Photo © 2011 Stephanie Myers. All rights reserved.
Trumpeter and flugelhorn player, composer, arranger, educator, and advocate Jimmy Owens talks about his life in jazz. [34:24]
Jimmy Owens: When I was three or four years old, my father used to pick me up and dance with me, holding me in his arms. And there we had a big mirror in the living room, so I used to love to see myself in the mirror and my father, with me in his arms, dancing to Duke Ellington and Art Tatum and Billie Holliday. So that was my introduction to the music I'm sure.
Jo Reed: That was the great trumpeter, flugelhorn player, and now 2012 Jazz Master, Jimmy Owens.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
There is little in the world of jazz that Jimmy Owens hasn't done. For most people, playing outstanding trumpet and flugelhorn would be enough but that's jimmy's starting point; he is also a composer, arranger, educator, and advocate for jazz and jazz artists. He has played with almost every jazz musician of note from Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie to Benny Golson and Kenny Barron. He has extensive work as a bandleader and as a soloist. His musical compositions are wide-ranging with scores for orchestras, films, and ballets, as well as for smaller jazz bands.
As an educator, Owens has conducted workshops, seminars, lectures, and concerts at major colleges and universities throughout the world. He was one of the founders of Collective Black Artists, a not-for-profit jazz education and performing organization, and he's served as director of the Jazzmobile program. Jimmy also sits on the board of the Jazz Foundation of America and is a past board member of New York City's American Federation of Musicians, Local 802. In 1990, he was instrumental in the founding of the Jazz Musicians Emergency Fund which helps individual musicians with medical, financial, and housing assistance. Jimmy Owens has also served on numerous music panels for the New York City Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Given all he has done and continues to do, it is little wonder that he was named a 2012 Jazz Master. Soon after the announcement of the award, I spoke with Jimmy Owens in NYC. I began our conversation by asking him about his musical introduction to the trumpet.
Jimmy Owens: Well, my introduction to the trumpet was at age 10, and I am a product of the New York City public school system. So I learned music in a special music class, which doesn't exist in enough schools these days. And I took it from there, went to the High School of Music and Art and graduated. I just had my 50th graduation reunion.
Jo Reed: Wow. And Music and Art, of course, is one of the best music schools in the country for high schools.
Jimmy Owens: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Jimmy, what was it about the trumpet that just…
Jimmy Owens: I think what it was really about the trumpet was that when my father picked me up and danced, he played things like Duke Ellington's Trumpets No End. And I had a favorite recording of Charley Shavers, one of our great trumpet players, doing this song called Dizzy's Dilemma and She's Funny That Way. I still have the record, a 78 record. I think that that programmed the trumpet in my ear. And then, Louis Armstrong, you know, just with his success and everything, being able to see him on television, that's what I wanted to do.
Jo Reed: You had success come to you at such an early age.
Jimmy Owens: Well, I don't know if it's success. It's experience that I talk about. I mean, my father took me to see Miles Davis at Small's Paradise.
Jo Reed: Which is in Harlem.
Jimmy Owens: In Harlem, yes, 135th Street it was. And Miles asked me if I played the trumpet. I said yes. He said, "Here. Play me a tune." And I took his horn and put my mouthpiece in and played one of the songs that I knew, "Walkin'." And he was quite impressed and said to the pianist, Bill Evans, "Hey, you hear this kid playing?" And Bill said no. He says, "Here, play it again." So I started to play it again, and then the band joined me. And the band, being Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane. So, I played Walkin', and Miles said, "Go ahead and play another one." And I played another song, "Bags' Groove” of his. That was my introduction to years and years of acquaintanceship with Miles Davis. I won't say friendship because we didn't see each other enough to be friends, but a good acquaintanceship and then becoming a professional musician and working on the same stage as Miles Davis many times was very important.
Jo Reed: I love that story, because one always has the impression of Miles Davis as being kind of gruff and standoffish and not somebody who would say to a kid, "Hey, kid, yeah, use my trumpet."
