Tag Archives: Jazz

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April 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A boozy brunch between girlfriends, a meeting of coworkers over coffee, a couple splitting a glass   of wine—conversations captured around the city, all serve as fodder and inspiration for Brion Poloncic’s work. In the quiet corners of Omaha’s local coffee shops and wine bars, Poloncic puts pen to paper, his ear tuned into the surrounding babble, creating art that he feels represents those around him and the experiences they discuss.

But don’t expect a still life of women gossiping between sips of their Venti mochas. As a visual artist, author, and former musician, Poloncic is a man of many hats but always remains a creator of thought-provoking and idiosyncratic work that paints middle America in a psychedelic wash.

“I’ve always fancied myself an artist,” Poloncic says. “My art is an affirmation of my peculiar skill set, and it just so happens to make me happy. It’s my own blend of therapy.”

It was through chance that Poloncic was first bitten by the creative bug. After he didn’t make the baseball team, he traded mitts for guitars and started writing music. A fan of everyone from Pink Floyd to Johnny Cash, he parlayed his early love for listening to his parent’s records into seven albums, all released under the moniker “A Tomato A Day (helps keep the tornado away).” A prolific songwriter, his discography is filled with character and colorful song titles, including ditties like “You Little Shit” and “Weirdo Park.”

For Poloncic, music wasn’t enough. He needed to sink his teeth into his next artistic outlet. So when a friend needed help setting up an Iowa art studio, he asked Polonic to draw pieces that illustrated his career. With no formal training or experience, unless coloring backpacks with magic markers counts, he dove in.

Two years later, Poloncic sold his first piece at a gallery in Lincoln. He has also shown work in Omaha and Kansas City and has a collection represented at Gallery 72, all those diploma-yielding pros be damned.

“My art isn’t constrained by my knowledge or training, and I think this makes me naturally less critical of my work,” Poloncic says.

Filled with abstract shapes, haunting faces, and stark use of color, his off-kilter yet original drawings mirror the tone of his written work. Through The Journal of Experimental Fiction, he published his first book Xanthous Mermaid Mechanics in 2012, following this up in 2014 with his second printed work On the Shoulders of Madmen. Both explored concepts of the subconscious mind, and the novel he is currently working on will follow suit.

“I’ll be surprised if anyone can read it,” Poloncic says. “It’s got no characters, no story arc, and isn’t about anything in particular.”

And he admits this is his niche, comparing his art to improvisational jazz or free-style rap where “things just happen.” For whatever he’s working on, he says the hardest part is just getting started. Once that happens, everything else just falls into place, and if he can’t get over a block, he always has another craft to turn to.

“If I stumble off the creative wagon with drawing, I get back on with writing and vice versa,” Poloncic says. “As you work on one, the other comes right along with it.”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

Laura Kirschenbaum

January 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Laura Kirshenbaum is a straight-A student, but it is not good grades that her mother talks about first when describing her daughter’s scholarly accomplishments.

“It’s comments that teachers make. It’s wonderful hearing about how she treats others and how she is respectful to teachers. They say that she’s an active listener in class, that she’s kind and courteous. That’s what I’m proud about,” Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum says. “You may have it in your DNA that these things are easier than for other people, or you learn at a faster pace. That may be a gift with you, but what do you do with it? Some people may have an ego with it, but Laura doesn’t. She’s grateful for what she has and is highly motivated.”

Kirshenbaum, an eighth-grader at Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School in the Omaha Public School District, admits to being a fast learner but says her excellent grades in her honors classes don’t come effortlessly. “I work hard for that,” she says.

And she definitely prefers some subjects over others. “My top subject would definitely be math,” she says. “But I love science, too: chemistry, physics, and astronomy.”

Kirshenbaum has no shortcuts to academic success to share, she says. Being a good student means being diligent: finishing the assignments, completing the reading, following directions. It also helps to have good organizational skills that ensure she’s always prepared. “I turn homework in on time and I try to stay on top of things,” she explains. “I’m proud of that.”

