Ulysses Owens Jr. Plays it Forward

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​Ulysses Owens Jr. has created a multi-generational, multi-racial, multi-gender big band for today.

(Photo: Rayon Richards)

On the opening track of drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.’s new big band album, he plays five sharp rim shots, which catapult the band into “Two Bass Hit,” the brash John Lewis/Dizzy Gillespie composition first recorded by Gillespie and his jazz orchestra in 1947. However, this arrangement is closer to the sextet version heard on Miles Davis’ 1958 release Milestones.

“It’s always very emotional for me, because I remember learning that solo,” said Owens Jr., about playing that tune. He was 16 when advised by John Riley, the veteran drummer for the Woody Herman Band and the Village Vanguard Orchestra, to pick up Milestones to listen to “that solo” by Philly Joe Jones and understand the sound of straightahead jazz. “The sound just shot through me,” Owens Jr. said, in a video conversation with DownBeat from his family home in Jacksonville, Florida. Until that point, the only jazz he and his gospel musician friends knew were fusion groups like the Chick Corea Elektric Band, and he favored drummers like Dave Weckl and Dennis Chambers. Owens Jr. literally threw all of his r&b and hip-hop records in the trash, determined to become a jazz musician.

It’s a journey that has seen him advance to being one of the first students selected for the inaugural jazz program founded in 2001 at The Juilliard School to becoming a celebrated drummer and sideman on Grammy-winning and -nominated projects by Kurt Elling, Christian McBride and Joey Alexander, to evolving into a mentor, educator, author, community organizer and bandleader in his own right. His latest album, Soul Conversations (Outside In Music), marks the debut of the Ulysses Owens Jr. Big Band. It’s a live recording documenting the band’s buzzy four-night run at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center in late December 2019.

“It seems to me like he’s doing the Lord’s work out there, in a certain kind of way,” said Elling, speaking to DownBeat by phone from his home in Chicago. Owens Jr. credits Elling as the first significant artist to offer him a steady sideman role. “I’ve been impressed with him since the first time I met him. He’s ambitious in all of the best ways. He’s not ambitious for his ego. He’s ambitious because he has important things to say and important things to play.”

“One of his superhuman qualities is he is always trying to make things better,” said trombonist Michael Dease, calling in from his living room in East Lansing, Michigan. Dease is the associate producer for Owens Jr.’s album, the two having first met in college at Juilliard. “It’s actually very selfless,” Dease elaborated on his close friend, “how he tries to improve everything he’s involved with.”

Owens Jr. has been trying to improve since age two, when he sneaked onto the drums and began to play during a break at a church choir rehearsal led by his mother. He recalled how his parents would threaten to take his drums away if his grades didn’t improve. “My father took the drums down and put them in the attic,” he recalled. “I was crying and screaming. But after that, I never had bad grades again.”

Bad grades were due in part to a learning disability. Owens Jr. was introverted, and he struggled with math. “I had teachers tell me that I would never graduate,” he remembered. But thanks to the attentive care of his parents, who invested in additional tutoring, not only did Owens Jr. receive his high school diploma, he was one of only two jazz drummers to be accepted to Juilliard that fall. He had his eyes set on New York for some time, getting the chance to visit the city through an outreach program designed to attract potential students of color to the school. It was during that trip when he reached out to John Riley for that fateful lesson.

Riley was the first of many mentors he would have, including his drum teachers Herlin Riley (no relation to John Riley), Lewis Nash and Billy Drummond. But it was pianist Mulgrew Miller who became the biggest fount of Owens Jr.’s inspiration. Miller had approached him on a gig and told him he should do something different with his ride cymbal. Afterward, he went back to Miller and asked if he could email him for more advice. Miller told him he was one of the first young musicians to actually ask him for more information.

Thus began a relationship that endured right up to Miller’s death in 2013. He was like a second father to Owens Jr., and they talked on the phone every week until his passing. Miller became a father figure to many other young, Black jazz musicians of Owens Jr.’s generation. “Tim Green, Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge, Karriem Riggins,” he listed. “If you went to a Mulgrew Miller gig … you’d see a bunch of young guys like us just sitting there, waiting on him to come and say hello to us.

“It was very important to him,” he added, noting that Miller himself was mentored by Phineas Newborn Jr., Donald Brown and James Williams, and he played with the Jazz Messengers for Art Blakey.

Miller and Blakey are also inspirational figures for Dease, who is on the jazz faculty at Michigan State University. A shared love with Owens Jr. of passing information to a new generation was the main factor in creating the big band. “I had mentioned to Ulysses,” Dease recounted, “that Art Blakey was such a driving force for the development of new musicians for decades. We were in our early 30s at the time, but I think we were just feeling the void that the passing of Art Blakey left in the music scene. We felt like even though we were still kind of on the fresh side, maybe there’s something that we can do for the cats coming up behind us.”

