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Former Fremonter and spouse open jazz club in Omaha

It was cold outside as Mary Tainter McKenna and her husband, Brian, shared their dreams at Milady Coffeehouse in downtown Fremont.

He was reflective and passionate while talking about jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat King Cole, who performed in Omaha decades ago.

She was nostalgic about her years in Fremont and teachers like Bernie Clark, Bob Yanike, Fred Robertson and Emily Brown — among others who’ve made such an impression on her.

Both are excited about The Jewell — a new music and fine dining experience they’ve opened in Omaha.

Modeled after jazz clubs in larger cities, The Jewell will feature local and regional artists and national acts in its location in the Omaha Marriott Hotel Downtown in the Capitol District.

The club is in the midst a soft opening, but a grand opening is set for Feb. 6 and 7, featuring Grammy-winning jazz artist David Sanborn and his jazz quintet. Doors open at 5 p.m. for the 6:30 p.m. show and 7:45 p.m. for the 8:30 p.m. show at 1030 Capitol Ave., Omaha.

On Wednesdays, McKenna books local and regional artists. He brings in national acts from Thursdays through Sundays.

“The best jazz artists in the industry,” he said.

Tickets for local artists are $10 to $15, each. For national acts, tickets range from $20 on up. There’s a college student discount.

Tainter McKenna said the experience is unique because guests can meet the artists after the show. Artists come into the audience for photos and to sign CDs.

“It’s kind of like they’re playing in your own living room,” she said.

Besides the music, The Jewell offers New Orleans/Southern style cuisine such as crispy crab cakes, Southern fried chicken, seared salmon, chicken gumbo, bananas foster and pecan pie. Entrée costs range from $17 to $26. The Jewell has valet parking.

Besides providing entertainment for area residents, the McKennas plan to hire the artists to teach master classes/workshops or mentoring sessions for students at The Holland Center, UNO and Love’s Art Jazz & Art Center.

Tainter McKenna notes her own appreciation of mentors she had while living in Fremont.

A 1990 Fremont High School graduate, she appeared in the FHS productions of “Once Upon a Mattress” and the musical, “Carousel.”

The former Fremonter recalls Clark’s devotion to plays and students, the energy of Yanike and Brown, and Pam Murphy’s even temperament.

Four years after high school, Tainter McKenna moved to New York City to pursue acting.

Her multi-faceted career has included work alongside celebrities such as Martha Stewart and Mandy Patinkin. She would work for Sony Music Entertainment and other companies including Yahoo! and Virgin Records.

Brian McKenna, originally from upstate New York, came to The Big Apple as a drummer/percussionist. He earned a master’s degree at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where many years earlier the Wahoo-born Howard Hanson, a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, was director for 40 years.

While at Eastman, McKenna learned that many jazz greats on tours played in Omaha before going on to Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo.

The McKennas opted to move to Nebraska after their daughter, Emily, was born. They didn’t want to raise Emily in the midst of New York City and wanted to be closer to family.

They’ve lived in Elkhorn for about three years.

With his own production company, McKenna could live in Nebraska and fly back to New York every month for a few days.

But McKenna missed his wife and daughter. McKenna’s heart broke when his daughter asked him not to leave again for six days at a time.

At first, the McKennas considered launching a children’s music school and were looking at locations when a realtor suggested he talk to people in Omaha’s Capitol District. The district is north of the Old Market and near the CHI Health arena and convention center.

“They might be interested in a fine dining restaurant and jazz club,” the realtor said.

McKenna sought out the late Al Goodwin and Mike Maroney of the Omaha Economic Development Center at the Jewell building, home of the former Dreamland Ballroom. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the Jewell building at 24th and Grant streets was the place where touring jazz and blues legends performed from the 1930s to the mid-1960s. It features history and photos of the performers.

Besides Ellington, Basie and Cole, those jazz and blues legends who came here include Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Ray Charles.

