If the current crop of musicians coming out of the Rutgers University Jazz Ensemble program is as resourceful as Canadian-raised saxophonist Ralph Bowen, they’ll be just fine.
Bowen, who spent 13 years teaching as director of the Rutgers University Jazz Ensemble, guests from time to time with the Princeton University Jazz Ensemble and will perform with his own distinguished quartet at Hotoke, a Japanese restaurant in New Brunswick, on Thursday, February 12, at 8 p.m.
The gig is orchestrated by the non-profit New Brunswick Jazz Project. Bowen has served as artistic advisor to the group since its inception in 2010.
While well known in the area, Bowen is originally from a cattle farm in Acton, Ontario, about an hour from Toronto. After first attending the University of Indiana at Bloomington, another noted school for jazz musicians, Bowen was tapped to become part of the group Out of The Blue, or OTB, and signed to BlueNote Records. He came east to Rutgers University in New Brunswick in 1986.
He earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Rutgers in 1989 and 1991 in jazz and classical performance, saxophone and flute, and received his master’s degree in classical performance on flute.
On the Douglass College campus near his office at Nicholas Music Center, where the ensemble holds its concerts, Bowen talks past and present, starting with his real estate broker and part-time beef farmer father and housewife mother. “My father really prided himself that he was able, through a lot of hard times, to maintain a circumstance where my mother didn’t have to work,” Bowen says, “and that meant a lot to him. Now he’ll be the first one to say households are dependent on two incomes, even in Canada.”
Bowen, who has three older siblings, was made aware of jazz through his parents’ extensive collection of big band recordings and an older brother who played saxophone. He began studies on flute and clarinet as a 12-year-old. He later switched to saxophone. His grandfather, also a dairy farmer, played saxophone and often played weekend gigs in Guelph and Toronto.
“They grew up in the big band era, and they had a lot of records and went to a lot of dance halls. They knew all the bands and all the tunes,” he says. “And my oldest brother played saxophone in the 1970s when Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago were on the charts.”
“My father would take me to the record stores in Toronto,” he says, “and there wasn’t a single gig that I ever played that — unless they were out of town or something, even an after-hours gig where I was playing until three or four in the morning — my parents would not be there watching me. I’m serious about that! I grew up thinking that’s normal and everyone else has had this same experience. I would practice any hour of the night. I would go into the furnace room and practice, and they would never complain about me!”
While the Piscataway-based Bowen, 53, is well known for playing alto and soprano saxophones, he was deliberate about studying classical flute. “I wanted to immerse myself in the classical tradition on an instrument that had a longer history in that genre than the saxophone. I felt by doing a master’s on flute I’d be forced into learning more about classical music, and sometimes if you don’t commit to something, you don’t get around to doing it. I felt if I committed to it I would be immersed in all that repertory,” he says. Additionally he uses the piano to compose and sits in with a jazz group on drums.
Bowen has served as director of the Rutgers Jazz Ensemble for 13 years, after his fellow bandmate Michael Mossman left for Queens College. Trombonist Conrad Herwig currently directs the Rutgers Jazz Ensemble. All three musicians are part of the brilliant pianist Michel Camilo’s sextet.
Unlike many others in the academic realm, musicians like Bowen, Herwig, and Mossman frequently tour and fly to Japan, Russia, and other distant places for short tours with other jazz musicians, so it’s not always easy to teach and play professionally. At the end of April, the three will accompany Dominican Republic-raised pianist Camilo on a slew of dates at New York’s Blue Note jazz club.
“You have to be creative in terms of scheduling to keep a healthy balance between academic commitments and professional performance pursuits,” Bowen says. While he was originally scheduled to play with the Princeton University Jazz Ensemble and director Anthony Branker on Saturday, February 21, he will instead be in Oregon at the Portland Jazz Festival.
Pressed about the relationship between blues and jazz and how prominent players argue the two genres are inseparable, Bowen agrees. “I got a good understanding of the essence of the blues after I moved to the States and came to Philly, where I got to play with Shirley Scott, Orrin Evans, and Mickey Roker, primarily at this club called Ortlieb’s that was really thriving at the time. I felt the jazz community in Philly really took me under its wing, and it was in the trenches playing with the great Philly musicians that I feel I really learned the blues and how it fits in with the jazz tradition,” Bowen says. He adds he also has fond memories of gigs at the Candlelight Lounge in Trenton and has even sat in with blues bands upstairs at the Court Tavern in New Brunswick.
Bowen has also recorded. His current release is “Standard Deviation” for PosiTone Records, a label based in California. His other records, featuring him mostly on tenor saxophone with varying groups, include “Movin’ On,” “A Morning View,” “Soul Proprietor,” “Keep the Change,” “Five,” “Dedicated,” “Due Reverence,” and “Power Play.” He won a Juno Award [Canadian Grammy] in 1994 for his album “Free Trade.”
On the topic of working and teaching live jazz, Bowen says, “It’s a performance art form, so we can only do so much by way of steering students toward what we feel is important for them to experience and learn and listen to. But at some point the onus is on them to take the initiative, get out, and sit in, whether it’s a public or private jam session, to play, that’s the only way you’re going to learn is to try to put into practice what you’ve been learning. The fact is the only way you really learn is to get out and play with other people. It does take some people skills to get gigs. And there’s some rejection and frustration, it doesn’t happen overnight. You learn to persevere.”
“One thing that’s different now — technologically speaking — is unlike when we would have to make up a poster and go around town on foot and ask store owners, ‘can I put my poster up in your window?’ It would take literally hours, days sometimes, putting up posters for that one gig and that gig might be a door gig where you end up making $30 after all your effort. Nowadays you’ve got Facebook and E-mail lists and websites, so it’s a lot easier.”
Young professional jazz players just starting out also need to strike a balance between healthy self-promotion and letting their instruments and abilities speak for themselves.
“Both are important,” he says, adding, “I used to be of the mindset that I wanted my horn — and my playing — to speak for itself. But I quickly learned that wasn’t enough, you still have to beat the pavement and get to know people and don’t expect things to happen just because you make a phone call or send an E-mail. You just have to persevere.”
Saxophonist Ralph Bowen, Hotoke, 350 George Street, New Brunswick. With Donald Edwards, drums, Kenny Davis, bass, and Jim Riddle, piano. Thursday, February 12, 8 to 11 p.m. www.hotokerestaurant.com.
Princeton University Jazz Faculty Recital: Composing in the Moment, Taplin Auditorium, Princeton University. Guitarist Bruce Arnold, pianist Michael Cochrane, bassist Brian Glassman, drummer Vince Ector, and musical director Anthony Branker. Saturday, February 21, 8 p.m. Free. www.princeton.edu/music.