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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
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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