In conversation with jazz drummer, composer, and educator Ulysses Owens, Jr.:
UChicago Presents: I understand that you were first introduced to the drums when you were just two years old, at church.
Ulysses Owens, Jr.: Yeah. My mother is a choir director, and at the time she was directing one of the big choirs at our church. As I’m told, she would take me to choir rehearsal on Saturdays and sit me next to the drummer—that way, she could rehearse and still keep an eye on me. They took a break one day, and the drummer got up, and I got on there and sort of started standing and playing in time. That’s when everybody realized that I had some talent.
UCP: Fast forward 15 years or so, and you ended up going to Juilliard, whose jazz program was just getting started at the time, right?
UO: Yeah, it was! Juilliard had a program for minority high school students; they had a donor who was a minority and felt that Juilliard was lacking in minority enrollment, so they created this program called “The Juilliard Experience.” I think it lasted for about five, six years. Basically, they would pick 30 to 40 students from all over the country to come to Juilliard and shadow a student in whatever discipline they wanted to be a part of. I got a chance to do that twice, and at the time I wanted to be a classical percussionist. Long story short, my senior year, I said to my mom, “I really want to go to this school, but they don’t have a jazz program.” Ironically, around then, [Juilliard] had talks with the press about having an inaugural jazz program. So, literally, the timing of it all worked out so that I auditioned spring of my senior year, and the first year of the program coincided with my first year of college. It was the perfect storm.
UCP: And of course, now you’re on faculty at Juilliard, teaching ensembles…
UO: Yeah, yeah. It’s pretty cool! As I told someone in an interview last week, it’s a trippy thing to be in the halls on the other side of the desk. But it’s really great. I have some wonderful students; I’m really excited to be there.
UCP: You actually touched on what was going to be my next question, which is how you’ve returned in a similar way to your hometown, Jacksonville, as the artistic director of your family’s nonprofit, Don’t Miss A Beat. Of course, these are two completely different hats that you wear, so I wanted to ask what that’s like.
UO: It’s interesting, because I’m a pretty strategic guy, but with education, it’s this thing that just happened to me. It took me a long time to find my rhythm as a drummer and to get to the point that I felt like I could play with people. A lot of my friends at Juilliard were jazz babies—I always joke that they rolled out of the womb to Miles Davis records. That wasn’t my path, so the way I’ve been able to achieve what I’ve been blessed to achieve has been through hard work and education. I guess [that] makes me a decent educator, because I know how to teach a student to cultivate and create talent. I’m not one of these naturally talented people who’s just like, “Hey, man, it is what it is.” I know how to talk to a student and say, “Hey, I know you’re struggling with this particular thing, but here’s how to actually acquire that skill.”
You know, Don’t Miss A Beat has become this thing that people ask me about in interviews all over the world—like it’s very glamorous, and all this “Oh my god, it’s so great what you’re doing”—but it started out of pain. I graduated college and had no job, no work, nothing. I moved back to Jacksonville because I could barely afford my rent in New York City, and I had a friend who said to me, “Hey, I work at Jacksonville University, and we’d love to have someone fresh out of Juilliard teaching here.” So, they offered me an adjunct position in Jacksonville, and in addition to that, I opened up my own teaching studio. Then, my family was going through their own things—my parents and a lot of people who anchor the [nonprofit] were all in major transitions during the housing crisis and all the other economic stuff going on. So, I came together with them and said, “Hey, as a family, we need to start a business, and we need to build something that can really do something great.” Simultaneously, there were all these children that were getting locked up, and a lot of murders, which all stemmed from children not having anywhere to go after school—all these programs were closing.
So again, it was another perfect storm. My family and I were looking for something to contribute, then you had this issue. My mother said to me, “You’re the dreamer. What should we do?” And I said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to have a nonprofit organization for inner-city kids, with arts as the focus.”
Ten years later, we are that. We have two community centers, we have an ambassador group of kids who’ve traveled around the world, we have several buses. I’m an advocate and consultant for several arts schools in Jacksonville, and we’ve been awarded multiple grants… But it started just as [us] wanting to make a difference while our lives were in transition, and wondering how we can find our purpose.