Jimmy Owens: I think people feel that because that's what was reported about him. But as you got to know Miles and you were around him, he was a very sweet person and a very shy person. So, I mean, like when he approached those particular situations, I guess his shyness came out and then his what people would say was his rudeness would come out.
Jo Reed: Uh-huh.
Jimmy Owens: I think the majority of the time, the writers that wrote about him wrote about those things. You know, "Oh, he turned his back on the audience,” you know, or "He walked off the stage.” Those things are really not important.
Jo Reed: The music.
Jimmy Owens: Yeah. The music was important.
Jo Reed: You were part of the Newport Youth Band.
Jimmy Owens: Uh-huh.
Jo Reed: Tell us about that experience with Marshall Brown.
Jimmy Owens: Yes. Marshall Brown was one of our very first jazz educators to really gain a lot of success. He put together a band in 1958 called "The International Youth Band,” where he managed to get people from all over the world to join this band. And then, in 1959, he started the Newport Youth Band. I was in the second version of that band. And it was a wonderful experience. When you turned 17, you had to leave the band. Well, I was 16 at that time, and we, every now and then, we would have to stay out of school on a Friday or a Monday because we had a gig someplace, you know. And it was really about learning how to be a professional musician. And that's what he taught us. And the mentors that we had were the kinds of people who were already professional musicians who gave us all of this wonderful information, musically as well as things like being on time. You know, not to be there at 12 o'clock when the rehearsal started at 12, because you had to take your instrument out and put your instrument together. So, it meant being there quarter to 12. And things like that, that really came in very handy in my life as I went on to be a professional musician. And some of the great musicians who came out of that band are still very active professionally.
Jo Reed: I was really struck that Marshall Brown also wanted to be sure that everybody joined the union.
Jimmy Owens: He made us join the union. I joined the union in 1959. And in looking at my pension report that much later, I saw where I had my first contribution in 1959. The Newport Youth Band did a recording session, and we were paid union scale, and money went into the pension fund for me at that time. That was the beginning of the American Federation of Musicians Pension Fund.
Jo Reed: Well, becoming a professional musician I know is a very important part of what you take on as a jazz educator.
Jo Reed: Conceptually there's the music, but then there's also the practicality of what it means to be a professional.
Jimmy Owens: Yes. Well, you know a lot of that foundation was given to us by Marshall Brown. And as we went out into the real world after the Newport Youth Band, the people who were sensible with their lives, who didn't get sidetracked by substance abuse or something like that. For those who had their head on straight, they look back at what Marshall Brown taught us, and it was really fantastic. And I have to tell you that, oh, about five or six years ago-- I was involved with something with the Library of Congress and found out that the Library of Congress had many, many tapes that Voice of America had recorded. And if you had been on that recording, you could get a copy of it. It cost money. It cost a little bit of money. And I wound up getting copies of the Newport Youth Band performance at the 1960 Jazz Festival at Newport, where a special work was written by Ernie Wilkins, great saxophonist and arranger, who had notoriety with the Count Basie Band, composed this piece for Cannonball Adderley and our alto saxophonist, Andy Marsala, who was 17 at the time. And we premiered that at Newport. We actually performed it twice before the big riot happened and everything was over. But it was recorded the one time that we performed it. And it was great to hear that band. And I tell a number of the students that the bands of today are not as good as the Newport Youth Band was, the high school bands and the college bands. We were really excellent. And we had some of the greatest music written for us at that time. So, all of this sets a tremendous foundation for me to be able to learn more about all of this stuff and to start to give it out to people when I could. And I think about all the people who helped me tremendously. The Donald Byrds, you know, the Billy Taylors, early on Randy Weston teaching me a lot about music publishing and the importance of certain elements. Donald Byrd was doing that to me, you know, teaching me about the business. And just from being around him at 15, 16 years of age, I saw a lot of things that I always remembered saying, "Well, damn, I didn't know that jazz musicians were, ‘that bad off' in many instances.” You know, not having the abundance of money that I thought a great jazz musician would have, and the abundance of being able to do what he or she wanted to do anytime they wanted to do that, you know. So, it was quite a learning experience that carried me on and on. Then it got me involved with all of the types of things that I eventually got involved with to try to help my jazz musician community.
