Dan Desdunes and the Birth of Omaha Jazz
A 1924 event in Wilber, Nebraska, featured “Dan Desdune’s Band and Minstrel Show of Omaha. Colored Entertainers Supreme.” NSHS RG813-445 (at left).
Dan Desdunes lived a remarkable life as a bandleader, educator, and civil rights activist. In his native New Orleans, he played a key role in an unsuccessful legal challenge to railway segregation that led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision. In Omaha, he became a successful bandleader who also volunteered at Father Flanagan’s Boys Home, where he trained the boys for fundraising musical tours. His story is told in “Dan Desdunes: New Orleans Civil Rights Activist and ‘The Father of Negro Musicians of Omaha’” by Jesse J. Otto. The article appears in the Fall 2011 issue of Nebraska History.
Through the mid-twentieth century, Omaha was known as a hub of traveling jazz bands—black bands. Otto writes,
Before the end of the dance band era, around 1960, many black musicians came to Omaha in order to develop their talents and try to work their way into big name bands. Omaha jazz musician Preston Love asserted, “If New York, Chicago, and Kansas City were the major leagues of jazz, Omaha was the triple-A. If you wanted to make the big leagues, you came and played in Omaha.” Omaha’s black bandleaders had long upheld a tradition of nurturing and producing prominent musicians, many of whom had been attracted to Omaha from other parts of the country. Dan Desdunes was largely responsible for beginning this tradition.
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—David L. Bristow, Associate Director / Publications