Omaha’s jazz scene was alive by 1923, especially after the city’s most popular band was launched that year. This is a history of the Original Omaha Night Owls, the “Hottest Colored Orchestra in Town.”
The word jazz was first printed in 1917, and the Omaha Night Owls were early on the scene. In that era, bands didn’t travel far or fast, and when a city could support a band it was a sign of cultural sophistication, relevance for the young people who music mattered the most. Based in the Near North Side neighborhood, the Omaha Night Owls were an African American jazz band formed in 1920.
For at least seven years the Omaha Night Owls stormed halls, ballrooms, clubs and barns across the Midwest playing jazz and early swing music. I found the first mention of the band in the newspapers in 1920.
During this era, African Americans in Omaha were fast developing cultural institutions, building businesses and churches, and really holding Black excellence to a high bar. Jazz was the soundtrack of the times, and the music of the Omaha Night Owls was called “alive” and “vibrant,” and made the region’s music scene come to life. For at least five years, the band kept performed regularly at The Grotto at 2024 North 24th Street. This club was the home to the Night Owls, as well as other early jazz bands like Sam Turner’s Orchestra and Traveling by bus, the band played all over Omaha, across Nebraska and in Iowa. They also made at least one long trip to Kansas City. Young Black people and young white people enjoyed the music, and slowly the Night Owls played more in mainstream music outlets of the times.
In 1927, Frank Shelton “Red” Perkins (1890–1976) became the band leader, quickly renaming the Omaha Night Owls band as Red Perkins’ and His Dixie Ramblers. However, the Night Owls were booked by their original name into 1930. Before the Night Owls, Perkins led a four-piece ensemble at Jack Broomfield’s Hotel and other places, and when he took over the new band, it was a move up in the city’s music scene.
Perkins made the Night Owls into a six-piece, with trombones, trumpets, piano, drums, clarinet, and more. Perkins himself was a great trumpeter who featured heavily in performances. Charlie “Big” Green (1900-1936), an icon of the jazz trombone, started with the Night Owls and played with them through 1923. After, he played with several popular jazz bands from the East Coast. Locally known trumpeter Herbert Wiggins played for him, too.
In 2003, the City of Omaha opened Dreamland Plaza at 2322 North 24th Street as a tribute to North Omaha’s jazz history. The “Jazz Trio” by Littleton Alston is located at the Dreamland Plaza at North 24th and Lizzie Robinson Avenue. This plaza is across from the Dreamland Ballroom, and was made in tribute to the community, including the legacy of the Omaha Night Owls.
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