By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalis
Born April 5, 1937, Charles Owens has been a mainstay of our jazz community for nearly half a century. Charlie O, as I sometimes fondly call him, is a master woodwind musician. His passion and love of the saxophone started when he was a small child. Born in Phoenix, Arizona, his mother and father divorced during his early years. When Charles’ mother met and married William Owens, their family moved from Phoenix to Portland Oregon.
“Right around the beginning of the second World War, we moved to Portland, Oregon. My parents were looking for work in the shipyard, because they were making ships in Oregon. We lived in Oregon until the end of the war and then in 1945, on Thanksgiving weekend, we moved from Portland, Oregon to San Diego. I remember because the car broke down on our way and we had to stay at the filling-station all week-end, because the guy wouldn’t open up and fix the transmission. Finally, the mechanic came back on Monday, after the holiday weekend, and fixed it. We went on to San Diego. My mother and stepfather moved there because the aircraft industry at Convair was hiring. I went to elementary school, all the way through part of college in San Diego. We lived in Logan Heights,” Charles told me.
Shortly after, Charles and his parents travelled to Oklahoma on a short vacation. He was around nine years old.
“We went down to Sapulpa, Oklahoma to visit my father’s people. There were all kinds of instruments laying around their house; trombones, saxophones, drums, piano, whatever. I was there for a week and I had a chance to try all of them. I fell in love with a Silvertone alto saxophone made by Sears & Roebuck. Everyone in my dad’s family played an instrument. My Uncle Harry played the saxophone. My Uncle Herman played the trumpet and was pretty good. Aunt Eloise, my father’s sister, played piano and somebody played the drums. My dad liked to sing. He sounded a lot like the smooth lead singer of the Inkspot group. So, I just had a ball that week making all kinds of noise on all those horns and instruments. When I got back to San Diego, I asked my mom if I could get that Silvertone alto saxophone. She bought it for me and it cost fifty bucks,” Charles recalled.
I asked Charles who was his early influence on saxophone.
“Well, my first was Charlie Parker. I saw him in a movie and he had on this white coat and he was decked out, looking good and playing alto. Just something lit up in me. It was the best feeling. It was just beautiful to hear Bird play. I was eight or nine-years-old. I went to the Victory theater and there was Bird playing on the big screen. it was just heavenly. He thrilled my soul and made me happy.
“Everybody in my little gang of friends played saxophone. There was a guy named Johnny Hodges (not the famous Johnny Hodges) and then Daniel Jackson. Daniel would come by the house. We had a piano in the front room. He would play the piano and I would play saxophone. Then I would play piano and he would play saxophone. We’d learn songs together like, “I Remember April” and “Cherokee.” Then there was James Hatcher. He played alto and we’re still buddies today. I got this gig with Tommy Wilson and the Kingsmen. They were the hottest band around San Diego during my high school years. We bought our little cars and kept them running off the gigs we played on the weekends. We had San Diego sewed up. Every time they had a house-party, people had to have Tommy Wilson and the Kingsmen. I was also inspired by Teddy Pico. He was a large, wonderful saxophone man and a big influence on all of us aspiring saxophone players. Daniel Jackson was another one of my main influences. He would show me stuff that would take me years to learn on my own. Growing up, I also loved Stan Getz. He played so pretty. Also, Gene Ammons was a big influence on me. I remember, as a kid, walking home from school and past this hole-in-the-wall joint that had a juke box. I’d hear Gene Ammons playing “My Foolish Heart” and it really spoke to me. I’d stand outside and listen.
“I majored in music and went to San Diego State for a couple of years and then went to Prayer View A & M University just outside of Houston, Texas. That’s where I met my wife, Mildred. We came back to San Diego from Houston. I was working at a ‘Jack in the Box’ making burgers and I thought, if I’m going to be in music, I’ve got to make a living some kind of way. So, I joined the Air Force to be in their band. That’s what kept me in music after college. My wife went on to college and I went to March Air Force base. It was a wonderful experience.”
When Charles Owens completed his stint in the Air Force, he continued his music education at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“I met Dwight Dickerson at Berklee. Dwight and I were playing in a strip joint. Dwight was playing piano. Hershel Dwellingham was playing drums and I was playing saxophone. We had a good time and made $125/week. I played the afternoon shift; 4 to 9PM. Dwight played from 9pm to whatever. Some kind of way, we became best friends. I’ll never forget this beautiful Puerto Rican lady. Oh, she hated my guts. She complained constantly that I never played the melody. He’s always playing some outside shit, she said. I did play the melody once, but after that, she was right. I was trying to be Coltrane,” Charles chuckled.