Jo Reed: And especially the youth of that community.
Jimmy Owens: Well, the youth of that community because education was the important element in my having this information. You know, the p Feople like Cannonball Adderley and Nat Adderley, they would answer questions, J.J. Johnson would answer questions when I would go to see them and I would ask them questions, you know. I was one of those people that was always asking questions. And here I'm too young-- I was too young at that time to go to the clubs. But the club, the original Birdland on 52nd Street and Broadway had an area where--actually, it was one or two tables at maximum--where young people could go and sit, and they would just serve us, you know, Coca-Cola or orange soda, whatever. And I used to go all the time and listen to the musicians and then be able to talk to them and what-not, and they would answer my questions. So, that set the foundation for me to know that that's what I had to do as I got older.
Jo Reed: You and the NEA go back a long way. How did you first get involved in the Endowment?
Jimmy Owens: Walter Anderson, who was the director for the music program at that time, had mentioned to Nancy Hanks that he wanted to have Jimmy Owens come and join the panel. So, I joined what was called at that time the Jazz Folk Ethnic Music Panel. And from there, my involvement with the endowment continued right up until today. <laughs>
Jo Reed: I was going to say, 2012. <laughs>
Jimmy Owens: We had some wonderful times in helping many, many jazz artists over the years to improve on what they were doing by being able to get grants. It's unfortunate that we don't give grants now to individuals, you know, except for, like, the Jazz Masters, you know. But over the years, musicians were able to get composition fellowships, performance fellowships, travel study grants, all of those things that were very, very important to many musicians who every now and then they would speak to me and say, "Hey, man, you helped me get a grant in 1973, and that made the difference, you know, for how I became a professional musician.”
Jo Reed: Well, you have played with extraordinary people. Playing with Duke Ellington, what was that like for you? How old were you then?
Jimmy Owens: Nineteen sixty-eight, so I was 24, 25.
Jo Reed: How was it coming into that orchestra?
Jimmy Owens: Oh, it was fantastic. But, you know, at that particular time, I had given up the road, and I just went back with Duke Ellington because Mercer called me and said, "Hey, you know, we need a trumpet player. Would you like to do this for a while?" I said, "Great. Yes." So, I stayed with Duke just a short amount of time, maybe three or four months. And in that time, I did a movie with him called "Change of Mind." And it was fantastic to see him work on this movie and how we recorded the music and how he was composing the music right on the set of the studio. <laughs>
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Jimmy Owens: That was fantastic, you know. And the other individuals that I performed with, it was always a learning experience. Lionel Hampton, you know, great saxophonist, Hank Crawford, Charles Mingus, you know.
Jo Reed: What was it like working with Charles Mingus?
Jimmy Owens: It was a very interesting experience. Mingus would constantly fire a group of the musicians in the group, then would play with his small group. Then after one or two songs, he says, "Okay. Well, maybe I'll hire these guys back.” <laughs>
Jimmy Owens: So, you know, and we'd come back on the stage and perform one of these compositions, you know. It was a tremendous learning experience.
Jo Reed: You were one of the founding members of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band?
Jimmy Owens: Yes.
Jo Reed: And that's another all-star band.
Jimmy Owens: That's right. Thad had called me to see if I wanted to be in the band. And we rehearsed every Monday at midnight. And the hour was set so the other musicians, who were all top flight performing artists, many of them working every day in the recording studios of New York City, that was the best time for them to not have any conflicts with record dates. So, we would rehearse from midnight until about 2:30, 3 o'clock, always in time to break so Thad and a number of the guys could go and get a drink at that late hour, or I should say early hour. <laughs> His music was fantastic. I stayed with the band, and we started at the Village Gate--no, Village Vanguard, excuse me. Village Vanguard, and I left the band when I was working with Herbie Mann, and we were going to Japan and doing a long tour on the West Coast. So I had to leave the band at that time. But when I came back, I started to do some subs for trumpet players who couldn't make it, you know.
