Beginning in the church and adhering to the concept of a higher calling as a defining principle of his musicianship, Ulysses Owens Jr. has made his life as much an exercise in nurturing great musicians as it is an effort to find and claim his own place as a drummer. Between drum fills, stages, and studio takes, Owens works to uplift the youth of his hometown in Florida, and imbue the same sense of community that raised him into a slightly splintered jazz scene in New York City. Recognizing his own genius in the company of mavericks and wunderkinds is not enough for Owens, who feels that they should all recognize and celebrate those qualities in one another. With the business of music at a crossroads deepened remarkably by the digital divide upon which it stands, Owens feels the time is ripe for musicians to redefine the commerce of creativity on their own terms. To stand up to the challenge of seeing each other past the barbed wire and red tape of the old model into some modicum of success that does not espouse artistic limitation. To refuse to be defined by anyone other than themselves, ever again. Removing the labels, the pretense, and suffocating interference to let there be light and music. Working ceaselessly to be the change he wants to see in the world, Owens remains unstoppable. In so doing, the power of his work has become distinctively undeniable.
Did you grow up in a musical family? Was church the root of your musicianship? How did you find your way to music and what made you decide on the drums?
I did grow up in a musical family. I grew up in the church, so that was kind of my major thing. My mom was the choir director. Most of my family sings, except for me, so that was kind of my first introduction to music – it was in the context of the church. That’s kind of how I got introduced to the drums. My mother’s a choir director, so apparently she used to take me to choir rehearsals and sit me next to the drums so she could keep an eye on me. One day they went on a break, and I just got on the drums and started playing. I’m told I was two years old then. So, that’s kind of where it all began. Beginning with the church experience, and then as I got older that’s when I got into jazz. But I first started playing gospel music, then I got into R&B because my dad is a big fan of old school – Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, that sort of stuff. Then my mom’s really big into James Cleveland – all that stuff. So, I grew up with both of those things inside of my ears.
What led you to jazz or sort of sparked your interest in it?
I have a cousin who is a really great musician, and I got my first introduction to jazz when he played me “Honeysuckle Rose” by Oscar Peterson. Then he said okay, he’s a great pianist, but the cat that he was hip to was Art Tatum. So he played me one of Art Tatum’s pieces. Then it sort of went to the back of my mind. I actually started getting interested in jazz-fusion then. Some of the guys that I first liked were Dave Weckl, Will Kennedy, The Yellowjackets – that was sort of my thing. At sixteen years old I came to visit my cousin, because I knew I wanted to move to New York. I knew I wanted to live here and I wanted to study music. While I was here, I got a chance to go to the Manhattan School of Music and meet with John Riley. That was when everything changed for me. He introduced me to a Miles Davis record called Milestones with Philly Joe Jones. After that I pretty much threw away all of my hip-hop, R&B, gospel – I just stopped listening to all of that. I was listening to nothing but jazz for the next five months. Once I met John that was sort of my huge epiphany – especially for jazz. That kind of boiled down to where I am now. A lot of the guys that I’m working with that are living legends – that’s when I started checking out a lot of their music. Checking out a lot of the history of the music as well – you know, guys that have been working with them. So, sixteen was probably when I really started getting hip to what was happening.
Did you always want to become a musician? What would you be doing if you had not become a musician?
It’s interesting because music is one of those things I always tell people helped me find my identity and find out who I am. I love athletics. My dad’s very athletic and I really wanted to be a professional NBA player, but I literally was 4 foot 9 forever, so I decided that unless I was going to be the next Spudd Webb it probably wasn’t going to happen. So, I knew early on that music was going to be my path, but I was more interested in being the next big funk drummer at the time. I wanted to be the next Aaron Spears – or even to do what Chris Dave has been able to do. To be able to play with these big pop artists. But I think I always knew that music was what I was meant to do. In terms of anything else? I think I’ve always had a knack for talking to people. A lot of my friends, even when I was younger, would always call on me for advice. So, I think I may have been a psychologist or something like that. I still dabble in that a little bit because I love philosophy and psychology. So, maybe a psychologist. (laughs)
How did the transition from life in the south to New York City and Juilliard affect your approach to music and your personal aesthetic? Was there a certain amount of culture shock involved?