Nat King Cole even had a 10-week residency at the Dreamland Ballroom in 1943. There, Cole wrote, “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” which became a Top 10 song on the Billboard charts and earned him a record deal.

Omaha jazz legends include Anna Mae Winburn, who directed The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated all-women’s band in the U.S., and Preston Love Sr., a renowned alto saxophonist, bandleader and songwriter.

“What better way to take that lineage, that history, celebrate it by the creation of a new venue at the Capitol District?” McKenna asked.

The new jazz club’s name comes from James Jewell Sr., who had the building at 2221 N. 24th St., built in the early 1920s. The first floor had a pool hall and barbershop. Jewell and his son, James, lived on the second floor. After Jewell died, his son James Jewell Jr., took over the space in 1930 and started booking national acts in that space with tickets ranging from $1.50 to $25.

Cole’s tickets sold for $25 each and the entire venue sold out.

“And 25 dollars back then was equivalent to about $350 today,” Tainter McKenna said.

McKenna wants to carry on the tradition. He wanted to honor Jimmy Jewell Jr., by naming the new jazz venue after him. Just like the jazz greats of yesteryear, musicians now have a route that takes them to gigs in various states. McKenna said he’s friends with all the club owners on the current routing path, which helps with the booking process.

“We can bring great talent here, because they’re already out here performing in other cities so they want to pick up some other gigs along the way,” he said.

Tainter McKenna also hopes to have a night or weekend during which anyone from Fremont could get two entrees for the price of one and free valet parking.

And years after she performed on a high school stage in Fremont, Tainter McKenna gets a little emotional seeing people who’ve enjoyed shows at The Jewell.

One experience proved especially poignant when her parents, Paul and Joan Tainter, brought an 88-year-old man and his wife to a show.

“During the first song, he (the 88-year-old) had tears in his eyes, because it brought back all these memories,” Tainter McKenna said.

In 1958, the man had seen his favorite artist, jazz trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong. Watching the recent show transported the man back in time.

“It made him feel so wonderful,” McKenna said.

“He couldn’t take his eyes off the stage the entire time,” Tainter McKenna added.

With the launch of The Jewell, more area residents will have a chance to reminisce.

And make new memories.


Brent Wasenius / Jack Denker / Fremont Tribune 

Kobe Wilkins of Arlington goes for a pin against Thomas Vance of Milford during the Arlington Invitational on Jan. 12. The Eagles are seeded second and will face seventh-seeded Bridgeport on Saturday in the Class C state duals tournament in Kearney.


Education
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Cedar Bluffs to host all-girls wrestling tournament

Cedar Bluffs Public Schools will be hosting its first-ever all girls wrestling tournament, joining a growing statewide push to create more opportunity for girl wrestlers to compete.

The tournament will be held this Saturday, Feb. 2, beginning at 10 a.m., and it will feature 40 wrestlers from eight different schools. Admission is free. The tournament was envisioned as a way “to continue to promote high school girls wrestling in the state of Nebraska,” according to a Facebook post from Cedar Bluffs Public Schools.

Cedar Bluffs hopes the tournament will become an annual event, says Jay Parker, the head wrestling coach at Cedar Bluffs.

“It’s a push from us because I’ve got girls that want to wrestle and they didn’t want to wrestle boys,” Parker said.

This weekend’s tournament comes ahead of an April vote by school delegates with the Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA) that would decide whether Nebraska will sanction girls wrestling as an official school sport.

If it passes, girls wrestling could become an NSAA-sanctioned school sport for the 2019-2020 school year. It’s already passed two prior votes.

Currently, if girls want to wrestle at the varsity level in Nebraska, they must join a boys varsity team. In those cases, they must either compete against other boys, or join the limited number of all-girls tournaments or divisions that have sprouted up around the state in recent years.

But female Cedar Bluffs students have become increasingly interested in wrestling in recent years, Parker said.

Last year, he had one girl wrestler on the team. This year, he started with four, though one moved away. Now, the team has four total members: three girls and one boy.

