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Ulysses Owens: Big Band, Big Sound

R.J. DeLuke By

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Music is spiritual for me. I always came to an understanding that it's for a higher purpose.
—Ulysses Owens Jr.
Some jazz drummers, as remarkable as they may be and as successful as their careers are, just aren't suited to drive a big band. It's not for every percussionist. But every big band needs a good one or the effort will fall short. A ship needs a rudder. Ulysses Owens Jr., who started beating out rhythms at home at the age of two, is one of those.

His superlative skills have contributed mightily to groups led by Kurt Elling, Mulgrew Miller, Gregory Porter, Joey Alexander and others. But early on, big bands affected him more than small combo trap set masters, which is a bit unusual in this era. They were his introduction to mainstream jazz music. With that as a backdrop, Owens shows his ability to put a large ensemble on his shoulders and provide the fire going back to Christian McBride's big band. And now he has assembled his own UOJ Big Band, an ass-kicking band of special musicians who swing like mad. The fire and fun can be experienced by listening to its first album, Soul Conversations, a live recording done at Dizzy's Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City in December of 2019.

Beyond the outstanding music, the way Owens formed the band—his vision—is also important. Diversity is important to him and his young band reflects that.

He says the idea came from a good friend, the outstanding trombonist Michael Dease (who became the associate producer of Soul Conversations). Owens was skeptical. Dease was persistent, saying he could build it in the mold of Art Blakey, hiring young, talented musicians and inventive composers and arrangers. Owens could mentor them in addition to leading the band.

"I said, if I do this, I want the band to look different," says Owens. "I want it to sound killer, but I want it to look different. I don't want it to be all men, or all one color. I want to represent sort of the jazz continuum in terms of gender and all that." He assembled the band for a 2017 performance at Dizzy's. It was a success.

"Everybody kept coming to me and were like, 'Man, this shit, it's killing. You guys sound great. How did you get this band to sound the way they sound and look the way they look?' Cool."

The following year he did two nights nights of big band and two nights of smaller groups. There was even a recording done. "The band wasn't really ready. But at least were able to document it. We got a good amount of arrangements. But then I said, 'Okay, I'm gonna record this band in 2019. But this time, I'm gonna feature more arrangements that are some of my originals. I'll have more of a strategy. So that's what we did in 2019. We sold out every night. And everybody kept coming up to me, telling me how much they loved the music."

The music on the recording is in the same sequence the drummer would play it in concert. "The cool thing about this set is that it's tried and proven. It's an audience-based set of music. Everything else that I've done before was really more about my own artistic desires. This big band was all for the people. It's for the amazing next generation. It's all serving something much greater and bigger than me and my artistic merit and agenda," he says.

Owens's experience as the drummer on the Christian McBride Big Band recording that won a Grammy (The Good Feeling, Mack Avenue, 2012) was valuable. "So I think once I got into that stage of everything, with McBride, it was clear: Okay, I think I have a special knack for big band. I have a way of being able to interpret charts and stuff."

A lot of members came from The Julliard School where Owens teaches. Some had a Michigan State University connection where Dease is a professor. As the knowledge about the band spread, "all of a sudden I start getting all these calls from young musicians. 'Hey, man, if so-and-so so can't make it, I'd love to sub. I started getting that. And the arrangers. I started getting all these younger arrangers that really loved what we did."

Another piece to the big band formation came from a band Owens led about seven years ago in Japan, called New Century Jazz Quintet with Benny Benack, Tim Green, Yasushi Nakamura and Takeshi Ohbayashi. It toured Japan with good success but did not perform elsewhere. "So basically, Takeshi, myself and Yasushi were the rhythm section. Tim played alto. Benny played second trumpet. Mike Dease was in the trombone section. So that was kind of the basis of the band, and then we sort of extended from that with Julliard and MSU. And then there'll be a couple times where some of the people couldn't make it." He would think of what talented young musicians were around to fill in.

"For instance Erena Terakubo, who made the record, was not originally in the big band. I met Erena in Japan on tour. My first expectation was actually Lakecia Benjamin and Alexa Tarantino. Lakecia couldn't make the recording. So I'm like, man, Erena. I think she's in New York. Let me call her up. She said 'Ulysses, I would love to.' So it's fun in that way. Because you find some gems in some people who are part of it that you didn't necessarily think played big band. And they kind of bring their unique voice. That's the journey."

Owens adds, "I wanted it to be inter-generational. The oldest is my generation. The youngest cat is our bass trombone player Wyatt Forhan. Wyatt was 17 when we first played together. His parents had to bring him to the gig."

The popular up-tempo "Two Bass Hit" kicks off the album and it takes no prisoners from there. Owens propels the tune accenting the ensemble choruses and taking a sweet solo before individual horns get to make their statement. "London Town" and "Beardom X" bring the heat down, but are provocative. The latter, the drummer's composition, has wonderful intimate moments. Tarantino also is sensuous and intimate on "Language of Flowers," flashing a bit of Johnny Hodges perhaps. "Human Nature" was brought into the jazz lexicon by Miles Davis. This version is not in that style, but stands on its own as an intricate piece with a guest solo by Stefon Harris on vibes. It's a fine collection of varied moods, carried out with precision.

Booking a big band is never easy. As the coronavirus pandemic eases, it will be a slow process of reconnecting with the right venues and festivals. He hopes to be able to provide steady gigs for his mates.

Owens says his fascination with big bands started in ninth grade. "I'd heard jazz music before that." He auditioned for the big band, of which there were two. The top band was usually comprised of juniors and seniors and the drummer expected to possibly get into the secondary group. "Next thing I know, everybody came up to me screaming, 'Man, you got into the Jazz 1.' And I was like, 'What?' You're telling me I got in?... That was probably one of the greatest things that could have ever happened to me, because I was introduced to jazz from the big to the small. So I started out learning how to take responsibility for more members. Then I sort of worked my way down to quartet and trio playing as I got older. That was really important to me."

In terms of influences, Buddy Rich was huge influence on me. Then the Count Basie band and Sammy Nestico.

"That's definitely in my ear. I grew up in the Pentecostal church before this newer form of gospel music, which is more like praise, teen-track oriented. I grew up in the era of choirs. So in a lot of ways, I felt like my understanding of playing big band comes from choirs. Because you're playing for 40 or 50 voices and understanding how to orchestrate. So, I think that's in there," he says.

As a student at Julliard, Duke Ellington became important, as did the renowned big band led by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. John Riley who had played with Woody Herman was "incredibly supportive to me and gracious to me. In the most most recent years, I've gotten more hip to more of a modern big band style, which is a little bit different than your classic Sonny Payne and all that kind of stuff."

Out of college, his first major gig was with the vocalist Kurt Elling, but the big band thing was also calling and he had to make a choice. The Basie organization had been courting him when they knew veteran drummer Butch Miles was leaving. Elling wanted him as well. The singer won the day because his touring schedule, and naturally the accompanying financial benefits, was far more extensive. Among his accomplishments with that group was performing on the live recording Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman (Concord, 2009) that won a Grammy.

Owens, from Jacksonville, Fla., has always played percussion. That started at age 2. A half dozen years later, his mother, a choir director, would take him to rehearsals and sit the youngster next to the drummer "so she could keep an eye on me. And one day, the drummer got up and I just started playing... The church drummer got tired of playing because he felt he deserved more money. They fired him and hired me. So I from the age of 8 or 9, I started playing for two or three choirs and the youth choir and all that kind of stuff. So music has always been around. And a big part of it is that music is spiritual for me. I always came to an understanding that it's for a higher purpose. So even though I play jazz music, which is not 'church' music, I still bring that philosophy to it. So it's always been there. I'm told before I knew how to talk I could play. So music is very much inbred within my life experience."

Before straight ahead jazz and big bands, a cousin of Owens introduced him to the fusion scene. "I would say I was influenced by people like Dennis Chambers and Dave Weckl. The Yellowjackets came and played at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival many years ago. So I got a chance to get to Will Kennedy. A lot of fusion drummers were big to me, as well as the gospel drummers. I think with fusion, it was the mixture between what I already had been listening to with gospel, but it had another thing to it. Like the Chick Corea Elektric Band and all that.

At age 16 he made a trip to New York City. He knew he wanted to go to music college there. It was then he got encouragement from John Reilly. "He said, 'Man, you sound good, but you don't sound like a jazz drummer. And if you want to get into Manhattan School of Music, you're going to need to sound like a jazz drummer." He directed him to the Miles Davis album Milestones (Columbia, 1958) featuring Philly Joe Jones... I threw out all my hip hop CDs and I didn't listen to anything that was not jazz for probably another 10 years. Because I knew to really get into the music and to accomplish what I needed to accomplish I had to get into it.

"That was when the heavens opened up for me," says Owens. "That's when I started falling in love with Elvin Jones and Jimmy Cobb, Philly Joe, Art Taylor, the canon of jazz drummers. That happened when I was 16."

