Ulysses Owens Jr. comes full circle with Jazz Aspen
When Ulysses Owens Jr. first arrived in Aspen, to study for a summer session with JAS Academy in 2002, the 19-year-old was an ambitious and extraordinarily talented young jazz drummer.
It was that summer that he met bassist, conductor and director of the JAS Academy, Christian McBride, who would later put Owens in his trio and big band, became a mentor and launched his performance career. Owens at the start of his ascent. Years later, Jazz Aspen Snowmass was the first program to hire Owens as a teacher, starting a rise in music education that now sees him teaching at The Juilliard School and as an industry authority on music. career development and entrepreneurship.
“Aspen is a very special place to me,” Owens said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Florida. “This is the place I keep coming back to and it really feels like a home to me.”
So naturally, Aspen is among the first major concerts Owens will perform as the live music industry comes to life and the coronavirus pandemic abates. This weekend, Owens is headlining the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience with his band Generation Y and performing at the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday night.
“Aspen is a city with big ears,” Owens said. “It has this reputation as a luxury ski resort and town, but it’s an incredible artistic paradise. The people who live there understand music and understand art.
Aspen’s shows come full circle to Owens, as he leads a group of emerging young musicians and, at 38, is the oldest jazz among them.
After being for years the youngest guy in groups led by greats like McBride and Wynton Marsalis and Kurt Elling, he took on the role of mentor and leader with Generation Y.
“All of a sudden I looked up and I wasn’t the baby anymore,” he said with a laugh. “There was this whole other generation of musicians emerging in New York. “
Teaching at Juilliard and at jazz camps across the country, he sought out talent to form a group he hoped would last a long time and hoped he could break new ground in jazz. His quintet mates are between 19 and 25, Owens said.
“They are all young musicians who I think are some of the most dynamic musicians of their generation,” said Owens. “But they have a lot of tradition in their sound. The goal is not only to make the tradition of the past, but to move forward in the future.
He aims to prepare them as his mentors have prepared him for his life on stage.
“I try to give them the freedom to evolve, to create a safe space in which they can grow,” he said. “That’s what Mulgrew (Miller) and McBride and Wynton and Kurt Elling did for me. They put me in their bands and they allowed me to go around the world and see how to lead a band, how to exist in this scene and in the industry.
Owens remains the young man of the group at times, however. In August, for example, he comes back to town to play a series of concerts at the JAS Café wearing Elling’s outfit.
In May, Owens released the album “Soul Conversation” with the Ulysses Owens Jr. Big Band – which includes members of Generation Y – with powerful contemporary arrangements of songs from greats like John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. It was born from his annual December show with Jazz at Lincoln Center and recorded live in December 2019.
He has become a leading expert in artistic entrepreneurship and career development. Ownens literally wrote the book on the subject. In early June, he published “The Musician’s Career Guide”, a manual for music students and creative entrepreneurs. The pandemic, he said, underscored his belief that musicians must find ways to be self-sufficient.
“I can’t build a career while waiting for someone else to create one for me,” Owens said.
As he matured in the industry, Owens developed his business acumen as well as his chops on stage, seeking to control the means of production and his own financial destiny.
“I’m constantly looking to make money while I’m asleep so that when I go on stage it’s like a family reunion or with my friends,” he said. “Playing music is a great aperitif and a great dessert, but that’s no longer the starter for me. “
About six months before the pandemic hit, Owens moved his home base to Jacksonville, while still teaching a small jazz ensemble and entrepreneurship at the Juilliard School in New York City. A native of the region, he is the artistic director of Don’t Miss a Beat, which funds and manages educational and arts enrichment opportunities for children in Jacksonville.
As the area opened up to performances earlier than other areas, Owens was able to play concerts earlier than most, and he held a regular jam session in Florida and Georgia. He is now hitting the road again for jazz festivals like Aspen and returning to clubs in New York.
For a jazz musician who played a dozen concerts a week in New York City, the shutdown came as a shock to the system. Performing on stage has never been so enjoyable.
“I am incredibly grateful,” he said. “There was a time when I wondered if we were ever going to be able to do it again. “
Mostly, he missed the audience. Paraphrasing a friend, he said: “I will never take it for granted again to play my music and hear an audience applauding me.”