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Memphis Jazz Workshop rolls on with Ulysses Owens Jr.

Ulysses Owens Jr. is more than just some (Grammy winning) jazz dude. Sure, his music is great and all but he truly thinks – and lives – beyond the art. He is the embodiment of “doing well by doing good.”
Owens and his family founded the Don’t Miss A Beat Foundation, which 10 years later has impacted close to 2,000 kids in his hometown of Jacksonville, FL. They started with an 8-week music and arts summer camp in the housing projects. Now there are after school and Headstart programs, a touring ensemble and an introductory program for toddlers with two buildings and two buses.
This is not an air quote foundation either. Ulysses is personally invested, travelling to Jacksonville once a month to work directly with children in the programs.
As like minds attract, he will be joining us here in Memphis courtesy of Stephen Lee and Memphis Jazz Workshop. I have written about their work before but in short:
Memphis Jazz Workshop provides supplemental music training and instruction to students who are interested in jazz. Students have the opportunity to learn it through performances and engagement with artists such as Ulysses.
So Ulysses is not just flying in to play a concert then bouncing. No, he is spending his morning leading a master class for students and another for entrepreneurs. Cause that’s how he rolls. And that’s how Memphis Jazz Workshop rolls. Like minds.
I always find it fascinating to learn about the man behind the music. There are usually some fun facts. Ulysses splits his time between New York City and his hometown; he’s Julliard-trained; he started touring heavily in college; he’s not just a jazz geek but listens to all music and, most importantly ahem, he has some ties to Memphis. His dad was born in West Helena, Ark. AND, he’s spent some time here researching Stax Records and learning about Al Jackson Jr. (the drummer for Booker T and the MG’s). Pretty cool!
I also find the drummer-as-bandleader model interesting. He follows in the tradition of Art Blakey, Buddy Rich and Max Roach but this brand of leadership has become increasingly uncommon. It’s a hard sell but Ulysses has found a space for himself.
“The drummer has to know everything – how the rhythm section is moving, what the vocalist is doing. The drummer has to be the smartest person in the band.”
He had to find his own rhythm as the music industry is more apt to market someone who is out front visually like a vocalist.
“I had to define my power within the ensemble. People want to know how you can lead the band. It’s not drum solos all night. I’m leading the narrative, creating the set list. Even when there is a horn player out front, they respect that I am leading the vision.”
With the release of his latest album “Falling Forward” last year with his current band, THREE, Ulysses is admittedly operating in his sweet spot.
“I feel I’m being heard and understood,” he says. On the album you hear some standards like “In a Sentimental Mood” but you’ll also the Brazilian music influence on songs like “Maria de Mercedes.”
I asked him how he connected to jazz at a young age and how he connects kids to jazz. As a kid and young adult, I always felt like I wasn’t sophisticated enough for jazz. To which he answered simply, “People aren’t being exposed to all music.”
That’s probably true.
“Right now, everything is mainstream focused. Most kids are listening to Top 40, etc. I grew up in a home with gospel and R&B but I grew up with a cousin who introduced me to jazz. One of my biggest concerns is that the younger generation will miss out on great acoustic music because we take everything in through cell phones. The (even) bigger issue is that we in America are not doing a good job of bringing art into our schools. We aren’t getting visual arts, dance, jazz…in the schools.”
Also true. Which is why the work of Memphis Jazz Workshop becomes so crucial.
What of the kids who are art-driven? Believe it or not, the arts do encourage discipline and creative thinking, which can be applied to all areas of life. Ulysses confirms this.
“Life is led best within a formula but creativity allows you to function when something throws you off or is unplanned. You learn discipline and structure but you learn how to operate outside of those boundaries as well.”
Check him out on Saturday (February 24) at the Hutchison School at 1740 Ridgeway Rd., along with Memphis faves Stephen Lee, Gary Topper, Johnny Yancey and Sylvester Sample. The concert is also Memphis Jazz Workshop’s first major event and fundraiser.
And do yourself a favor if you have kids interested in music; send them to the master class. The investment is minimal but the exposure will be priceless.
You can get concert tickets and more information at www.memphisjazzworkshop.org.
(For more about Ulysses Owens Jr. and Memphis Jazz Workshop, visit Just My Cities online.)

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