crucible time. His newly formed post was a response to protests over inequitable funding for artists of color. Inequity extended to museums/galleries, where works about and by black artists were absent, and to academia, where, he said, art textbooks at UNL failed to mention one of its own, grad Aaron Douglas, famed “illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance.”

Murray’s experience working with Nebraska’s Ponca population in their effort to be reinstated within the greater Ponca Tribe reflected his own sense of dislocation from his roots and the severing African Americans feel from their heritage.

“The Ponca had to relearn their traditions, so the NAC helped them get the grant funding to network back with the Southern Ponca down in Oklahoma to rediscover their dances and cultural traditions,” he said. “If as a tribe you’re cut off you lose a sense of your identity. I can relate to that because there was a period in my life  when I can say I was kind of embarrassed at some of my rural upbringing. My grandmother used to walk five miles to market. People come from all over up in the mountains and bring their wares. Colors everywhere. Fruits of every ilk. Wonderful old stories. It took me a while to really appreciate all that. Now I look at it as a treasure and something we’re losing rapidly in the islands, I might add.”

“As black folks we’ve lost a sense of our identity. We’re confused. We don’t understand a lot of our traditions, even what tribes we come from. All of that was lost with slavery. Slavery’s had such a critical roles in our lives. It’s almost like we’re brand new,” he said. “Our whole life is a search, a journey for identity.”

Today, there’s more emphasis on black heritage and black art. “I think there’s much greater appreciation for art and artistic expression,” he said. “It’s not unusual to see artists of color in Art News now or other major art publications.”

Despite inroads, the place black artists hold in their own community and in the wider sphere of life is a work in progress. “It seems as black artists we’re always trying to validate ourselves. A few will come through. The flavor of the day, so to speak,” he said. “But as artists of color we we’re so often stigmatized. We have to get beyond that and recognize our art as an expression of our culture. We have a tendency in our community to look at arts as only recreation or extracurricular.”

His own ground breaking path reflects the possibilities for artists of color today. “I’ve kind of been doing a lot of things that hadn’t been done before,” he said. He was one of the first state multicultural coordinators in the nation. He pioneered the use of digital technology for Nebraska-curated shows. He organized the first comprehensive touring exhibit of contemporary Jamaican art with the 2000 Soon Come: The Art of Contemporary Jamaica. The project took him to parts of the island he’d never visited and introduced him to its diverse spectrum of artists.

He continues to celebrate art and to explore “what does it mean to be an artist of color?” at the LJAC, where he’s brought exhibits by renowned artists Frederick Brown, Faith Ringgold and Ibiyinka. In late November paintings from the Revival Series of noted artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes opens. The LJAC will publish its first catalogue for the show.

On display from time to time is work by local artists like Wanda Ewing, whose images deal with being a woman of color. It hosts regular art classes for adults/kids and occasional lectures/workshops. In keeping with its historic, symbol-laden location, the LJAC presents socially relevant programs, such as a History of Omaha Jazz panel held this year and the current Freedom Journey civil rights exhibit. All around the center, businesses flourished, streets teemed, marches proceeded, riots burned and hot jazz sessions played out. In a nod to political awareness, activist Angela Davis will appear there November 11.

Murray’s penchant for technology is evident in interactive stations/kiosks. An oral history project he’s doing with the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he also studied, documents, in high def video, the lives/stories of older African American residents. The materials will inform a documentary about the history of black Omaha and its music heritage. The archived interviews will be available to scholars. He looks forward to curating a new exhibit around a group of photos from a local collector that record some of the earliest images of local African American life. A selection from the LJAC permanent collection displays photos of early African American scenes and moments from the career of namesake Preston Love.

Murray’s also in discussions for the LJAC to be an outreach center for New York’s Lincoln Center. “I’m really excited about that,” he said. “That gives us an opportunity to bring in some coeducational programming and performances.” It’s all about his trying to engage people with art in news ways. He said, “I would hope I bring a certain creativity to this position as an artist.”

He knows he and the center will be judged by their longevity. “You have to have a period of time when people can see if you’re going to be here for a while,” he said.” “I think folks feel good about we’re doing. I think people realize my heart is in the right place. I have a love of this community and the culture. It’s a huge challenge. It’s a big responsibility. But it’s been a wonderful experience.”

Cool Cat Billy Melton and the Sportin’ Life

July 1, 2010 2 comments

Cropped screenshot of Count Basie and his band...

Image via Wikipedia

The late Billy Melton began as a source for my writing-reporting on aspects of African-American culture in Omaha and he ended up being a friend.   Like my late father, Billy was a World War II veteran.  Some 35 years my senior.  As a black man from an earlier generation Billy lived a very different life than I had as a white Baby Boomer, yet he never made those differences a barrier in our relationship.  Rather, he used his life experience as an instructional point of departure for sharing lessons he’d learned. There were many.

I quoted Billy in several stories I wrote over the years.  One of these stories, Omaha’s Sweet Sixteen, focused on the Quartermaster battalion he served in during the war.  You can find that article on this blog site under the Military and African American categories or by doing a search with the key words, “Sweet Sixteen” or “Billy Melton.”  The site also contains a piece, Puttin’ on the Ritz, that tells the story of the black owned and operated cab company Billy drove for, Ritz Cab. Search for the article by its title or in the African-American and Entrepreneurial categories.

