Kelly: At nearly 92, Omaha jazzman Buddy Graves' fingers still dance across keyboard -
Published Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:47 am
Kelly: At nearly 92, Omaha jazzman Buddy Graves' fingers still dance across keyboard

• Video: Buddy Graves plays at Touch of Class Lounge.

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In World War II, frostbite nearly caused Buddy Graves to lose his legs.

Seven years ago, cancer caused him to lose his voice.

But on Friday nights in Omaha, as he has for decades, he still plays piano surrounded by other musicians, losing himself in his beloved jazz.

This Friday, friends, fans and family will gather at the Touch of Class Lounge at 112th and Fort Streets, his regular venue, to celebrate Buddy's 92nd birthday.

“He's pretty amazing,” said daughter Cindi Garmong. “I think he plays as well as he ever did. To me, he hasn't lost anything.”

Jim and Jeanine Rhea of Tulsa, Okla., stopped by to enjoy Buddy and friends on a recent Friday night, as they do every two or three months.

“We are very involved with jazz,” said Jim, a board member of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. “We have great musicians there, but we would love to have a person like Buddy.”

Born on Nov. 15, 1921, Troy “Buddy” Graves grew up poor in Sioux City, Iowa, the only boy in a family with six sisters. He won an amateur dance contest at age 11.

His teacher took him to Chicago to show his tap-dance skills to an agent. When he was 14 or 15, he joined with a girl in a comedic dance act called “Bud and June — Goofus.”

Buddy also took part in a show led by dancer and former movie star Lina Basquette, traveling the Orpheum circuit in the Midwest — including Omaha.

Then in the late 1930s, he and another teenager danced professionally in vaudeville. Their act, which included comedy, was called “Buddy & Betty — Tops in Tap.” They married when he was 19.

As a combat infantryman in the Army, he fought late in the war in France, Belgium and Germany. The long winter of 1945 took a toll on soldiers, including Buddy — he spent three months in a Paris hospital.

When I asked the reason, he wrote: “From all winter in a foxhole. Froze my feet and legs. They turned black.”

The professional dancer feared that his legs would be amputated. But they were saved, and he made it home.

He divorced, and learned piano and classical music on the GI Bill. In 1952, he and his second wife, Georgie, moved to Omaha, where he taught dance for years with Jean Lockin.

At night, he played with jazz musicians around town. He knows thousands of songs.

“Probably the best jazz experience I had was in the 1950s, jamming at the Blue Room at 24th and Lake Streets,” he wrote. “All the cats played there. Duke Ellington's band, Count Basie, Buddy Rich. I had the opportunity to meet and learn and play with the greatest!”

All through the years, while holding sales jobs at Brandeis and Montgomery Ward, he played at Omaha venues. He played dance recitals, too, for daughters Cindi, Debbie and Laura.

In the late 1970s, Buddy began his Friday night jams, which have lasted for nearly 35 years.

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Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Georgie died in 2006. Buddy, who had smoked three packs of cigarettes a day until quitting in 1971, was diagnosed with throat cancer, which led to the removal of his larynx.

Today he mostly lets his music do his talking.

“It's amazing how he is able to remember so many songs and play them in so many keys,” said singer Janet Staley of Omaha. “He pulls tunes out of the air that I've never heard him play before.”

Marge Shoemaker, whose late husband, Cliff, played with Buddy until his death two years ago, said musicians love Buddy's range of music and the challenges he gives them.

Live performances are special for audiences, too. Listening to live music instead of taped songs, Marge said, “is like the difference between being at a football game in person and watching it on TV.”

With smoking now banned in public places, the air is clear. There is no cover charge. A tip jar sits next to the piano.

Buddy lives in the Florence neighborhood and grows an extensive vegetable garden. And he stays in good shape.

“He walks like a 40-year old, very fast,” said daughter Cindi. “And you should see him tap-dance. He can still do it.”

He was always a great talker, she said, but has learned to live without a voice box. It would be hard for him to live without his music.

He communicates notably with his fellow players and with his audience, entertaining with a special connection.

Lots of the old cats are gone, but others come around. After all these years, the guy whose fingers dance across the keyboard is still everyone's Buddy.

Buddy Graves plays at Touch of Class Lounge


Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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