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Based in LA during the '70s, Owens began to get studio work while gigging with Akiyoshi, bandleader Gerald Wilson and pianist Horace Tapscott. Saxophonist Harold Land recommended him to Zappa when the Mothers of Invention's front man was looking for someone to play oboe and sax at a Whisky A Go-Go date. Zappa, impressed with Owens' versatility, asked him to go on the road.
That same versatility led to the saxophonist's long association with the Mercer Ellington band. Hired to fill in during the band's swing through California in 1981, Owens famously brought down the house soloing on "Cottontail," working a number of the Duke's signature tunes into his improvisation. Two weeks after the tour ended, Ellington called Owens and asked what it would take to bring him out to New York. He stayed with the band, playing tenor, baritone and clarinet, into the mid-'90s.
Newton asked him to join the UCI jazz team in 1996, and Owens jumped at the chance. "I'd been told by an instructor at Berklee that you have to do two out of three things to survive in the jazz business: perform, arrange or teach," he says. "Just doing one thing is the road to starvation."
At UCI, Owens leads two big bands and the sax quartet and he teaches beginning jazz improvisation and gives individual sax instruction. "Even though you want your solos to be completely natural, you still have to learn the skills to play that way. You have to learn the horn. When I'm teaching improvisation, I start [the students] on slow blues. If you can improvise on the blues, you can improvise on almost anything."
Owens can be seen performing around the area with percussionist Francisco Aguabella and the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra. He plays only rare dates these days, fronting his own groups, but he has appeared at the Leimert Park Jazz Festival in LA's Crenshaw district the past few years, leading the four-horn Charles Owens Saxophone Summit.
Owens sees a lot of himself in his students. "It's such a pleasure to work with young people who are so enthusiastic about the music that it's all they want to do," he says. "When I got married, my wife said, 'You go to sleep thinking about jazz, you wake up thinking about jazz and then you spend the whole day doing jazz. You're a jazz junkie.' Now I've got students like that."The Charles Owens Ensemble with Dr. Art Davis, Don Littleton, Alex Heine and others perform at Winifred Smith Hall, Uc Irvine, Campus & W. Peltason Drs., Irvine, (949) 824-2787. Sat., 8 p.m. $6-$10; Owens will also conduct the Uci Jazz Orchestra with guest vocalist Maxine Weldon in a program highlighting composer Oliver Nelson at Winifred Smith Hall. June 2, 8 p.m. $5-$7.