“Jazz is kind of like wine, in a way,” says pianist Joshua Bowlus. “Most people don’t like wine on the first sip, but as you taste or become familiar with different styles and the intricacies of each style, I think you appreciate it more.”
And who’s to argue with Bowlus — an in-demand musician who has performed and recorded with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Bunky Green, Christian McBride, and Wynton Marsalis, to name a few?
Certainly with jazz, like wine, there is an air of sophistication to the genre, especially when compared to the highly derivative pablum that passes for popular music today — we’re looking at you Ed Sheeran.
But does jazz’s inherent sophistication make it repellent to youth culture?
For most of the 20th century, the answer was no. From the subversive roots of swing to the beatnik’s revelrous embrace of bebop, jazz was the relevant musical genre — an art form composed and performed by young musicians that, likewise, resonated with young people.
No doubt a social scientist could come up with an extensive list of reasons why jazz failed to remain youth culture’s music of choice, but corporate America’s full-on embrace of rock n’ roll and then hip hop (as both a culture and a musical style) contributed to changing musical tastes of the masses. Throw in Kenny G. and one might begin to glean how jazz began to be seen as a cultural artifact, rather than the music of the moment.
Meanwhile, a close look at those making noise in Northeast Florida’s tightknit jazz community reveals that, despite being supplanted as a mainstream genre, jazz can still be exciting, relevant, and even revolutionary. Bowlus, along with guitarist Taylor Roberts and drummer John Lumpkin II are just three examples of young musicians who, after sharpening their chops at local universities, have gone on to earn national and international acclaim while striving to make music that connects.
Folio Weekly Magazine caught up with the three musicians to discuss their individual musical backgrounds and the state of jazz in Northeast Florida. Meanwhile, in order to prove that these musical sophisticates are just like the rest of us, we put their knowledge of pop culture to the test.
What follows is an excerpt from those conversations.
FWM: How’d you come to play your particular instrument? Were your families musical?
Joshua Bowlus: My Dad sings and plays guitar, but he never had lessons. I started piano lessons when I was five. I’m 32 now. My parents saw me banging around on pianos and thought I should take lessons. So, it was classical training after that.
Taylor Roberts: I started out on piano. I got into guitar as a teenager. My parents decided not to buy me a drum set, so they got me a guitar so that I could adjust the volume. This was when Green Day had just hit the big time. At the time I wanted to dedicate my entire life to playing punk rock. I put together a band and I can honestly say we were one of the worst punk bands in history.
John Lumpkin II: If you ask my mother I was two years old, but I think I played my first gig at church at ten years old. I was fortunate enough that my parents let me have a drum set in the house. My mother was an opera singer — she went to Julliard. My father sang at Bethune-Cookman.
What is it about jazz that hooked you? Do you find you have a personal connection to the music?
J.B.: I actually got really bored with piano in high school and almost quit. But, my band director in high school turned me on to jazz and showed me a lot of stuff about music theory. It was a new challenge for me. It has helped me understand music more, as well.
T.R.: The amount of freedom that’s in jazz [attracted me to it]. The same things attracted me to blues. Every tune can be treated like a blank canvass.
J.L.: I didn’t know anything about jazz until I got to college at FSCJ South Campus. I learned the fundamentals of jazz there. But growing up playing gospel music, playing jazz was like learning to put my pants on a different way. Which is to say, it was difficult.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
J.B.: I didn’t really listen to any classical or jazz growing up. I was listening to pop music and a lot of ska music. I also liked oldies and the Beach Boys.
T.R: Green Day, Operation Ivey, NOFX, Rancid typical ‘90s stuff.
J.L.: I was strictly listening to Gospel in the house. There was no other music allowed. However, you couldn’t escape pop music. I would listen to the radio in a friend’s car, or hear it at the mall.
Is there a particular era of jazz or player that you feel most connected to?
T.R.: Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass were the big two guitarists for me. Still are to this day.
J.B.: I always credit my favorite musician Chick Corea for broadening my appreciation for jazz and music in general.