The article presented here, Sportin’ Life, explores Billy’s passion and one might say magnificent obsession with music, and more specifically, with collecting it.  Through his friendship with the late jazz musician Preston Love, Billy got to meet several jazz legends, which resulted in signed photos of these icons.  He was in his early 80s when I did tise piece and he was much concerned about what would happen to his massive collection of records, tapes, and memorabilia when he was gone.  He tried finding an institution that would accept the many thousands of items meticulously shelved and displayed in his basement.  Though there was much interest, he could never secure a deal because he wanted compensation in return for the collection, and the museum officials he talked with didn’t have an acquisitions budget that could accommodate his demands.  He also wanted assurance his collection would be kept on view and made accessible for the the general public, which was another condition officials found hard to make any promises about given the size of Billy’s collection.

Billy passed before anything was done with his collection.  It still occupies the basement of the home he and his widow shared.  Martha would like nothing more than to carry out Billy’s wishes and find a permanent repository for the collection. I’ve also has the distinct pleasure of getting to know his granddaughter, Carleen Brice, a fine novelist you’ll find my blog posts about on this site.

photo

Dreamland Ballroom

 

Cool Cat Billy Melton and the Sportin’ Life

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The sportin’ life is what Billy Melton’s lived the better part of his 82 years. This party animal has haunted the best night clubs and after hours spots from here to Philadelphia. He’s seen the great entertainers perform. Wherever he’s gone, he’s hobnobbed with friends and stars. And, always, music — the subject of a lifetime collecting hobby — has been part of the action.

“I loved the social life. I had so many great friends out there. I was out roaming around the country, drinking, gambling, enjoying the single man’s life. All the time, adding to my collection and getting enjoyment out of music,” he said.

Even after settling down as a family man, music remained his overriding interest. But it’s more than that for this gregarious man. “Music’s a passion of mine. I love it. I love it all. And I’ve collected it all,” said Billy. No where is his ardor expressed more than in the distinctive musical notes detailing on his silver Chevy Caprice and in the showplace and archive he’s made his home. His modest Omaha residence houses a music collection of staggering size and breadth. He hopes it goes to a museum.

The music room in his basement is a glittering, overstuffed assemblage of music collectibles, novelties, instruments, records, tapes, eight-tracks, photos, posters, album covers and books. One of his two prized juke boxes sits there. Every inch of the floor, wall and ceiling is adorned with a musical motif, whether tiles decorated by music symbols or CDs hanging like Christmas ornaments. Another juke box shares space in an adjoining room with the washer and dryer. The bulk of the collection rests in a specially-built room just off the attached garage. Here, a maze of stacks, bins, trees and shelves hold tens of thousands of LPs, 45s, discs and tapes that encompass a world of musical styles, periods and performers, but with a special emphasis on jazz, blues, soul and Motown.

There are collections within the larger collection, including extensive, if not complete, sets of recorded works by such artists as Count Basie, his No. 1 idol.

Where It All Began
The Omaha Technical High School graduate traces the spark of his passion to the Kansas Vocational School he attended two years in Topeka, Kansas. There, in the late 1930s, he first listened to the seductive sounds of great musical artists, black and white alike. In fact, his original collection began with a Bing Crosby platter. Back in Omaha, where Billy was born and raised, his family was too poor to afford a radio. In Topeka, he scrounged up enough scratch to buy himself, first, a crystal set and, then, a Philco radio, which he listened to late at night in his dorm room. Picking up broadcasts from as far away as Chicago and New York that featured the great swing, jazz and blues bands of the day, he was hooked. “We listened to that music every night,” he said. “It just sounded so good.”

The Metropolitan Hall in Topeka is where he first saw Basie. The experience made him a fan for life. “I loved his music and his dynamic personality. He just lit up the house. He took it to another level. If you don’t like his music…” Well, then, let’s just say you’re not copacetic in Billy’s eyes.

As a young hep cat, Billy immersed himself in the music of the day. He fell for Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Lunceford, Gene Ammons, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Jackie Wilson, Billy Eckstein, The Inkspots and others. “So many great talents. After I set to collecting these artists, I made it a point to go see them,” he said.” That early taste of Basie whet his appetite for more. He caught Basie, Ellington, Calloway, Hampton, Cole, Charles, et all, performing live on Omaha’s then-jumping live music strip on North 24th Street and at its many downtown theaters.

“As far as the big bands,” he said, “we didn’t have to go to Kansas City. They were right here in Omaha. Twenty fourth and Lake was nothing but music. Did you hear what I said? This was a fun-loving, musical town. We knew how to party.”

In Omaha, Jimmy Jewell’s Dreamland Ballroom was the mecca. “Oh, you had to go to the Dreamland.” Ask who he saw there, and he retorts, “Who didn’t I see there?” In a scrapbook, he has ticket stubs from some of the countless nights he let his hair down there in the ‘50s. The names read: Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Johnny Otis, Wynonie Harris, the Orioles and the Nat Towles territory band. “Sometimes, I’d stand there with my mouth wide open watching those guys perform.”

