Born: April 26, 1921 | Died: February 12, 2004 Primary Instrument: Sax, alto
Hailing out of Omaha, Nebraska, Preston Love started on the sax at age 15, and by 22 was a member of the Count Basie Orchestra during the 1940's. He went on to form his own group, the Preston Love Orchestra, and acquired quite a reputation as leader of the West Coast Motown Orchestra where he played with, among others, Ray Charles, the Supremes, the Temptations, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
The flutist-saxophonist grew up the youngest of nine children, in a predominantly black North Omaha neighborhood. He listened to his idols (especially Earle Warren) on the family radio and phonograph, taught himself to play the sax his brother had brought home, and learned Warren's solos note for note, laying recordings over and over again.
With Warren as his inspiration, Love made himself an accomplished player. I had the natural gift for sound--a good tone, which is important. Some people never have it. I was self-motivated. No one had to make me practice. And being good at mathematics, I was able to read music with the very least instruction. His first paying gig came in 1936, at age 15, as a last-minute fill-in on drums with Warren Webb and His Spiders at the Airplane Inn in Honey Creek, Iowa. Soon, he was touring with prewar territory bands.
During the 1930s and 40s, Omaha was a booming regional center of jazz. In an era in which every small town had its own dance hall, countless bands toured incessantly to bring live music to every corner of the nation. In the vast territory of the upper plains from Wyoming to Minnesota, those bands were likely to come from Omaha.
“We were centrally located,” Love says. “This was the hub, the booking center for the biggest dance territory in the world ... we played all the dance pavilions and ballrooms in the Midwest. Minnesota had thousands. Nebraska had hundreds ... all the bands were working six or seven nights a week. So therefore, to service these bands, we brought musicians from all over the country to Omaha because the employment was here.
“There were some other cities like Kansas City, or Oklahoma City, where they had some bands, but Omaha was the hub because we were centrally located. So hundreds of black musicians came here. From these were some great players. The proof of it is, where did they go, those who were good, Ellington, Basie, every band of any note had several ex-Omahans. They might not have been born in Omaha, but they lived here for several years while they played.”
Preston toured the Midwest continuously throughout the 40’s and ‘50’s playing in territory bands with Lloyd Hunter Lucky Millinder,and Nat Towles, and eventually lead his own groups recording for the Federal label. He worked with noted producer and bandleader Johnny Otis, who wrote and produced Love’s 1969's release “Preston Love's Omaha Bar-B-Q.”
In the early '60s he moved to California where he joined up with Ray Charles and in due course became the West Coast bandleader for Motown, appearing on hundreds of sessions.
He returned to Omaha in 1972 and became comfortable being the local legend and playing regularly at local venues. He earned rave reviews playing prestigious jazz festivals (Monterey Montreaux, Berlin); toured Europe to acclaim; and taught university courses on the history of jazz and the social implications of black music.
In 1997 his autobiography, A Thousand Honey Creeks Later, was quite popular and gives insight into the musical history of jazz in the Midwest as told by one that was there. There is also another part of this book. It's written in protest, Love explained. I'm an angry man. I started my autobiography to a large degree in dissatisfaction with what has transpired in America in the music business and, of course, with the racial thing that's still very prevalent. Blacks have almost been eliminated from their own art because the people presenting it know nothing about it. We've seen our jazz become nonexistent. Suddenly, the image is no longer black. Nearly all the people playing rhythm and blues, blues and jazz ... are white. That's unreal. False. Fraudulent.
While Love concedes the music is free for anyone to assimilate, he demands that reverence be paid to its origins. In his mind, jazz is separate from fusion and other hybrid musical styles that incorporate jazz elements. For Love, either you have the gift for jazz or you don't. All the studying, technique and best intentions in the world won't cut it, without the gift. And while he doesn't assert that only blacks can excel at jazz, he always returns to the fact that it is, at its core, indigenous black music, an expression of soul: To hear the harmony of those black musicians, with that sorrowful, plaintive thing that only blacks have. That pain in their playing. That blue note. That's what jazz is.