She even enjoys learning outside of the classroom, watching informational YouTube channels in her spare time, and competing in multiple academic events like Quiz Bowl, Science Bowl, Math Counts, Academic Pentathlon, and Book Blasters. She has an artistic side, too, that brings some balance to student life—Kirshenbaum is active in dance (ballet, modern, and jazz) and plays the violin, even performing in the orchestra pit for Omaha Public Schools’ summer musical Peter Pan in 2016.

“I also do a lot of acting,” she adds. “I’ve been in a lot of the school plays, and I’ve done some community theater as well.”

She’s even managed to make time for volleyball and local volunteering at a food bank and a homeless shelter. Two summers ago, she was a classroom helper at Jackson Elementary School. Because she’s an honors student, she is also eligible to tutor fellow students. “I like being able to help others,” she says.

Kirshenbaum says her future plans absolutely include college, which her mother and father (Matt Kirshenbaum) like to hear. It may be a little early to start choosing a particular institution, but judging by the scholarly aptitude she’s demonstrated so far, it’s clear that she’s going to be able to take her pick of schools—and programs of study—upon graduation four years from now.

“I see myself becoming a chemist,” she says. “Or a college professor in math or science.”

This article was printed in the Winter 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Potash Twins

October 26, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha once reigned as a major live music hub where scores of legendary artists came to perform. Many resident musicians who got their chops here used Omaha as a springboard to forge fat careers on 
the coasts.

The local African-American music scene was particularly lively from the 1930s into the 1970s, with jumping venues and jam sessions galore.

Then, that halcyon time faded away.

Now, identical twins Ezra and Adeev Potash of Omaha, two fast-rising horn players with crazy close ties to such living-legend jazz greats as Wynton Marsalis and Jon Faddis, are intent on reviving that long dormant scene. Nominated for Best Jazz for the 2014 Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards, they recently became co-artistic directors at the Love’s Jazz & Arts Center in Omaha. The twins, who turned 20 this fall, booked an all-star lineup of local artists at LJAC through 2013, headlining some dates themselves.

But it’s all a prelude for something grander. In collaboration with LJAC executive director Tim Clark the brothers are busy raising funds to underwrite a 2014-2015 lineup of jazz superstars. Many prospective guest artists are personal friends and colleagues of the twins in New York City, where the Westside High School graduates study music.

The brothers and Clark want nothing less than to create a world-class jazz club at the center, whose jazzman namesake, Omaha’s own Preston Love Sr., played with Count Basie and came of age in local nightspots like the Dreamland Ballroom. All the jazz giants played there or at Allen’s Showcase and other
long-gone venues.

Clark says, “What’s so exciting about the twins is their enthusiasm and their sincere desire to preserve one of America’s original art forms, jazz, and to put Omaha back on the map as a national jazz hub. They’re very serious about their craft and making jazz a priority in Omaha. They bring a breath of fresh air.”

“We’re going to try to raise the money to do the season right,” says Ezra, who plays trombone, tuba, and sousaphone.“We’re meeting with donors to prove to them our passion and our vision to get what we need to become a sustainable jazz club. The thing we want people in Omaha to know is that we have the connections to bring in the biggest names in jazz. The only way we can make it happen is if Omaha gives us the resources to make it happen. We’re really close to getting it.

“Now is the time. Omaha’s really thriving as a city and becoming known for its arts. Jazz is a historical music with strong Midwest roots. North Omaha was a center of jazz, and it can be that again.”

Adeev, who plays trumpet, says, “We want to make Love’s Jazz an attraction for not only the Midwest but around the country. You won’t have to go to 18th and Vine in Kansas City or to the Dakota Club in Minneapolis to listen to great jazz.”

There are plans to upgrade the acoustics at LJAC to “make it a state-of-the-art performance space,” says Ezra.