Jewell, Billy said, “knew music,” and had connections to book whistlestop gigs by touring performers traveling between K.C. and Chicago. As often noted by the late jazz musician and author Preston Love, who was a close friend of Billy’s, Omaha was ideally situated to attract top entertainers due to its central location, the presence of five major booking agencies and a happening live music scene.

The music wasn’t just confined to the Dreamland, either. “Musicians got together and jammed…every night. Local musicians and out of town musicians. Even the big names — Lionel Hampton and all those guys. After they’d get done playing, they’d come out north to the bars and after hours places and jam,” Billy said. Those informal improv sessions unfolded at juke joints named the Apex, the Blue Room, the M & M, Bob and Mary’s Chicken Hut, the Showcase and the Backstreet. “The whites used to come out here and enjoy that,” he said.

Big Fat Swingin’ Fun
When not hitting night spots, Billy hosted them. He and the late Nate Mills ran a gambling emporium out of different North O sites. His partner had the bar and Billy the dice and card games. The illicit thing finally grew old. Too many raids. Too many knives and guns pulled on him. “I ran into some ticklish situations where it was life and death. Finally, it got to the point where I said, ‘I’m going to have to roll away. It’s not worth it.’ And I pulled out.” Besides, he’d married “a church lady,” the former Martha Hall, who only tolerated his hijinks so much. Together now 52 years, the couple entertained like nobody’s business. It was always open house at their place for the steady stream friends and relatives passing through town.

Native Omaha Days found the couple throwing an epic bash. Jukeboxes played outside, where partygoers danced, liquor flowed and laughter resounded. Stories grew embellished with each round. Martha’s home made soul food fed the throng.

“It was a music thing,” he said. “Everybody just wanted to hear music.”

His memories of these high times always include “the people we shared them with” and the music they digged together. Music is associated with virtually all the fun in Billy’s life. By the time he and Martha were hitched, they began traveling the country, by car, for vacations that lasted three to six weeks at a time. Their itinerary might include such hot spots as Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Wherever they went, they had friends, and whenever they could, they caught music acts at swank clubs or partied the nights away at after hours joints.

Sports, another spectator’s-collector’s passion of Billy’s, was usually part of the mix, as the couple took in a pro baseball or football game here. Billy saw play, in their prime, such major league baseball greats as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie McCovey. He saw National Football League legend Johnny Unitas quarterback the Baltimore Colts versus the Detroit Lions. In his own expansive backyard, where a hoop was set up, athletic prodigies — from Gale Sayers to Marlin Briscoe to Johnny Rodgers — strutted their stuff in pick up games. Bob Boozer and Oscar Robertson visited.

But Billy wasn’t home long. When not working two jobs, as a Union Station janitor by day and Ritz cabbie by night, he prowled the night — indulging in games of chance. He was also a shoe shiner, messenger, mail handler, waiter and bell hop. The extra dough supported his wife and three kids and underwrote his fun. “You can’t smoke cigars, drink, gamble, travel, raise three kids and help grandkids through college on an ordinary salary. Working two jobs still wasn’t enough for the life I wanted to live,” said Billy, whose gambling earnings made up the difference. “I could always hustle some money. God gave me that energy to fulfill my dreams.”

He was also fortunate to have a friend, John Goodwin, and brother-in-law, Charles Hall, whose Fair Deal Cafe was a fixture on North 24th, he could go to for loans.

Doin’ the Town
Traveling’s no luxury, but a lifestyle component for Billy, who “just can’t sit at home.” He and Martha drove old Highway 6, en route to Chicago, via Des Moines, where they got down with friends. In ChiTown, they hooked up for a ball game at Wrigley Field before a night on the town. “They knew when we got there we were ready to have fun. That’s what it was all about,” he said. One north side spot they hit was the Archway Lounge, owned by “Killer” Johnson. “We’d almost spend all our money in Chicago before we got to Detroit.”

Doin’ it up right, he, Martha and Co. dressed to the nines for pricey outings. “Once, we went to the most exclusive place in Chicago — the Blue Note. Lionel Hampton was playing. By the time we paid the cover, ordered a round of drinks and had our pictures taken, we’d spent $80. It takes money to live.” At his irrepressible best, Billy sauntered over to Hampton to request a favorite tune, “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” During a break in his set, Hampton joined the Meltons’ table, which Billy has a picture of, before returning to the band stand. After recognizing the Omaha party, he proceeded to play a jumpin’ rendition of the song.

Ebullient Billy has never been shy approaching celebrities. After shows, Basie  (“regular”), Calloway (“jovial”) and Hampton (“nice”) joined Billy and his bunch into the wee hours. Comedian turned-activist Dick Gregory “stayed up all night” with Billy’s crew. Billy cozied up to boxing legends Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Frazier. He’s got autographs of countless stars from the worlds of entertainment and athletics, with most of the signatures scrawled on $1 bills.