Jo Reed: You also toured with Dizzy Gillespie.
Jimmy Owens: Yes. That's right. Actually, I helped the arranger, Gail Fuller, put together the band in 1968. It was called the Reunion Band, and it was a reunion of musicians who had played in the 1956 band, the 1947 band, the 1956 band and now this 1968 band. And we had a wonderful series of concerts in Europe. We stayed over in Europe for three weeks playing concerts all over. And there were a lot of television shows done. And some of those exist today. I've seen one, I've seen one where I was featured on my composition. It was called "Milan is Love,” that I had written for my daughter at that time. She was one-year-old when I wrote the song in '67 for her. And Dizzy performed it and recorded it, you know. So, I mean, like that was a great experience. And again, I'm learning all the time about the life and the plight of the professional jazz artist. By that time, 1968, I'd played a number of benefits for musicians who had gotten ill, couldn't work, couldn't pay a hospital bill, couldn't pay rent or something. And there were always benefits at places like the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate. And that's what turned me on to, hey, something has to happen to make this different. We've done this too many times.
Jo Reed: Is that when you began Collective Black Artists?
Jimmy Owens: Well, that's part of that time. The Collective Black Artists was to help the musicians who were a part of that organization to kind of set more of their own destiny. So, we performed concerts. We performed an ensemble called the Collective Black Artists Ensemble, the CBA Ensemble. And we started to get concerts, you know. We worked up and down the East Coast, Boston, you know, Washington DC; we went out to Detroit. And we did many concerts. And then we started performing in New York at Town Hall. And we had about four years of doing six concerts a year, where we had guest artists come and perform with the CBA Ensemble, who you usually didn't see with a big band. Max Roach, Art Blakey, Archie Shepp, Randy Weston, you know, all of these musicians who you usually did not see in front of a big band. And we would write music, you know, we'd have people write music. Or, like, we did a concert with Benny Golson, and Benny Golson contributed a lot of his music. So, that was important of getting musicians work and being able to help them set their own destiny a little better. The thing that really came into existence in 1989 was the Jazz Foundation of America and the Jazz Musician Emergency Fund, which, along with Jamil Nasser, a very fine bassist, who had worked for many years with Ahmad Jamal. And way back in the '70s, we had said to each other, "This has to stop. We've played too many benefits. We go to too many funerals of musicians that, because they didn't have health insurance, they didn't take care of the illness that they had." And we were both involved with the Jazz Foundation of America and established the Jazz Musician Emergency Fund.
Jo Reed: No, as I understand it, one thing that you were really committed to with the Jazz Emergency Fund was that it would go to individual artists, not to organizations necessarily.
Jimmy Owens: Yes, most definitely individuals, because that's what-- where the problem was, you know? A musician gets ill, can't work, doesn't have health insurance, and bills mount up, so we established things to try to help that situation. We had a idea that I put together called the Physicians Network-- a number of doctors who played music, who loved jazz. And I said-- well, to one person, when he said to me, "Well, if it hadn't been for jazz, I wouldn't have never gotten through medical school, because it gave me the income to help with my medical school expenses.” So I said, "Well, would you like to give back?” And what we established was this Physicians Network, where these doctors would see two jazz artists a year, and take them through whatever was necessary for them to get well, free of charge. And that still is in existence. We really function now with a hospital in New Jersey, in the hospital where Dizzy Gillespie was, in Englewood, New Jersey-- Englewood Hospital. And they have provided, since the early 1990s, over about $5 million worth of free care for jazz artists and their families. So this is one of the things that I'm very, very happy about being involved with.
Jo Reed: I did want to talk about Local 802 because what you did was you kind of breathed new life into the Jazz Advisory Committee.