As unlikely as it sounds that two suburban Jewish-Americans barely out of their teens should lead a jazz revival in the heart of Omaha’s black community, it’s just par for the course for the twins. At 15, their chutzpah translated into a private lesson with trumpet master Marsalis after sneaking backstage at the Lied Performing Arts Center in Lincoln following a gig by his Lincoln 
Center Jazz Orchestra.

They appreciate what they have with Marsalis, who’s introduced them to other jazz icons, some of whom they’ve played with.

“Because of our relationship with Wynton we’re able to meet, hang out with, and learn from the best musicians in the world,” says Ezra. “We have a lot of awesome opportunities. We’re always eager to learn. And we like sharing with Omaha what we’re exposed to.”

Faddis confirms the brothers are “not shy” in approaching accomplished players like himself, Marsalis, and Jonathan Batiste for “pointers.” That networking has the brothers getting schooled by the best in the field.

“We’re living jazz history,” says Adeev, who studies under Faddis. “Wynton is the modern Coltrane. Jon Faddis is the disciple of Dizzy Gillespie. I feel honored to be part of the legacy they’ll leave me.”

Clark describes the twins as ambassadors, but the brothers also enjoy the limelight. In March, they performed at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where they led an impromptu New Orleans-style “second line” parade down Sixth Street that National Public Radio featured. A film crew following them for a proposed reality TV series was there and at the May Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders Meeting, where the brothers performed. They also did a recent talk at October’s TEDx Omaha event on the Creighton University campus.

Their talk and performance there focused on the intuitive communication and bond twins enjoy, an asset that is magnified on stage. “Twins in general like to finish each other’s sentences,” says Adeev, “and that kind of works the same in jazz.”

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

Let’s Dance!

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For over 50 years, Dottie Dankof and her husband, Dan, have been partners in life as well as on the dance floor. The couple met while Dottie was an instructor with Arthur Murray Ballroom Dance. Today, Dottie says they try to go dancing four to six times a month. The Dankofs enjoy ballroom dancing, which includes the tango, the rumba, foxtrot, swing, and polka, among others. “We do all that stuff, but we favor the waltz,” she says.

One of the benefits of dancing that Dottie cites is the fact that it’s great exercise. “They say that it’s the one physical exercise you can do that works the whole body, and they’re right!” She also finds dance to be relaxing. “When you’re out dancing, you’re not thinking of all the other things [going on]. You’re just having so much fun!”

Gone are the days of seniors spending their retirement years rocking in the front-porch swing. Today, more and more folks ranging in age from their 60s to well into their 90s are doing swing moves on the dance floor.

“It’s really, really good exercise,” says Elizabeth Edwards, dance instructor and owner of Omaha Ballroom at 153rd and Q streets. “It’s [great] for memory, too.” Edwards explains that dancers have to remember a wide variety of dance steps and that keeps their minds and their bodies active. She shares that she and one of her students have a running joke: “When he forgets a dance move, he says he has waltz-heimers.”

Dottie and Dan Dankof

Dottie and Dan Dankof

Omaha Ballroom teaches all types of dance, but Edwards says that the seniors she works with are mainly interested in ballroom and swing. The instructors have also traveled to local retirement communities to teach lessons. Edwards is working on adding line dancing and Zumba Gold (Zumba for seniors) to their repertoire. She adds that such classes are good options for seniors who are single and may not feel comfortable dancing with an instructor.

As an instructor, Edwards meets many people who come to her studio to learn a dance for various reasons. “Some people just want to dance socially,” she says. For those, Omaha Ballroom offers what they call practice parties every Friday night. “They get a lesson and then everyone dances until 10 p.m.”

For others, who wish to pursue dance on a competitive level, Edwards and her staff can help their students achieve their goals. “We just kind of see what they’re interested in and then get them started in the right direction.”

“They say that it’s the one physical exercise you can do that works the whole body, and they’re right!” – Dottie Dankof

What would ballroom dancing be without a big band to provide the music? Thanks to the Greg Spevak Orchestra and Lonny Lynn Orchestra, local dancers won’t have to find out.

