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.