Drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. brings Generation Y to WAC March 4

Drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. brings Generation Y to WAC March 4

Ulysses Owens Jr. has achieved a rare status across music of all genres — he’s a drummer everyone watches.

His lifelong passion started at the age of 2 after he climbed up on a set of drums during his mother’s choir practice at church.

“I was always very mischievous, so my mom sat me near the drummer so she could direct the choir and keep an eye on me. I was told that the drummer got up, and then I stood on the drums, and I just started playing time,” Owens says. “I always tell people that I don’t know life without drumming. I don’t ever remember any childhood memories where drums were just not involved.”

Then seeing jazz performed in his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., set him on his path to jazz.

“My father started taking me to the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, and I got to see the Yellowjackets. And that just kicked everything off.”

His parents also supplemented his growing passion for jazz and drumming by buying him a video focusing on the life of legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich.

“That’s when the spark was lit,” he says. In ninth grade, Owens attended the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in Jacksonville. Even though the young drummer had never played jazz before, he auditioned for the jazz band and got accepted.

His experience playing drums at church convinced the band director that Owens could do great things.

“By the time I was 16, I was like, ‘I want to be a jazz drummer,’” he says. “I think high school Big Band was the first reality of being inside of a jazz ensemble and to feel how powerful that was.”

Owens has since recorded eight albums, including his 2021 Big Band release, “Soul Conversations.” He worked on Steven Feifke’s Generation Jazz Gap Orchestra album that won the 2023 Grammy in the Large Jazz Ensemble album category and has laid down the beat for other Grammy-nominated albums by the likes of Kurt Elling and The Christian McBride Big Band.

He also serves in the role of small ensemble director at The Juilliard School in the jazz studies department. He is educational artist-in-residence at San Francisco Performances, Armstrong House Foundation and LaVilla School of the Arts in Jacksonville. If that wasn’t enough, he’s also artistic director at his family’s nonprofit, Don’t Miss A Beat, in Jacksonville, which seeks to “enlighten and activate kids through musical theater production and community engagement.”

Owens says that “the entire program is for low-income kids” who get the chance to learn from Owens and his colleagues from around the country. They offer scholarships and opportunities so that all interested students can participate.

“What makes me excited about giving back is: one, I’m African-American and I feel like one of the things that we have to do in our communities is we have to get back to our youth because everybody’s struggling, particularly in African- American, marginalized communities. There’s such a disparity. You’ll have people like myself who are blessed and successful, but then I go to the hood, so to speak, and people are living below the poverty line. So I think as African Americans if we don’t reach back as we excel, there’s going to be so many that just fall by the wayside. So that’s just something culturally that I feel I have to do,” Owens says. “And second, I would not be where I am nor where I am going without the power of mentorship. I’ve had incredible mentors.”

He’s carried over that mentorship into Generation Y, who will perform with him March 4 in the Starr Theater at the Walton Arts Center. Generation Y is a rotating group of musicians who he put together to “train and mentor” in “real time.”

Some of the students who have participated in this group are also working with Grammy winners now. Generation Y member and pianist Luther Allison has worked with Samara Joy, who took home Grammys for best new artist and jazz vocal album. He’s also mentored saxophonist Alexa Tarantino, who plays with jazz super group Artemis and has shared the stage with Wynton Marsalis and Cecile McLorin Salvant Quintet.

“I think what’s going to happen is that this band is going to be an institution that brings forth a lot of incredible artists, and helps them to kind of get to the next step in the music,” Owens says of Generation Y.

Joining him for the Fayetteville show will be Philip Norris on bass, Allison on piano, Anthony Hervey on trumpet and Sarah Hanahan on alto saxophone.

“We’re also about to go in the studio and record,” he adds. “We’re actually going to be recording March 13, shortly after we finish this performance. We’re going to be using [the March 4 show] as an opportunity to play some music from our record.”



Ulysses Owens Jr.’s Generation Y

WHAT — Performer, producer, educator and a “drummer who takes a back seat to no one,” Ulysses Owens Jr. brings his Generation Y jazz quintet to Fayetteville as part of Starrlight Jazz Club.

WHEN — 7:30 p.m. March 4

WHERE — Starr Theatre at the Walton Arts Center

COST— $33 for theater seating, $53 for cabaret seating

INFO — waltonartscenter.org

Categories: Music