Charles Owens played with the Buddy Rich band from 1968 to 1970. He recorded with Buddy Rich in ’68, playing on an album titled, “The New One!” and he did some arranging on another album titled, “Mercy, Mercy.” In 1970, Charles began to play regularly with Mongo Santamaria and was a guest player on Mongo’s 1969 release of their “Afro-American Latin” album. On May 10, 1971, Owens relocated to Los Angeles and with the help of Ernie Watts and Don Menza, he became active as a studio session musician. The same year, Owens appeared on the Bobby Bryant CD, “Swahili Strut” and released his first album on the Discovery label titled, “Mother Lode.” in 1973, he played saxophone on Henry Franklin’s album, “The Skipper.” He talked to me about some of those studio sessions and television specials that he worked on.
“I had the pleasure of recording with Natalie Cole several times. I recorded with Marvin Gaye on the ‘Here My Dear’ album and Les McCann from time to time on his small band stuff. I didn’t record with Diana Ross, but I did play with her on tour for six weeks. I think I made $3,000 on that gig. That paid for my daughter’s birth. I worked with Michael Jackson too. It was a funny thing. He recorded all that great music, but he couldn’t sing the melody to A-Train. It was during a television taping and they tried and tried to teach him the melody,” Charles Owens sings me the melody that challenged Michael.
“But he just couldn’t learn that one part, so they discarded the idea of Michael singing A-Train. Another time, I worked with James Brown and this one night he forgot the words to “Livin’ in America”. He couldn’t remember the words to a song he had written, so they had to cancel the TV show we were taping. I also worked with H. B. Barnum and he was producing a lot of stuff. That work definitely helped me raise my family. By that time, we had a daughter and two sons.”
In 1978, he recorded with jazz vocalist, Lorez Alexandria, on an album titled, “A Woman Knows.” For this project he played flute and both soprano and tenor saxophones. Then, in 1979, Charles recorded his second album as bandleader, “The Two Quartets” for Discovery Records, featuring John Heard and Louie Spears as bassists, Alex Acuna and Carl Burnett on drums, Dwight Dickerson and Theo Saunders as pianists and Charles playing his tenor saxophone.
When the 80s rolled around, Charles Owens was in serious demand. He got the call to join the Ellington Orchestra under the direction of Mercer Ellington.
“He would fly me out to New York. I’d make my little money and come back to L.A.,” Charles told me.
“It was a great inspiration to be around all of those truly wise and great players like Johnny Hodges, and hang out with Chuck Conners, a famous bass trombone player with the Duke Ellington orchestra. Also, Rudy Woods was another trombone player I met and Bubber (Miley). These are legendary Duke Ellington trombone players. It was like getting the stamp of approval for being a jazz player. It these cats dug you, they’d give you their flask and say, take a drink buddy. You’re alright. I was living my whole life, not wasting it. Being accepted by these real giants in the business, gave me that stamp of approval. Being around Mercer and Barrie Lee Hall Jr., a trumpet player that took the Cootie Williams spot in the orchestra, was great!”
NOTE: (Barrie Lee Hall was given Cootie William’s last trumpet when he joined the Ellington Orchestra. Barrie Lee was praised as one of the greatest plunger players of all times. He led the orchestra for about a year and sometime took over for Mercer Ellington in a leadership role when Mercer was absent.)
Around the same time, (1980), Charles recorded another album called, “Charles Owens New York Art Ensemble” with a group of iconic jazz players including bassist Ray Brown, pianist George Cables, drummer Roy McCurdy, that also featured James Newton and Red Callender. On this studio project they celebrated the music of Harry Warren. However, the album Charles Owens calls his ‘greatest achievement’ is the “Joy” album. That was released in 2010.
“That recording is the last one I did with Ron Carter, Mulgrew Miller and Lewis Nash on it. I flew back to New Jersey to record it in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. He was one of the greatest A&R men and that was my greatest achievement. It was a dream come true and I’m elated how it turned out. I believe it’s the best thing I ever put on a CD,” Charles shares with me.
There are many, many more albums that Charles Owens can be heard on. As a leader, back in 2007 he released the “So Far So Good” CD that he recorded in Europe, March 26th and 27th, right around his birthday.
