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When it comes to education, saxophonist/flutist Charles Owens is of two schools: classroom and barroom. Owens has applied this dual-system training with the likes of bandleaders Mercer Ellington and Toshiko Akiyoshi, conguero Mongo Santamaria, drummer Buddy Rich, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bluesman John Mayall, and all-around musical eclectic Frank Zappa. Now he's passing on his experience to others.
"I got the best of both worlds," he declares. "My mother made me go to college against my will, and there I had the best saxophone instructors you could find. But I also got the hard knocks of street smarts."
San Diego-raised Owens is an instructor in the budding UC Irvine jazz program, a decidedly non-ivory-tower department made up almost entirely of professional musicians. The faculty includes pianist and jazz studies director Kei Akagi (Miles Davis, Stanley Turrentine, Al DiMeola); bassist Dr. Art Davis (John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach); trombonist George McMullen (Anthony Braxton); drummer Sherman Ferguson (Freddie Hubbard, Benny Carter); and UCI music-department chairperson Rae Linda Brown, who founded the program with flutist James Newton (now at Cal State Los Angeles).
Owens' story is that of a self-starter. Sent to visit his father in Oklahoma before he was 10, he discovered a cache of family musical instruments and took to them all. "By the time I went back to San Diego," he recalls, "I could play 'In the Mood' on the saxophone and the drums."
At home, he joined a circle of peers—all saxophonists—who both challenged and instructed the aspiring sax man. "Earl Soto, David Woods, Daniel Jackson and Johnny Price were all in the neighborhood. Daniel especially helped me. He'd share chord changes with me, give me little licks to play, let me scuffle and make mistakes. He's still in San Diego and still my mentor."
Even as he took junior high music classes in the mid-'50s, Owens worked professional gigs for $8 per night as part of the R&B band Tommy Wilkins & the House Rockers. "We'd stage these battles of the bands to bring people out," Owens recalls. "[Saxophonist] Arthur Blythe would walk the bar honkin' and shoutin' for his band the Blue Notes, then I'd get up there and try to better him."
After high school, he enrolled at San Diego State, where he studied classical sax and picked up the flute and oboe.
"The instructor didn't want us to have anything to do with Charlie Parker or jazz, but that's what we'd spend all day in the practice room playing," he says.
Sunday afternoons would find him at the Douglas Hotel in downtown San Diego, playing a local jam session with sax players off the Navy ships docked there. After his own stint in the service, he settled in Boston in the early '60s and continued his studies at the then-Berklee College of Music, where he studied arranging and composition. He played piano and organ gigs to make ends meet. Off-hours, Owens' education came at Connelly's, a local jazz club.
"I got to see all the people that I admired in those days: Booker Ervin, Yusef Lateef, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Stitt. I used to follow [Count Basie saxophonist] Billy Mitchell around so much that he broke down and gave me some private lessons for free. One night, James Spaulding came to do a jazz workshop, and his horn wasn't working, so I walked home in a blizzard and got him mine. Later, he called me up to the bandstand to play."
In Boston, Owens befriended saxophonist Houston Pearson, who was a member of organist Johnny Hammond Smith's band. Pearson told Owens he was tired of baby-sitting Hammond and went off to form his own band. He recommended Owens for his spot in the Hammond Smith band. Suddenly, the San Diego kid's junior high R&B experience became invaluable.
In 1968, he got a call to join drummer Buddy Rich's band in Las Vegas. "I thought I'd hit the big time," Owens says with a laugh. "Somebody sending me a ticket to fly out to Las Vegas—all those lights, playing saxophone behind Ernie Watts at the Sands—talk about excitement."
While Rich's reputation as a hard taskmaster lives on (several infamous tapes exist of him chewing out band members in the foulest of language), Owens grew to appreciate the man.
"He could really bawl us out. We knew when the full moon was coming that we were really going to catch hell. But he was the first person I ever met who had no conception of racism. He treated everybody for who they really were. He didn't distinguish between black and white. He was the first truly unprejudiced cat of any color I ever met."
Eventually, Owens decided he wanted to work in a smaller band so he could solo more. When he heard Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria was looking for a saxophonist, he jumped.
Santamaria's layering of traditional Cuban rhythms over American jazz and soul was a revelation to Owens. "At first, I thought, 'What's so fancy about a guy laying conga?'" he says. "But after two weeks with the band, I had my nose opened by his powerful sense of swing, the intricate patterns, all the rhythm variations he worked into the beat. And all the rhythms Mongo plays come out of different African religious traditions. For me, it's like a trip to the motherland."
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.