Kelly: Drummer Arthur G. Koterba had 'best beat in town'

Arthur G. Koterba


Drummers are the keepers of a precious commodity — time.

They keep the time, the tempo, the beat of a tune. Buh-bump, buh-bump, buh-bubba buh-BUMP. ... Uh-one, uh-two, uh-one-two-three-FOUR!

Songs end, though, just like the rhythm of life. Before the beat of his heart stopped on Thursday, drummer Arthur G. Koterba held the record for the longest current membership in the Omaha Musicians' Union, just under 72 years.

“Some guys, even when they're not playing anymore, they keep their membership,” said Dan Cerveny, the union's secretary-treasurer. “It's part of their lives.”

Music was a big part of Art's life, and he was a loyal union guy to the end, at age 91. The youngest of nine children of Czech immigrants who spelled their name Kotrba, he grew up in the Brown Park area of South Omaha.

Michael Kelly

At 14, he would sneak into bars and play drums for money for the family, said his son, nationally syndicated World-Herald cartoonist Jeff Koterba. Art never knew his father, who died before he was born.

After graduating from South High, Art took his drums and his sticks and hit the road. He also played a lot locally, having joined the musicians' union on Feb. 25, 1941 — three weeks before Lambert Bartak, who became the longtime organist at Rosenblatt Stadium.

Art played with Johnny Carson's band for Johnny's magic show. He played gigs with the Mills Brothers and with the duo of Les Paul and Mary Ford.

Art sang live on radio, Jeff said, in Chicago, Nashville and elsewhere — and he loved telling that one night after Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa played at the Orpheum in Omaha, they stopped in when he was playing at the old Blackstone Hotel.

“Art had the best beat in town,” said longtime musician and promoter Subby Anzaldo. “He was a really good guy and he was a character, with a big laugh and a smile that started at his chin and went up to his eyes.”

Art especially enjoyed playing jazz, big-band and swing music. For a time many years ago, he promoted his own band using his stage name and the motto: “Dance and be gay with Artie Kay.”

Like a lot of good musicians then and now, who book gigs when they can, he held a separate full-time job. He and his wife, Helen, raised five children, and Art worked 26 years in an office job for Union Pacific.

To augment his income, he bought TVs at garage sales, repaired them at home and re-sold them. He dreamed up inventions for toys and enjoyed building and fixing things.

Jeff wrote about all that in his 2009 memoir, “Inklings,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He and Art had experienced typical father-son tensions, but the cartoonist-turned-writer dedicated the book to his dad.

Jeff, who has played mandolin and sung for years with the band Prairie Cats, said his father always pushed him and his siblings to be original and creative.

“I would not be a cartoonist, a musician or any of the things I do today if it weren't for my dad,” Jeff said. “The book's dedication was a love note to him.”

Talent runs in the family. Art's brother, Ed Koterba, was a World-Herald reporter who later wrote for the Washington Post and eventually became a nationally syndicated columnist. After he died at 42 in a 1961 small-plane crash in Puget Sound, President John F. Kennedy, who knew him, started a press conference by expressing his sorrow.

Besides wife Helen and Jeff, Art is survived by sons Artie of Los Angeles and Eddie of Omaha, and by daughters Jennifer Gulley and Jeanie George, both of Omaha. He also leaves 15 grandchildren (at least two of whom are budding musicians) and three great-grandchildren.

Family and friends will celebrate his life at 7 p.m. Monday — with a jazz quartet, naturally — at the Heafey-Heafey-Hoffmann Dworak-Cutler mortuary, 7805 West Center Road. The funeral is at 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Mary Catholic Church, 36th and Q Streets.

Art always liked dressing up, often wearing a fedora when he went out. Less than two years ago, he sat in on drums with the Prairie Cats at the Ozone Lounge at Anthony's Restaurant, wearing his hat as he played.

“He was amazing,” Jeff said, “and I have a video of that night that I will always cherish.”

In his heyday, Art enjoyed adding a drum flourish to the end of a song, a few extra licks with his sticks to finish with flare. He'd say that he didn't like the ending of a song to be abrupt.

Death, unfortunately, is always abrupt for families, even if a loved one had been sick for a while and lived to an old age. Though Art had heart and kidney problems, he remained active until last July.

Art Koterba no longer keeps time, his own having reached its inevitable conclusion. His death is a reminder that we all, in a sense, are our own drummers, the keepers of our most important commodity, the one that everyone shares regardless of possessions.

It's the one possession, in fact, that we can't see, show off or even store. Nor can we check an account to find out how much is left.

All we can do is keep it up-tempo and use it well — while we still have time.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, michael.kelly@owh.com

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