Live from the Old Market — it’s Luigi Waites

Omaha World-Herald

By Emily Babay

Drummer and vibraphonist Luigi Waites has played before live audiences thousands of times in his decades-long career.

In 2005, the Omaha arts community celebrated his 1,500th jazz performance at Mr. Toad’s in the Old Market with a party at the bar. Waites, then in his late 70s, was lauded for his energy and longevity.

“For an old man, he’s got a lot of spunk,” Doyle Tipler, a trumpeter in his band, said at the time.

Now, the spunk of Waites’ live shows — heard by generations of Omahans — will make its way to a CD. He has performed weekly at Mr. Toad’s since the mid-1970s.

The album will be the first recorded live for Waites, now 81, and his band, Luigi Inc.

And Waites expects it to be his last recording.

Songs for the album were recorded in May at Mr. Toad’s. Waites said he doesn’t know yet when the album will be released.

He said he thought his best work was done live, but the past weeks have shown that album-quality performances aren’t guaranteed.

“Like anything, there’s good nights and bad nights,” said Waites, who has played with legends such as Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. Luigi Inc. has opened for James Brown and has recorded two other albums.

Waites has lived in California and Chicago and has toured in Europe three times. But his primary influence, say friends and colleagues, has been on Omaha and Nebraska as an artist and — perhaps more notably — as a teacher.

“He’s the one who stayed in town,” said Rick Renn, general manager at Mr. Toad’s.

For the past five years, Waites also has played solo at Dundee Dell, 5007 Underwood Ave., Tuesdays through Fridays. He plays the vibes at the front of the restaurant, adding pleasant background sounds to the lunch-hour hustle. He pauses to greet people he knows.

In that venue, Waites often gives people who wouldn’t normally listen to jazz a taste of the genre, said general manager Monique Huston. He plays “Happy Birthday” for diners and lets children try the vibes.

Waites said he is fortunate to still have the health to perform.

“So many people have died young,” he said. “And some of my good friends can’t play anymore.”

Born in Omaha in 1927, Waites started playing at a time when most young people, especially black youths, did not have money for lessons.

But Waites said he learned through the best method: simply paying attention to what others are doing — both the good and the bad.

Then, Waites said, “you decide as an individual what you’re going to do.”

That’s a lesson he has instilled in students. Waites has given lessons, worked as a teaching artist with the Nebraska Arts Council and presented assemblies at schools in 14 states.

His work in Nebraska schools in the 1980s and 1990s bridged racial gaps and divisions between urban and rural parts of the state, said Suzanne Wise, executive director of Nebraska Arts Council. The council named Waites artist of the year in 1996, and he was inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

Brad Thomson, a former member of Luigi Inc., said Waites taught him to not fear mistakes. With Waites, Thomson said, he has played “millions and millions of notes that sounded wrong and turned out to be right.”

There’s no problem with playing what seems to be an error, Waites said.

“How many things do we have in our world today that started as accidents?”

Waites doesn’t let his music stay static, said friend Larry Frederickson, a substitute in the band. Waites has shifted from playing drums to focusing on the vibes, plays both with Luigi Inc. and as a soloist, and encourages his band to try new material, including writing their own songs.

The only sure things in life, Waites said, are death and change. Waites, who is long divorced and has six children, knows he’ll have to adapt to whatever comes his way. But for now, he expresses no desire to lighten his performance schedule.

Working with the band, teaching other musicians and sharing his music are simply what he enjoys.

Waites’ message, said Frederickson, has always been that “if you play it safe, you’re not going to learn anything.”

A good teacher, Waites said, will push his students to surpass his own skills.

“If they come up to my level, they haven’t done nothing,” he said. “And I haven’t done my job.”

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