Girls are occasionally at a disadvantage when wrestling against boys, Parker said — in part because “physically, they don’t match up all the time” and because boys have often had more exposure to wrestling because there have been more opportunities for them to compete.

“The girls just started,” Parker said.

Interest in girls wrestling has been on the upswing for several reasons, said Ron Higdon, assistant director with the NSAA.

Taboos around girls fighting or wrestling are starting to dissolve with sports like MMA or women’s boxing. And in smaller schools that don’t have a swimming program, there are few winter sports outside of basketball.

“This would create another option in the winter for girls to compete,” Higdon said of girls wrestling.

Girls wrestling has seen a push in Nebraska in recent years. The number of all-girls tournaments or girls divisions added onto boys tournaments has jumped from three to about 10 in the past three years, Higdon said.

Higdon believes that the popularity of the sport would increase even more if the April vote passes. He noted that he often fields calls from parents who won’t allow their girls to wrestle on a boys team — but who would allow them to do so on a girls team.

In the past year, the number of states that had sanctioned girls wrestling through their respective school activities association doubled from six to 12, Higdon said.

If the vote were to pass, some smaller schools may face some initial challenges, Higdon said. That’s because girls would no longer be able to practice or compete with boys as they can now. For small schools that have only one girl on the team, it limits their ability to find a practice partner.

Higdon said that schools would be able to co-op with other school districts that have female wrestlers — up to four schools can co-op together.

He believes that, overall, sanctioning girls wrestling will create more opportunities for girls to compete.

“This is a nationwide push to have girls wrestling,” Higdon said. “High school athletics, regardless of what the sport is, is an important part of the overall picture of your high school experience, and really, giving opportunities is what [NSAA] is about. I think that it would be a really positive move for the girls.”


Education
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Ruff House hosting Post Prom fundraiser

The Ruff House Family Entertainment Center is hosting a fundraiser to raise money for the Fremont and Archbishop Bergan Post-Prom event, which every year hopes to provide a safe and fun option for kids to attend after their prom.

The fundraiser will be held on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, when, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., participants can pay $10 to get three hours of play on the Ruff House’s trampoline and playground, along with two games of Wipeout. Jump socks are not included in the price.

Ruff House will give 25 percent of all of the money earned from the entrance fee to the Post Prom Committee.

“It’s a huge value,” said Heather Gossett, who is the solicitations chair for the Post Prom committee. “That’s a $25 value typically.”

Every year, Post Prom provides food, entertainment, games and high-end prizes that in past years have included laptops, Apple watches and more. Past years’ events have been valued at around $15,000, the Tribune has previously reported.

The event is completely free for students to attend, funded through donations and events like this one. Business and community partnerships have played a particularly large role in ensuring the event happens each year, Gossett said.

“We would not be able to have a free and safe event for the juniors and seniors of Fremont without our community partners,” Gossett said. “They truly step up to the plate, they knock it out of the park for us every year, which, again, gives us this wonderful event that is free for all of the kids and their guests, with food, live entertainment and killer grand prizes.”

Each year’s event has a theme — last year’s was “Life’s a Beach” — and this year’s event will take on a Las Vegas flair with a theme called “Roll With Us.”

It will feature Las Vegas-themed entertainment and decorations, as well as a yet-to-be announced entertainment act.

The last two years featured a hypnotist, who was well-received by the students. But Gossett noted that they typically try to vary up the entertainers each year, and this year will feature someone new.

Post Prom will start at midnight on prom night, which is April 27 this year.

Other fundraising events are coming up as well — Raising Cane’s hosts a monthly fundraiser where a portion of all purchases go toward the Post Prom event. The next one is Feb. 20.

Additionally, the Post Prom committee is always looking for more parent donations. Donations can be made at https://www.facfoundation.org/postprom.html


TAMMY REAL-MCKEIGHAN, Fremont Tribune 

Will Prusia sits at a set of drums inside Ames Community Church. At 75, he's started learning how to play.