An interview with Omaha Jazz great
He's recorded with the
best jazz, blues and R&B stars of his day, and at 79, Preston Love
might have recorded the best CD of his life. The Omaha legend reflects
with a critical eye on yesterday, today and tomorrow.
by Tim McMahan
doesn't use the term "jazz" to describe the music on his new CD, Omaha
Blues. He'll tell you he's a saxophone player, a side man, a band
leader, musician and composer. But jazzman, that's a phrase he's reluctant
to bestow upon himself, though the folks from his hometown know him almost
exclusively by the term.
"When I was young, whites applied that word to black people's
music," he said from behind the kitchen table in his North Omaha home.
"It's used kind of demeaningly, like the word 'ragtime.' It's not a
respectful word. We used it only peripherally and jokingly. Duke Ellington
despised the word. When I was with Lloyd Hunter, we'd go to little towns in
Nebraska and they'd ask, 'Are you gonna play that jazz?'"
It's noon on Sunday, and Love is still in his pajamas, robe and slippers.
He likes to stay up late and sleep in late -- the by-product of a lifetime
of late-night gigs and late-morning wake-up calls to pack up and drive to
the next town on the tour. At 79, Love can do whatever he wants, including
an interview in his robe from his kitchen while his two cats, Sonny and Cher
(a duo he's worked with), walk gingerly atop the refrigerator, cupboards and
Love's lap. They stop in their tracks when his voice grows louder, when he
makes a point that at times is accentuated by a slap on the glasstop table
that sends coffee spilling onto the saucer.
Love is opinionated. He makes no apologies for his beliefs and knows that
people take his perspective as egotism. Fact is, his viewpoint comes from
being a part of the nation's jazz scene since before World War II.
Love's history is renowned well beyond the Omaha city limits. It's
impossible here to recount his life and its effects in a way that wouldn't
shortchange his achievements. To put it simply, he's played on stage and in
the studio with just about every important jazz, swing and R&B legend
from the past 50 years. A partial list includes Count Basie, Fats Waller,
Lucky Millinder, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday,
Dickie Wells, Snooky Young, Buddy Tate, Jimmy Rushing, Buddy Rich, Johnny
Otis, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, Stevie
Wonder, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, T-Bone Walker, Little
Esther Phillips, Frank Zappa, Sonny and Cher, Janis Joplin, Buddy Miles,
Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight and more, more, more.
You get the drift -- he's a walking piece of history, if not a legend.
those credits, however, rarely has Love been allowed to do things his way
in the studio. Now for the first time, his sound has been captured the way
he wants it on Omaha Blues, a just-released 10-track CD recorded at
Warehouse Studios featuring his current combo and some special guests on
"Gary Foster (Love's drummer and the CD's producer), was anxious
that I do a CD that reflects this stage in my career," Love said.
"A lot of older musicians played into their 90s and toured. Trumpeter
Doc Cheatham was in his 90s when he died. He played gigs until the very
Though he doesn't consider his latest recording a jazz CD (and he's
quick to correct those who would), Love's sound embodies the world's
definition of the art form.
So what exactly is jazz?
"No. 1, it's improvisational, impromptu, unplanned. There's no
blueprint laying it out," Love said. "No. 2, all great jazz
players are inventive. They're doing something original, on their own. You
can't teach a great jazz player, just like you couldn't teach Picasso to
But for the past 25 years, Love said, the term "jazz" has
become used as a catch-all phrase to describe almost any type of
instrumental-based music with saxophones and horns. "In this day, the
term is especially abused in the commercial world. Everyone says 'they're
jazz.' We'd never say that. We'd say we we're musicians.
"Jazz was black music. It was improvisational because we never had
formal training or reading. Blacks had a music that came from our
experience in this country. That extra degree of pathos -- that's what
made it different from other music."
As he made his point, Love's voice began to rise. "Kenny G? Chuck
Mangione? Tony Bennett? Tony is good, but not good enough to win jazz
polls. Linda Ronstadt?"
Love stops and points at one of the cats that has curled its tail
around his pajama'd leg. "Calling those people jazz is like these
little kitties trying to compete with wild wolves in a cage. No one wants
to hear that talk, though. If you speak out about it, you make yourself
very, very unpopular."
"Blacks had a music that came from our
experience in this country. That extra degree of pathos -- that's
what made it different from other music."