Native Omaha Club, photo by Lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

Once, at a surprise birthday bash for his wife, he got comedian Red Foxx, then appearing in Omaha, to stop by. “He was the life of the party,” Billy said. “Down and dirty.” Billy’s penchant for music gained him entree into some privileged ranks. Preston Love arranged for Billy and Martha to attend private parties headlined by Count Basie and Fats Domino on the same night. “That was the most exhilirating night.” On one occasion, Love, a sideman with Basie in the ‘40s, brought Basie over Billy’s house. A photograph recording the visit hangs in Billy’s music room. Another time, Love had Billy join he and the Count on stage at the Orpheum Theater.

“Everybody knew I loved music,” Billy said, “and it led to lots of connections.” He even carried some of his music along with him on road trips in response to friends asking that he bring certain recordings they liked.

A Collector’s Dream
His collecting began in 1939. By the time he went off to serve in the all-black 530th Quartermaster Battalion in World War II, his holdings were significant. After tours of duty in North Africa, Italy — where he and his GI buddies enjoyed operas — and the Pacific, he returned home, only to find his albums warped from lying flat. Undaunted, he began collecting anew. “I really got serious after the war. I started buying records 90 miles a minute. Forty or fifty at a time,” said Billy, who spent a third of his $7 a week salary on music.

He purchased so many records at one music store, Lyon and Healey, that shop owner Bill McKenzie advised him to invest in a reel-to-reel recorder and tape player. It set him back $600 and took him five years to pay off. Then, from one music lover to another, McKenzie told Billy he could have his pick of any records in the store to transfer over to tape — for free. Over six or seven years, Billy estimates he brought home thousands of records that he put on tape. He “knows what’s on every tape” and cartridge, too, thanks to a catalog he’s prepared.

Hard-pressed to choose any aspect of his collection over another, he’s proudest of “the magnitude of it” and the fact it’s “not just one kind of music.” Despite not playing an instrument,he professes “an ear for music.” He even calls the best of rap “genius,” though it’s not his idea of music. Wife Martha Melton can attest to Billy’s wide-ranging tastes. “There is no form of music he does not love. He just loves music, period.” Indeed, his collection encompasses big band, jazz, blues, soul, gospel, spiritual, pop, rock, funk, classical, opera, international. She says he’s well-deserving of his self-proclaimed Doctor of Music degree. Eclecticism aside, it’s still “the black music” he “turns to” for personal pleasure. He favors “the old timers,” by which he means the big bands and vocalists of his youth. “They could do it all. Their charisma made them stand out above the rest.” And, for Billy, Basie’s in a league of his own. “If you feel down, his music will lift you up. Just that rhythm and beat in unison.” Play Basie’s “One O’clock Jump,” and he’s in heaven.

Like many music devotees, he prefers old wax records to CDs. “It’s the real thing. It takes you back. I like the scratches and the noise. You can almost see the guys.”

Billy wishes he could properly display his wares. “The only disappointment I have is I don’t have enough space to have everything in the same room, where I could appreciate it.” He’s looking for the right venue to preserve his treasures and use them as educational resources for the public. Dealers have tendered offers. He hopes a local museum, preferrably one with a black emphasis, makes him a deal. So far, he’s had preliminary talks with officials from one center about it being the home for his stuff. A potential hangup is the matter of compensation. “My life is in here,” he said. “I just can’t give away my life.”

Like the music of his life, Billy’s a swingin’ cat with few regrets. “My wife and I have done everything. There’s nothing we haven’t enjoyed from the fruits of our labor. The only sad part is we’ve lost so many of our friends that enjoyed life, too.”

Billy, who fashions himself a homespun philosopher, has one more thing to say about music. “If people could get along and blend together in harmony like these musicians do, oh, man, would this be a great world to live in.”

RIP Preston Love Sr., 1921-2004, He Played at Everything

June 3, 2010 2 comments

This is one of the last stories I wrote about Omaha jazz and blues legend Preston Love.  It’s a tribute piece written in the days following his 2004 death.  Trying to sum up someone as complex and multi-talented as Preston was no easy task.  But I think after reading this you will have a fair appreciation for him and what was important to him.  The piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I actually ended up writing about him two more times, once on the occasion of the opening of the Loves Jazz & Arts Center, which is named in his honor and located in the hub of North Omaha‘s old jazz scene, and then again when profiling his daughter Laura Love, a singermusician he fathered out of wedlock.  You can find my other Preston Love stories along with my Laura Love story on this blog site.

 

RIP Preston Love Sr., 1921-2004, He Played at Everything

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Lead alto sax player with Basie in the 1940s. Territory band leader in the ‘50s. Arranger, sideman, band leader for Motown headliners in the ‘60s. Studio session player. Recording artist. Music columnist. Radio host. Teacher, lecturer, author.

Until his passing from cancer at age 82, the voluble, playful, irrepressible, ingenious Preston Love wore all these hats and more during a long, versatile career. Around here, he may be best remembered for the easy way he performed at countless venues or the nostalgic, by-turns cantankerous tone of his Love Notes column or the adoring tributes and scalding rebukes he issued as host of his own jazz radio programs. Others might recall the crusading zeal he brought to his roles as college instructor, lecturer and artist-in-residence in spreading the gospel of jazz.

