Starting in the 1920s, the area around 24th and Lake was a dominant musical center in Omaha. Musicians traveling across the country stopped over here, and North Omaha became known as a place where musicians could cut their chops or stay in shape for their bigger shows in larger cities. One of the most important venues in the community was one of the longest-running too. This is a history of The Off Beat.
The history of the Off Beat starts before the club did. It was January 1949 when Jerry Morris found a partner to open Jerry and Johnny’s, a nightclub on North 30th Street. Immediately the top of North Omaha’s music scene, the club was regularly raided by the Omaha Police Department Morals Squad, which led it to close permanently in 1953. Morris knew if he positioned his club well within the city’s segregated Black neighborhood he wouldn’t be harassed by police so frequently. This led to the opening of The Off Beat in 1952. (My research shows the club changed its opening year regularly and used 1953, 1956 and 1957 as the grand opening anniversary.)
The Off Beat was located at 2410 Lake Street in the epicenter of today’s 24th and Lake Historic District. Made of cinder block with a simple face, the building was constructed after the 1913 Easter Sunday tornado demolished the Diamond Theatre, which sat at the same address. Before Morris bought it, the building was home to the Lake Theater, the K-Vets Club and a bowling alley, among other endeavors. When he got it, he renovated the balcony into an exclusive lounge, and made the main floor into the service floor. Filled with small tables and a large stage, it was a quintessential Midwest jazz house for nearly two decades after. In 1959, Morris built a new bandstand for the large bands still in fashion at that point.
Immediately after opening, The Off Beat became one of Omaha’s most popular jazz nightclubs. Joining the long legacy of jazz institutions in North Omaha including the Dreamland Ballroom, contemporary businesses included Mildred Brown’s Carnation Ballroom, McGill’s Blue Room, and Allen’s Showcase. Omaha’s Jim Crow realities made these places essential for Black musicians and fans, because other nightclubs in Omaha wouldn’t book African American performers below a certain earning threshold. Initially hiring from the Midwest touring musicians’ scene, Morris also hosted beauty pageants, cabaret dances and local festivals into the early 1960s.
After opening as a strict nightclub, in the early 1950s, Morris changed the name to the Off Beat Supper Club to reflect the new meals he sold there. By the late 1950s, the Off Beat was officially part of the so-called Chittlin’ Circuit. On this route, musicians regularly stopped in Omaha because Morris was so successful at booking Black musicians and filling the house for their shows. Some of the famous performers he booked included Chuck Berry, Dinah Washington, Savannah Churchill, Claude Maxwell, Maxine Sullivan, Mable Scott, and Wini Brown.
In 1954, Morris tried relaunching the business as a private membership club. After running ads for several months that year, there was no further mention of this in the Omaha Star, which is where Morris advertised. Although her club competed with his, Star owner and editor Mildred Brown was a supporter of Morris and leant her reputation and newspaper to keep The Off Beat in business. It was 1957 when Morris opened the Onyx Room, a high-end “club within a club” concept. Featuring fancy furnishings and a strict dress code, the space lasted just a few years before being re-incorporated into the rest of the club.
Around 1965, Marcellus Green, Sr. (1917-1993) took ownership of the club and the building. Formed in 1960, the Les Garcon Club was an alliance of powerful African American men in North Omaha. Leaders included Robert Lewis, Kenneth Moore and Roosevelt Watson. Marcellus Green was heavily involved in the club, and from the time he took ownership of The Off Beat, the Les Garcon Club met there. It continued operating as a club until the last of the North Omaha riots happened.
After it closed in fall 1969, After closing the club, Marcellus Green opened another one at 30th and Lake in 1971. For a year, he ran The Off Beat as a renamed facility called the Offbeat Teen Center, but it didn’t last. Green stayed very active throughout North Omaha, including helping to establish the Great Plains Black History Museum with Bertha Calloway.
The building that housed The Off Beat was demolished around 1974. Today, almost 50 years later, the lot remains empty. There is no historical marker or plaque designating the space as historic, and few tours recognize The Off Beat’s influence in Omaha. However, it was truly a hotspot that shouldn’t be forgot.