"We must treat this new blues as a
bastardization, a mutation. Why treat it as an art form? It's a
commercial idiom to make some bucks."
a theme that was laced throughout our entire 3-hour interview. Love says
that if he speaks his mind about jazz, blues, the Omaha music scene and
music in general, his comments are viewed as petty, jealous or
egotistical. "Mine is a professional opinion and endorsed by people
in the East and West," he said. "They'll be putting me in a
grave soon enough, and I want this behind me and on the record. I'll let
time be the judge."
He has little time for today's jazz and blues, especially the Omaha
variety. Recently asked by an Omaha World-Herald reporter about his
opinion of "the resurgence of blues in Omaha, as highlighted by the
strength of the Omaha Blues Society," Love explained that he didn't
recognize their blues as authentic.
"It's like the Alamo, someone has to be the last bastion against
what's happening to our music," Love said. "Blacks gave up on
jazz, but the blues, that's our music. You see these white boys playing
the harmonica and they're enjoying the greatest popularity. We must treat
this new blues as a bastardization, a mutation. Why treat it as an art
form? It's a commercial idiom to make some bucks. In no way could you
confuse Joe Turner, B.B. King and Charles Brown with what these guys are
doing around here and calling the blues. That's what it amounts to."
And it's not only in Omaha. Love recalled being invited to play the
Quad-Cities Blues Festival in Davenport, Iowa. "They had Stevie Ray
Vaughn on the program. What does he have to do with the blues?," Love
asked. "They paid me to do a workshop and play a set. When I got
through, they asked me to do another hour. Afterward, the head of festival
said, 'Unfortunately, you're the only one who was doing blues today. You
made the festival for us.' We might have been playing bad blues, but it
was the blues.
"Whites just can't do blues like blacks. It's our expression. It
requires something special."
Controversial? It's nothing new to Love. He speaks as strongly about
music as he plays his sax. That same candid quality was the trademark of
his book, "A Thousand Honey Creeks Later: My Life in Music from Basie
to Motown." Published by University Press of New England in 1997, the
book recalled Love's career from his school days through his return to
Omaha in 1971 and beyond.
"I completed the book in 1965 and sold it to a major publisher,
who made certain conditions that I declined," Love said. "I
spent the next years rewriting and adding to it. If I would have given it
to them then, it would have been a disaster."
He said there were 19 major reviews of the book, including mentions by Jazz
Times, The New York Times and Publishers Weekly.
"They said the last chapter didn't do me justice because it was
bitter," Love said. "Every European magazine who reviewed it,
though, said I had a right to be an egoist.
"Most guys are cautious and told me not to criticize the icons;
Benny Goodman, Harry James, their jazz ain't shit to me. I didn't knock
them directly -- jazz and blues must strike you at your heart, you don't
have to analyze it."
When he asked what I thought of his new CD, I wasn't able to analyze
it, either. I’m no jazz expert, but I know what I like, and Omaha
Blues is an enjoyable, relaxed set of classic standards perfect with a
big martini and a smoking jacket.
From the laid-back, sax-driven opener -- a Love composition called
"Omaha Blues" -- through the old reliables like Ellington's
"Satin Doll" (swinging vocals by Preston's daughter, Portia),
"Stormy Weather" (Preston ably on vocals) and "When Sunny
Gets Blue" (featuring smooth-voiced Ansar Muhammad), the songs create
a mood you can get lost in, like a black velvet Kansas City midnight circa
"We don't play an extremely genius-style of jazz, but there's
something there I want to stress -- and that's my sound. You have to have
a sound first before anything else," Love said. "I've reached my
peak late because I wasn't a soloist. I was a lead man. And I've known
other guys who played their best at 79 and 80. This band on Omaha Blues
played as good as any of the guys I worked with in the big time."
"Big Time" began right here in river city. Love recalled how
Omaha used to be a hub for black jazz musicians, "the triple-A
league" where national bands would go to find a player to fill out
their ensemble. "We had a plethora of musicians here," he said.
"The great names in jazz came from all over the country. We were the
suppliers of the big bands."
In the 1940s, the Midwest was the largest dance territory in the world,
Love said. It was a time before television, when there were thousands of
ballrooms and hundreds of bands, both white and black.
"Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, and each one had a
ballroom around it," Love said. "Every little Nebraska town had
a dance hall and we played all of them. The black bands were treated
differently than whites. We played black music and that's what they wanted
to hear. They didn't expect any other band to play like we played. My band
was the last of the touring territory bands. The onset of television and
fast cars killed off that era."
As the years went on, Love played with big name bands and began a long,
storied recording career. "In Europe, I enjoy star status," he
said. "Pirated recordings made me famous there. Though the pirate
recordings were completely illegal, they still listed the personnel on the
sleeve, and there was Basie and I together in the picture. I'm not as big
as Dizzie or Charlie Parker in Europe, but they know me."