Yeah. Everything was a culture shock for me. The cool thing was, that I wasn’t from the rural south. You know, I have some friends from deep in places like Mississippi – even where my father’s from, he’s from outside of Memphis. I lived in a metropolitan city, so it wasn’t like I was not used to seeing people. However, New York City just moved so fast. So, that was probably the culture shock for me. Everything felt like it moved a mile a minute. Also, I’m a late night guy. I stay up half the night getting work done. What I loved so much about New York was that the city never sleeps. Finally I had found myself in a city that matched who I am. There’s this quote from one of my favorite movies, where this woman talks about feeling like she found herself in Paris. I really felt like I found Ulysses Owens Jr. in New York City. That was really where I feel my personal evolution began. There were definitely adjustments. People in New York are much more blunt than in the south, so it took me a while to adjust. Even now, I wave and smile at people in my neighborhood and I know they think I must be crazy or weird, but I love this city. I wouldn’t be who I am without it.
Who were some of your earliest musical influences? Have you had a chance to study or work with any of them since relocating to NYC?
I would say some of my earliest musical influences were definitely more drummers than anything else, early in my childhood. Dave Weckl, Will Kennedy, Dennis Chambers – those were the guys for me. Then, when I got into jazz, my focus switched from being influenced by drummers to just musicians in general. Of course, Miles Davis was a huge influence on me. Elvin Jones. Papa Joe Jones, Count Basie – just the tradition, in terms of guys that are no longer with us. Then, of course, the new guys like Wynton Marsalis. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be able to go to Juilliard. So, people like him. Terence Blanchard. I’m very influenced by guys like Quincy Jones. Then one of my early mentors and people who helped me so much, was the great Mulgrew Miller. He really changed my life. I met him basically three weeks after I moved to New York City, and meeting him was a very defining moment in my life. I did study at Juilliard, so I had a chance to study with Louis Nash, and others. I will say that I moved to New York because I wanted to be a musician, but the other reason I came to New York was that I wanted to be the next Louis Nash. I heard a recording of his and I knew very early on that the way he played and the kind of statement he was making in the industry was very similar to the impact I wanted to make. So, I would say sort of this hybrid of Louis Nash, business-wise Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride, and Steve Jordan, who is an amazing pop drummer and producer. So I would say those are my major influences and represent the arc of what I want my career to be, in some ways.
Who are the musicians you work or just enjoy playing with most often? Where do you go to hear good music?
My dream team or steady group of guys, on piano is Christian Sands. Obviously on bass I love McBride. There’s another great bassist I like to use a lot – Matthew Rybicki, who I love working with. I love Michael Dease on trombone. On saxophone, I love Stacy Dillard, Jaleel Shaw, and Tim Green. Those are guys I really dig. On trumpet I love Etienne Charles and Jeremy Pelt. Those are the cats that I try to keep in my direct circle. On guitar I love David Rosenthal. More people need to know about him, because he’s just phenomenal. Also on piano, Miki Hayama is someone that I love as well. In terms of hearing music, I love Dizzy’s, The Vanguard, The Jazz Standard. Smoke is cool, too. I would say I most frequent Dizzy’s, The Jazz Standard, and The Vanguard.
Where would you say you officially got your start as a professional musician? Was there one gig or event in particular that made you feel like you had moved into the majors, so to speak?
I think the first gig that made me feel like I was on my way to being professional, was with Mulgrew Miller. Like I said, he was my early mentor and mentored me for eight to ten months before he took me on the road with him. So, that was the first gig where people sort of took notice, like “Oh, wow. He’s not just some drummer living in New York trying to make it. He’s actually starting to work with somebody”. I kind of feel like that happened and then it sort of died out. I feel like the other gig that put me back on the map was when I started working with Kurt Elling and Christian McBride sort of simultaneously. That happened about four years ago. That was what I think sort of helped me to stand out – playing with them. Then I started playing with Nick Payton and a bunch of other people. So those were probably the two gigs that were the biggest catalysts for my career.