Jimmy Owens: Right. Well, we started a Jazz Committee, and it was Benny Powell, one of our great master trombonists, that said, "Hey, it needs to be named the Jazz Advisory Committee, because we should be advising Local 802 officials how to deal with the jazz musician and the jazz community.”
Jo Reed: Right, because it's different from a violinist playing at the Philharmonic.
Jimmy Owens: Oh, yeah, exactly. And the violinist performing at the Philharmonic has the possibility of getting a pension.
Jo Reed: Right.
Jimmy Owens: And they're going to have health insurance. And the musician who works on Broadway are going to have those same things. And the jazz musician, I mean, we're still fighting the jazz clubs, where jazz musicians are performing all the time, who won't pay into the American Federation of Musicians' pension fund, won't pay into the health plan for musicians when they work at those clubs.
Jo Reed: On a happier note, Jimmy, you've had a long relationship with Dr. Billy Taylor and collaborated with him on a number of projects, including the Jazzmobile. Explain what the Jazzmobile is for people who might not know.
Jimmy Owens: Well, Jazzmobile started out as a concert stage on a truck, and the truck would move around the vicinity where a concert was going to be, and then it would stop in a place where the concert was going to be, and there would be this great jazz concert. And Billy Taylor saw the need that we needed to bring great jazz artists at first to Harlem, where the people were not going to go downtown and spend the big bucks to see a Duke Ellington, a Count Basie. And he brought all of those people up to Harlem to perform on the Jazzmobile.
Jo Reed: And you've been teaching at the New School.
Jimmy Owens: I started teaching at the New School in 1990. I had taught in a few other places. It was always one day, maximum two days. I was out at the Old Westbury, the State University, New York, and I actually taught two days, and I did that for four years. But this is in between performing. I'm still traveling to Europe and still performing concerts all over the United States at that time, you know? And, as I tell people, I'm a musician first. I'm an advocate second, because I am a musician and have learned the problems that my community has been having, and, with the help of numerous other people, developed programs to try to solve some of these problems.
Jo Reed: Okay, I have a question about the music. When did the flugelhorn come into your repertoire?
Jimmy Owens: I was playing flugelhorn way back at the Newport Youth Band, so trumpet and flugelhorn. Clark Terry was one of the very, very dear people who had played the flugelhorn with Duke Ellington's band. In actuality, he got his first flugelhorn in 1956 on a record date with Billy Taylor. And they brought it in in a box, and he played it on this recording session, you know? And him and Billy always used to laugh about that, because that was the start of Clark's playing flugelhorn. Well, I started to play flugelhorn with the Newport Youth Band, and after that I'm in high school. The sound of the instrument was wonderful. I had a flugelhorn that was a-- it was a French Besson, and I had to have some work done on my horn, so I was up at this music store, and I looked up on the wall. I said-- it was Bob Giardinelli-- I said, "Bob, what is that?” He said, "Oh, that's a German flugelhorn.” It had rotary valves like a French horn. Instead of the valves going up and down like a trumpet, that we were used to seeing, these valves would go around when you pushed them down, just like a French horn. So I said, "can I see it?” He took it down. This-- it's a brand-new instrument. So I went to put my mouthpiece in, and it was too large for my mouthpiece to go in-- my flugelhorn mouthpiece. So he says, "No, you got to play this mouthpiece.” So I put that mouthpiece in, and I played one note, and it just said, "Wahhhh.” It just spoke to me, and I said, "Man, how much is this?” He says, "That's $100.” I reached in my pocket, I gave him the $100, and that was my first flugelhorn, and I've stayed with that company ever since-- Alexander. It's a company that made the world's greatest French horn, all of the French hornists in all of the American symphony orchestras who are playing Alexander French horns.
Jo Reed: Now, I know this might be a tough question, but if you had to describe the difference in sound between a trumpet and a flugelhorn?
