Ralph Bowen: The Power Play
RB: (Laughs) You know, the funny thing is that I practiced a lot when I was young, and my parents never complained. I could have gotten up at 6 o'clock in the morning and played all the way through to 2-3 a.m., they just slept through it. They were also at all of my gigs. When I was young we usually played many after-hours gigs and my parents would always be there in the club, 'til 4 a.m. sometimes.
AAJ: So then you went to college to study music?
RB: You know, in the U.S. it's rare for someone not to go to college right after high school, but in Canada it's a little bit different. Not everyone goes to college. I graduated from High School rather early, when I was 16 and started studying with Pat LaBarbera in Toronto. University just wasn't something that was in my mind. My father asked me when I finished high school "Do you want to go to a music school, Julliard or something like that?," but it was just so far from my reality, so I said no, and then I just practiced for many years. Then, one of my mentors in Toronto (Jim Blackley) suggested that I go to Indiana University primarily to study with David N. Bakerso I did. I would go down to Indiana once a month and stay for a week. During that week I would get about 10 lessons with David. I did this for about two years. And finally, David and I were talking, and decided that since I was going down there so often, I might as well just stay there. So I enrolled in the IU Artist Diploma program. I was there for two years. Then I went to Rutgers University where I actually got my Bachelors and Masters in Music. You know, I was 23 when I went to Indiana Universitya late starter by USA standards.
AAJ: It's amazing that David Baker is still the head of the jazz studies there.
RB: It's incredible, I know. He can't retireevery time he tries to retire they won't let him go! He's got enormous energy, it's really amazing.
AAJ: But when did you yourself start teaching?
RB: I was doing my Masters degree in classical flute at Rutgers under James Scott and Robert Dick. I began teaching jazz theory and saxophone, and gradually it worked its way into a full-time position, and now I have been here at Rutgers for 22 years.
AAJ: I know from an interview with Anthony Branker that he was the one to build up a significant program in jazz studies at Princeton University.
RB: Tony and I have known each other for a long time. I was in a group called OTB, Out of The Blue, and we performed in a college in Pennsylvania called Ursinus College. Tony was teaching there at that time. Years later, when I was coming up for tenure at Rutgers, I was taking some interviews elsewhere in case things didn't work out. The funny thing is that both Tony and I were on the short-list for a position at Hunter College in NYC, and Tony got that job. He switched to Princeton shortly after. He's done incredible things at Princeton. It's not typical to have the course offerings that he offers, and the certificate programs and ensembles that he has at an Ivy League school.
AAJ: What do you think makes a good teacher?
RB: There are various ways to study. Basically, I think about both instrumentalism-which has to deal with the technique of your instrument, and musicianshipwhich is about everything within the music making process outside of the actual instrument, which is non-instrument specific in other words. And then there's the larger scope of things in terms of being a performer, and the actual artistic side of things which sometimes can get lost. I believe our role is not to simply do something well according to guidelines, but to actually try to create something that is our own within the artistic world. Starting with instrumentalism, having studied with great teachers, I think that it's very important for a pedagogue to cover a lot of styles and repertory and deal with instrumental techniques, and certain problems that come up with them so that we can pass along things in a coherent manner. I don't thinks it's enough to pass along ideas simply because it's the way we do itwe need to take into account a great amount of information. I've mentioned a few of the great people whom have been great teachers and mentors to me over the yearsthere are so many more such as Phil Nimmons, Bob Mintzer, Kenny Barron, "Prof" Bill Fielder, Keith Blackley, Eugene Rousseau, and Ted Dunbar.
On the other side there is musicianship, which deals with things such as having a good ear, rhythm, and interpretation. These are the things that one learns and develops over time from study and experience, and which requires a lot of introspection. And obviously it is very important to listen to a lot of recorded and live music. I think it's necessary to look at things not just from a standpoint of music, but from a larger standpoint of life. Metaphors can be extremely helpful in the learning process because often times, we simply can't "see the forest for the trees" when the horn is in our hands. There are many parallels between the musical arts and other art forms as well. The culinary arts, martial arts, theatre, and athletics for example can all be related to musicafter all, we use the same mind and body to do many different things. Essentially, I would say that living life itself is very important. I'm not sure that if someone lived in a closet their whole life they would be a good teacher. As a teacher, often times we are trying to correct problems in a student's playing that are actually symptomatic of a fundamental deficiency. I've learned over the years not to react immediately to something I see or hear in a student's playing that requires improvement or correction. Sometimes I have a student to come to numerous lessons, analyzing the same problem in order to figure out the best way to approach his/her particular issue in terms of trying to correct it.