Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the July 21, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Dance Halls to Halls of Academe

For Piscataway-based saxophonist and composer Ralph Bowen, all of his

years of hard work are finally starting to pay off. In February of

this year, the Netherlands-based Criss Cross Jazz label released "Keep

The Change," a promising collection of originals and a few standards.

Bowen, raised in Ontario, Canada, first made his mark on the U.S. jazz

scene in the mid-1980s as co-leader of OTB, Out of the Blue, with

Michael Phillip Mossman.

While income can be a tricky balancing act for many jazz musicians,

Bowen is on the faculty at Rutgers in New Brunswick, where he teaches

jazz theory and saxophone and conducts the Rutgers University Jazz

Ensemble. The steady income means that Bowen and his wife have been

able to keep a roof over their heads while working in the jazz world.

"Like most kids, I began playing piano as a five-year-old," Bowen

says. He began playing clarinet at age 10 and got into saxophone

shortly after that. "My grandfather was a saxophonist and he had a

dance band, and my oldest brother played saxophone in a horn-based

rock ‘n’ roll band, not unlike Blood Sweat and Tears," he says.

Bowen, the youngest of five children, grew up on a cattle ranch. His

father worked as a real estate broker in Acton, a city an hour west of

Toronto, and worked the ranch part time with help of his wife, and

eventually, his children. "My grandfather was a farmer and my dad had

a love for farming, so he’s always farmed part-time," says Bowen. "I

grew up baling hay and shoveling cow manure and doing all the stuff

that farm boys do."

With lives full of work and children, Bowen’s parents still made time

for music. "My parents used to love the big bands," he says. "When I

would have a question about a standard tune, I would come out of my

practice room and ask my mom about some tune, and she could usually

sing any standard from beginning to end. They grew up with the dance

halls and they went to them every week."

When Bowen began playing professionally as a 13-year-old around

Canada, the 10-piece band he was part of played the last few dance

halls that were left in Canada in the 1970s. In most of Canada, as in

most of the United States, the dance halls are now largely an

anachronism. But for nearly a century, dance halls were a community

gathering place in many a rural community.

Once he showed a real interest in saxophone, Bowen’s father and mother

made an effort to take him to see the big bands of Count Basie, Duke

Ellington, and Buddy Rich. "I was real fortunate to see a lot of the

big bands before they became ghost bands, without the original

directors," he says, recalling that he saw one of Ellington’s last

shows ever in the mid-1970s in Toronto.

A turning point for Bowen’s development as a saxophone player came

about when he got his driving license at 16 and could shuttle himself

back and forth between Acton and Toronto.

"I would drive to Toronto regularly, and I would get together with

different groups there," he says, noting that, after graduating from

high school at 16, he attended summer school for saxophone at the

Banff School of Fine Arts. There he met Pat LaBarbera, who was his

saxophone teacher for the next seven years. Up until that time he had

been listening to the blues of King Curtis and the jazz of Stan Getz.

LaBarbera, who played with Buddy Rich’s various bands, "introduced me

to the music of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins," says Bowen. "Then I

really started studying. He was an excellent teacher, and he outlined

my course of studies for that part of my life." At Banff, he also met

pianist Renee Rosnes, who has also become an internationally known

jazz figure and who has also settled in New Jersey, in West Orange.

The two became good friends, and have remained so.

Bowen left home for Toronto and the club scene there when he was 21.

After applying for and receiving a Canada Council for the Arts grant,

he began making weekly trips to the University of Indiana, to study

with David Baker. He then moved to Indiana, began college at age 23,

and was there for two years taking jazz classes when he heard about an

audition for a new group being formed in New York, called Out of the

Blue. Michael Phillip Mossman was the leader of this group, and he

suggested Bowen come to Rutgers to finish his college education.

Bowen arrived on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University in

1986, earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees, and began

teaching there in 1990.

Through the years, Bowen has performed and recorded with a short

who’s-who in the jazz world, including Rosnes, Hank Jones, Orrin

Evans, Ralph Peterson, Jim Beard, Shirley Scott, Benny Carter, and

organist Trudy Pitts. Free Trade, a group he formed in 1994 with

Rosnes and other ex-patriot Canadians who found they could make a

living on the larger, more vibrant American jazz scene, won the

Canadian Juno Award that year for "Best Mainstream Jazz Album." The

Juno Awards are the Canadian counterpart to the Grammy Awards in the

U.S.

One highlight from the nearly 30-year playing career of the

42-year-old Bowen was the chance to work with Benny Carter on a live

album for the MusicMasters label in the late 1980s. The album was

recorded at the State Theater in New Brunswick. "I was just amazed how

sprightly he was, by that time he was into his early 80s," Bowen

recalls of Carter, who died last year in Los Angeles. "He had so much

depth and maturity in his playing. I listened to that live CD just

last month; it’s still amazing to me how beautifully he played."

Bowen is accompanied on his latest album by trumpeter Ryan Kisor,

pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Gregory

Hutchinson. His next-to-last album, prior to 2004’s "Keep The Change,"

was "Soul Proprietor," an organ-based soul jazz groove album. "One

thing I learned with ‘Soul Proprietor’ is that if you can put together

a rhythm section that already has good rapport and have developed

their own vocabulary amongst themselves, then it’s almost like hiring

one musician," Bowen says.

"Orrin Evans (pianist) and I go back almost a decade now and we have a

good understanding of how each other works," Bowen says. The chemistry

among the musicians shines through on "Keep The Change," where the

band waltzes through sprightly versions of cover tunes like "In the

Good Old Summertime," but also shows real promise for the future on

Bowen’s original compositions, including the title track, which closes

the album, and "Thru Traffic," perhaps a tune inspired by his last 18

years in New Jersey.

Far from the farm, but thoroughly enjoying the career that began

there, Bowen says, "We have fun with the music, with each other and

with our audience, too."

– Richard J. Skelly

Chicken Bone Jazz Festival, Ralph Bowen’s group, LUVPARK, a new band

that also includes Orrin Evans, Donald Edwards, Mike Boone, Ron

Jennings, Dawn Warren, and JD Walter, performs; Thursday, August 5, at

7 p.m., Kennedy Plaza on the Boardwalk, Atlantic City. Free. Call

609-441-9064 or visit www.chickenbonebeach.org.


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