His curt dismissal of some local jazz musicians made him an egoist in some corners. In Europe, he was accorded the respect and adulation he never got at home. Yet, despite feeling unappeciated here, he often championed Omaha. It took the publication of his 1997 autobiography to make his resident jazz legend status resonate beyond mere courtesy to genuine recognition of his talents and credits.

For his well-received book, A Thousand Honey Creeks Later, My Life in Music from Basie to Motown (Wesleyan Press), Love drew on an uncanny memory to look back on a life and career spanning an enormous swath of American history and culture. It was a project he labored on for some 25 years and even though he still had a lot of living left in him, it served then, as it does now, as an apt summing-up and capstone for an uncommon man and his unusual path. It’s a bold, funny, smart, brutally frank work filled with the rich anecdotes of a born storyteller.

“You know how most people who write their life story have ghost writers? Well, he wrote his book. Every word,” says his son, Richie Love, with pride and awe.

 

 

  • Artist: Preston Love
    Label: KENT
    Orig. Released: 1969
    Catalog No.: LPKENT540
    Condition: Sealed-Reissue
    Format: LPRetail Price: $ 8.99 (1 available)

 

The ability, with no formal training, to master writing, music and other pursuits was what Billy Melton calls his late friend’s “God-given talents. Preston just picked up everything. He had a photographic memory. He was remarkable.” Richie Love says his father’s huge curiosity and appetite for life was part of “a drive to excel” that came from being the youngest of nine in a poor, single-parent house so run down it was jokingly called the” Love Mansion.” Young Preston taught himself to play the sax, abandoning a promising career in the boxing ring for the bandstand, where the prodigy’s gift for sight reading became his forte. “Any kind of music you put in front of him, he played it,” says former Love pianist Roy Givens.

Whether indulging in food and drink, friends and family, leisure or work, Richie Love says his father lived large. “Everything he did was larger than life. He did everything with a passion. Music. Fishing. Cooking. He was just so interesting. He was an all-around person. People loved him. People flocked to him.”

“He was just a big man all the way around,” says Juanita Morrow, a lifelong friend and fishing companion who experienced his generosity when she and her late husband, Edward, fell ill and Love made frequent visits to their home, bringing them groceries. “I’ll remember him as a very dear friend. He never let my husband and I down. No matter where he went on tour…he always sent letters and pictures.”

Frank McCants, another old chum from back in the day, says even after making it big with Basie that Love “never got the big head. He stayed regular.” Melton says Love would return from the road looking for a good time. “Preston made the big bucks and when he came to town he’d look us up…and that’s when the partying would begin. We let our hair down.” On those rare occasions when the blues overtook Love, Melton says, “music was the antidote. He really loved it.”

Although he hated being apart from his wife Betty, who survives him, Love savored “the itinerant life.” Givens recalls how he made life on tour a little more enjoyable: “He was a very serious musician, but he was a joker. He kept you laughing a lot because of the things he would say and do.” Traveling by bus, the spontaneous Love often heeded the sportsman’s call en route to a gig. “He loved to hunt and he loved to fish,” Givens says, “and on the bus we had he carried his shot gun and his fishing rod. If we went across any water, he’d stop the bus and say, ‘I’m just going to see what I can catch in 15 or 20 minutes.’ He’d throw in a line. When passing by a field, if he’d see a pheasant or a rabbit, he’d stop and shoot at it out the windows. If he hit anything, he’d skin it. If he caught anything, he’d put it on ice in a cooler. A lot of times we were almost late getting to the job because he would be catching fish and he didn’t want to leave. The guys would just laugh.”

A consummate showman, Love burned with stage presence between his insouciant smile and his patter between sets that combined jive, scat and stand up. Richetta Wilson, who sang with various Love bands, recalls his ebullience. “He would talk more than he would play sometimes. He was so funny and talented. The best person you could ever want to work with.” Billy Melton recalls Love teasing audience members from the bandstand. “Almost everybody that came in the door he’d know by name and he’d call them out. He was always joking, but he could take it, too. He didn’t care what you said about him.”

Then there was his serious side. Love coaxed a smooth, sweet, plaintive tone from the sax developed over a lifetime of listening and jamming in joints like McGill’s Blue Room on north 24th Street. As a student of music, he voiced learned, militant diatribes against “the corruption of our music.” As he saw the once serious Omaha jazz scene abandon its indigenous roots, he used his newspaper columns, radio shows and college classrooms as forums for haranguing local purveyors and performers of what he considered pale imitations of the real thing.

Calling much of the white bread jazz presented here “spurious” and “synthetic,” he decried the music’s most authentic interpreters being passed over in favor of less talented, often times white, players. “My people gave this great art form for posterity and I’m not going to watch my people and our music sold down the road,” he said once. “I will fight for my people’s music and its presentation.”

He delivered his eloquent, evangelical musings in free-flowing rants that were equal parts improvisational riff, poetry slam and pulpit preaching, his mellifluous voice rising and falling, quickening and slowing in rhythmic concert with his emotions.

