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Snazzy, Jazzy Benefactor

Ulysses Owens Jr. pays it forward

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As a world-renowned jazz musician, Ulysses Owens Jr. spends most of his time in New York, LA or on a tour bus, but the Westside native has strong roots in the River City, and he’s doing everything he can to cultivate that connection so the city can reach its full potential.

After graduating from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, Owens got a full ride to The Juilliard School in New York, where he studied jazz. His career began in earnest while he was still attending school. During his time at Juilliard, Owens toured the world, frequently jamming at cultural centers. That’s when he began speaking with his family in Jacksonville about an idea that would eventually become Don’t Miss a Beat (DMAB).

Owens graduated in 2006. One of the first things he did afterward was to convene a family meeting. There was some discussion, then the Owenses unanimously agreed they wanted to do something for their community.

“We said we would create a program for kids,” Owens said. “They would come to us, they would get educated, but we would use arts as the central focus. And they wouldn’t miss a beat.”

The whole family came together around the DMAB concept, with each member claiming a role in the future nonprofit’s operation.

“My Aunt Esther, who’s the director of the children, she had been a social worker for 30 years,” Owens explained. “And she was, like, ‘Ulysses, I believe in this, too. Here’s the role I can play.’ And my mother, having been in corporate America for many years, she basically said, ‘I’m going to be director of development.’ My sister, who has a finance degree and has run the corporate/financial element of many corporations, she said, ‘all right, I’m going to be the bookkeeper.’ And basically all the family members started showing up, saying, ‘OK, Ulysses. Yes, you are sort of the face of this project and it’s sort of your idea, but it also ties into other things that we want to do in the community.’ And they all brought that to the business.”

Outside of his role as DMAB founder, Owens acts as artistic director.

“My mom, we laugh, she calls me ‘Joseph the dreamer,’ because I’m the one who basically sets the course for the organization,” he said. “Everything those kids do, artistically, from our curriculum, that is all what I’ve designed for them. But then when it comes to the day-to-day, that is all my family. I give them the complete credit for the culture they’ve built, in terms of navigating the families and all that stuff.”

About two years ago, DMAB started its Academy of the Arts program in which children are offered free performance art lessons—when they’ve finished their homework. As Owens describes it, DMAB’s newest program, Safety Net, is an extension of the Academy of the Arts. Funded through city grant money, Safety Net kicked off on Friday, Oct. 26.

“It’s just trying to take a lot of the challenges that our kids are having in the day-to-day, and we have created this whole program, and thankfully gotten it funded, and we’re going to target these issues through daily activity for the kids at the center,” Owens said.

“With the Sheriff’s Department especially, we’ve been doing a lot of work, because we want the kids to not fear the police,” he went on to say. “Because with all the stuff that’s happening with police brutality, there’s a huge fear at our community center and in general amongst African-American children and people of the police department. And so we’re really trying to bridge that divide between the Sheriff’s Department and us.”

Instructors will also work on intervention skills with parents and their children. Areas of concern include cyber-bullying, sexting and online predators.

Another DMAB program that Owens is excited about is Art in the Park, a free 13-concert series Owens himself programs. Funding for the project, which started this past October and runs through next September, came from PNC Bank’s Arts Alive grant.

Owens describes Art in the Park as his way to get artists into communities to which they would not have access otherwise—and vice-versa. Some Jacksonville neighborhoods don’t have the facilities or the means to host performers.

“For instance, where we are right now at the Beaver Street community, there is no place where people can see live performing arts within at least 10 miles,” he said. “Like, the closest thing to us is The Florida Theatre, and most of our families cannot afford tickets to see the symphony or to see whatever art is there. And then, some of the other things that are happening in town, they don’t have the money to see that as well.”

Owens admits that his efforts in Jacksonville could be interpreted as selfish in a way, but he truly hopes the work he’s doing makes the city a better and safer place.

“Yes, I love Don’t Miss a Beat and Don’t Miss a Beat is my heart, but I want the city of Jacksonville to continue to support the arts, even beyond DMAB,” Owens said. “Because I feel that Jacksonville is still very divided, culturally as well as politically, and I feel that organizations like Don’t Miss a Beat and even Folio Weekly, I’ve been reading you guys for years, these kinds of organizations have an opportunity to bridge together communities.”

“I think if there’s a way to just encourage people to truly support the arts, and also just get out of their own environment and embrace organizations like ours and others, I think it will continue to heal the city and bring more unity, because clearly we’re having some issues there,” Owens said. “My hope is to really see the city grow and grow in mindset, because I feel like we’re a little antiquated in how we think and how we operate.”

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Rivers previously reported on Don’t Miss a Beat for WJCT.

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