How did the community and the shared experiences of African-Americans help to create jazz in Omaha?
For the Love of the Music
At the beginning of the 20th century, a new voice for the African-American community was created; that voice was jazz. Jazz is a musical form that allows the player to express their emotions and tell a story in an aggressive, free, and vibrant manner. The African-American community of North Omaha took hold of this new music and helped to create and preserve some of the biggest moments in jazz while rivaling more known venues in Chicago, Kansas City, and New Orleans. This is the story of those who lived and experienced this major cultural event.
Students created this documentary as part of the Omaha Public Schools Making Invisible Histories Visible initiative.
Dan Desdunes Band
This is a photo of Dan Desdunes and his band, who were popular during the early 1900s in Omaha. This photo is significant because the Dan Desdunes Band helped spark local interest in jazz and soon became an Omaha favorite. Mr. Desdunes was a powerhouse on the early Omaha music scene. He has been referred to as the father of African American music in Omaha. By 1917, less than a year after the first recordings of jazz, Mr. Desdunes had a jazz orchestra in Omaha, Desdunes Jazz Orchestra. Mr. Desdunes moves to Omaha from New Orleans and brought his hometown's vibrant musical heritage with him. (Photograph courtesy of the Great Plains Black History Museum).
This is an old ticket stub from the Dreamland Ballroom. The Dreamland Ballroom was located in North Omaha at 2221 North 24th Street in the Jewell Building, which was built in 1923. The Dreamland Ballroom was an important part of Omaha's jazz scene for more than 40 years. Many legendary jazz and blues performers played there including Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Fats Domino. If you look at this ticket, you will see that Fats Domino played at the Dreamland on June 28, 1954. You can see the signature of James Jewell, the owner of the Dreamland Ballroom and the Jewell Building, on the lower right side of the ticket. Without successful ticket sales, the Dreamland would not have lasted as long as it did. (Ticket courtesy of Great Plains Black History Museum).
This is a current photograph of the building at 24th and Lake that housed Allen’s Showcase Lounge. The Showcase was a popular jazz and blues venue in North Omaha. Paul B. Allen Sr. was the proprietor and ran it from approximately 1950 to 1986. Many of the people we interviewed remembered Allen's Showcase Lounge fondly and asserted that many local musicians got their start here, including Omaha legend Buddy Miles. Mr. Allen also booked musicians who were already famous on a national level, like Dionne Warwick, Sam Cooke and James Brown. (Photo courtesy of Brandon W.)
North 24th Street
This photograph from the 1960s shows a well-dressed group smiling and celebrating outside Allen's Showcase, a popular jazz and blues venue. Paul Allen Sr. is pictured fourth from the left. Allen's Showcase was "the hot spot" in a vibrant nightlife along North 24th Street in the middle of the twentieth century. The area on 24th Street Cuming Street to Spencer Street was affectionately known in the Community as "The Deuce 4" or "The Deuce". There were numerous music venues and night clubs along North 24th, including McGill's Blue Room, The Offbeat Club, The Carnation Ballroom, Jim Bell's Harlem, M&M Lounge, and of course, Allen's Showcase Lounge and The Dreamland Ballroom. (Photograph courtesy of Patricia Allen).
Jazz is as a truly American form of music. Rooted in the African American experience, it was born in the United States. In the early twentieth century, the port city of New Orleans saw multiple cultures coming together and sharing their music, resulting in the combination of both African and European musical elements. While containing elements of blues, gospel, ragtime, and brass band music, this new genre, jazz, developed its own unique sound that challenged all of these musical conventions.
Jazz depends largely on improvisation - playing in spontaneous response to fellow band members rather than relying on a written score. This required a great deal of skill, and allowed individuals to find their own voice through music. For this reason, jazz became an important tool for African American musicians to express themselves and demonstrate their skills within an oppressive society that degraded their people and culture on a daily basis.
