Ulysses Owens Jr. Big Band Brings Variety With Intention: Rising Star Large Ensemble of the Year

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“Big band jazz can teach us what Dizzy Gillespie talked about, which is you should have one foot in the present, one foot in the past and one foot in the future,” Owens said.

(Photo: Miguel Emmanuelli)

The votes are in, and the Ulysses Owens Jr. Big Band has been selected as Rising Star Large Ensemble of the Year in the 70th Annual DownBeat Critics Poll.

The honor comes on the heels of the band’s acclaimed performances at Dizzy’s Club pre-pandemic and a live debut record called Soul Conversations (Outside in Music, 2021). Celebration of the group has led Owens Jr. — a fiery and creative drummer known for his playing with the likes of Kurt Elling, Joey Alexander and Christian McBride — to focus energy on developing his 19-piece big band.

“I’ve been going back and forth between big band and [other styles] my whole career — I love the big band,” Owens said. “In my big band, there’s a freedom that I have to orchestrate and to play that’s very different than what I do with Kurt or McBride or Joey or whomever.”

Owens said the recognition has been especially affirming for him because the band has been well-received by new audiences, and because it is emblematic of a return to his early musical roots: playing drums in the Black Sanctified Church, devouring a favorite Buddy Rich video his parents gifted him and admiring his early teachers who were heavies in the world of big-band drumming, like Ricky Kirkland, who played with the Ray Charles Big Band.

Raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Owens’ exposure to the music scene began in the church where, as 7-year-old, he was appointed the drummer of the church choir. That role gave him his first glimpse into the responsibility of leading an ensemble from the drum throne.

As a high school freshman, Owens studied drums privately with Kirkland and was encouraged to audition for his school’s jazz band, beating out the presiding senior for the drum seat. By age 15, he dived headfirst into Jacksonville’s heavy jazz scene, nurtured by the proximity of University of North Florida, and began playing regularly with and around UNF folks like jazz program founder and Grammy-winning big band low-brass player Rich Matteson. From there, Owens received a full scholarship to attend Juilliard’s inaugural jazz studies program, then he was offered two high-profile gigs.

“The same week that Kurt Elling called to hire me, the Basie band called and wanted me to be the drummer,” Owens said. “Butch Miles wanted me to take over for him, and he had been grooming me for probably two years, and I had done a few gigs with the Basie band.”

He decided on Elling and went on to win his first Grammy in 2010 for Dedicated To You. But, not long after, another opportunity to play in a large ensemble came knocking — this time the Christian McBride Big Band, and Owens earned his second Grammy in 2012, playing on The Good Feeling. That experience bolstered Owens’ confidence, and inspired trombonist and bandleader Michael Dease to approach Owens about putting his own big band together.

“He was like, ‘Ulysses ... there’s something about your playing that comes alive when you’re with a big band in a way that doesn’t come alive in other configurations,’” Owens recalled.

So, when Dizzy’s called and asked him to bring in a band, Owens went out on a limb and put together a big band crafted to be more diverse in age, gender and sexual orientation.

“We wanted to have women in the band,” Owens said. “I felt like everybody always talks about jazz and gender and justice. They talk about it, and they sit on the panels and their bands don’t change. I told them, I don’t want tokenism. We started looking for the baddest women on their instruments.”

The band is a melting pot — including alto player Alexa Tarantino, tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera, who also arranges for the band, Bahamian jazz trumpeter Giveton Gelin and soulful Japanese pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi.

The lineup and the repertoire — comprising many arrangements and compositions by band members — turns heads. Along with performing some of Owens’ originals, like the gliding, tenor-led waltz “Red Chair,” the group does an inspired rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and a saucy cover of Neal Hefti’s “Girl Talk.”

Owens brings variety with intention.

“We need new generations of listeners, but also people who have not listened to this art form before,” he said. “One of the things I love about this is that I found people buying this big band record who had never bought a jazz record before, let alone a big band record.”

The band will be back at Dizzy’s from Nov. 29 through Dec. 4, then go into the studio.

“I think [big band jazz] can teach us what Dizzy Gillespie talked about, which is you should have one foot in the present, one foot in the past and one foot in the future,” Owens said. “I think my band echoes the past but also presses toward the future, which is what I think people need today.” DB




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