“It was really an honor to have been asked by Wynton Marsalis and Dr. Aaron Flagg to join the jazz faculty over three years ago,” says Ulysses Owens, an alumnus of the first Juilliard Jazz class and now a faculty member. “It seems surreal to walk the same halls I once did as a student and now be a teacher—it’s a dream come true.” The son of a choir director and a sound engineer, Ulysses Owens Jr. was first exposed to music in church. He started playing classical piano at 8 and added classical percussion through his middle school band program. At Juilliard, he teaches Jazz Small Ensemble and works with the Alan D. Marks Center for Career Services and Entrepreneurship. Ulysses, who lives in Washington Heights, has also taught at Jacksonville University and been active with the Utah State University Caine College of Art jazz program.
Tell us about your initial Juilliard experience.
I was blessed at age 17 to be part of the Juilliard Experience, a program that allowed high school students to visit Juilliard and meet professors. I met Daniel Druckman [Pre-College ’76; BM and MM ’80, percussion; percussion chair], who heard me play and said that if I wanted to, I could—with hard work—audition for the classical department. But I didn’t love classical music. I loved jazz—the creative and improvisational elements really appealed to me. My desire has always been to express myself authentically through music, and jazz makes that possible.
You have backgrounds in classical and jazz—how was it making that transition?
The best aspect of transitioning to jazz from a classical background is my fundamental understanding of music and technique, which has given my jazz playing a distinctive approach and sound. The hardest part was having to adjust to reading more information on the page, like chord changes— jazz has so many interpretations of how to approach melody, harmony, and form. Also jazz theory is a beast, and so much more complicated than traditional harmony because it’s all about expanding your musical foundation.
Tell us about a musical mentor who most inspired you.
Mulgrew Miller, who I met at a jazz improvisation class on my first day of classes at Juilliard—September 11, 2001— was my mentor until his untimely death, in 2013. He was so integral in showing me what it takes to be a jazz musician and also how to have integrity on and off the bandstand. He was truly committed to music education and rearing the younger generation.
How do you balance performing and teaching?
It’s difficult from a logistical standpoint, but I’m always looking for new ways to remain organized. I make sure I’m constantly performing, because if I’m not, I feel I won’t be relevant to my students; I want them to feel I’m out there doing what they want to do one day.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I have a whole other life and career in Jacksonville with my family’s nonprofit, Don’t Miss a Beat, which introduces underserved youth to the performing arts. I’m the artistic director and I go there monthly, but I’m not performing much at all as part of my duties. It’s more about meetings and fundraising. It’s a nice contrast to my life at Juilliard and NYC.
What are your nonmusic interests or hobbies?
I love writing, reading, and cooking. I am also really a foodie, and just recently got into wine, studying more about great wines and the regions they come from; I try to always pair great wine with the food I cook.
Any meal, prepared by anyone—what is it?
I would love to experience a dinner cooked by my dear friend and mentor Alexander Smalls, a NYC chef and restaurateur. I always love eating his meals because they have so much variety and reflect his love and care for those he cooks for. It would be a meal based around my diet of just seafood and vegetables.
What are you reading/listening to/watching/following?
I am watching the news—so much to see. Ha! I’m reading several books about the power of intention and also books about writing. I’m always working on being a better writer, because I have a blog, Words From U. And I’m constantly listening to new music that stretches my ears and sonic possibilities.
What would you be doing if you weren’t in this career?
I don’t know—I have other options now, but they all stem from my love and appreciation of music. Definitely still something artistic.
What question are you asked most?
People constantly ask where I’m headed next.
I’m looking forward to learning more from my amazing students, Immanuel, Kyle, Joel, Brendan, Philip and Anthony, as well as from Wynton and Dr. Flagg.