Ken Janak, Jr. Biography
Sokol Omaha Polka Hall of Fame Induction
September 14, 2008
The Early Years & Personal Info
- Born August 24, 1961 in Omaha, NE
- Parents are Ken and Marge Janak
- Oldest of four children, three sisters are: Sandy Boyce, Patty Hanke and Cheryl Janda
- Lived in South Omaha and attended South Lincoln, St. Bridget’s, Ashland Park, Bryan Jr. & Sr. High
- 1979 Graduate of Bryan High School
- Graduated in 1983 from UNL with Bachelor of Music Education degree, studying clarinet as major instrument
- Married in 1984 to Leslie Jacobs
- Two children: Andrew -18 years old & attends UNL, Sara –16 years old & attends DJ Gross Catholic HS
- Currently teaching instrumental music at Papillion Jr. High School — have taught music for past 24 years in Papillion/LaVista School District
Music in the Janak Family
Music, and especially Czech polka music has a strong and long tradition in the Janak family. Ken’s grandfather, Pete Janak, played with numerous polka bands from the 1920’s through the 1980’s, at times supporting his family solely as a polka musician. Ken’s uncle, Eddie Janak, joined Pete on the Charlie Sinkule Orchestra and then eventually became the leader of his own Eddie Janak Orchestra. Early memories include polka music on the radio every Sunday and recordings of the Eddie Janak Orchestra frequently filling the house with music. Uncle Dick Janak also led a polka band for several years in the 1980s and 1990s. Ken’s mom and dad were always greatly supportive of music with all the children and it was just assumed that they would learn to play an instrument. Mom and dad never missed a musical performance by any of the children and still continue their strong support today.
Not long after Eddie’s untimely death in 1973, Pete began tutoring grandson Kenny in the art of playing polka music. Having started playing the clarinet at age 8, Ken was now playing clarinet in the Bryan RI band but without much enthusiasm. Grandpa Pete would visit weekly with his clarinet in one hand and a satchel of polka sheet music in the other, spending the next few hours slowly playing through the standard repertoire of Bohemian polkas and waltzes. After several months of steady practice and tutoring, the fire had been ignited. Music took on a new importance and soon Ken and Pete were playing all the classic clarinet laendlers like Circling Pigeons and Grandmother’s Joy and others. The highlight of this
period was Ken’s first public performance at the age of 14 with the Eddie Janak Orchestra at a cousin’s wedding.
The High School Years
With a renewed passion for music, Ken became more involved in the high school band participating in several all-state and honor bands and eventually becoming drum major of the Bryan High Band his senior year. At age 15, he net drummer Jim Bochnicek, who had been the drummer with the Eddie Janak Orchestra for several years. Jim was in the process of forming his own polka band as the Janak Orchestra was in the process of disbanding. Ken became the lead alto sax and clarinetist with the Jim Bochnicek Orchestra and had the pleasure of playing next to Grandpa Pete for several years. The Bochnicek band was truly an intergenerational group as there were several high school aged musicians, Pete in his late seventies, and then Jim and a couple other musicians somewhere in between. This group played almost every weekend and Jim provided great opportunities for many young musicians throughout the years. The group changed personnel throughout the years and of course still performs today.
Some of the fondest memories are from the road trips to Texas, Ohio, Michigan and. Canada with the Bochnicek band. As you might imagine, at least half of the fun was in getting there. With half of the band being high school musicians away from their parents, it was often quite a wild time. Ask Barry Boyce for the details! As grandpa Pete used to say, “what happens on the band stays on the band”. Someone from Vegas must have stolen his line.
During his high school years, Ken also acquired a fondness for jazz and big band music. Bryan High band director Skeets Mahoney was a large influence in this area, providing outstanding instruction and inspiration. It was quite common for Ken to be out late on a Sunday night gig with the Bochnicek band playing polkas, and then show up at 7:00 AM on a Monday to play in the Bryan High jazz band Being a former full-time road musician, Skeets understood the rigors of this life quite well.
During this time Ken also began arranging music for the Bochnicek band and has written for several groups throughout the years. Some of his arrangements in the Bochnicek book might look like they’re written in crayon and sound a bit elementary, but Jim still pulls them on occasion even if slightly embarrassing to the arranger.
The College Years
As music was the consuming passion in Ken’s life, it seemed logical to continue this pursuit in college. In the fall of 1979, Ken began his studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a clarinet major, pursuing a music education degree. It was during this time that he began to perform with a variety of different groups such as the Resurrected Swing Orchestra and other jazz groups. At UNL, Ken played with the jazz ensemble, Cornhusker Marching Band, wind ensemble and orchestra.
Grandpa Pete passed away in 1980 leaving a large void in the Janak family, not to mention within the Bochnicek band and polka world in general. Pete’s legacy had been secured and the Bochnicek band continued as Ken adjusted to playing without his mentor and musical partner. Another Janak was eventually added to the band as sister Cheryl (now Janda) joined the band on trumpet. Cheryl, now at the ripe age of 14, became the youngest member to ever join the group. Cheryl was fortunate enough to get some “polka schooling” by grandpa Pete before he died, although they never played on the band together.
While at UNL, Ken met his future wife, Leslie, playing next to each other in the wind ensemble. Leslie graduated from UNL in 1982 and took a job as an instrumental music teacher with the Omaha Catholic Schools. Ken graduated in 1983 and in November of 1984, they were married. Ken began teaching music in the Papillion/LaVista Public Schools in the fall of 1984 and is currently employed there as the band director at Papillion Jr. High. Leslie has stayed within the Omaha Catholic schools and is now the band director at Daniel Gross Catholic High School.
