Jazz interview with American composer Chuck Owen. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Chuck Owen: – While I was born in Norfolk, VA and lived for about 6 years in Omaha, Nebraska (the subject of some of Whispers metaphors), I considered Cincinnati, OH where I moved when about 12 years old, my home. I studied piano from an early age (which I always enjoyed) but my main interests focused around sports and outdoor activities (camping, canoeing, hiking, etc.) until I was a junior in high school. At that point, our student-run high school jazz ensemble became my greatest love – particularly as I had an opportunity to write for it extensively and become its director during my senior year.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop the Jazz Surge sound?
CHO: – Evolved is truly the correct word. Early on in my career, I became aware of (and somewhat overwhelmed by) how many truly amazingly talented jazz writers/arrangers there were. Yet the ones whose music really captivated me, were the ones whose music didn’t sound like Ellington, Monk, Mingus, Stravinsky, Copland, Holman, Thad Jones, etc . . . . all of whom I revered. Their music was unique and personal to them. Unfortunately, awareness of this aspect doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to “manufacture” your own sound. I don’t think finding “it” can be a conscious decision; but, rather, it’s a byproduct of all those accumulated musical & life experiences in concert with personal preferences, and confidence.
I was 41 years old when I founded the Surge in 1995. Our first recording (which I’m still proud of as it features Benny Golson & Nat Adderley) is a hodge-podge of writing styles, with only a trace of what I would consider the “sound” that I suspect most associate with the Jazz Surge. However, the seed for embracing American folk music as well as contemporary classical music (and a smattering of “roots”/funk influences) as a part of my “style” was planted there. The subsequent recording (Madcap) utilized the two guitars that are present on “Whispers” – with the 3rd CD (Here We Are) introducing violin as a regular chair in the band.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
CHO: – I don’t think I really have any “go to” harmonic patterns . . . . . at least I certainly hope I don’t. My challenge is to make sure I don’t automatically fall into patterns (whether harmonic or otherwise) but make choices that serve the individual composition only.
JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album: <Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge Whispers on the Wind>, how it was formed and what you are working on today. Next year your fans like we can wait for a new album?
CHO: – What a great but difficult question!! I guess what I love most is that this feels like my most personal statement to date. . . . both in terms of the music and the sentiments behind it. It was also, in many respects, the most fun to record simply because of the comfort level and confidence I have in this amazing band and my co-producer, engineer Tom Morris. We are a true family and its just a sheer joy for me to be in the studio with them!
With my teaching schedule at USF and now my responsibilities as President of the International Society of Jazz Arrangers & Composers, I’ve been able to mount a new recording about every 3 – 4 years. It’s always a challenge getting not only the time to write as well as the funding to make it happen. In between I’ll usually take on a few commissions or projects with other groups but I’m always eager to move onto the next Surge project.
JBN.S: – You were presented at the Grammy Awards: Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, how do you assess your potential?
CHO: – All of the nominees are not only wonderful musicians/bandleaders but have produced tremendous recordings. Its truly an honor to be in their company.
JBN.S: – We wish you every success and will follow you, however do you think that Grammys are purely musical or political overtones?
CHO: – Oh, I think the Grammys and everyone associated with them truly seek to honor the best possible recordings. There just happen to be a lot of different opinions about what those are!!
JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?
CHO: – I’m not sure I’m the best person to offer advice about navigating the music business. Having an academic position for the past 36 years has taken a lot of the financial pressure off (and has been extremely rewarding in and of itself). However, such a position places significant limits on your time, availability, and visibility.
Staying positive is largely a mindset but one which can be nourished by continuing to pursue those aspects of music-making that attracted the individual to this career in the first place. Everyone has to pay their dues, take gigs that are not the most musically fulfilling, etc. However, no one is forced to abandon their own interests in the process.
JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?
CHO: – It’s a struggle, that’s for sure. Well, if I’m looking into my crystal ball, I’m not convinced as many folks will be working in the jazz “industry” in 10 years time, as are today. The music (art form) and industry has to be much more creative in ways to expand and attract audiences moving forward. However, I do believe there will always be those individuals who find a way, are creative, entrepreneurial, or are just too incredibly talented to be denied.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
CHO: – I absolutely love the Great American Songbook. However, I don’t believe jazz will grow by continuing to mine just this resource. When I listen to new recording projects, I tend to feel that the most engaging works are often those written specifically by or for the featured artist. I also have no problems at all with jazz artists utilizing works of contemporary songwriters, contemporary musical theater, film music, etc as the basis of their improvisations. That doesn’t mean the Great American Songbook is abandoned . . . . .but particularly if an artist wants to record one of these chestnuts, he/she better have something pretty unique to say because Ella, Trane, Miles, Duke, and innumerable others have already put their spin on them!!
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
CHO: – For me, the act of composing music resonates in three very significant ways.
1) The opportunity to express myself in a way that words never fully could
2) The opportunity to share and communicate intimately with others
3) The opportunity to explore myself . . . . what do I truly WANT to say, what do I value, where do I find beauty, how do I express all of this.
The difference between composition and improvisation is the amount of time one has to reflect upon their decisions and continually seek to perfect their musical gestures. While I love the immediacy of expressing ones soul through improvisation, I also love the challenge of shaping an entire work and striving to make it as poignant, complete, and as meaningful as possible.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
CHO: – Not sure I have a whole lot of expectations of the future; but I am beginning to weigh when I might retire from University teaching. There are so many projects I’m eager to explore that are next to impossible given my present teaching load. Yet I continue to value and enjoy working with the very talented students we have at USF.
I don’t focus much on fear and anxiety – especially as most of the things that truly provoke those emotional responses are beyond my control.
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
CHO: – I haven’t decided completely on my next recording project, although I’ve harbored long-term interests in writing both an extended work for the Jazz Surge with Chorus as well as simply a songwriting project (definitely out of my comfort zone!!).
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?
CHO: – Of course! The origins of jazz emanate from an urban, African American “folk” tradition – the music originally performed as part of everyday life and ritual tradition. I’m no expert in world music; but jazz seems somewhat unique in how quickly it shifted from a tradition of predominately dance, ceremonial, and bar-room performance to that of the concert stage and “art” music.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
CHO: – I hate to acknowledge that I simply don’t have the time to listen to new music as much as I’d like. I stay in touch with most of the new writing for big band – particularly in my continuing role as Director of the USF Jazz Ensemble. I’m always interested in discovering new, unique small jazz groups that involve the composer significantly. I love Donny McCaslin’s recordings as well as Brian Blade’s Fellowship group. Finally, there’s nothing I enjoy more than listening to a really great jazz singer. I’d love to have the opportunity to do more in this arena . . . . . particularly dig Cassandra Wilson’s evocative, blues & roots drenched recordings as you can probably hear in some of mine.
JBN.S: – And if you want, you can congratulate jazz and blues listeners on Christmas and Happy New Year.
CHO: – Absolutely. I wish all of your readers a very Happy Holiday season and a New Year filled with joy, prosperity, and peace.
Interview with Simon Sargsyan
P.S. – Simon – if its appropriate I would love to invite your readers to explore my website: www.chuckowen.com. Have all my CDs for sale there (including “Whispers”) as well as study scores and full charts. Thanks for your interest in this recording. Best, Chuck.