Grain elevators, not skyscrapers, fill the view outside Paul Serrato’s home now that the jazz pianist-composer is back in Omaha after decades in New York City.
Serrato was a New York sideman, soloist and band leader. When not performing, he haunted clubs to see countless legends play. An avid collector, he helped himself to rare posters of great jazz lineups at iconic spots like the Village Gate in East Harlem.
He also spent untold hours composing and trying out original tunes and arrangements. He’s released nine albums on his Graffiti Productions label. He cut his tenth in February with his regular Big Apple crew. The new CD will have a fall national release.
Serrato also wrote for and accompanied underground cabaret and off-Broadway performers.
Education is a parallel passion for Serrato, who has degrees in music (Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts) and urban education (Adelphi University). Since the 1980s he’s taught adult ESL. He taught in various New York boroughs. Since resettling in Omaha five years ago he’s been an adjunct instructor at Metropolitan Community College’s south campus.
“I love teaching ESL. I love working with international students,” he said. “It’s taught me to respect other people, especially immigrants. I’ve always been interested in other cultures, other languages. It was a natural fit for me to migrate to teaching ESL and to pursue it to the end that I have.
“I’m a great believer in bilingual education.”
He’s distressed state funding cutbacks threaten something so impactful for students.
“There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction in knowing we’re helping them to acculturate-integrate into the larger scene.”
He’s outraged by draconian Trump administration measures against illegal immigrants and by Trump’s own hateful rhetoric on immigration.
Serrato has immigrant students compose essays about their new lives in America. He’s moved by their stories.
“It inspires me that I can guide them and give them an opportunity to release their emotions and feelings. It’s like nobody’s ever asked them before. Some of the papers are so remarkable. They spill it all out – eloquently, too – their feelings about being immigrants, living here, the difficulties, the good things.”
Last year he organized a program at Gallery 72 in which his Omaha students read personal accounts that his New York students wrote in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers. Serrato and his NYC students were only a few blocks from ground zero that fateful day. They watched the tragedy unfold before their eyes.
“I had my international adult students write about their impressions of that day. They were from all these different countries. They wrote eloquently about what they witnessed. I saved their essays and decided to turn it into EYEWITNESS: New York Testimonies. Though they all experienced the same event, we hear it filtered through the sensibilities of their diverse cultures.”
Serrato’s “Broadway Electronic” and “Blues Elegy” compositions provided ambient music for the readings.
“I was very proud of how that event turned out. My Metro students did a great job.”
He said the international student mix he teaches “makes me feel like I’m back in New York.”
His cozy southeast Omaha home is a tightly packed trove. Framed posters and album covers adorn walls. Photos of students, family, friends and jam cats are pinned to boards. Stacks of books occupy tables.
His music life began in Omaha, where he showed early muscial aptitude and formally studied piano.
“I began doing talent contests around town. Schmoller & Mueller piano store had a Saturday morning talent show on the radio. I won first prize a couple times.”
The Creighton Prep grad was brought up the son of a single mother who divorced when he was three.
“She was a pretty remarkable woman considering what she had to go through. There were no resources in those days for single moms.”
The Chicano artist has indulged his Latino roots via study and travel. He made pilgrimages to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to steep himself in boss and samba. His tune “Blues in Rio” originated there. A YouTube video produced by musician friend Donald Mohr features that tune matched with photos from Serrato’s Brazilian sojourns.
Bumming around Europe, he made it to Spain and grew “smitten with bullfighting’s art and pageantry.” “I began returning to Spain annually for the long taurine season as an aficionado. I’d lock up my New York apartment and fly off. My life as an artist’s model and bookstore manager in Greenwich Village made it easily possible. Such was the Boho (bohemian) life.”
His Latino roots music and world jazz immersion influences following a classical music track. He gave recitals in Omaha. Then he heard intoxicating sounds on his family’s short wave radio that changed his life.
“I thought I wanted to be a concert pianist until I started hearing recordings by Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson,
whose records were being spun out of Chicago. I was very like blown away by these great jazz pianists.
“Hearing that stuff opened up a big door and window into other possibilities.”
Harbor Conservatory in Spanish Harlem became his mecca. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition with a concentration on Latin music styles.
“It’s like the repository of the jazz and Latin music in New York after the World War II diaspora. It’s an incredible place. You walk into that school and you walk into another world, of Latin jazz music, which I love.”
His intensive study of Spanish has extended to Latin literature and art.
He cites congo player Candido Camero as “a great inspiration.” “He could play anything. Candido made a record, Mambo Moves, with Erroll Garner, one of my favorite pianists. They play such great duets. I’ve always loved that record. I’ve tried to incorporate some of those ideas into my own music.
“I compose pieces in the bossa style, though filtered through a New York jazz lens.”
Just as Serrato’s never done learning, he’s never done teaching,
“I love education. It’s absolutely vital to me. I’m teaching all the time, as many jazz musicians do. We’re all educators.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.