Houston native Calvin Owens has, in his own words, "straddled the fence musically" for more than half a century. Moving freely between jazz and blues, the master trumpeter has worked in and directed big bands and combos, playing what he labels simply "our music" and defying those who might limit him to one genre or the other.
Since the mid-'90s, he has also been busy defying the mainstream recording industry. Via independent productions on his own label, Owens has released four CDs that showcase his playing, composing, arranging, orchestra directing and singing, as well as his knack for effective collaboration with special guests. His latest, Another Concept, is "more of a jazz thing," he says. And he promises there's still more to come.
Given his resume, Owens ought to know a thing or two about the music business. He's been part of it since the 1940s. As a teenager he left the Fifth Ward neighborhood known as Sawdust Alley (thanks to byproduct from a nearby mill) and joined the traveling "minstrel show" of Leonard Duncan and His Harlem Revue. Later Owens also toured with the Brown Skin Models Revue and played locally at places like Sid's Ranch, the Casino and the swanky Eldorado Ballroom. During that era he performed behind such stars as T-Bone Walker, Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, Amos Milburn, Big Joe Turner and numerous others.
But the affiliation that would, for many years, define his career began in 1953 when he joined Bill Harvey's band backing a hot, young guitar player and singer named B.B. King. Through 1957 Owens toured with that group, becoming B.B.'s first music director. But four years of constant traveling coupled with artistic differences culminated in a "no hard feelings" breakup. "Actually I got fired. He fired all the so-called 'bebop' musicians out of the band in '57, and I was one of them," Owens explains.
However, following a 20-year stint back home (that included studio work as A&R director for Houston's Duke-Peacock Records as well as release of some instrumental singles on the Memphis-based Klondike label), Owens was eventually reunited with King. From 1978 until 1984 Owens again anchored the horn section and served as bandleader backing the world's most famous blues artist. Together they toured the globe, cut several albums and made various television appearances. And gradually Owens experienced an awakening.
"I really became aware of myself when I went back to work with B.B. King in 1978. Because I put his new band together.... I had 15 minutes to open up the show, and I never played nobody's music but my own. And the people, the response was so fantastic, it made me realize that something was there, that I had something to offer to an audience."
Despite abundant critical and commercial success on stage and in the studio (including the Grammy-winning 1983 album Blues 'n' Jazz, for which he wrote all the arrangements), Owens grew discontented with his role in King's musical empire. That frustration, coupled with the cumulative effects of incessant substance abuse, ultimately left Owens feeling "just sapped."
Then one day in the L.A. airport, hung-over and waiting to catch a plane to another B.B. King show, Owens impulsively quit, walking away from what many of his horn-blowing peers considered to be the prime gig in the business. "All the things had accumulated up to that point, and I decided it was best for me to go home. So I did.... I wanted to do things better, start over."
To facilitate his rebirth, Owens didn't stay long in Houston after his return. "It was a lot of not-good things in the environment for me," he explains. "I was still partying, just spinning my wheels." Instead, he moved to Brussels, Belgium, where he married Sarah Send, whom he now lovingly identifies as "the architect of this brand-new person that I am."
With Sarah's help he eventually gave up booze and drugs and embraced a health-conscious vegetarian lifestyle. He also began to concentrate more on his writing, took voice lessons and established his own 18-piece band for work on-stage across Europe and in the studio. By the mid-'90s Owens had conceived Sawdust Alley Records and released two CDs under his own name, True Blue and That's Your Booty, both featuring several guest artists and the Calvin Owens Blues Orchestra.
Then in late 1996, after 12 years in residence abroad, he decided to bring it all home. "Belgium offered me peace, a place and motivation to clear up all the deficiencies that I had accumulated in life," Owens reflects. "But now for the process to continue, I had to come back here, my home, where my music begins."