Because of its improvisational nature, jazz is also an important way to interpret the emotion and culture of a specific time and place in history. This includes Omaha, Nebraska in the twentieth century. Today, many people only look at North Omaha superficially, neglecting to delve deeper into its rich history and culture. The area surrounding 24th and Lake was the hub of jazz music from the 1920s to the early 1970s. The vibrant community and promise of talent lured jazz musicians to Omaha from all over the country. Household names like Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and James Brown, played at some of Omaha’s most notorious venues, while other musicians found their fame in Omaha, including Wynonie Harris, Anna Mae Winburn, Buddy Miles and Preston Love.
During this time period, jazz music and North Omaha were one and the same - growing together and thriving with the help of the other. Therefore, when American culture shifted away from jazz music and social movements broke out across the country utilizing other forms of media as a voice, North Omaha and jazz began to see their decline. Riots that left parts of North Omaha in ruins, along with a new generation of music and creative minds, extinguished the flame of jazz in North Omaha. Nevertheless, today, there are numerous projects to build North Omaha back into what it once was, and create an atmosphere similar to when jazz was in its prime.
"My favorite part was riding Ollie the Trolley and getting Timeout Chicken. Also, my favorite memory was meeting Hank Redd; he was my favorite and best interview."
- Marvin C.
"I had so much fun doing MIHV. The interviews were amazing and it was fun to listen to their stories! Learning about the history of jazz in Omaha was amazing and getting to talk to the musicians was even better."
- Dakota N.
"The best part was interviewing Preston Love, Jr. Listening to his stories was really interesting."
- Brandon W.
"I learned a lot about the African American community in North Omaha."
- Tavien H.
"I learned more than I ever thought I would about Jazz. I really enjoyed going to the Durham and looking through the archives for photos and artifacts."
- Joe F.
"MIHV was much deeper than I originally thought. We had lectures given from actual music experts. The best part of my experience was learning how passionate musicians really are. My understanding has changed because I now know why African Americans made their migration to Omaha."
- Nevaeh Y.
Joachim-Ernst Berendt and Günter Huesmann, The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to the 21st Century (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2009).
Ken Burns, Jazz: The Story of America’s Music, film (2005, New York: Columbia/Legacy), DVD.
“Dreamland Ballroom,” The History Harvest
“From Jazz to Vibes, the Many Sounds of Omaha,” All Things Considered (March 11, 2006)
“History,” Love’s Jazz and Arts Center
“History of the Blue Lion Center,” Union
Ashley M. Howard, “Then the Burning Began”: Omaha, Riots, and the Growth of Black Radicalism, 1966-1969,” MA Thesis, University of Nebraska-Omaha, 2006.
Patrick D. Jones and Jared Leighton, In Their Own Image: Artifacts from the Great Plains Black History Museum (Virginia Beach: The Donning Company Publishers, 2014).
Preston Love, A Thousand Honey Creeks Later: My Life in Music from Basie to Motown (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1997).
Tim McMahan, “Sharing the Love: An Interview with Omaha Jazz Great Preston Love,” https://www.timmcmahan.com/prestonlove.htm
Robyn Murray, “North Omaha’s History Drives Arts ‘Renaissance’” KVNO News (August 20, 2012)
“Omaha: The Triple-A of Jazz,” Making Invisible Histories Visible
Jesse Otto, “Contemporaries: Black Orchestras in Omaha before 1950,” MA Thesis, University of Nebraska-Omaha, 2010.
H.J. Pinkett, An Historical Sketch of the Omaha Negro (Omaha, NE: H.J. Pinkett, 1937).
Alonzo N. Smith, Compiler, Black Nebraskans – Interviews from the Nebraska Black Oral History Project II , (Nebraska Committee for the Humanities, 1982).
Brandon Vogel, Wanda Ewing, John-Paul Gurnett, Our City Our Culture
Research compiled by Dakota N., Nevaeh Y, Brandon W., Joe F, Tavien H., and Marvin C.
The students who worked on the jazz project will attend high school at Burke High, Bryan High, and Central High.