Omaha Loves Jazz
Love’s Jazz & Arts Center is a live performance venue and art gallery honoring Omaha jazz performer Preston Love.
Late on a hot summer’s night in 1935, two brothers listened to the radio in a dilapidated house on a dirt road in Omaha’s Near North Side. The elder, Norm, searched the high end of the dial near 1600 kilocycles for a sound he wanted to share with his little brother, Preston.
Norm’s new Zenith radio, purchased from Mayper’s downtown with his meager wages as a porter, was a rare luxury at 1610 N. 28th St. The Love Mansion, as it was known, was where widow Mexie Love raised these two boys and seven other children, scraping by against the winds of the Great Depression and the walls of segregation.
This was a fateful night for 14-year-old Preston Love. He was about to hear for the first time the sound that would define the rest of his life: pure Kansas City-style jazz played by the Count Basie Orchestra. The music infected Love, and his fever for the sound would carry him to the heights of American music and would never be cured.
That crackling radio broadcast came from Kansas City, but it was Omaha that made Love’s music career. His hometown was a tour stop for the nation’s biggest names and a home base for small-time bands that toured the Midwest. Young cats in Omaha could jam, perform, earn a few bucks and hope to get noticed.
Love was not the only player under development. His eventual mentor, trumpeter Lloyd Hunter, got his start in the 1920s. Blues singer Wynonie Harris would make his mark, as would later Omaha musicians like drummer Curly Martin and guitarist Calvin Keys.
“Omaha was a melting pot for black musicians, a hub between Denver, Kansas City and Chicago,” Keys said. Now living in Oakland, California, the 75-year-old guitarist recalls learning on his uncle’s Gibson guitar at 27th and Parker streets in Omaha. “Some airports are hubs with flights coming in from everywhere. Omaha was like that for musicians.”
Love’s story best represents Omaha’s contributions to jazz history. Today that story is told at Love’s Jazz & Arts Center at 24th and Lake streets. Former executive director Tim Clark, himself a jazz vocalist, imagines what it was like in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. “The caliber of talent was high,” Clark said. “It was quite magical what was happening here.”
In the evening couples would stroll “The Avenue,” as North 24th was known, hopping from club to club: McGill’s Blue Room, Club Harlem, Allen’s Showcase and the Dreamland Ballroom, just to name a few. Everyone dressed to impress.
“In those days you wouldn’t think of walking out of the house without being suited and booted,” Clark said.
As kids, Preston and his friends would loiter out back, listening to muffled music and craning their necks every time the door swung open. Not until he was 17 did he get into the Dreamland to see the Count Basie Orchestra live. The experience deepened his allegiance to the band and to one member in particular. He became, in his words, “a devout worshiper of Earle Warren’s lead alto playing.”
Love was borrowing his brother’s tenor horn up to this point. He had just graduated from Omaha North High and was working as a bellhop, 10 hours a day, seven days a week. He found a used but prime condition Buescher alto sax for sale. He paid $18.50 – half of his monthly wage and equal to $300 today. He was inspired, driven and now the proud owner of an alto sax. It was 1938 and Omaha’s jazz scene was working its magic on Preston Love.
Before long he was hitching rides with territory bands as they played opera houses, dance halls, high school gymnasiums and cattle barns between Omaha and Denver and up to Minneapolis. They got ripped off by a promoter in Minnesota and made mere pennies for playing a jitney dance at a Nebraska City skating rink. Love and his band got stranded at a farmhouse outside Alma and missed their big New Year’s gig.
They honed their skills with every show and earned a large enough slice of door proceeds to keep going. Between tours they returned to Omaha and showed off at jam sessions while mingling with members of big-name bands on national tour. Love built a reputation. “That Love boy has the right bite on the alto sax,” the old-timers would say.
For the rest of the story see the May/June 2018 issue of Nebraska Life.