Ulysses Owens Jr. comes full circle with Jazz Aspen
The Grammy-winning drummer, bandleader, entrepreneur and educator looks back on two decades since he was a student in Aspen
When Ulysses Owens Jr. first arrived in Aspen, to study for a summer session with the JAS Academy in 2002, the 19-year-old was an ambitious and extraordinarily talented young jazz drummer.
It was that summer he met the bassist, bandleader and JAS Academy director Christian McBride, who would later put Owens in his trio and big band, became a mentor and jump-start Owens’ performance career as it began its ascent. Years later, Jazz Aspen Snowmass was the first program to hire Owens as a teacher, beginning a rise in music education that now sees him teaching at the Juilliard School and as an industry authority on career development and entrepreneurship.
“Aspen is a very special place to me,” Owens said in a recent phone interview from his home in Florida. “It’s the place I keep coming back to that really is like a home for me.”
So naturally Aspen is among the first major gigs that Owens will play as the live music industry comes alive and the coronavirus pandemic wanes. This weekend, Owens headlines the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience with his band Generation Y and plays the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday night.
“Aspen is a town with big ears,” Owens said. “It has that reputation as a ski resort and luxury town, but it’s this incredible artistic haven. People who live there understand music and understand art.”
The Aspen shows bring Owens full circle, as he is leading a band of young rising musicians and, at 38, he is the jazz elder among them.
After years being the youngest guy in bands led by greats like McBride and Wynton Marsalis and Kurt Elling, he’s stepped into the role of mentor and leader with Generation Y.
“All of a sudden I looked up, and I was no longer the baby,” he said with a laugh. “There was this whole other generation of musicians that were emerging in New York.”
Teaching at Juilliard and at jazz camps around the country, he scouted for talent to form a band that he hoped would last for a long time and hoped might break some new ground in jazz. His bandmates in the quintet range in age from 19 to 25, Owens said.
“These are all young musicians that I think that are some of the most dynamic musicians in their generation,” Owens said. “But they have a lot of tradition in their sound. The goal is to not just do the tradition of the past but press forward in the future.”
He is aiming to groom them the way his mentors prepared him for his life on stage.
“I try to give them the freedom to evolve, to make a safe space that they can grow in,” 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 tour the world and see how to run a band, how to exist in this scene and the industry.”
Owens still gets to be the young guy in the band sometimes, though. In August, for instance, he’s coming back to town to play a run of gigs at the JAS Café with Elling’s outfit.
In May, Owens released the album “Soul Conversation” with the Ulysses Owens Jr. Big Band — which includes the Generation Y members — featuring powerhouse contemporary arrangements of songs by greats like John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. It was born out of his annual December show with Jazz at Lincoln Center and recorded live in December 2019.
He’s become a go-to expert on artistic entrepreneurship and career development. Ownens literally wrote the book on the subject. In early June he published “The Musician’s Career Guide,” a textbook for music students and creative entrepreneurs. The pandemic, he said, underscored his belief that musicians need to find ways to be self-sufficient.
“I cannot build a career waiting on someone else to create a career for me,” Owens said.
As he has matured through the industry, Owens has developed his business acumen along with his on-stage chops, seeking to control the means of production and his own financial destiny.
“I’m looking to consistently make money while I sleep so that when I go on stage it’s like a family reunion or hanging out with my friends,” he said. “Playing music is a great appetizer and a great dessert, but that is no longer the entrée for me.”
About six months before the pandemic hit, Owens moved his home base to Jacksonville, though still teaching small jazz ensemble and entrepreneurship at the Juilliard School in New York. An area native, he is artistic director of Don’t Miss a Beat, which funds and operates arts and education enrichment opportunities for kids in Jacksonville.
As the area opened up to performance earlier than other regions, Owens was able to play gigs earlier than most, and he organized a regular jam session around Florida and Georgia. He’s now starting to hit the road again for jazz festivals like Aspen’s and getting back to clubs in New York.
For a jazz musician who had been playing some 10 gigs a week in New York, the shutdown was a shock to the system. Playing on stage has never felt so good.
“I’m incredibly grateful,” he said. “There was a period of time where I wondered if we were ever going to be able to do it again.”
Most of all, he’s missed audiences. Paraphrasing a friend, he said, “I’ll never again take it for granted to play my music and hear an audience clap back at me.”
Who: Ulysses Owens Jr.’s Generation Y
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Saturday, June 26, 6 & 9 p.m.
How much: $45
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Yefim Bronfman coaxed an ear-caressing range of tone from the Steinway grand piano on the stage of the Benedict Music Tent on Tuesday evening.