JAMing in Omaha

In celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, the museum’s resident big band orchestra, traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, for lectures, concerts, and student workshops. JAM is an exciting time to bring a focused attention to jazz—America’s original art form—as a historical and living treasure.

It was no coincidence that the SJMO found itself traveling to Omaha during JAM. Director of Education Mick Hale from the Durham Museum came knocking on my door last September with Smithsonian Affiliations colleague Aaron Glavas, looking for ideas on how to celebrate JAM. It was obvious from the beginning that this had the mark of a winning partnership. We both quickly recognized that we needed to offer more than just evening concerts, so Mick went to work with his staff in partnering with the Papillion La Vista South High School and Millard South High School as the host site for our education programs.

As April arrived, we looked forward to the intense JAM schedule that awaited us. Day one consisted of hopping a flight to Omaha (via Chicago), a 2 hour rehearsal, a lecture from maestro David Baker on appreciating jazz, and closing out the evening with SJMO’s concert of music by Johnny Hodges, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and John Coltrane at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

The following day started at 7 a.m. with a van ride to Papillion La Vista South High School, where we proceeded to perform for around 150 students, conducted an improvisation workshop, and provided helpful critique as two school bands performed for us. As Executive Director of SJMO and Jazz Oral History Program, I find it encouraging to witness students eager to learn about jazz history and commit to its future.

That evening as we stepped on stage (an old boiler room converted to a lecture and concert hall at the Durham Museum), I was aware of the great anticipation for our impending performance. Alto saxophonist Scott Silbert counted off the first tune and away we went. It was obvious from the first beat that the band was swinging like no other band that night. While sitting behind the drums I couldn’t help but notice our audience moving in rhythm with the music and many smiling from ear to ear. I knew instantly that we had made a musical connection.

The following day we had the luxury of an 8 a.m. departure to Millard South High School for another round of student workshops before we headed to the airport for a 1:30 flight home.





I found myself tired from the densely packed schedule but invigorated by the hospitality, excitement, warmth, and new friendships. I tip my hat to the fantastic Durham Museum staff and the Omaha community at large. The meaningful relationships we built during this SJMO tour were great reminders of why JAM is such a vibrant and important celebration of American culture.

Want to learn more about the American experience through the transformative power of jazz? The museum’s Smithsonian Jazz team strongly recommends you check out their website to explore our jazz oral history collection, get tickets to performances by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, and more. Or sign up to receive a monthly jazz e-newsletter from the museum for regular reminders.

Ken Kimery is the Executive Director and drummer for the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and Director of the Jazz Oral History Program. at the National Museum of American History.