Ulysses Owens Jr., a multi-talented, jazz drummer from Jacksonville, Florida, recently sat down with IF’s Doug Knickrehm for an interview. Owens, a current Harlem resident, began playing the drums at the age of two. He accredits much of his early development in percussion to the church and his family. He began taking lessons around the age of eight, and shortly after that began to realize music could be his future. His band The U.O. Project released their debut album It’s Time For You in 2009 with the purpose of “bringing music back to its original purpose and that’s for people to escape through the music, and have inspiration to approach life with more vigor and purpose.” We picked up the interview starting with his experience at Julliard School of the Arts.
Inflatable Ferret: What brought you to Julliard?
Ulysses Owens: I went to school of the arts in high school. There, I learned classical percussion in high school and got into jazz. I went on the Julliard experience, came up as a classical percussionist and fell in love with the school. That was my 11th grade year and 12th grade year I said if they had a jazz program he would I go. Coincidently, that year they started a jazz program and I went.
IF: Who or what influences you the most in your music?
UO: First my spiritual convictions. I’m very inspired by a commitment to perform as a glory to God… Giving back to God. I am also inspired by my family. I come from a really strong family support system. I feel blessed. I am one of very few people who get to come New York and get a chance to make it. Then there are classic musicians such as Louis Nash, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones.
IF: You’re a composer, as well as a musician, do you prefer one to the other? Do you compose all the music for the U.O. Project?
UO: A lot of drummers don’t compose. Certain instruments lend themselves to composition. Pianists naturally can become composers. For drummers it’s hard to be great at composing, you have to play the piano to bridge the two. Composing is like hearing an idea hearing an idea, developing it, write it down, and compose it. Composing is a documentation of what you’re playing… composition brings a lot order to your playing. When you play you respond immediately to an idea. As a drummer you keep time and respond to people’s ideas. As a composer you have to provide the canvas for people to paint on. As you start composing you become a more well rounded musician.
IF: So you play the piano?
UO: Yes, for compositional purpose. I did study classical piano for years. I wouldn’t want to be recorded.
IF: Your website mentions you were commissioned by the Washington D.C Arts Council to compose the opening piece of 24th annual mayoral arts. How was your experience with that?
UO: It was unbelievable. A dear friend of mine works for the dc council of the arts. She got me involved with the council. The concept was marrying all these different cultures. We had Korean groups, African groups, steppers form HBCUs. I had to write a piece that bridged all these cultures together. Probably one of the hardest and most rewarding experiences in my life. To be featured at the Kennedy center and be responsible for what people actually play was an honor. It was scary though, man. When someone asks you to do something in the arts community you don’t say no…doesn’t matter if you know what it is…ha-ha. I want to be a great artist. Music is such a great contribution you don’t want to be locked in one time period.
IF: I saw you perform with your group the U.O. Project at Dizzy’s. Could you tell more about your group and what projects you’re currently involved with, as well as what the future holds in store?
UO: When I was thinking about starting the U.O. Project I wanted to create a sound that was uncommon in jazz. I wanted something different. But I still needed the main components. To make something new you have to reference something old. I knew I wanted piano and bass as a springboard for something to do. The musicians are some of the most talented in our generation. Sullivan Fortner comes from a great tradition in New Orleans, he has this great classical approach is well. I’m very hard on pianists. He is the perfect merger of the church, the recital hall, and the jazz club. Ben Williams is becoming one of the most in demand bass players of our generation as well. He’s such an integral part of the team as well. They’re like the anchor. The icing on the cake is Tim Green and Alicia Olatuja, because they provide such a great balance. Alicia is not a common vocalist, she is amazing. Tim is outstanding as well. If you look at any major jazz artist in time, they had a certain group of people to rely on and carry their vision. They will be integral to me to make the statement I want to make in the industry. We are all breaking through and carving out a new place. I would desire that we tour the world and share our music and vision with the world. And who we are…when you see music it’s the experience of the individuals and what the individuals can offer. I feel very confident we will travel the world. I’m writing other projects as well as adding things to the U.O. Project. Incorporating strings and exploring a deeper work. Blending more orchestral with jazz… marrying the orchestra with the sound of jazz. I just want people to give us an opportunity to share our music. I hope and pray people can bring this group to local colleges or performing arts centers so we can bring our sound. We’ve performed at Dizzys, Catana, a jazz series in Rochester New York. Our performance progression is kind of unusual. Normally groups play other places before making it to New York. We are performing in major venues in New York before we start in major venues other places.
IF: Could you elaborate on your position as artistic consultant for Don’t Miss a Beat, as well as the program as a whole?
UO: I have a desire to be a great musician and artist, but I also want to connect back to the community and to do what I did. Don’t Miss a Beat is about reaching out to less fortunate children who otherwise are doomed to jail, drugs, all the statistical horrors and giving them an opportunity. My position is to create programs and initiatives that teach kids the arts is fun, and staying out of trouble is fun. Exposing kids to new concepts through the arts. Using the arts as a conduit to keep kids out of trouble.
IF: Who are your favorites or who are some of the most interesting people you’ve worked, performed, or played with?
UO: I think working with Kurt Elling – in May it’ll be two years – has been really great because Kurt is an amazing singer. He has an amazing ability to captivate people with his gift. That’s something you don’t always see. Working with him learning how he does what he does how to be a part of that and how to assist him on that has been a great experience. Working with Christian McBride has been a great experience. He plays things on the bass that people cannot play. He has a great gift from God. He has a lot of experience and comes from so many different types of music. It’s amusing to watch him communicate his talents. That’s what makes it special. It’s definitely an honor to work with both of them.
IF: What genres do you enjoy other than jazz?
UO: I love gospel, love singer/songwriters. Kenny Rankin, Alantis Morrisette, Ricky Lee Jones. Classical music/opera. Funk music from the seventie, all that kind of stuff. Brazilian music all types of music.
IF: Top 5 most played artists on your iPod?
UO: Corinne Bailey Rae, Yellowjackets, Donald Lawrence, he’s a gospel artist. Lalah Hathaway. Mulgrew Miller.
IF: Any last thoughts?
UO: My hope is that people love and enjoy quality music. I hope they deem my music as quality. I hope there is support for quality music and artists. The scale of quality music is declining that’s not how music began. It started as people putting their heart into it. I hate that it developed into a marketing ploy of lessening the music for selling records. There are still people out here trying to make great music.
You can check out Owens’ website here, and head over to CD Baby to get a copy of his debut album It’s Time For You.
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