You have already seen the mountaintop in some ways, having won Grammy awards in 2010 and 2012, for your respective performances on Christian McBride’s Big Band album, “The Good Feeling” and Kurt Elling’s “Dedicated To You”. What was the experience of working on those albums and winning like for you?
It’s kind of ironic. Everybody always says you never know that kind of stuff is going to happen until it happens, and it really is true. With Kurt, that album just came out of the blue. Literally, I had just started playing with him on the road. We had only been together for six months, and his manager started saying we needed to do this record because we had been performing the material and people loved it so much. So, then we had this date at Lincoln Center and his manager suggested we record it. So, we essentially recorded there and knew it was going to be a record, but it was really a last minute thing. Kurt had something else he wanted to do and this was really the first time in his career that he’d decided to do something for people. Everything before was what he wanted to do for himself. So we did the record, the record came out, and I thought it was nice to have a record out with Kurt Elling. I was just thrilled about that. Then suddenly it was like, “Oh, wow! He’s nominated”. The funny thing is that Kurt’s been nominated for pretty much every record he’s ever done. So I was thinking, this is like his ninth nomination. No big deal. I was just glad to be a part of it. Then I got the call that we won. What irony is this? This is my first major record with a major company, then it’s a random record that we didn’t plan on, then on top of that we won a Grammy. Most of all it felt like this was really serendipity. Whereas with Christian, it was a completely different experience. That band is really special. Everybody in that band loves each other and wants to play together, so we essentially did one week of rehearsal and one week of playing at Dizzy’s. Then we finished at Dizzy’s on Sunday. Once we finished Dizzy’s, we were in the studio Monday through Wednesday. So essentially what people are hearing is this chemistry that was building for about two and a half weeks. The funny thing is, when we were in the studio listening to the playbacks we were saying that it sounded special. This thing might have some magic in it, but we kind of left it. The record didn’t come out until a year or so after we did all of that. By then we were joking, wondering if it might win a Grammy. If we won, that would be funny. Then, sure enough the nominations came out and we were nominated. Then they changed the categories at the Grammys so that were in with the Latin groups and a bunch of other stuff, so I just thought “Well, we’ll see.” Then suddenly I was in L.A. the day before the Grammys and I had to come back to do a gig, so I couldn’t go. Then one of my mentors called from inside the Grammys to say he wanted me to hear the sound of myself winning a Grammy. It was really deep. For Kurt, I didn’t get a trophy because of the way the band’s personnel was listed. With Christian I didn’t get a trophy because it’s just too expensive to do that with a big band, but that one is a little more special because it was such a collective effort where we all gave some part of ourselves to make it. Both were very special, but I think the latter was that much more special.
You have released two albums of your own, It’s Time For U in 2009 and Unanimous in 2012. What do each of those albums represent for you? Do you ever listen to them and notice things about your own evolution? If so, what?
One pet peeve of mine is to listen myself playing. So I don’t really listen to my albums often. So what I will say, is that for the first album I’m so proud of myself only because that album really took my everything. Blood, sweat, and tears – literally. My first year of touring with Kurt was during that album. I’m proud of that album and I definitely feel like that album was a statement of “Hey, I’m not just a drummer. I have something to say.” I don’t think I’m the greatest composer, but I do think I’m pretty good at putting together an album because I have produced as well. I think that’s what that album is, it’s like “Hey! I’m Ulysses Owens. Here I am. Check me out.” With Unanimous I felt I’d been out on the scene for a minute, I’ve been making some good records, and been fortunate enough to receive some accolades and success, so not only am I going to bring a more mature presentation to you, but I’m going to bring a band that is undeniable – unanimously a killing band. So that’s what Unanimous is – I’ve grown a lot. I had gone through a lot of emotional and personal things, so it was about shedding that and blossoming further. It was the rainbow after the rain. It was kind of about me growing up.
You also work as a composer and producer. How does that differ from your work performing as a leader and a sideman? Do you ever prefer working behind the boards?
