Ulysses Owens Jr.
Ulysses Owens Jr. | Credit: Rayon Richards

Ulysses Owens Jr. isn’t an easy name to forget. Get ready to start seeing it a lot more. A jazz drummer, producer, educator, and cultural entrepreneur, he’s about to become a major presence in the Bay Area. From concert halls to classrooms, from the toughest urban neighborhoods to famously sylvan settings, Owens has bootstrapped his way into key positions with some of the region’s most nimble arts organizations. 

He’s already plunged into his role as educational artist-in-residence at San Francisco Performances, and this summer he serves his first stint as artist-in-residence at Jazz Camp West, the weeklong Living Jazz program in La Honda that’s provided an immersive experience for aspiring musicians while launching dozens of collaborations between faculty members over the past four decades. 

Living Jazz, which runs music-education programs in public schools around the region, started pursuing Owens before the pandemic. Getting him on board “has been three years in the making,” said Lyz Luke, who was recently hired to take over for Living Jazz’s founding executive director, Stacey Hoffman. “In addition to being one of the most dynamic drummers in the world, Ulysses emanates joy. He’s always looking to lift up artists, from beginners to masters.”

While Owens, 40, first made his name as a sought-after sideman who played on Grammy Award-winning albums by vocalist Kurt Elling and bassist Christian McBride, he’s since distinguished himself by conceiving and assembling ambitious projects as a producer and music director. His 2019 album Songs of Freedom, exploring music by Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, and Joni Mitchell, coincided with a series of high-profile concerts with featured vocalists René Marie, Theo Bleckmann, and Alicia Olatuja.

Trained at Juilliard, where he’s now on faculty, Owens introduces California audiences to his latest collaboration with an exceptional vocalist, star mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, over the next week with three performances of “Notes On Hope,” starting April 27 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles. SF Performances presents the program April 28 at Herbst Theatre, and the run concludes at UC Davis’s Mondavi Center April 30.

Owens wanted to create a program with Bridges that reflected their upbringing in the Black church and their ongoing faith, while also giving her the opportunity to define herself as an artist outside the operatic roles that have made her a star, such as Carmen, Delilah, and Nefertiti in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten.

J’Nai Bridges
J’Nai Bridges | Credit: Dario Acosta

“The first thing I said is, ‘You spend an entire year losing yourself in a role. What do you want to say?’” recalled Owens, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where he was born and raised. “We decided to start with the word ‘prayer.’ We’re people of faith who come from the Black church. No matter what repertoire we create, we have to start with that. We ended up creating three sections, using different ideas of hope as the connecting theme.”

The program covers a lot of ground, from Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and the Negro spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead” to Waldemar Henrique’s Afro-Brazilian chant “Boi Bumba” and “It’s Good to Have You Near Again,” a song André Previn wrote for Leontyne Price on their too-little-heard 1967 album Right as the Rain. “I was having dinner with Michael Feinstein, talking about this project and how J’Nai wanted to honor Ms. Price, and of course, he immediately suggested the perfect song,” Owens said.

A devoted Francophile, Bridges suggested including chansons, another path for exploring musical territory where she and Owens overlap. In thinking through what kind of material to include, “we were looking for how can we combine our genres in an authentic, honest, and not cheesy way, keeping the integrity of the songs,” said Bridges, 36. “I think some French songs really have a lot of jazz influence, so I suggested [Henri] Duparc and [Erik] Satie. It all comes together because Ulysses is such a brilliant arranger.”

Like previous Owens projects, “Notes on Hope” features a stellar cast, including ace bassist Reuben Rogers, rising Houston vibraphonist Jalen Baker, veteran Los Angeles harpist Carol Robbins, pianist/composer Ted Rosenthal, and guitarist David Rosenthal (no relation), who also contributed several arrangements.

In many ways, the project evolved out of a friendship forged during Owens’s and Bridges’s formative years in New York City. The two got to know each other when he was at Juilliard and she was at the Manhattan School of Music. When it came to hanging out in the city, she found herself drawn to the jazz scene.

“I’d go to different clubs and really enjoyed the musical textures and language, the ease and energy that jazz musicians had,” Bridges said. “It’s very different than classical musicians. I’m not saying it’s better, but it’s something I gravitated toward.”

She and Owens stayed friends over the years, and the idea of some kind of collaboration came up again and again. As her career soared, Owens doubted Bridges would be able to carve out the time, but he happened to be working with SF Performances during her acclaimed turn as Carmen with San Francisco Opera, which paved the way for “Notes on Hope.”

“I kept telling Ulysses I wanted to figure out a way to work together,” she said. “I had a lot of faith we’d figure it out. He’s such a hard worker in whatever he does.”

A lot of Owens’s work takes place behind the scenes. He returns to the Bay Area the first week in May for his SF Performances residency. Much like he and his family designed a program in Jacksonville to help keep at-risk youth in school, he’s looked for ways to bring music to people who need it most.

Ulysses Owens Jr.
Ulysses Owens Jr. | Credit: Rayon Richards

“I know how to do education and outreach,” he said. “I’m not interested in just going into schools that have lots of resources. I want to go to soup kitchens, jails, crisis centers. That’s much more transformational. The last two or three sessions, we went into a youth center in the Tenderloin. I bring a group, play a concert, do an open-mic session. The SF Performances people have been so gracious. Any ideas I have, they support.”

He’s back again in June for his artist-in-residence gig at Jazz Camp West. Beyond his capacious musical skillset, Living Jazz tapped Owens because he’s proven himself as an artist who can bring ambitious projects to the nation’s most prestigious stages. Eager to share his tactics and strategies, he wrote 2021’s The Musician’s Career Guide: Turning Your Talent Into Sustained Success. Bringing him into the JCW fold was a major coup, a connection facilitated by the fact that he and the camp’s artistic director, drummer Allison Miller, share the same booking agent.

“Allison said, ‘I love what you do, and I’d love to have your energy at camp,’” Owens said. “With this fellowship they’re creating something new. It’s an entrepreneurship fellowship, teaching how to apply a way of thinking that’s about building for the long term.”

He’s just getting started, but Owens has already put down a strong foundation in the Bay Area.