A Day in the Life: Composer Chuck Owen, Individual Artist Fellowship Recipient

by Tim Storhoff

While Chuck Owen directs the Center for Jazz Composition at the University of South Florida School of Music in Tampa, his compositions reflect a musical taste that include many genres alongside jazz. He has said, “Years of classical piano training, performance with jazz rock/funk bands as a trombonist, and ongoing appreciation of American folk music traditions as well as those from many other countries – particularly in Latin America & Europe – have all shaped my outlook as a composer. Although I never set out with the notion of forcibly trying to ‘fuse’ these elements – I delight in playing with what, at least to me, seems like their natural intersections.” In playing with these intersections, Owen has amassed an evocative and delightful body of work.

Individual Artist Fellowship Recipient Chuck Owen. Photo used by permission of Chuck Owen.

Individual Artist Fellowship Recipient Chuck Owen. Photo used by permission of Chuck Owen.

Many of Owen’s compositions have been performed by Jazz Surge, his big band founded in 1995. Additionally, he has composed for the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Netherlands Metropole Orchestra, Tonight Show Orchestra, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Dave Liebman Big Band, and Roger Williams. His compositions have won him previous Individual Artist Fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, an ASCAP/IAJE Commission in honor of Louis Armstrong, and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. He has also served as a panelist for major awards, most recently chairing the Pulitzer Prize in Music panel in 2011. In addition to composition, Owen is a dedicated educator who has received numerous accolades for his teaching at USF and served as President of the International Association for Jazz Education from 2006 to 2008.

Owen received his BM from North Texas State University and an MA in orchestral conducting from California State University-Northridge. While both of these degrees included formal composition instruction, Owen claims he has primarily grown and continues to grow musically through listening and studying the scores of great works while remaining actively engaged with other musicians, composers, and students. He said, “As a jazz composer, I feel one of the greatest educational experiences I had was years of gigging as a professional pianist. Since so much of jazz performance practice extends beyond written notation, there simply is no substitute for a jazz composer.”

Recently, Owen has devoted much of his time to the creation and release of his project River Runs: A Concerto for Jazz Guitar, Saxophone, and Orchestra, which will be issued in early April 2013 on Summit Records. He describes this composition below:

“The product of a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship, this concerto spans 5 movements and runs almost an hour in length.  I drew on a lifetime love of rivers as well as specific raft/canoe trips for inspiration. Each movement is linked to a specific river but also tries to portray characteristics of the rivers. While it’s clearly a mixed genre piece – incorporating aspects of jazz, contemporary classical, American folk, and other musics; I’ve tried to retain the loose, improvisational feel of jazz throughout.” The movements of the piece are:

  • Prologue – Dawn at River’s Edge  1:54
  • Mvmt. I – Bound Away  17:53  Greenbrier & New Rivers (West Virginia)
  • Mvmt. II – Dark Waters, Slow Waters   12:37 Hillsborough River (Florida)
  • Mvmt. III – Chutes and Wave Trains  11:29  Chattooga River (Georgia, South Carolina)
  • Mvmt. IV – Side Hikes – A Ridge Away  7:56  Green & Colorado Rivers  (Colorado, Utah, Arizona)
  • Mvmt. V – Perhaps the Better Claim  11:42  Salmon River (Idaho) – The River of No Return

This piece, which evokes a sense of place that stretches across the nation, also stretches Owen’s music into new areas, reaches new audiences, and has fostered new professional relationships with musicians outside the jazz world. Featured soloists for the recording are Jack Wilkins (tenor saxophone) and LaRue Nickelson (guitar). Also prominent though not in featured roles are Corey Christiansen (acoustic guitars), Rob Thomas (jazz violin), and Danny Gottlieb (drums). In addition, Owen used the members of the Jazz Surge big band (some of whom have been with him for over 15 years) as the core ensemble which he then surrounded with orchestral players – most of whom hail from the Florida Orchestra.

Watch for River Runs: A Concerto for Jazz Guitar, Saxophone, and Orchestra in April. To learn more about Chuck Owen’s career and hear some musical examples, go to http://www.chuckowen.com, and to learn more about the jazz program at USF, visit the program’s webpage here. We would like to congratulate Mr. Owen on his receiving another Individual Artist Fellowship from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and we look forward to working with him over the next year.

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