The Greg Spevak Orchestra has been playing for 43 years. “We used to play at the Music Box downtown…it’s not there anymore,” Spevak adds wistfully. The Peony Park Ballroom is another lost favorite. But today’s dancers are making memories at some other local ballroom hotspots. Of course, the Wahoo Starlight Ballroom is a favorite, as are Omaha Post 1 American Legion Hall and the Bluffs Center across the river, just to name a few. Both Spevak and Lynn play at the regular Wednesday dances hosted by the Center.

While the Greg Spevak Orchestra plays a wide variety of music—from ballroom, Latin, country, swing, and popular music from the 1950s through the mid-80s the Lynnvts Orchestra tends to stay with the Big Band Era. “But we mix a lot of Latin in throughout the evening,” Lynn adds.

Both band leaders say that the majority of their audiences are in their 60s and 70s, though it’s not uncommon to see dancers in their 80s and 90s grace the dance floor as well.

“These people move great…they dance every dance,” says Spevak. “It’s an aerobic exercise. I don’t know if I can keep up with them, to tell you the truth,” he laughs.

“If there’s a dance, the seniors don’t miss it,” says Lynn. “It’s their recreation and their social get-together.”

 “We have five or six parties a year where we hire a band and invite a bunch of our closest friends.” – Linda Todd

Lynn likes the fact that he has come to know a lot of the people who come to hear them regularly. “The people we attract to the dances…they have become like family.” He says that while he can’t remember everyone’s name, “I look at their face, I can remember their favorite song.”

Bob and Linda Todd of Gretna are regulars on the ballroom dance circuit and are close friends with the Dankofs. “We’ve been married for 20 years, so we’ve probably been dancing for 25 years,” Linda says. The couple enjoys dancing so much that they’ve built a ballroom in their basement. “We have five or six parties a year where we hire a band and invite a bunch of our closest friends.”

She adds that while they have participated in local dance classes, she and Bob often use DVDs to learn new dance steps for the convenience. “We want to learn the Argentine Tango,” she says.

Both the Todds and the Dankofs travel around the metro area to meet their friends and fellow dancers several times a month. “We enjoy socializing with our friends,” Linda says, adding that their group of friends range in age from 50 to 90. “It’s just a lot of fun, and we love it!”

Jazz: A Louisiana Kitchen

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Walk through the wrought-iron gates of Jazz: A Louisiana Kitchen, and the beads and feathers tell you you’re no longer on 15th and Farnam. You’re on Bourbon Street. “I’ve had more offers than I can count for that,” says Jordan Jackson, nodding at a huge white show cape pinned to a wall. “Shangri La” it reads, letting diners know this is the place to laissez les bon temps rouler.

Jackson has been letting the good times roll as the general manager of Omaha’s Jazz for two years. “We have a full-on Cajun menu,” he says. “Like ètouffèe, it’s just not something you find much outside Louisiana.”CrawFish copy

The original Jazz in Lubbock, Texas, (and consequently all five other Jazzes scattered across the nation’s middle) was heavily inspired by celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme. The Louisiana native popularized Cajun cooking with his restaurant, cookbooks, and TV shows. Omahans can enjoy his time-honored flavors as prepared by head chef and co-owner Justino Gomez, who’s cooked for Jazz for 20 years. “I love the Cajun food,” Gomez says. “It’s healthy, and it’s just good, you know?”

How does the food compare to what you’ll find in The Big Easy? “This is a little more Midwestern,” Jackson admits. “Cajun food is spicy, and that’s not what everyone up here is looking for.”

