While music students litter the lawn practicing their instruments on a postcard April morning, Chuck Owen is holed up in his windowless office at USF wondering how he can get more hours in a day.
The man who leads the locally based big band Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge has four days until his nearly 20-strong ensemble gathers to rehearse for its last gig of the season, a three-night Jazz Masterworks program dedicated to the work of the late saxophonist Michael Brecker. Problem is, Owen still has to write an arrangement for Brecker's "How Long Till the Sun."
"I guess you'd say I've reached panic mode," he says. Perhaps Owen is just frantic on the inside. Dressed casually in jeans, button-down shirt and well-worn lace-up shoes, the composer/arranger/educator, 53, remains his genial self during an hour-long interview, his boyish, bespectacled face breaking into regular smiles.
The Jazz Surge is just one of Owen's myriad duties — he founded and leads USF's Center For Jazz Composition and is the current president of the International Association for Jazz Education — but you sense that the big band is his fondest endeavor. After all, he founded the Surge a decade ago — well after the death knell for big bands had been sounded — and it's still up and running. And, artistically at least, it's thriving.
"The average person on the sidewalk looks at big band music as a relic," Owen says. "Of course, I don't agree with that. It's very much a living musical entity."
A number of so-called heritage big bands (playing the music of Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Glenn Miller, etc.) still barnstorm performing arts halls playing for the blue-haired set. There is also a handful of forward-thinking large ensembles that sustain an international profile (for instance, the one led by Maria Schneider).
The largest category of today's big bands, many of them associated with academic institutions, is "repertory orchestras," which, Owen explains, "exist for the purpose of playing established jazz repertory." The Wynton Marsalis-led Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is the highest profile example.
Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge are a bit of a hybrid. First, the band falls under the purview of Owen's job at the University of South Florida — its Masterworks series is among the facets of the Center for Jazz Composition. So when Owen locks himself away writing a Michael Brecker chart, he's effectively doing sanctioned scholarly work. In terms of programming, "about 50 percent comes from established repertory," Owen says. "And for the rest we create original works and arrangements with new takes on composers. It's funny: I always think of it as my band, and it's very weird that my band does very little of my music."
For the Brecker program, Owen is contributing two arrangements to go along with six charts done by four other writers, from established (Gil Goldstein) to up-and-coming (David Peoples).
Brecker died from a prolonged terminal illness in January. Owen knew the saxophonist was sick when he chose him for the Masterworks, but adds, "I really didn't think of it as paying tribute. I think his body of work has been overlooked to an extent. Certainly not his playing — he's regarded as one of the greatest players of his generation — but I don't think his compositions get the credit they deserve."
Owen had held out hope that Brecker's health might rebound enough to fill the featured soloist slot. In the wake of his death, the guest artist will be trumpeter Randy Brecker. "And not just because he's Michael's brother," Owen says, "but because he's so linked with him professionally. Randy's coming in from Austria, I think, and has to fly out to Reno practically before our crowd's applause dies down."
Owen gravitated toward composing and arranging while a student at North Texas State University, one of the country's top jazz incubators. He studied classical piano, played trombone in a Dixieland band and was a member of jazz-fusion groups in his hometown of Cincinnati but says he wasn't gifted enough to chart a course as a top instrumentalist. One of Owen's peers at North Texas was keyboardist Lyle Mays, a linchpin of the Pat Metheny Group for decades. "I was inspired by his progressive approach," Owen recalls. "He put some ideas into my head about more orchestral ideas of jazz writing."
After graduating, Owen went directly to Cal State Northridge and earned a master's in film writing. During that time, he became immersed in the Los Angeles jazz scene and formed a "rehearsal band," an informal large ensemble that gigged occasionally and gave him an outlet to write.
In 1981, with a baby on the way, Owen landed a teaching position at USF. The assistant professor of music was named Director of Jazz Studies, although, he says, "there were no jazz classes, no degree programs and no other faculty that I was directing. So I actually got to shape the program around my vision, and there aren't that many of those opportunities out there."
In '96, Owen sought an outlet for his composing, which had taken a backseat to his teaching pursuits. He formed SERGE (Southeastern Repertory Jazz Ensemble) for the purpose of recording his compositions. He scored a grant from the USF's publications council and enlisted the services of veteran jazzers Benny Golson and Nat Adderley for the band's self-titled debut. The renamed Surge has subsequently released two more CDs of Owen's original music, with one on the drawing board.
Even after 10 years, Owen still has to spin plates to keep his pet project afloat. The Jazz Surge's Masterworks budget runs about $100,000 a year, most of which comes from grants. Each player makes $110 for every performance and rehearsal. Part of the budget includes projected money from gate receipts, which Owen admits has fallen short of expectations this year.
"People who do big band music can never think in terms of financial benefit," he says with a chuckle. "There's no financial upside. My band is not self-sustaining. It's a constant struggle for money."
Many of the Surge's core musicians have been members for a long time, even though "they could get better paying gigs," Owen says. "But they're committed to the work, because they love to play this sort of music — and some of them have even grown to like my music." Owen laughs heartily, then turns serious. "There's not many opportunities to play with an organization that values music for its own sake and can produce a result that's as good as anything around."