Love played a number of European tours and every time got the star
treatment. "This was exotic music to them. We we're a curio, a
novelty. They viewed blacks as interesting instead of inferior. They'd
break your arm before they'd let you pay for a drink and stock your
dressing room with the best wine. I was getting paid $1,000 a week at a
time when I was making $900 a month selling advertising for the Omaha
But though Love was loved in Europe and on the West Coast, he says he
found things chillier back home in Nebraska. If there's one aspect of his
career he's disenchanted with, it's how he's perceived in his home town.
"No man is a prophet in his own town. But I certainly deserve
credit for what I've done. No Omahan has as many musical credits as I
have. When you give someone your resume, you highlight the best parts. I
don't exaggerate or lie about mine. I'm so careful not to exaggerate.
Hometown jealousies are fatal."
A particular thorn in his side is his relationship with Joslyn Art
Museum and its Jazz on the Green program. It's promoted as a
"six-week outdoor concert series that spotlights a variety of jazz
sounds from mainstream and fusion to swing, bebop, big band and
Latin-influenced music by featuring some of the region's best jazz
"I used to be the star of it back when Jan Braden ran it,"
Love said. "I played the last one in '89, then Jan left. When I
called for my date the next year, they said they wanted me to audition. I
told them they were insultingly ignorant of jazz."
Needless to say, he hasn't been asked back. "Can you imagine an
opera series without an Italian on the bill? They had only one black
person on the series last year. If blacks in this town had any guts, they
would protest Jazz on the Green."
blacks in this town had any guts, they would protest Jazz on the
average young black in the ghetto today has a job, makes money, is
educated. They don't relate to the music, to the blues."
Joslyn, Love and his ensemble have remained busy, recently playing
regularly at L&J Seafood at One Pacific Place. The new gig replaces
the band's old weekend haunt, The Destiny Café, 1217 Howard St., which
closed at the beginning of November. The band is still looking for a place
to host its CD release party, though Preston says they've managed to land
a gig for New Year's Eve, a night he insists on working.
Love also keeps busy off the stage. He's the top advertising
representative for The Omaha Star and also writes a column on an
irregular basis for the Omaha World Herald cleverly called
"Love Notes." Why doesn't he write about jazz in the Star,
a predominant North Omaha newspaper? "Blacks are not into what I do
that much," Love said. "And they're not interested in history.
They're into newness. It's got to be about Prince or the new hit artist or
rap. If I said what I thought about rap, they'd shoot me. My writing has
more credibility with whites."
His take on modern popular music is bleak. "Rap is novelty,"
Love said. "No music, no melody. Some of it is an insult to our
As someone who recorded with a Who's Who of R&B artists throughout
the '60s and '70s, Love says the current R&B offerings are antiseptic.
"Everything today is created to pander to the dollar," he said.
"It has nothing to do with expression or creativity. They add tricks
and gimmicks to sell records. The Motown thing, though it had lots of
gimmicks too, was the last important music that will be remembered.
"The average young black in the ghetto today has a job, makes
money, is educated. They don't relate to the music, to the blues. The
blues and jazz has become mainly a white thing and will take on an
entirely different form than the original days."
Other than his son, Norman, and a couple of other young sax players,
including War Ensemble tenor saxophonist Jeremy Carter, Love says there
aren't any up-and-coming jazzmen in Omaha. "Why would they be here?
They're young and in their prime. I came back to Omaha with money when I
was 50, and since then have played every major European jazz festival. Why
stay in Omaha? There's no money or stardom to be found around here."
Omaha's dwindling jazz scene hasn't stopped Love, who has no plans for
slowing down. "Running out of energy is my biggest concern," he
said about getting old. "We played three gigs in a day last summer --
at Countryside Village, Council Bluffs and then at the Destiny. I told the
crowd, 'This is a long day for us. It'll be 11 hours when we're through.
All the young guys are very tired.' Then I fell over," he said,
laughing. "Everybody got up to see if I was all right, but I was just
Losing his memory is another concern. Though it hasn't been a problem,
Love says his mind "is becoming very crowded with names," and is
beginning another book before he forgets any of his long, important
"The biggest problem about getting older is you don't have the
credibility you once had," he said. "You're supposed to be an
antique at 79, but I play my instrument better than ever because I
wouldn't let it drop. I never will."
Published in The Omaha Weekly December 21, 2000. Copyright © 2000 Tim
McMahan. All rights reserved.