Those looking for authentic heat need not sweat the Midwestern standard. Each dish is made to order down to the sauce. “You want it mild? I’ll just put in the garlic and chives,” Gomez says. “You want it spicy? I’ll add more cayenne.”Untitled 2

Night owls know that finding decent food downtown can be a chore with most kitchens closing at 10 p.m. Jazz’s full menu is available until two hours before closing (which is 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and midnight the rest of the week), but Jackson swears by the late-night menu. Basically the only part of the regular menu not included is anything using the sauté station, like pastas, house specialties, and the (of course) sauté menu. “You can still get a good meal late,” Jackson says. Get the crab cakes a la mer. The best appetizer, in his opinion.

If you’re the type that insists on unique drinks to go with your unique food, Jackson makes sure local craft beer is in good supply. “Whoever’s got the better beer menu, that’s where I’m going for dinner,” he says. Usually all but two of the restaurant’s 12 taps are craft brews like Keg Creek, Chefs in Black, Blue Blood, and of course, Lucky Bucket.20121116_bs_4037 copy

What is dinner without a little music? Jazz brings in local musicians to complete the ambience every Thursday through Saturday. “It’s mostly jazz and the blues,” Jackson says, “but we do have one Dixieland band.” The Street Railway Company performs every third Friday of the month. Bands play on a stage overlooking the dining area from 7 to 11 p.m. Diners looking for a mellower evening should come on Thursdays, when the music only lasts until 10 p.m.

“Downtown’s becoming more than just the Old Market,” Jackson said. “If someone’s going to a show at the Orpheum, I want them to just know, oh yeah, Jazz’s right around the corner.”

Jazz – A Louisiana Kitchen
1421 Farnam St.
402-342-3662
jazzkitchen.com

Keith “Keymaster” Martz

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Talent can present itself in many forms. For some, it’s through an aptitude for academics; for others, it’s via intellectual curiosity. But for Keith “Key Master” Martz, it can be found on the 88 keys of a piano. Inspired by every genre from classical to modern jazz, the 29-year-old Omaha native has the gift of music that stems from an enthusiasm and passion for the art itself.

“My music has its own style,” he says. “What sets me apart as a musician is that it doesn’t sound like anyone else’s.”

Mostly self-taught, Martz was encouraged by his mother to take up the piano when he was about 7 years old. He received some formal training until the age of 9, but it was minimal. Later, as a student at Millard South, he joined the high school band where he once again played the piano.

Martz’s approach to the form is unique. He says he’s a slow sight reader, meaning he plays faster than he can read music notes. For this reason, and because of his love of improvisation, Martz doesn’t play sheet music and instead creates new songs each time he sits down to play.

“If I was asked to play music by other people, I couldn’t,” Martz says. “I play from my heart, and I play my own type of music.”20121127_bs_5679 copy

When he’s not pounding out melodies on a keyboard, Martz stays plenty busy working two full-time jobs, during the day at specialty grocery store Trader Joe’s and at night at Lakeside Hospital. Luckily, Lakeside Hospital has a piano in its lobby, and his coworkers often ask him to play for them when he’s not occupied with his duties as a valet.

Christie Abdul, manager of volunteers and business innovations at Lakeside, oversees the valet services where Martz works and has had the opportunity to work with him.

“Keith is someone who is very warm; he greets everyone with a positive attitude,” she says. “I truly believe he cares about every single person he meets. His happiness is kind of like something you want to catch. It’s contagious.”

“What sets me apart as a musician is that [my music] doesn’t sound like anyone else’s.” – Keith Martz

Abdul says that Martz goes out of his way to embody the hospital’s “every patient is my patient” philosophy. Even if a car isn’t using the valet service, she says, he’ll run to the car and open the door.

“He’s genuinely a warm and caring person and just gentle,” she says.

Paul Lukes and Kyle Eustice, regular customers of Trader Joe’s, say they look forward to seeing the kind and chipper employee during their shopping trips. “The first time I came across Keith, it seemed like perhaps he was just having a really, really good day,” says Lukes. “Then I realized, after shopping [there] for so long, that he’s always having a good day. That’s Keith.”

