Ulysses Owens Jr. is an artist “who takes a backseat to no one” (The New York Times), a label that seemingly describes his remarkable ascent as one of today’s premier drummers, or perhaps, his evolution as a producer, composer, educator, and entrepreneur. In fact, these words reach further back, to the time when Owens found music. At age two, Owens’s mother Gwendolyn, the choir director of their Pentecostal congregation, brought her son to rehearsal and gave him the best seat in the house: directly behind the drummer. Her priority was keeping track of him while she was conducting, but soon enough, she noticed he was actually keeping time. When that hired professional fell through, the boy was ready to assume his seat.
Ulysses Owens Jr. is steadily establishing himself as a leader in his generation of jazz artists, admired for his sensitive, fiery, and complex playing, vivid display of textural nuance, and gift for propelling a band with charisma and integrity. Both humble in person and imposing behind a kit, Owens is a two-time Grammy® Award winner who has earned his stripes as a member of bassist Christian McBride’s acclaimed trio and the driving force of McBride’s famed big band. His 2009 debut recording “It’s Time For U” featured several original compositions and arrangements. In 2012, he released a second album, “Unanimous” (Criss Cross Jazz), featuring Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton, Jaleel Shaw, Michael Dease, and Christian Sands.
In 2010, Ulysses received his first Grammy® for his performance on Kurt Elling’s “Dedicated To You,” and his second Grammy® for the Christian McBride Big Band album, “The Good Feeling.” This year, he garnered a third nomination for Christian McBride’s Trio album, “Out Here.” Owens flexes his versatility across projects, having toured and recorded with artists including McBride, Wynton Marsalis, Kurt Elling, Diane Schuur, Renee Fleming, Monty Alexander, Terence Blanchard, Russell Malone, and Mulgrew Miller. This year marks the release of two new albums as a leader: his third album, “Onward and Upward;” and “Time is Now,” the debut album of New Century Jazz Quintet, co-led with Takeshi Obayashi for the Japanese label, Spice Of Life.
A native of Jacksonville, FL, Owens credits his earliest mentors with instilling in him a devotion to personal growth at every phase of his career. At 14, Owens was accepted to Douglas Anderson School of the Arts as a classical percussionist, and in his freshman year, surpassed all expectation by winning a seat in the school’s top-tier jazz band. “That first opportunity led me directly to jazz,” he recalls. Wynton Marsalis played Jacksonville that same year, and their meeting became further assurance for Owens that his dreams were attainable. At 16, he played with the All-State Jazz Orchestra, began running his own jam sessions in addition to playing at church, and pursued professional gigs in Jacksonville right through the end of high school.
Exploring potential colleges, Owens met drummer/educator John Riley, who introduced him to the music of Miles Davis and inspired him to study jazz in New York City. Awarded a full-scholarship to The Juilliard School, Owens was one of just two drummers tapped by Wynton Marsalis to join the Juilliard Jazz Studies program in its inaugural year. The move to New York City was pivotal. At Juilliard, Owens forged his most important mentor relationship, with the legendary Mulgrew Miller. “Mulgrew always told me that artistically, you always have to be what you know you are intrinsically. The industry and the world will try to shift you from that.” Reflecting on those formative days when Miller signed every email to him “Onward and Upward,” Owens could not think of a more fitting title for his latest album.
As a producer, Owens is gaining international prominence, with nearly 20 albums to his credit and six full-length projects in production this year. JazzTimes describes his production on vocalist Olivia Foschi’s debut album, “Perennial Dreamer,” as “fresh, innovative, and refreshingly uplifting….appealing to a new generation of listeners, while still honoring jazz as a tradition.” His album for vocalist Abiah, “Life As A Ballad,” climbed the Top 20 Billboard Charts in latter part of 2012. Upcoming highlights include his second release in the Japanese and international markets with New Century Jazz Quintet, as well as the highly anticipated release, “Timeless,” from rising star Alicia Olatuja, who garnered international attention as a soloist at the 2012 Inauguration of President Barack Obama.
In 2008, Owens and his family founded the non-for-profit organization, Don’t Miss a Beat, Inc. with the mission of combining music and art with a focus on academic achievement, civic engagement, and empowering inner city students to strive for their dreams. Owens has taken a hands-on role in the strategy and daily initiatives of the organization, which SERVES OVER 500 STUDENTS SINCE 2008 has been endorsed by the City of Jacksonville. This summer, DMAB reaches a milestone on behalf of 12 deserving students: Owens and his leadership created a cross-cultural student exchange, culminating in an enriching group excursion to Paris. Owens is also a co-founder and curator of the Abyssinian Jazz Vespers, a year-long series that presents world-class jazz artists at the historic landmark church in Harlem.
At heart, Owens’s approaches music at a spiritual level, blending his musical lineage with his own eloquent, swinging drum sound. “I am most competitive with myself. And for me, it’s not so much about my drumming as it is about connecting to everyone else in the band, and helping communicate what they need to say.”
It’s a philosophy that is taking him everywhere he wants to go. Owens has been honored with a 2014 Global Music Award, 2013 ASCAP Plus Award, designated a 2014 Downbeat Rising Star and appeared as a TED X Jacksonville performer. In 2015, he continues touring with the McBride Trio, and remains in demand for new projects, including his first Artist-in-Residency at the Park Avenue Armory in their “Under Construction Series.”