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USF Jazz Professor Prepares For The Grammys

Jan 23, 2018

When a who’s who of music packs Madison Square Garden for the 60th Grammy Awards Sunday, sitting alongside stars like Jay Z and Bruno Mars will be Tampa’s own Chuck Owen.

The University of South Florida Distinguished Professor of Jazz Studies is nominated for four honors for Whispers on the Wind, his 2017 album with his band, the Jazz Surge.

Owen sat down late last year with WUSF Jazz Director Mike Cornette to talk about the album. You can hear portions of the interview here, or the full interview near the bottom of the page.

Owen, who grew up in Nebraska, says Whispers on the Wind pays homage to the spirit of the Wild West, especially through the use of American folk music instruments, like the dobro, harmonica and violin.

"Many of those are non-traditional jazz instruments, and it's always fun for me to have a new toy to play with, so to speak," Owen said, laughing. "And to think about what possible uses of those colors would there be and how would that change the music that I write." 

Owen adds that the album also draws inspiration from the cowboys of that time period, as well as the works of authors like Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry.

"One of the great things about having concepts, and I talk to my students about this, is it can take you in different directions as a composer and if you just start off with this blank sheet of paper, which is always intimidating as it can be to begin with, and just say, 'What do I want to write?' the tendency is kind of to write what you've always written," he said.

"But if you have some sort of construct that forces you to think in different directions, it's amazing what directions you can go, directions you kind of didn't know you had inside of you."

Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge's 2017 album, "Whispers on the Wind," is up for four Grammy Awards.
Credit Mama Records

Owen also told Cornette that the recognition the album has received shows that great jazz is being created in the Tampa Bay area. 

"I've had a bunch of calls from folks across the country who said, 'We are so delighted that someone whose band and whose residence is not either in New York City or Los Angeles has gotten nominated,'" Owen said. "I kind of take a great deal of pride in the fact that we have this incredible wealth of musicians right here that can perform this music in a way that is so special that people recognize it all across the country."

Whispers on the Wind is up for four Grammys, including Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. Owen is nominated for Best Instrumental Composition for the song "Warped Cowboy," and Best Instrumental Arrangement for the song "All Hat, No Saddle." 

Violinist Sarah Caswell is nominated for Best Improvised Jazz Solo for her performance on the song "Can't Remember Why."

This isn't Owen's first trip to the awards - two songs from his album River Runs were nominated in 2014, and another song off the album The Comet's Tail picked up a nomination for arranger Vince Mendoza. Ironically, Owen and Mendoza face off in two categories this year.

The winners will be announced before the televised portion of the Grammys Sunday.