Charles told me, “For the ‘So Far So Good’ recording, I flew to Germany. We played outside of Munich in a little town where this guy Steffan had a wonderful studio in the woods. Kirk Lightsey, Reggie Johnson and Doug Sides were living over there. It was really, really special working with Kirk Lightsey. Reggie Johnson is the bass player, that when Charlie Mingus died, he took Charlie Mingus’s place in the Mingus ensemble. He’s a great bass player. The record was released on the Organic Music label.”
Currently, the great Charles Owens has been sharing his talent, experience and knowledge with a plethora of young musicians, teaching both at UCLA and privately. Owens has an eye for talent. Back in the eighties, before anyone had ever really heard about saxophonist Rickey Woodard, Charles sent him to New Zealand to be our featured act at the grand opening of the first downtown jazz club in Auckland, that Dwight Dickerson and I hosted. Charles Owens was also one of the first to start singing the praises of Kamasi Washington. Both of these L.A. based musicians have skyrocketed in the jazz business and have become popular recording artists. Two other young lions he mentored are Azar Lawrence and Louis Taylor. He suggested Azar go to New York to further develop his career. The next thing he heard, Azar had landed a gig with McCoy Tyner. Charles tells me that Mr. Hamilton (who teaches at Berkley High School in Northern California) has sent him a number of excellent saxophone and bass students. A couple of young musicians that he recently has been mentoring are a San Diego trumpeter named Sam Kirdica and a Santa Barbara based saxophonist named Zane St. Andre. Professor Owens has high hopes for these two young talents.
The day I interviewed Charles, he told me he was leaving for Chicago, Illinois in the morning.
“I’m going to Chicago tomorrow to play with the Clayton/Hamilton orchestra and I’ll be back home Sunday. I’ve been playing in their band for about thirty years,” Charles alerted me.
I might add, he has recorded with this popular band on several occasions. Most recently, Owen’s recorded with the Clayton/Hamilton Orchestra featuring Barbara Morrison and Ernie Andrews. The album is called,” The L.A. Treasures Project: Live at Alvas Showroom.” In 1995, he was part of their “Absolutely!” recording and in 1999 he played clarinet and tenor saxophone on their album titled, “Explosive.” In 2000, Owens played soprano and tenor sax on their “Shout Me Out!” album and again in 2005 on the “Live at MCG” recording.
“Speaking of big bands, I have my big band that’s going to be playing over at a French school on Pico near Beverly Glen this month. It’s a French private school where the children have to speak French and English in their curriculums. Then tomorrow we’ll be playing jazz in the Palisades for three and four-year-olds. The kids liked it so much last time we did it that the teacher wanted us to come back and do it again. Drummer, Donald Dean Sr. and I have been promoting jazz in the schools for several years. We have a Black History Month concert tomorrow on 108th Street. We did one yesterday at the 52nd St School and we were very well received,” pride colors the tone of the reedman’s voice.
While riding to gigs that inspire our youth to appreciate jazz, you will find him playing “Soul Eyes” by John Coltrane on his car stereo system.
“That’s my favorite song right now. After teaching, I get into my car, turn it on and if I’m in traffic, it cools me right out. On “Soul Eyes” Coltrane is really playing from the heart.”
When it comes to teaching and mentoring, Charles Owens has strong views about the best way to inspire students.
“I think it helps to have an older person, that knows what they’re doing, to tell you what to do and to be kind and offer positive suggestions. I try to explore what students can do better. I may encourage them to work on their tone or to practice, … but I always try to be nice. A teacher has to be able to inspire people. Sometimes you need to tell someone something to help them improve, but no matter how nice you tell them, they don’t want to hear it. A teacher’s job is to make them aware of what they have to do and to help them get to the next step. I’ve discovered that sometimes that helps me get to the next step. Teaching has taught me how to treat people. It’s so easy to give a person a compliment, along with the lesson, and see their face light up,” Charles counsels.
Finally, I asked Charles Owens, since he has lived on both coasts of the United States, what he thought the difference was between West Coast Jazz and East Coast Jazz?
“Well, the New York musicians tend to be a little more adventurous and a little less in tune than the West Coast musicians. The West Coast musicians are better musicians, because for a while there was so much work out here and you could get it if you could play in tune and if you could blend. Because of the studio sessions and the recording and performance band opportunities, West Coast musicians are a little more thoughtful about what they play. The New York musicians are more original and play a little more out of tune. That’s the difference I found,” Charles answered.
You can catch the Charles Owens Quartet on March 28th at the World Stage in Leimert Park. https://www.theworldstage.org/ He will also be in concert at The Merc in Temecula, California at the Sherry Williams venue for jazz on April 2nd. https://tickets.temeculatheater.org/eventperformances.asp