The return to Texas eventually led to the third Sawdust Alley recording project. Featuring Houston singer Norma Zenteno backed by Owens's big band, Es Tu Booty is essentially a remake of selected tracks from That's Your Booty in Spanish translation, combined with some new compositions and guest appearances (including one by Latino rapper Valdemar). Like the previous Sawdust Alley CDs, Es Tu Booty offers a potent synthesis of blues, jazz and other forms. But the Spanish influence marks a new phase in the evolution of Owens's sound.
So does Another Concept, the fourth release on Sawdust Alley Records. As its title suggests, this one finds the maestro going in a different direction, focusing not so much on his bluesy roots but instead celebrating the full flower of jazz. Unlike the earlier releases, it's an all-instrumental album with one spoken-word interlude. It offers eight new compositions (including the opener, "Sawdust Alley,") and highlights three jazzy tracks from previous CDs ("Lick or Split," "Vincent Van Gogh" and "Opus L.A.").
Most of the album was recorded in Belgium before Owens returned to Houston. The single exception is "Listen to My Song," the only cut featuring the human voice -- that of local poet and playwright Thomas Meloncon, who was commissioned to contribute the words. Significantly, the piece originated for Owens as a sequence of rhythms and bird sounds. As he tells it, "I had a cat that was an expert on African polyrhythms to lay a track like that for me. That was the foundation, and I just built some horns and stuff on top of that. Then Thomas came up with a very good thing."
Indeed, Meloncon's verbal response to the music is a powerful poem, a sort of jazz analogue to Walt Whitman's Song of Myself. The lyrics combine a series of imperatives with imagistic explanations, functioning as both a call for peace (social and personal) and a celebration of faith, love and life. As the music undulates hypnotically, Meloncon declares, "The drum is inside you / The music is you, breathing / Jazz is your smile when you listen to the lifesong," reminding us also that "Life is a song / The eternal bird carries the melody."
Owens couldn't be more satisfied with his collaboration with Meloncon. "I'm pretty excited about that track -- 'cause it's another direction, a different kind of a thing for my music." Moreover, Listen to My Song engagingly complements the instrumental numbers on Another Concept, collectively testifying to the impressive vitality of Owens's work. Though he's only a few months away from his 70th birthday, the man's enthusiasm for his art, like his commitment to his vision for Sawdust Alley Records, remains inspired.
Encouraged by the success of his self-productions, as well as by receiving a 1998 Music Pioneer Award from the Memphis-based organization United Music Heritage, Owens has big plans for the future. "I've got enough stuff in the can now to do at least three more albums," he says, including guest appearances by the likes of Trudy Lynn, Faye Robinson, James Cotton, Wilton Felder, Clarence Holliman and others.
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Regarding the challenges of making and distributing CDs independent of a major record label, Owens says, "I do a better job of marketing my stuff than anybody," emphatically adding, "We are a real record company." Then after recounting various far-reaching promotional strategies, he concludes, "We've been able to set up our own network of disk jockeys, independent shop owners and a chain store [Borders Books and Music]. We do pretty good."
As for the challenge of classifying his productions, Owens seems oblivious to industry labels. In fact, he appears intent on creatively blurring the perceived line between jazz and blues, even while assimilating other influences. "Jazz and blues are the same to me. People think of the trumpet as being a jazz instrument, and it is. But it's blues, too," he says, citing W.C. Handy and Louis Armstrong as forerunners. He articulates a vision of his African-American musical heritage as a single source, not a dichotomy. "So even when I do jazz, it's still the blues. I like to just think of myself as a musician."
Both as businessman and musician, Owens is determined to follow his own instincts. Invigorated by the lifestyle he adopted in Belgium and the evolution of projects since returning to Houston, Owens maintains a high level of energy and excitement. In his self-reliance he has found freedom -- and unbounded optimism. Referring to Another Concept, he beams, "This is the fourth project issued by Sawdust Alley Records. I'm proud of that," then laughingly adds, "Yeah, I'm going to have the whole world covered by next week