Owens Jr. had already started to take a mentoring role in Joey Alexander’s trio, where he was the oldest of the three musicians and could apply what he had learned with Kurt Elling and Christian McBride to helping the brilliant-but-young Alexander and his family understand how to handle the rigors of the road.

In addition, Owens Jr. had received a call in 2016 from Aaron Flagg, the chair and associate director of jazz studies at The Juilliard School, to invite Owens Jr. to direct its small ensembles, which he has done ever since. It should not be overlooked how significant it is for an African American youth with a learning disability to not only be accepted to one of the elite musical academies of the world, but to then one day join the faculty of that very same institution.

In 2008, Owens Jr. and his family founded Don’t Miss a Beat, a non-profit organization based in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, to enlighten children and teens by providing academic assistance and arts education. “My goal is to even the playing field for children,” he stated, noting that children of color who have difficulty learning are often branded, as he was, as having “something negative” about them. “One of my commitments is creating moments for children who don’t really have the chance to be catered to.”

Owens Jr. is also hoping to help burgeoning jazz students through another project, a book he has authored on jazz entrepreneurship entitled “The Musicians Career Guide: Turning Your Talent into Sustained Success.” He explained, “It’s basically 15 to 20 years of notes of everything I wish somebody taught, and things that I learned that I think students need to learn. We don’t have Art Blakey and Betty Carter,” he continued, “we don’t have a lot of these multigenerational bands anymore.”

The discussions Owens Jr. and Dease had about Art Blakey led to the formation of the young drummer’s first group. The New Century Jazz Quintet was the brainchild of Owens Jr. and pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi, formulated on the bullet train as the two toured Japan in 2013. “I said to Takeshi, ‘What if we were to create a hybrid American-Japanese band, like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, but they’re all young, killin’ and swingin’?’” Owens Jr. said. According to Dease, he had already planted the bug in Owens Jr.’s brain about creating a Blakey-type of band, and he ended up playing as a special guest on the NCJQ’s debut album Time is Now. Dease had also just recorded his big band album with Owens Jr. playing drums, witnessing the his work there and in the Christian McBride Big Band, “I noticed that Ulysses is sort of a natural leader on the drum set,” Dease recollected, which led him to approach Owens Jr., saying, “Hey man, Art Blakey had a big band.”

“The big band was forced upon me,” Owens Jr. admitted. “One of my favorite people in the world is Michael Dease. He is really my brother.” Like all good brothers, Dease was constantly in his ear. “So, Mike Dease, he started to pull my coattail. ‘Hey, man, why don’t you create a big band? I think there are things about you when you play big band that don’t come out when you play small group.’”

With Dease’s assistance, Owens Jr. put his big band together, starting with most of the New Century Quintet — pianist Ohbayashi, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and trumpeter Benny Benack III — at its core. As for the rest of the musicians, they wanted a band that was, in the spirit of Blakey, multigenerational, but also multi-gender and multicultural. “I come from a very strong, women-led family,” said Owens Jr. “I’m very into the idea of women taking their rightful place in these positions.” Dease, whose father is white and mother is Black, added that diversity was important to him “as a biracial person seeing bands that were all-Black or all-white, and feeling like I didn’t have a place.” The result? Owens Jr. and his band has succeeded in creating a true musical melting pot, with musicians younger and older, Black, white and brown, anchored by some of the most dynamic young women playing in New York, including alto saxophonists Alexa Tarantino and Elena Terakubo, trumpeter Summer Camargo and trombonist Gina Benalcazar. Vocalist and composer Charles Turner fronts the band and induces a heart- and show-stopping moment on the album with his original song “Harlem, Harlem, Harlem.”

The band has a repertoire of nearly 30 charts and growing, with elaborate arrangements from Dease’s MSU colleague Diego Rivera, who plays tenor saxophone for the band, as well as contributions by up-and-coming arrangers such as Danny Jonokuchi and Steven Feifke.

The Ulysses Owens Jr. Big Band marks an arrival of sorts. It has revealed how its bandleader has embodied all the elements that shaped his life, so he can be a living vessel to transport them to a new generation. As he was helped as a youth, so now he helps young kids; as he was taught at Juilliard, so now he teaches college students there; as he was mentored by older musicians, so now he and his core group, are able to do so with his big band.

It’s a watershed moment for the still-young, elder statesman to ascend to the role he seemed destined to play. Dease, in his assessment of what impact the big band has had, summarized, “It gradually grew and developed into an ensemble that reflects Ulysses’ vision and commitment to bringing cats along with him, making something exciting and inclusive happen in the jazz scene.”

Owens Jr., for his part, sees himself, his mentors and his mentees as all part of the same family, where the older members have a mandate to nurture and mentor their young. “That is what these young jazz musicians need to come into,” he concluded. “If we can bring that back into education, that’s when we’ll start producing world-class artists.” DB



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August 2021
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