He heard a J.J. Johnson record with Lewis Nash on drums and that was momentous as well.

"I felt like I had an out of body experience with Lewis's playing where it spoke to me in such an incredible way. It gives me chill bumps just thinking about it. I wanted to move to New York." He chose Julliard over other options because Nash was going to be on the staff.

"I think as things became more directional for me and clearer to me in the music, I started identifying key figures and key players, that represented a lot of what I wanted to accomplish," Owens said. "That was where the influences became very much more real to me. Lewis Nash was the guy. Everybody loved him. He could also play anything you want. And I think that versatility is something that I very much admire. That's very much a part of my pursuit as well."

As far as performing experience, he had played gospel music from his early years. was doing the whole thing with church from the early days. He started gigging around Jacksonville at age 14 and eventually got hired playing funk and soul with trumpeter Teddy Washington, who had worked with James Brown in the 1980s. Friends he knew at the University of North Florida started hiring him for gigs. "By the time I was 16, I was running a jam session in town and doing all these corporate gigs. It became a real journey," he recalls.

Another life changing encounter was at Julliard when he met pianist Miller who was a guest artist in an improvisation class.

"I'll never forget it. He heard me play. And he came over to me and started like holding my right hand like I was playing a ride cymbal. He's like, 'You got to make it dance. You got to make it dance.' I'd never had anybody teach me anything about the ride cymbal. And I thought that was really unique. After class, I went up to him and said, 'Mr. Miller, I've never had anybody teach me anything about the ride cymbal. Would you be willing to give me your email address?'"

It led to regular get-togethers. Miller would give him albums to check out. He would go to Owens' gigs, then suggest things the drummer should work on. "That continued until Mulgrew died. He was like my second father."

"He also hired me in January of my senior year, playing in a trio. I wasn't even ready," Owens says with a chuckle. "With the big band now, 20 years later, mentorship means a lot to me. In this music, that's not in there anymore, that's not popular. You need someone to hold your hand and guide you and push you." Miller was that guide "and a great person person, He'd also say, 'I'm gonna throw you into the fire, to allow you to feel what that thing is supposed to be. Even if you're not ready."

After college, a gig with pianist Eric Reed helped him get the Elling job. "And it builds and builds... Whatever I am, I wouldn't have been if somebody didn't help me. I feel like that is what we have lost in the music. I think that as jazz has become what it is now, it's become more commercial, more mainstream. You have people wanting to have these big careers. They want a record deal. Even some of my students at Julliard. I went out and had dinner with them. They were asking me questions. 'What do you think about record deals? I wanna get signed by Blue Note.' This is what people are desiring. I think that's because we aren't getting mentored in the same way... Or you've got an internship happening within an academic component where you have professors using their powers, not necessarily for good. They're grading people and not really mentoring them. We've lost that familial part of the music."

Owens recounts with pride, "Mulgrew looked out for me as a musical person, but he also was my second father. He invited me over for dinner. He introduced me to Indian food. He introduced me to Eastern religion. All these different things. He taught me about life. As part of the musical experience is how I also developed other parts of me. So it is very important to me. To not only give somebody a record, but to say, 'let me take you out to lunch' or 'meet me out for dinner.' Mentorship helps with evolution of the human side of who we are."

Owens has published a book that offers practical advice for any young musician. The Musician's Career Guide: Turning Your Talent into Sustained Success is published by Skyhorse Publishers and is being distributed by Simon and Schuster.

"In my mind, sort of what I live by, is that every jazz musician, especially young students, is gonna have to be entrepreneurial. (The book) is basically 15 years of notes and everything I've learned from all the various people I've had a chance to work with," says Owens. "I wrote every word, and then had a co-author (Arlen Gargagliano) help me to frame it because this was my first time writing a full book. But I'm really excited about this book, getting out into the world. This is a book I tell people I wish I had written for me, because I feel like all the business and music books that I've read before really didn't address me or address what I was dealing with. And so it's really important to me to pass on a certain kind of ethic or morale to the next generation."

Mentorship continues in Jacksonville, where his family founded Don't Miss a Beat Inc., a non-profit organization empowering young people to dream big and give back to their communities through a blend of musical, artistic, academic, and civic engagement programming. Its been around for about 13 years and the drummer is artistic director. It creates programs for over 500 children annually.

"Education is huge for me," says Owens, who puts money and genuine effort where his mouth is.

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