“His positivity is contagious and I would challenge anyone to leave a conversation with him without a smile on their face,” adds Eustice.20121127_bs_5753 copy

As any artist would, Martz gains inspiration from other talent and his list of favorites is quite eclectic. Some of the performers he regularly listens to include Mozart, Coldplay, Hans Zimmer, U2, and internet sensation Ronald Jenkees.

“I only listen to music once a week because my own music satisfies and comforts me most of the time,” he says. “I love listening to music from scores like Bourne Supremacy, Batman Returns, and Inception.”

Martz is planning to record a CD of his music and one day, he’d like to tour. Until then, music lovers can listen and watch him perform on YouTube with the search terms “Keith ‘Key Master’ Martz.”

But the promise of fame or fortune isn’t what pushes Martz to continue his art. Rather, the sheer pleasure of playing is enough for him.

“One time I played, I played until my fingers bled because I was just pouring myself into it,” Martz says. “I get really itchy feet, and I just let it all out at once. I love expressing myself like that in the music that I play.”

The Blues Reign at Havana Garage

August 20, 2012 by
Photography by minorwhitestudios

Thanks to the island atmosphere (think moody Rat Pack, not kitschy Cheeseburger in Paradise), guests at the Havana Garage are swept away to a more sophisticated era when jazz and the blues were kings in the music scene.

“A cigar, a drink, great live music you don’t have to shout over…it’s a social style,” says Chaz Kline, owner of Havana Garage, a cigar bar in what he calls the Old Market’s lower east side. “There comes a certain point when you want to graduate to a different level of socializing.”

The Garage doesn’t have live music every night, but expect it on Fridays and Saturdays and maybe Thursdays, if you’re lucky. “We’ve talked about curating an open mic night on Sundays, too,” Kline says. Regular performers include trumpet player Darryl White, the OK Sisters, and a couple different bands that Matt Wallace, esteemed local saxophonist, plays in.

Crime Sena, for example, is a kind of ‘70s rock band. “You know, what was on the radio in the ‘70s,” Wallace says. “People think they’re getting their last drink, and then we play something they haven’t heard in years. A few songs later they’re still in the back there singing along.” Thomas Sena, founder of T’eez Salon, plays piano in the band, a fact that has forced Wallace to take stock of his ego. “You really think you’re something until you play with him, and all the women are like, ‘Is that Tom Sena?’”

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Though live performances can be planned out months in advance, Kline will leave a few holes here and there in the calendar to fill in when something extra special comes up. “We haven’t found enough bands in Omaha with that Sancho Panza feel, you know?” he says. “What you’ll find most often is Mexican, a mariachi flavor. We’re looking for something more Cuban, more Caribbean.”

There’s usually no cover, but if you show up after 10 or so on a night of live music, you might get charged $5, depending on the band. “We’ll probably still promo a drink though,” Kline says. “This is Omaha. It’s not New Orleans with lots of places like this to choose from. We’re an adjunct to the music scene here. It’s not our whole angle, but it’s definitely the cherry on top of the cake.”

If you’re new to the rest of the cake, Kline suggested selecting a mild cigar from the humidor downstairs that has over 300 different facings. “Maybe Romeo y Julieta. Or Monte Cristo,” he says. “Those are some of the oldest names. They’re actually from Cuban seed.” Then, with a signature Havana Garage cocktail in hand (Brazilian rum, ginger beer, mint…think mojito meets Moscow mule), have a seat in either the backyard bodega for a low-key chat or in the bar area to listen to the Latin strains of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

If you need a snack to complete the picture, Kline noted with pride that Havana Garage rubs shoulders with some of the oldest restaurants in the Old Market. “People bring over their dinners from Ahmad’s or Twisted Fork or Indian Oven a lot,” he says. “We’ll get you the menus, we’ll phone next door.”

That sort of service is de rigueur as far as he’s concerned. “We’re all kind of little ambassadors here on the lower east side. The best compliment is, ‘I can’t believe you exist.’”