UCP: So, if I’m understanding correctly, Don’t Miss A Beat nurtures students who have studied some music, but also introduces students to music as well.
UO: Actually, that’s the basis of it. I’d say if you were to break it down in terms of percentage, only about 20, if not 10 percent of our kids come to us with a talent, [seeking] high-level training. It was my desire on the artistic side to give students the best training, because a lot of times in minority communities, not only do we not have artistic access to things, but when we do have it, it’s very low-level. At Juilliard, I had the best training in the world, and I wanted the best training for these kids. For the 10 to 15 percent of kids who already have a talent, they hear about us and are like, “Oh my God, I’ve always wanted [my child] to go to Douglas Anderson School of the Arts [magnet high school in Jacksonville] or Juilliard, and I hear Ulysses went there and excelled, so let’s get our kids to him.” The other 80 percent or so of kids are just trying to find their way: they’re shy, or they have learning disabilities; they’re stuck in impoverished neighborhoods.
That’s why I call it a community arts center, because it’s still a community center that feeds kids that don’t have food, career coaching for the family… We’re sort of an all-encompassing center which introduces the arts to kids, because we always say that we take care of the needs of the whole child. A lot of our initial work was meeting with parents and telling them, “Hey, tell Johnny to go home and study this monologue,” and they’d be like, “Hey, Mr. Owens, our home right now is a car. What are we supposed to do?” So, we created the Hope Fund to take care of a certain amount of families who [for example] need help paying their electricity bills. Our goal was really just to introduce children to something that can give them placement—keep them motivated to do well and stay in school. They know they can take that focus they learned with us and become something more.
UCP: On a personal level, what is it like revisiting these places and communities—Jacksonville and Juilliard—associated with your own professional development as a teacher?
UO: It feels incredibly natural. My life is this interesting balance between [being] on tour—like, you’re calling to ask me about this really cool show that I curated—then I’m teaching and producing… It’s the perfect blend and marriage, because I like to do a lot of different things and they all feed on each other. If I was just performing, I wouldn’t be happy; if I was just teaching, I wouldn’t be happy; if I was just producing, I wouldn’t be happy. Having all of these things occurring in my life simultaneously brings me that balance and fulfillment.
UCP: Well, speaking of which, let’s talk about that “really cool show.” So, since you’re telling the story of a decade [the ’60s] with Songs of Freedom, I’m curious why you ultimately chose Joni Mitchell, Abbey Lincoln, and Nina Simone to represent this period. It also brings to mind this quote I really like by Leonard Bernstein, which is that in the action of you choosing something, you inevitably un-choose others.
UO: First of all, I’m stealing that quote— I love that! [Laughs] Well, the idea arose when Jason Olaine contacted me and said, “Hey Ulysses, a year from now we’re going to be celebrating ‘100 Years of Song’ at Jazz at Lincoln Center. We love the work you do as a curator and musical director, so we want you to take the 1960s to the present, and we hired another guy, [trumpeter] Riley Mulherkar, to take the 1900s to the 1950s.”
So, long story short, after Jason called me, I kept saying, “How in the heck am I going to make this work?” First of all, at that time, I was 33 years old, and, like, am I a well-known jazz musician? On some level, yes. But I’m not a Sonny Rollins who actually was around, and could speak to that. So what could I do that could meet his expectations?
I started to think in thematic overtones, because I love themes. I have all these projects that I desire to do, if [given] the opportunity. So, I have this love affair with Nina Simone—I’m crazy about her. And I’ve always had this love affair for Abbey and Joni. Then I [thought], “Why don’t I just take a decade—the 1960s?” I feel like the 1960s informed everything we’re experiencing now—especially in jazz and lyrical content, so much of what we still love started then. I also thought about what we were going through at that time and still are: police brutality, political stuff.
