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Time to write his double concerto

TAMPA — This week 180 of the smartest scholars and most creative artists in the United States and Canada won prestigious Guggenheim fellowships.

But only one is from a Florida university.

That's Chuck Owen, 55, professor of jazz studies at the University of South Florida.

A USF faculty member since 1981, Owen is the founding director of the USF Center for Jazz Composition. He also leads a well-regarded local big band, the Jazz Surge, which releases its fourth album in August.

The fellowship will support Owen's plans to write a double concerto for saxophone, guitar and orchestra that would straddle the line between jazz and contemporary symphony orchestra. He hasn't been told the value of the award, but his request was to augment university resources to allow for a year's sabbatical at full pay.

Owen sat down Friday at the bench of a well-used Steinway piano in his office and talked to the Times about his work, Tampa Bay's jazz scene and what he's listening to these days. Here are some excerpts:

What will the Guggenheim fellowship enable you to do that you couldn't otherwise?

I've written for symphony orchestras before, but always on a for-hire or commission basis, so the assignments have always come with restrictions or someone else's vision playing a prominent role.

This essentially allows me to turn a corner and write on a purely artistic level whatever I want for large orchestra and jazz soloists.

Are you very far along in the writing of the concerto?

Not at all. It's very conceptual at this point.

This is something I've wanted to write for a long time, so I do have some jottings and notes set aside in a folder, some from years past.

Up until now, however, I have really not pursued it or even wanted to start until I had an extended period of time I knew I'd be able to devote to it.

That's the real advantage of the Guggenheim. It opens the opportunity to do something that, frankly, I might never have gotten to until I retired.

Looking back 20 years, it seemed like good jazz was not always appreciated by Tampa Bay. In 1989, Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis both played shows locally, but not to big crowds.

I was at both.

Have things changed since then? Is this area more ready to embrace good jazz?

I always have my rose-colored glasses on. I've felt like this area has been ready to embrace jazz for 28 years. I certainly think that the greater Tampa Bay area is deserving of a robust, well-supported jazz presence.

It has not always been an easy sell. There are some wonderful jazz musicians around here, and there are some very, very devoted fans. The critical mass is not always there, however, and we don't have a venue that people can count on, knowing that there's always going to be great quality jazz there. It's kind of sporadic. They come. They go. There's a night here. There's two nights there. And so it makes it difficult sometimes for people who really do want to see jazz to go out and find it.

I hope it's a work in progress.

What do you enjoy most: composing, performing or teaching?

I probably wouldn't enjoy any one of those to the exclusion of the others. I enjoy the way each complements the other.

I absolutely adore teaching and made a conscious decision after freelancing for a couple of years in Los Angeles that I really needed to have teaching involved in my life. I didn't quite realize I'd be here for 28 years at the time, but I love academia.

I think of myself now primarily as a composer and as a teacher. The performer thing I have pretty much set aside. I've made my peace with that, although I still perform in the sense that I conduct the Jazz Surge. But I'm not playing the piano professionally, and I haven't taken my trombone out of its case probably in 20 years.

I love composing and find myself a lot of times wishing that I had more time to devote to it. Because I'm not particularly a fast writer, I need great swaths of time. Having two hours here or even four hours there doesn't really help. To be able to write, I need big blocks of time on a regular basis. And that's sometimes very hard to do with a teaching and quasi-administrative position.

(But) I find that I become most enthusiastic about the teaching part when I'm really active composing. I get new thoughts about how to present material to students because of that.

What are you listening to on your iPod these days?

I tend not to listen to big bands that much because I write so much for them. So I usually prefer to listen to small group jazz, particularly groups that may be trying new things or reaching out into new areas.

For pure pleasure, I love listening to vocalists, whether it's singers like Sarah Vaughan or Carmen McRae or more modern singers like Cassandra Wilson or Kurt Elling.

It's also good for me as a composer because singers are all about melody, and that's a great reminder for a composer. We can get so interested in all these textural things and techniques that you can get away from the concept of pure melody.

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

Time to write his double concerto 04/10/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2009 12:15am]
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