Love’s guardianship for the music may live on if the planned Love Jazz-Cultural Arts Center dedicated to him on 24th Street ever opens, which organizers say could happen by the end of 2004. The center’s driving force, Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown, hopes the facility can showcase the Love legacy, including his many well-reviewed recordings. “I want visitors to know here is a person who was great and touched greatness and was part of that rich jazz history,” Brown says. “People like that just don’t come along every day. And I want kids to walk away with the feeling they too can achieve like he did.” Richie Love says he wants people to know his dad was “a great man.”

Center board members plan displaying items from the mass of memorabilia the late artist collected in his collaborations with what one reviewer of a reissued Love album called a “Who’s Who of American Musicians.” The star-studded roster of artists he worked with ranged from Count Basie, Lucky Millinder and Earl Hines to Wynonie Harris, Billie Holiday and Jimmy Rushing to Aretha Franklin, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Issac Hayes and Stevie Wonder.

 

 

 

 

Richie Love is sorting through the materials, including hundreds of photos, in an effort to decide what the family will donate to the center. Many photos picture Love with the Motown artists he worked with during his decade (1962 to 1972) in California. He moved his family there at the urging of friend Johnny Otis, the blues great with whom he often collaborated. Love worked as an L.A. session player and sideman and, later, as the leader of Motown’s west coast backup band, an ensemble that backed many of the label’s artists performing there.

For Richie, and siblings Norman and Portia, the L.A. years were golden. Richie recalls the high times that ensued whenever his father parked the Motown tour bus outside their rented house on West 29th Place. “The kids from the neighborhood would see that bus and we’d all get on it. I’d sit in the driver’s seat and act like I was driving and they’d be in the back singing like they were Motown. It was just the greatest.” Other times, stars arrived in style at the Love home. “We’d look out the window and see a limo coming and say, ‘Oh-oh, who’s it going to be this time?’ I think Dad liked to surprise us. It was always somebody different.” Some visitors, like Gladys Knight or Jimmy Rushing, became live-in guests, passing the time swapping stories and playing Tonk, a popular card game among blacks. “My brother, sister and I would sit in the front room and watch and listen while they were having a ball, laughing and talking all night. We’d get up in the morning, and they’d still be there.” Then there were the times when the boys accompanied their father to television tapings or live concerts and got to hang backstage with the show’s stars, including Stevie Wonder. “Oh, it was the coolest,” Richie says.

 

 

 

 

 

Having a dad who’s a kid at heart meant impulsive trips to the beach, swimming pools, fishing holes, music gigs. Sitting up with him all hours of the night as he made “elaborate dinners” – from gourmet to barbecue – and “told these great stories,” Richie says. “He was a great father…he turned us on to so many things in life.”

By all accounts, Love was a good teacher as well. Whether holding court at the Omaha Star, where he was advertising director, or from the bandstand, he shared his expertise. “He helped musicians reach their potential,” says Roy Givens. “After listening to you play, he could tell you what your weaknesses were…He would pull you aside and tell you to work on them. I know he made me a better musician.”

Melton says Love often spoke of a desire “to pass his knowledge on.” To see the results of that teaching, Givens says, one has only to look at Love’s children. “They are all exceptional musicians, and that right there’s an accomplishment.” Richie is an instrumentalist, composer and studio whiz. Norman, who resides in Denver, is widely regarded as an improvisational giant. Portia is a jazz vocalist. All performed with their father on live and recorded gigs.

If nothing else, Preston Love endured. He survived fads and changing musical tastes. He adapted from the big band swing era to the pop, soul, rhythm and blues refrains of Motown. He rose above the neglect and disdain he felt in his own hometown and kept right on playing and speaking his mind. Always, he kept his youthful enthusiasm. The eternal hipster. “I refuse to be an ancient fossil or an anachronism,” Love told an interviewer in 1997. “I am eternally vital. I am energetic, indefatigable. It’s just my credo and the way I am as a person.”

Even into his early 80s, Love could still swing. Omaha percussionist Gary Foster, who played alongside him and produced CDs featuring him, marveled at his skill and vitality. “He had a very pure, soulful sound that just isn’t heard anymore. It’s that Midwestern, Kansas City thing. He was part of that past when it was real — when the music was first coming and new. He had that still.” He says Love was not about “coasting on what he’d done in the past,” adding: “To him, that just wasn’t good enough. He still wanted to produce. He was still hungry. In the studio, he was like, ‘What are we doing today? Where are going to take the music today?’”

Love’s musical chops were such that, at only 22, he earned an audition with Basie during an appearance of the Count’s fabled band at Omaha’s Dreamland Ballroom. In the same room he grew up worshiping at the feet of his musical idol, Basie sax great Earle Warren, Love won a seat in the band as a replacement for none other than the departing Warren. “Preston Love was part of this lineage of great lead alto saxophone players. With Basie, he took over for one of the great lead alto saxophone players…and he performed that role with distinction,” Foster says.

Love once said, “Everything in my life would be an anticlimax because I realized my dream.” That dream was making it to the top with Basie. Luckily for us, he didn’t stop there. Now, he leaves behind a legacy rich in music and in Love.

“Omaha Blues” and “Preston Love’s Omaha Bar-B-Q”: Two scorching instrumental blues journeys by Omaha music Llgend Preston Love

June 3, 2010 4 comments

1 - 1975 - R&B Festival - Preston Love, The Na...