As a composer, I feel like I’m still figuring that part of my life out. I definitely like to compose, but I don’t enjoy it completely yet. I feel I haven’t mastered the craft enough yet to enjoy it. I do it as I need to do it. With production it’s completely different because it brings together everything that I do. I’m into planning, so there’s that aspect. It also brings together planning the band that I want to work with, and I’m into business big time so it works for me. Picking the right people and the right studio. Producing is essentially the marriage of all of the things I love about music. As far as working with other people, my favorite thing is to be able to play on an album and then be able to step behind the boards. With a lot of the records I’ve produced, some records I have played on and some I haven’t. It depends on what the artist wants. Whether or not the artist is interested in having me play because they’re familiar with what I’m able to do as a drummer. So, it depends. But producing is the one thing, I think, that if I ever came off the road and had to pick one thing to do the rest of my life that would be it. That’s the one thing that I really, really love. It’s starting to fulfill me in ways that playing doesn’t.
You have worked and played with trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who made more recent headlines with his move to denounce the term jazz as suffocating and categorically uncool. In a move that may have been made to separate himself and his music from the boxes that keep musicians typecast and chained to the status quo, Payton may have been the very loud voice for a quieter movement that has been taking place amongst a lot of younger musicians over the past few years. The overall goal seems to be outright refusal of limitation. How do you see yourself and your music fitting into this movement of creative defiance and exploration? Are you thinking and working in ways you would not have expected to 5 – 10 years ago?
I definitely think that the state of the music is completely different now than it was before, so there are a bunch of different things that I have to consider. The things we have to consider are completely different from what our idols had to do. The goal before was learn a bunch of records, learn this music, go check out the people you want to play with, observe the history, and your turn will come. You’ll get in a band, once that band is over you’ll get in another band, and that band will hit. Then you can do your own band, and you’ll be a star. That was formula from the 1920’s up until the ’70s, then it resurfaced at the end of the ’80s going into the ’90s, and that was it. Now it’s different because the barrier has been erased. The record label was a barrier. The management. The agencies. There was a huge wall with a sign up there that said, “Artists stay on the this side. Audience and presenters stay on the other side.” But with the rise of social media there was a big push to break that barrier down and say, “Screw you!” to the record labels, agencies, and management. Now the artist speaks directly to the audience, which is why someone like Nicholas Payton is able to air how he feels about things. He doesn’t have go to his manager and get permission to say what he wants to say. To write a book or to do a newspaper article. He can just go on Twitter and tweet all day about what he feels. So, I feel like that’s what has really changed in the industry – the barrier has been removed. In reference to Nicholas Payton, I have to say that he is a musical genius. He is one of the most gifted trumpet players on this planet. He is an extremely gifted composer, and a great mind. Regarding his comments, I’d like to speak to the larger movement. The artists are taking the music back into their own hands. We’re deciding what we want to do, and that was what was happening in the 1970’s and even the ’60s with a lot of the radical movements. However, you have to season your words with grace and you have to make sure that your intention is always clear when you speak out against something.
I think there is a movement that is happening and I think it needs to happen. I think that if we do it right, we will never again be in a position where someone can tell us when we can be successful. We need to change everything around so that the labels work for us, the managers work for us, and the agents work for us. We’re the most powerful. We’re the ones who have the music. Nobody else has it. So, I feel that that’s what we need to focus the movement around. The biggest thing I want to stress is that we, as artists, finally have the power back. I can decide tonight that I want to do a show, call a promoter, have them call a club, book a date, put it out there on Twitter and Facebook and if the right people are on the bill, within a month when its time for the performance that hall will be packed. That didn’t happen five years ago. On top of that we can go into the studio, get the money together, put a record together, go to Disc Makers, print some copies, and essentially we have marketed and put product out without having to go get a contract to do it. That, to me, is amazing. That is what allows me to be a composer, a producer, a bandleader, and a sideman all at once – you can do whatever you want to do now. Before a record label told you what you could and could not do, and that’s really what I love about it.
What has been your most memorable moment as musician thus far? Where do you think you have been able to make the biggest impact in your career?
