Jazz interview with jazz composer, conductor Chuck Owen. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Chuck Owen: – I consider Cincinnati, OH where I moved when about 12 years old, my home. I studied piano from an early age (which I always enjoyed), taking up trombone a little later; but my main interests focused around sports and outdoor activities (camping, canoeing, hiking, etc.) until late 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: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your 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 and studied. 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 the confidence to put it out there.
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.
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JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
CHO: – 54.6% to 45.4%! I’m kidding of course!! In writing for a large ensemble that question is more relevant than one might initially think. It’s easy to get lost “in the weeds” of working on voicings and the other minutiae of a big band. However, more and more I’ve tried to step away from that and focus on both the extra-musical aspect of my writing as well as the storytelling of the music itself.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
CHO: – Ummmmm… I don’t know about that! You’re right, of course, . . . . the relationship between audience and artist is 2-way. But I believe the audience is listening because they want the artist to share his/her uniquely personal vision… not to put on a false front or pander to what they think the audience wants.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
CHO: – Maybe play material beyond the “standard” tunes?!?! Look, 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: – 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
JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
CHO: – Finding a way to encourage more open and broad based listening instead of the insular approach encouraged by digital bots: ‘If you liked this artist you will like . . . . “
JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
CHO: – With my responsibilities at the University, as Pres. of ISJAC, and writing for the Surge, my small group ReSurgence and the WDR big band, I just haven’t had much time to listen to new music recently. Frankly, when I’m in writing mode, I almost purposefully avoid listening to anything else . . . . certainly nothing in the realm of what I’m writing.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
CHO: – I believe my messages are nuanced and not easily described in words . . . . hence the music! However, I think my focus on the ecology (natural beauty) and the value of community come shining through.
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
CHO: – I’ve always been fascinated with time travel; but, when it comes right down to it, I’m pretty grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given and have no desire to leave the present! If taking a short trip however, I’d love to go back and spend some time with my parents, both of whom I lost some time ago. I miss them! And, in a more adventurous spirit, a friend has been tracing the path of Lewis & Clark as they explored the western US. While it was a hard journey, much of the country they traveled through is incredibly beautiful even today and, unspoiled, it would undoubtedly be stunning.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan