After the first couple of years I spent writing about the Kearney art scene, a few names started to pop out on a regular basis. I learned most of the names from the efforts of various individuals who wanted to promote their concert, art show or performance. Other names stood out for different reasons.
I learned about Wes Hird by listening.
At banquets, art openings and other events, I often heard Wes playing his jazz guitar, seated away in a corner somewhere. Back in the day when background music came from real musicians, Wes could fill the empty spaces with the kind of music that invited conversation and added a soundtrack to meaningful interactions.
We lived in the same neighborhood and before I knew of Wes and his musical legacy, I would see his old van parked in front of his house on a Saturday or Sunday morning with a drum set in the back along with other musical instruments. I often filled in the details from this one, simple clue: A jazz musician living in a rumpled suit, playing late-night gigs in some smoky basement club who got home so late he just left everything in this van and slipped into bed.
Some of that speculation rang true. As for the smoky basement jazz clubs in Kearney, I think I missed the mark by a wide margin.
Wes grew up in a musical family in Pleasanton and enlisted in the military in 1951 where he found himself on patrol guarding airplanes at a base in Florida. I heard that story on a summer afternoon about a decade ago when I went to Wes’s house for an interview. He told me about that pivotal day so long ago. While on guard duty, he heard the base’s jazz band practicing and eventually asked if he could sit in.
One thing led to another and he finally joined the band — and spent the rest of his professional life playing jazz on his beloved guitar and bass. He told me stories about working with big bands throughout the country and performing on CBS radio in the 1950s. When he finally settled down in Kearney, Wes worked in musical retail. I especially loved hearing about his reaction to the rock ‘n’ roll bands that waltzed into the store, throwing the band’s collective weight around and expecting special treatment.
I suppose Wes could be described as "old school" when it comes to his music. He once told me that musicians today often neglect to learn the standard songs. They gravitate toward the new sounds and skip over the fundamentals that form a solid foundation for an understanding of music. Wes learned about music from a stack of Benny Goodman records and a wind-up Victrola.
Now a patriarch of Kearney’s music scene, Wes still can easily entertain a reporter with his stories. A couple of months ago something happened to one of his vocal chords. He lost his voice for a while. He’s frustrated with how gravelly his voice sounds now that it has returned.
For years, Wes entertained at the annual Freedom Awards presented by the Hub. In 2011, he sat back and enjoyed the dinner and received his own Freedom Award for his volunteer work in the community.
When I think of the arts scene in Kearney, I’m thankful that people like Wes take the time to tell me the stories that make living here so rich and rewarding.
Rick Brown is a Hub staff writer.