I think I am starting to make my biggest impact with the invention of Facebook and Twitter. Now that I’m able to talk to people after my performances – to put a message out there, to help people really know who I am – I feel that’s where my biggest impact has been. Two years ago people didn’t really know who I was, and that’s different now. It wasn’t like I became catastrophically better as a musician. Part of it was my evolution as a musician, but the rest is accessibility. The one moment that changed my life was a little Youtube clip of me playing Cherokee with Christian McBride – that little clip changed my career. I went from being a cat that a couple of people knew in New York, who knew that if they needed a drummer for a gig they could call me. After that video, I was put onto a totally different platform because the world was able to see the way that I really play. If it were not for social networking, I don’t know where my career would be. I owe a lot, in terms of exposure, to those things. Especially because I’m not a very magnetic personality initially. Once people come and experience one of my shows it becomes a different thing, but I don’t think people are immediately drawn to me because I’m still a little shy in some ways. Having these other vehicles available to express myself has helped my career a lot.
You are the founder and face of a foundation called “Don’t Miss A Beat”. Can you talk a little about the mission of your foundation and what the fruits of your efforts to extend arts education have been thus far?
Don’t Miss A Beat is my huge passion. Next to production, it is probably going to be my life’s work. I always say you are nobody unless you can help somebody else achieve something. That’s basically what this organization is. My family and I have been able to come together and we have a community arts center in Jacksonville, Florida. With that we use the arts to save the lives of inner city kids. We teach them what they are not getting in schools – filling the gap with a mixture of band programs and theater programs – things that are being cut from academic budgets. We fuse that with something similar to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, where we take these latchkey kids and try to nurture them. We’re about five years old and we’re making a major impact. We were just interviewed by Black Enterprise Magazine, and we’ll be featured there in a few months. So, we’re really starting to make some major headway and do some great things. So, I’m very very honored and happy to be able to work with my family. It’s also great to have more than my music career, which is a blessing to the world, but there is something about my music career that is self serving, where I feel like this is completely selfless and I feel like every human being should balance whatever their self-serving efforts are with something selfless, so this is my ode to that ideology.
Were there any teachers throughout your career that had a great impact upon your playing and your decision to go into music professionally? How did that factor into your decision to start a foundation to champion music education?
This is where I think Wynton Marsalis was a huge influence for me, because watching his ability to perform on such a high level and create an institution with Jazz At Lincoln Center – though people have mixed feelings about it – has been pivotal. What other organization has up to twenty jazz musicians fully salaried and employed that tour the world throughout the whole year? There is no other organization. The idea that he used his success to establish an organization to ensure that other people have careers – that’s the first element that’s always nice. The other side of that is the academic side of Jazz At Lincoln Center. You come to the realization as a musician that, not only do I have to play to the audience that is here, but I have to cultivate an audience. The other part of what I’m doing with my non-profit is not cultivating a jazz audience, but I’m cultivating an arts audience. If I can plant a seed that then creates an appetite for the arts, then that creates a serious hunger for it, it will spread from generation to generation. The arts dissipated. It went from being a participatory experience – something that everybody who was anybody made sure they were a part of, to sitting down and watching a recording of a show or a scheduled program on television. So, I would say that Wynton was the catalyst behind my thoughts for starting an organization that could change that.
Do you work outside of professional recording and performance as a teacher? If so, where? How has that experience affected you?
Honestly, with all of the other stuff I’m doing I barely have time for sleep. (laughs) With teaching, I do it on a case-by-case basis. If someone contacts me, they’re focused, and they really want a lesson, I’ll do it. However, I used to have to teach for a living and I did not enjoy it. I’m someone who feels that if I’m not passionate about something, I cannot give my best. So, I try to make sure I only do things that I’m passionate about. Thankfully things have been better and I’ve been learning to be more financially savvy in order to afford do that now, but I wasn’t always able to. I do love teaching, but I feel like I still have too much to learn to kick off a really heavy teaching position anywhere.