J.L.: I think the guy who influenced my playing the most was Elvin Jones.
You all have experience with the music program at the University of North Florida — whether as a performer, or student. What’s something that would surprise people about the music program there?
J.B.: How many great musicians are there on staff and how many talented students they attract. I don’t know that people realize how strong of a jazz program UNF has, but they’ve been considered one of the best in the nation, even among some of the top New York schools.
T.R.: The biggest surprise to me was that it was hard [laughs]. I just thought: oh, it’s music college and it’s by the beach and I can just jam on my guitar all day. I quickly became acclimated to practicing four hours a day or more. It was really a pressure cooker kind of atmosphere.
J.L.: The UNF music program has produced a lot of great musicians. I got to play in the UNF jazz ensemble and it’s basically a working band. There were a lot of experiences that I had in that ensemble that played a vital role in my development as a musician.
Is there a way to make jazz relevant to young people, again? Or do you care about that?
J.B.: I do care. It’s important that jazz be relevant and maintains an audience. I think education is an important component to that. Cutting music programs and band programs is probably the worst thing you could do. From the musicians’ point of view, I think we have a responsibility to connect to the audience in a relevant way. Jazz musicians have always played the standard repertoire — jazz standards that come from popular songs from the ’20s and ’30s. We shouldn’t be opposed to taking a Justin Beiber — or another somewhat bland, yet recognizable — song and putting a new
spin on it.
T.R.: The jazz education climate seems to be booming right now, but outside of those circles, I don’t think people are exposed to enough jazz. I also think jazz gets misrepresented. By that, I mean, if somebody turns on jazz radio and they hear Kenny G., they are going to come away saying jazz sucks. Part of my M.O. is to play songs that people feel more connected to today, from pop songs to Radiohead to Coldplay. I think there is a way to present those songs or that kind of music that is unique and shows people the power of jazz.
J.L.: It’s more important than ever that jazz be relevant to young people. I think people’s ears are already trained to appreciate it, they just don’t know where to go. At the root of it, jazz celebrates democracy and not a dictatorship. It lets you say what’s on your mind, while recognizing that people might approach something in a different way than you are used to. The question then that is raised is ‘how can we work together?’ That [question] is tearing the world apart right now. Jazz shows how we can work together. It’s important that people hear that.
Can you talk about the talent level here locally? How do the jazz players in Northeast Florida measure up to the rest of the country?
J.L.: Oh, it’s off the charts! There aren’t as many venues as say New York City, but the level of players coming out of here is off the charts. We just don’t necessarily have the “scene.” And that’s why people leave.
J.B.: We have a core group of young musicians that will probably stick around. I include myself in that group. This happens because these musicians grow up in the UNF or Jacksonville University music programs and then just stay here. A number of them will move away. But there are so many musicians who have spent time here that are making a name for themselves — Ulysses Owens, [Grammy nominated drummer/singer/composer] Jamison Ross, Alphonso Horne, Bob Reynolds, John Davis. There’s so many. I know I’m missing some. Jacksonville has quite a reputation for producing good players.
T.R.: There are a lot of great players and plenty of new places to see jazz. The Parlor (San Marco) books some good acts. The Volstead (Downtown), The Brick (Avondale), and The Casbah (Avondale) are good places to see jazz. I think The Casbah is where you’ll see some of the best jazz, locally each week. Eric Rheim has been playing there forever and every time I see him, I’m blown away.
Here’s a chance to plug upcoming projects. What are you working on?
J.B.: I have a five month old child so I haven’t been working on anything too big, lately. But I do have an album out with the singer Linda Cole — she’s a relative of Nat King Cole. I have two records out with the Jax Jazz Collective, as well.
T.R.: I have an album in the works. I haven’t nailed down studio time, yet, but I’m putting a lot of energy towards new original tunes. Musically, that’s been my top priority.
J.L.II: I have been working on some projects as a producer. I also have my album that came out last year called The Devotion. In the fall I’m putting on my discovery series at the Ritz Theatre (check fall arts listing p. 17 for details).