Image by Affendaddy via Flickr

This next story is actually adapted from a press release that the late Omaha jazzman and blues artist, Preston Love Sr., commissioned me to write to help promote a new CD he was releasing.  I include it here as another element of putting the arc of his life and career in proper perspective.

“Omaha Blues” and “Preston Love’s Omaha Bar-B-Q’” Two scorching instrumental blues journeys by Omaha music legend Preston Love

©by Leo Adam Biga

Adapted from a press release I wrote for Preston promoting a new CD

 

At age 80, legendary Omaha jazz and blues musician Preston Love is enjoying the kind of renaissance few artists survive to see. It began with the 1997 publication of his autobiography, A Thousand Honey Creeks Later (Wesleyan University Press), which earned rave reviews in such prestigious pages as the New York Times Book Review. Next, came a steady stream of re-released albums on CD featuring a much younger Love playing in such distinguished company as the Count Basie and Lucky Millinder bands, just two of the classic groups he played with during this indigenous American music’s Heyday.

Now, there is the unlikely release of two albums, produced 30 years apart, each with the name Omaha in them – Omaha Blues and Preston Love’s Omaha Bar-B-Q – and each showcasing Love at his silky smooth lead alto saxophone playing best. Love has always been faithful to his hometown of Omaha where, as a kid, he first got hooked on jazz and blues by hanging on every note performed by his idols at the near northside clubs he later played too. He still makes his home in Omaha, where he lives with his wife Betty.

“What a unique thing to have two albums out with the name Omaha in them and to have them selling like hotcakes all over the country,” Love said. “What a thrill.”

Beyond the rare confluence of Omaha in their titles, the two releases cast an equally rare spotlight on an artist at two different periods in his career as a jazz-blues interpreter. A brand new release, the Omaha Blues CD presents the ever vibrant Love performing the music of his life, including a mix of standards by the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie and a selection of original Love tunes, including the soulful title track.

Produced by Gary Foster at Omaha’s Ware House Productions studio and distributed by North Country Distributors, Omaha Blues has received high praise from what is commonly referred to as The Bible of jazz and blues magazines for the way Love and his band perform everything from slow ballads to hot swinging numbers. Special praise is reserved for Love’s music-making.

 

 

 

 

Gregg Ottinger, a reviewer with Jazz Ambassador Magazine in Kansas City, writes that the ensemble heard on the record “is particularly good and provides an excellent surrounding for Mr. Love’s strong sound. But the highlight of the CD is Mr. Love’s playing. This is a man who is full of music – eight decades of it – and it’s still strong and fresh. It’s a joy to hear it released on this recording.” Jack Sohmer in Jazz Times describes Love as “still a masterly saxophonist,” adding, “The proof is here that Love has not lost a beat…” And Robert Spencer in Cadence writes, “Preston Love has a slippery, slithery tone that slides through the blues real easy and rings all the changes on a dime with a fine exuberance. Preston Love plays this music with superlative commitment and yes, love. Great fun.”

Producer Gary Foster, the drummer on this recording and a regular percussionist with Love’s working band, said he was drawn to the project because it provided an opportunity to bring the man he considers his mentor to the forefront, a position unfamiliar to this venerable artist who for decades toiled in relative obscurity as a highly respected if not starring sideman, session musician, contractor and band leader.

Also a flutist, Love was a fixture in the reed section of many bands and made a name for himself with his ability to sight read. In addition to playing with Basie and Millinder, he headed-up his own territory bands and led Motown’s west coast band.

“I’m really happy I was able to present Preston Love just doing what he does best and doing it as well as he can. I think in the past Preston deferred to what producers wanted and a lot of times he ended up in the background,” said Foster, who refers to Love’s many studio and live collaborations with legendary artists — ranging from Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to longtime friend and rhythm and blues great Johnny Otis. During these gigs, Love almost always played a supporting role. But, as Foster and others see it, Love is more than deserving of his own limelight because he is a consummate artist in his own right and the genuine article to boot.

“Preston Love is part of this lineage of great lead alto saxophone players. With Basie, he took over for one of the great lead alto saxophone players — Earl Warren — and he performed that role with distinction. He did a great job,” Foster said.

The way Foster sees it, Love is still making sweet sounds some half-a-century later. “He’s got a very pure, soulful sound that just isn’t heard anymore. It’s that Midwestern, Kansas City thing. He’s part of that past when it was real — when the music was first coming and new. He’s got that still.” Despite the fact Foster has played alongside Love for years he is still amazed that a man of his age remains as sharp and vital and curious as he is. “I’m half his age and I watch this guy night after night constantly trying to improve himself. He’s 80 years old and he’s still worried about being good enough. He’s never satisfied. It’s an inspiration. That’s what I aspire to be as an artist — just constantly trying to be better.”

Foster said Love is not about “coasting on what he’s done in the past,” adding: “To him, that’s just not good enough. He still wants to produce. He’s still hungry. In the studio, he’s like, ‘What are we doing today? Where are going to take the music today?’”

