Charles Owens, spreading the jazz faith worldwide
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The old Southern California clubs, the ones where you could soak up the real down-home jazz, blues and soul, have pretty much dried up. Dim L.A. watering holes such as Marla’s Memory Lane, the Parisian Room, Tiki Island, Bina’s, the Clef Club and the It Club used to number among the stops collectively called the ‘chitlin circuit -- a ghetto term to some, but saxophonist Charles Owens uses it with affection.
Owens remembers the proprietor of Tiki Island eyeballing his Levi’s suit back in the 1970s and complaining, ‘Don’t you have any other clothes?’ The answer from the then-impoverished musician was ‘No.’
These days, you’re as likely to find Owens presiding over a UCLA classroom or conducting the Luckman Jazz Orchestra (which he does Sept. 28, at Cal State Los Angeles) as riding a bar bandstand. But, recently returned from Europe, he laments the fact that Germany can boast a better chitlin circuit than ours.
‘Germany’s cool,’ says Owens, running down a list of current and defunct Berlin and Hamburg jazz night spots. ‘And it’s fun!’
Owens recalls a 1980s Dusseldorf date with pianist Horace Tapscott, the great South L.A. community leader who died in 1999. ‘Dwight Trible was singing. Horace had two drummers -- Sonship Theus and Fritz Wise. [Saxist] Arthur Blythe was living in Europe and played with us, and [saxist] Jesse Sharps came and played. An outstanding saxophone section!’ The memories tumble out when Owens starts talking about Tapscott. ‘He was an amazing man, a great innovator.’
Owens considers Tapscott an original in the same category with James Newton (his predecessor as director of the Luckman Jazz Orchestra) and the late John Carter -- both Owens’ partners 20 years ago in the innovative Wind College, both composers and woodwind players like himself.
‘Horace was uncompromising. Don’t ask him to change one note or play softly in the background. Ooh! Rioting! Charlie Mingus was the same way: ‘Stop the cash register when we’re playing. It’s quiet, or somebody gonna get their butt kicked!’ ‘
Owens says he now enjoys that luxury of being able to play what he wants. And he loves his job with the large LJO, which interprets the compositions of 1950s hard-bop pianist Horace Silver at a concert on Saturday, the 24th.
‘I pick out the music, and the guys have artistic license to arrange it any way they want to. A piece that was a jazz hit becomes a fresh version. You won’t hear this music anywhere else but here, tonight.’