After leaving the Bochnicek band in 1984, Ken continued to play a wide variety of music but was brought back to the polka scene by joining the Dean Hansen Orchestra in the mid-1980s. When Dean was in need of yet another clarinet and sax player, Leslie joined the group to resume the musical partnership began a few years earlier at UNL. Ken and Leslie were often featured playing clarinets together on some of the same great pieces that Ken and Pete had played some years earlier.
In the mid 1980s, Rudy Dvorak decided to re-create the Omaha Czech Brass Band that his father had founded in the 1960s. Ken and Leslie were asked to play the clarinet parts and become part of this traditional Czech ensemble. After playing to an overflow crowd at Sokol Auditorium the band was energized and ready to go places. In the fall of 1987 the band got their opportunity in a ten-day trip to then Czechoslovakia. Many lasting memories were made as the band traveled with a group of enthusiastic supporters, including Ken’s grandmother Marge Stryczek, and got the chance to meet and perform with many Czech musicians. It was truly a once in a lifetime trip and remains as one of the fondest memories in Ken’s musical career. You might hear many stories about the parties in room 403 or about episodes of intestinal distress while viewing various Prague landmarks but remember that Jeff Janda sometimes stretches the truth a bit.
Towards the early 1990s, Ken also became a member of the newly formed Omaha Big Band and began getting opportunities to perform in the orchestra for traveling Broadway shows. Some highlights include performing in Damn Yankees, starring Jerry Lewis and Hello Dolly, starring Carol Charming, The Omaha Symphony also began hiring Ken to play saxophone for many of the pops concerts. It was always a thrill to play with the symphony and the many great guest performers including Manhattan Transfer, Crystal Gayle, Frank Sinatra, Jr., Frankie Vali, Natalie Cole, and many others. Other wonderful musical memories come from playing in show orchestras backing Steve Allen, Michael Buble, Gladys Knight, and Marie Osmond.
With the birth of son Andrew in 1990 and daughter Sara in 1992, Ken and Leslie found the constant weekend travels with the bands to be more challenging, although they continued playing together for a few more years before cutting back. Ken and Leslie left the Hansen band in the mid 1990s to focus on raising the family and also to pursue other musical projects. During this period, Ken found ample musical opportunities close to home thus eliminating the need for frequent traveling.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, Ken continued to perform as a freelance musician and enjoyed the freedom of playing with many different groups. It was during this time that the opportunities to play Czech polkas and waltzes seemed to diminish and after awhile, Ken began to miss the Czech songs that invoked so many great memories. The Omaha Czech Brass Band had dissolved in the early 1990s and with the death of Rudy Dvorak, it seemed the only way to help preserve this important part of Czech musical culture was to create another brass band in the spirit of the Omaha Czech Brass Band. After numerous conversations with brother-in-law Jeff Janda, it was decided in 2003 that it was time to form the Nebraska Czech Brass Band. The band included many of the same musicians and arrangements from the Omaha Czech Brass Band, along with a few new faces and some fresh musical material.
The band plays for area festivals and can occasionally be heard at Omaha’s historic Bohemian Café on a Monday night. To keep the material current and fresh, newly written music is frequently sent to the band from composer/musician Josef Vejvoda, a resident of Prague, Czech Republic and son of Jaromir Vejvoda of Beer Barrel Polka fame. Although the opportunities to perform Czech polka music have diminished in recent years, the musicians of the Nebraska Czech Brass Band are very dedicated and have a passion for playing this unique music. The brass band has really become a “living history” display and Ken is dedicated to continue the tradition of Czech music started by his grandfather and uncle decades earlier.
Both children have become musicians, with Andrew concentrating on saxophone and Sara on the clarinet, although they both double on sax and clarinet. Sara is actively involved with dance and baton and can be seen as the featured twirler for the DJ Gross Marching Band. Andrew has been especially successful in the jazz field and is a freshman music major at UNL were he can be heard performing with the UNL Jazz Ensemble I, It’s been gratifying for Ken to be able to play next to his son in the sax section of the Jimmy B Orchestra and Omaha Big Band on several occasions.
Music has played a central role in Ken’s life and in the life of his family. You’ll still frequently hear live music at many of the Janak get-togethers and each year younger members of the family join in to display their newly acquired musical skills. The gift of music has been passed down through the generations and a part of the Czech culture has been preserved along with it. For Ken, it’s been a fun ride and the best is yet to come.
Groups I Remember Playing With (at least once):
- Eddie Janak Orchestra
- Dick Janak Orchestra
- Jim Bochnicek Orchestra
- Jimmy B Orchestra
- Orville Von Seggem Orchestra
- Dennis Wesley Band
- Bud Comte Orchestra
- Dean Hansen Orchestra
- Lonny Lynn Orchestra Resurrected Swing Orchestra
- Michael Brecka Orchestra
- Little German Band
- Ron Nadherny Band
- Ray Dorschner Band
- Allen Vallish Band
- Frank Hazuka Band
- Jeff Janda‘s Brown Park Orchestra.
- Barry Boyce Band
- Ed Swoboda‘s Red Raven Orchestra
- Mark Vhylidal Band
- Lou Arnold Orchestra
- Tommy Bishop Band
- Bobby Layne Orchestra
- Nebraska Jazz Orchestra
- Omaha Big Band
- Extra Space Jazz
- Omaha Jazz Orchestra
- Robert Glaser Orchestra
- Chuck Pennington Orchestra
- Omaha Symphony Opera Omaha
- Omaha Czech Brass Band
- Nebraska Czech Brass Band
- American Czech Brass Band
- Prague Czech Brass Band
- Prairie Cats
- Glenn Miller Orchestra
- Myron Floren
- Blue House
- The New Chirelles
- The Confidentials
- King Kool