Jimmy Owens: The trumpet is a very bright instrument. The flugelhorn has a much darker sound because it has a larger bell and a larger overall tubing throughout the whole instrument, so it has a tendency to sing more than the trumpet.
Jo Reed: Now, when you compose, then, you compose for the trumpet, you compose for the flugelhorn.
Jimmy Owens: Sometimes, yes.
Jo Reed: How do you decide which way you're going to go? <laughs>
Jimmy Owens: Well, it's the sound of the work that you're composing or that you're going to perform. I don't like to play the flugelhorn fast. I don't like to play the flugelhorn high. That's not part of its true meaning to me. So I will play a ballad on the flugelhorn. I will play things in a medium tempo on the flugelhorn. And if it's more excitement that I need, I will take the trumpet.
Jo Reed: You said that, "Jazz is the heartbeat of the world.” Tell me what you meant by that.
Jimmy Owens: Well, I've noticed that in my travels and performances all over the world that the people, when they hear great jazz perform, they love it, and it's just like a heartbeat, that you have to have that kind of performance wherever you are, whether it's Japan or a number of places that I don't feel that I will ever be able to go back to perform--Pakistan, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel-- many places that have so much turmoil happening. But when the music was being performed, and it was great jazz, the people loved it, and our heartbeats became one. I was telling someone the other day, I just did some concerts in Paraguay. I was telling people down there that I had performed in Managua, Nicaragua. And I started the concert with a spiritual: Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen. And as I started to play it, all of a sudden, I heard people singing with me, and then finally the whole audience started to sing this melody. It brought tears to me. I started to cry. My musicians were shocked, because we had never seen or heard anything like that in the places that we were performing. And it was a wonderful experience, and to know that this music that we perform is felt all over the world. It's like a heartbeat.
Jo Reed: As we said, you've had such a long affiliation with the NEA. What did you think when you found out that you were a Jazz Master? How did you find out?
Jimmy Owens: I was very, very happy. When Wayne Brown called me, I was on a bus going home. He says, "Well, Jimmy, can I talk to you now?” I said, "Well, yeah. I'm on a bus now.” He says, "Well, when will you be home?” I said, "Oh, in about 10 minutes.” So he called me back to tell me that I had been declared an NEA Jazz Master. Now, I have been involved with the NEA, like I said, from 1972. I've been on numerous jazz panels and music panels, where we were not talking about J-A-Z-Z. So this was a very, very rewarding situation. I'd been there to help select numerous Jazz Masters over the years, you know? I'd been on many panels that do that. So I was very, very happy that my work had been recognized to the extent where I was then being looked at as a Jazz Master.
Jo Reed: Jimmy Owens, many congratulations. It is so richly deserved, and thank you for your time.
Jimmy Owens: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was trumpeter,and flugelhorn player, and 2012 Jazz Master, Jimmy Owens, who is celebrating his birthday December 9! Here's wishing Jimmy a great year! And speaking of great years…. Don't miss the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters Concert and Awards Ceremony. It will take place at 7:30 p.m. on January 10, 2012, at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Along with Jimmy Owens, the NEA is honoring Jack DeJohnette, Von Freeman, Charlie Haden, and Sheila Jordan. The concert may be sold out, but you don't have to miss the action: we are webcasting it live! Go to arts.gov and click on Jazz Masters for more information about this free event and live webcast.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from We're Going Up from the album Peaceful Walking, composed and performed by Jimmy Owens, used courtesy of Jay-Oh Productions, Inc.
Excerpts from "Let's Cool One” from the cd, The Monk Project, which will be released in January 2012, music composed by Thelonious Monk and performed by Jimmy Owens and friends, used courtesy of Jimmy Owens and IPO Recordings.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U---just click on the itunes link on our podcast page.Next week, Stephan Manes takes us inside the world of ballet
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Additional Publishing Credit:
"Let's Cool One” by Thelonious Monk used by permission of Don Sickler and Second Floor Music (BMI).
"We're Going Up” by Jimmy Owens used by permission of Jimmy Owens, Jay-Oh Productions