When you look at the impact your organization has made upon the lives of youth in your own community, do you feel that any of your experiences, practices, and successes could be expanded to help improve arts education across the country? (What ideas do you have to help improve/increase the value of arts education in schools?)
People ask me that a lot. My desire would be to expand to maybe one or two more centers in Jacksonville, before I go to other cities where this sort of stuff is needed and they can help pump this kind of thing into their communities. We don’t need another arts organization in New York City, but we need them in Jacksonville, in Daytona, in Oakland, Lakeland, in Griffiths, Georgia – we need it in these places that just don’t have an arts community. I believe in potentially partnering with local musicians in those places so that they can do something similar with the basic model and make it their own, but I don’t need to have the same thing everywhere and have my name attached to it. If only people in my hometown say they’re thankful for what Ulysses did, that’s fine. But if they then go and take it to fifty other cities and no one ever knows anything about me, that’s fine as long as the mission survives my lifetime.
What are you looking forward to doing in your career that you have not done yet? Is there a Ulysses Owens bucket list?
Making a lot of money. That’s what I want to do next! (laughs) I think have started hitting things on my bucket list. I’d love to be featured on a late night show or start working on scoring movies. Honestly, I’d love to start collaborating with more mainstream artists. I would really love to have a relationship with a Jay-Z or Beyonce – those kinds of artists, but at a stage in their careers when they’re really interested in doing music that is less about charting and more about making a serious statement. Then I’d get a call and advise people on which musicians to put together to do that. Like, if you really want that type of sound you need these musicians. So, I really want to do Beyonce’s album when she’s like 40. I want to be that guy when you want something very elaborate but musical, that’s when you call and that’s sort of where I would really love to be in my career some years down the line.
What projects are you working on right now and what can people look forward to from you? Any surprises?
I’ve got some things up my sleeve, definitely. Right now, my goal is to do another record and I’m in talks with some labels to figure that out. But, I have a few really great production things happening. I’m getting ready to produce a record for this great singer, Alicia Olatuja. This record is going to be a great mixture of soul, jazz – she has a lot of range and there are going to be a lot of great artists on this record. I’ve got a lot of touring after that with the Christian McBride Trio, which is one of my favorite groups to work with. Just in terms of sound, that’s one group that I feel almost like it was created with me in mind. So that should be fun. I have a lot of things coming up with the non-profit. I’m going to do a benefit CD where the proceeds go to the foundation. Also, I was just appointed artistic director of the Jazz Vespers program at Abyssinian Baptist Church, called Jazz At Abyssinian. So, I’m basically curating a jazz series, which begins in September, and I’m really excited about it. We’re going to do one concert a month. I am going to make this series a program packed full of serious talent. We already have a great lineup happening for the coming year. I’m really excited about it and I feel it gives me a chance to hook some of my boys up who are great musicians. I think my mission as a musician is not just about having a great career for myself, but providing opportunities for other musicians who are great to be heard. We are going to have a mixture of musicians from various generations and I think it is going to be great. That’s pretty much what’s going on with me right now. But then on the other side of things, living in New York, I could get a call tonight that completely changes everything.
Is there anything you want to share that we haven’t touched upon? Any parting words?
The biggest thing I’d like to say – and I’m sure I may get flack for it, but as musicians we need to be well rounded. That’s one thing I feel we don’t understand. A musician today needs to be up on their business, they need to be up on the politics of life. We need to know more than what we know about music. We need to be business savvy because the biggest thing is that we are our own entity. We are a self-contained corporation. If more musicians looked at themselves in that way and strategized in the way a corporation does, that statement alone will change the scope of a person’s career. The other thing I want to stress is that we really need to understand that we’re a community. One of the things I dislike is that there is too much division sometimes in music. Let’s be a community. I look at my peers as my brothers. I don’t compete with them. The gigs that they get, I won’t get. The gigs that I get, they won’t get. It’s all a community. If we can get back to that again – the attitude that was there when this music was really thriving in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, that’s what I desire. There’s tons of pictures of musicians hanging out together, eating together – not just working onstage together. That’s what I would like to get back to. That will drive the music.
Interview by Karas Lamb