The idea of resting on his laurels is anathema to Love, who dismisses the notion he is some “moldy fig” or stick in the mud. Indeed, Love feels his playing has never been better. “I reached my peak on my instruments later in life,” he said. “I wasn’t interested that much in a career as a soloist early on, but as I became more interested in that I was able to accomplish more at a time in life when most guys deteriorate. I refuse to be an ancient fossil or an anachronism. I am eternally vital. I am energetic, indefatigable. It’s just my credo and the way I am. I play my instruments as modern as anybody alive and better than I’ve ever played them. It’s helped that my health has been good too.”

For Love, Omaha Blues was a blast to make because he was working with his longtime band members Orville Johnson (piano), Nate Mickels (bass) and Foster (drums), along with his daughter Portia Love, an assured vocalist and frequent collaborator. Also heard on the disc are guitarist Jon Hudenstein, pianist Bill Erickson, bassist John Kotchain and vocalist Ansar Muhammad. Of his fellow musicians, Love said, “The guys are just miraculous on this. We didn’t get technical or anything. We just banged it out and I think we did a good job.” Love also lends his smoky voice to a few tunes.

Originally produced on Kent Records and now being re-released by Ace Records of Great Britain, Preston Love’s Omaha Bar-B-Q represents Love at a time and place in his career when he was working with some of the music industry’s strongest talents. “These were top players and all dear friends of mine. I hired them a lot for the Motown band,” Love said. “We had James Brown’s drummer and Ike and Tina Turner’s sax player. We had my dear friend Johnny Otis, who produced the album. Johnny also brought in his son, Shuggie, then a 15 year-old prodigy on the guitar.”

 

 

 

 

The recording features several different artists, but most notably Shuggie, now enjoying a revival of his own. “He played the greatest blues solos on guitar on that album that will ever be done,” Love said. “He’s a genius.” In keeping with the album’s Omaha and eating themes, the tracks feature a number of Love-penned tunes named after favorite soul food staples, including Chitlin Blues. Released in 1970, the album fared well in Europe, where, Love said, “it made me a pretty big name.” The musician has performed in Europe several times and he is preparing to play France later this year.

Not only a performing and recording artist, Love is also a noted jazz-blues columnist and historian. For years, he hosted a popular jazz program on local public radio, a forum he used as a combination stage, classroom and pulpit in presenting classic jazz in its proper aesthetic-cultural-historical context. He is clearly not done making his passionate, sometimes prickly voice heard either. From his brand new CD to classic reissues of old LPs to area gigs his band plays, his music-making continues enthralling and enchanting old and new listeners alike. With his first book, A Thousand Honey Creeks Later, now going into its second printing, Love is already planning to write another book on his eventful life inside and outside music.

NOTES: After a highly successful run at L & N Seafood in One Pacific Place, Preston Love and his band now jam Friday and Saturday nights at Tamam, 1009 Farnam-on-the-Mall, an Old Market restaurant specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine;

Love was recently a featured performer at the August 3 Blues, Jazz and Gospel Festival on the Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus; Omaha Blues can be found at area record and music stores, including Homer’s.  Preston Love’s Omaha Bar-B-Q will soon be available.

Preston Love: His voice will not be stilled

June 3, 2010 2 comments

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

 

 

 

Preston Love: His voice will not be stilled

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

 

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s written in protest,” Love said during a recent interview at the Omaha Star, where he’s advertising manager.  “I’m an angry man.  I started my autobiography to a large degree in dissatisfaction with what has transpired in America in the music business and, of course, with the racial thing that’s still very prevalent.  Blacks have almost been eliminated from their own art because the people presenting it know nothing about it.  We’ve seen our jazz become nonexistent.  Suddenly, the image no longer is black.  Nearly all the people playing rhythm and blues, blues and jazz in Omaha are white.  That’s unreal.  False.  Fraudulent.

“They’re passing it off as something it isn’t.  It’s spurious jazz.  Synthetic.  Third-rate.  Others are going to play our music, and in many cases play it very well.  We don’t own any exclusivity on it.  But it’s still black music, and all the great styles, all the great developments, have been black, whether they want to admit it or not.  So why shouldn’t we protect our art?”

When Love gets on a roll like this, his intense speaking style belongs both to the bandstand and the pulpit.  His dulcet voice carries the rhythmic inflection and intonation of an improvisational riff and the bravura of an evangelical sermon, rising in a brimstone tirade one moment and falling to a confessional whisper the next.  Suzanna Tamminen, acting director of Wesleyan University Press, says, “One of the wonderful things about Preston’s book is that it’s really like listening to him talk.  A lot of other publishers had asked him to cut parts out, but he felt he had things to say and didn’t want to have to change a lot of that.  So we’ve tried to have his voice come through, and I think it does.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

The hurt is especially acute for Love because he remembers well when Omaha was a major jazz center, supporting many big bands and clubs and drawing premier musicians from around the region.  It was a launching ground for him and many others.

“This was like the Triple A of baseball for black music,” he says.  “The next stop was the big leagues.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When you muddy the water or disturb the trend or tell the truth even, you make people angry, because they’d rather leave the status quo as it is. A  lot of musicians around her will say privately to me the same things, but they’re afraid to say them publicly.  But I’m not afraid of the repercussions.  I will fight for my people’s music and its preservation.”

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