I [decided to call it] Songs of Freedom: I have Nina, who is angry, full of protest, and outspoken, so her music is going to bring that; I’ve got Abbey, who is so heavy lyrically and is going to bring this beautiful tapestry of words; then I thought Joni Mitchell, who is so impactful, would cover the folk genre. They pretty much span the gamut and influenced everyone during that time. That’s how Songs of Freedom was born.
So, on choosing these three, and the un-choosing of others… I almost felt like by choosing these three, they covered everyone who came after them. It’s kind of like saying, if I listen to one jazz musician, it’s gonna be Duke Ellington, because who was more influential than Duke Ellington? Sometimes you have to choose an umbrella which will represent everything that came after.
And, quite frankly, it was an authentic connection for me. I really loved these three voices and I felt that they represented what I wanted to say. Ultimately, with art, that’s what has to resonate the most. At the end of the day, if you just start choosing stuff because you have a 50-year anthology and have to choose 50 people, you’re not deeply connected to these people in some kind of way. What you want to say may not have that weight because it’s [not] completely authentic.
UCP: And why were the vocalists you chose [Alicia Olatuja, Theo Bleckmann, and Joanna Majoko] ideal fits for this vision?
UO: Alicia has been my best friend for many years, and aside from our friendship, I respect her so much musically. I think she’s a fresh voice, and that’s something I really wanted. When I spoke to Jason Olaine, I was like, “I really don’t want someone who’s ordinary, I want someone who’s new,” so when people came to check this out, they heard a new concept and voices that matched that concept. And Alicia is such a star; I think she’s going to be one of the leading voices of our generation. She’s so excellent at communicating a song and holding an audience in her hand. So, that was a win-win for me.
Theo was somebody that I had been seeing and wanting to work with for about six, seven years. I used to work with Kurt Elling, and when I was working with Kurt, every singer in New York would just come out and see him, and Theo was one of them. Kurt said, “This is Theo Bleckmann, he does a bunch of weird stuff!” [Laughs] And sure enough, about a year later, Theo released this Kate Bush record, and when I heard it with all the effects, his music was so beautiful, and uncomfortable, and unnerving—all these qualities that I just loved. So when I had the opportunity to put together this tribute, I said, “I want Theo.” So I called him, and he said, “Ulysses, I love you too; I’ve been watching all the stuff you’ve been doing. But you know I’m weird, right? Not everyone can take me.” And I said, “I know, Theo! I know you’re weird, but that’s want you to be a part of this.”
Regarding Joanna, in the original iteration of this project, Dee Dee Bridgewater was a part of it. The [Jazz at Lincoln Center] show was so successful that a booking agent approached me afterward and said, “Hey Ulysses, we want to share this show, we think it’s really impactful.” But Dee Dee was unable to tour with us, because, well, she’s Dee Dee. So, my agent said, “If Dee Dee can’t do it, who are some other voices that will keep this intact?” And Joanna was one of the first ones I thought of. Like Alicia, she’s young, she’s fresh, and she’s weighted in how she performs. She came to New York when we did the New York City Winter Jazz Fest, and she delivered the material really beautifully. So, yeah, that’s why she’s a part of it.
UCP: Could you see yourself embarking on another thematic project like Songs of Freedom in the future? If so, what?
UO: Yeah! I mean, my whole life, musically, is all about themes anyway. I think Songs of Freedom is really relevant today, in terms of what we’re trying to express as a society. Everybody is fighting for their own voice and wanting to be heard and respected. Right now I feel what I need to talk about the most is in Songs of Freedom, but like I said, I’m really strategic. I have a notebook full of things I’d love to work on and present. But I also know that timing is everything.
UCP: I wanted to make sure I didn’t hang up without asking about your latest album, which just dropped, right?
UO: Yeah, man, thanks for asking! It’s called Falling Forward, and it’s a trio CD featuring Reuben Rogers and Joel Ross, plus another great singer who I definitely want to do some projects with, Vuyo Sotashe. I’m really excited about this record, because I feel like it’s the first time I’ve made something that really shows me in a new light. I feel like I’m in a place in my career where I’m being heard and the things I want to say are being communicated. I’m thankful, and I’m really proud of this CD.