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.

* * *

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.

OWH Columnists
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.

17 senators in Nebraska Legislature hit their (term) limits
Convicted killer Nikko Jenkins might await his sentence in prison
Crews working to subdue brush fire that may spread to Fontenelle Forest
It's a pursuit of pastel at Spring Lake Park's Easter egg hunt
Financial picture improving for city-owned Mid-America Center
No injuries after fire at midtown's old Mercer Mansion
29-year-old Omahan arrested for 22nd time in Lincoln
Police: Slaying of woman in Ralston apartment likely over drugs
Explosion near 29th, Woolworth damages vehicles
Omaha police arrest man, 19, accused in March shooting
Earth gets its day in the sun at Elmwood Park
Beau McCoy strikes Obama doll in TV ad; Democrats are not happy
Keystone XL pipeline backers blast 'political expediency' as foes hail ruling to delay decision
Nebraska senators to study tax issues over break
Portion of Saddle Creek Road closed after water main break
Teenager arrested after woman's purse is snatched outside Omaha store
Police identify 21-year-old shot in ankle near 30th, W Streets
Cult murderer's death row appeal denied, but execution in limbo
Interstate construction to cause lane shifts, closings in Omaha area
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
Friday's attendance dips at Millard West after bathroom threat
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
< >
Dickson’s Week in Review, April 13-19
On Twitter some guy tweeted that the spring game isn’t taken as seriously as a regular-season contest. What was your first clue? When the head coach entered waving a cat aloft?
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »