Strictly speaking, Joshua Bowlus is a local musician, and a very good one, but such phrasing is imprecise. He’s one in a long list of luminaries churned out by the UNF jazz program, which as a brand is seen (and heard) as formidable on the global scene. There is probably no major jazz city in this country, and perhaps any other, where there is not at least one UNF graduate holding their own among on the stage on any given evening. Of course, that includes the home base here in Northeast Florida, where the spotlight falls on Bowlus’ quartet at the Blue Jay Listening Room this Saturday night.
Bowlus took private classes at Stetson University while still in elementary school beginning his studies at UNF under the tutelage of pianists Keith Javors and Kevin Bales, all of which occurred under the all-seeing eye of department head Bunky Green. The intervening years have seen Bowlus emerge not only as a bandleader in his own right, but also a first-call sideman for other artists, not just here but in places like France, China, Spain and of course New York City. Backing Bowlus is his regular quartet, a group skimmed from the cream of the city’s jazz elite: Juan Carlos Rollan on tenor and alto saxophone, Ricky Ravelo on bass, Ben Adkins on drums. All four are well-versed in the material, but none of them are singers—not professionally, anyway. As such, they are bringing in one humdinger of a ringer to kick this session up a notch or two.
Vocalist Linda Cole (a cousin of the legendary Nat “King” Cole”) began her career in a trio with her parents in Freeport, Illinois, aged only three. The “Singing Cole Family” eventually grew to include six additional siblings, and their circles likewise expanded to encompass much of the Central States region, where they played hundreds of shows through the 1960s. Established early on as a purveyor of pop music and gospel, Cole branched out into rhythm and blues, hitting the road as a solo act in her early 20s. She duly worked the circuit from New York to Los Angeles, and everywhere in between, settling down in Pasadena for a decade before moving to Florida in 1991.
“She is such a classic, soulful voice,” says Bowlus, who has worked with Cole at various times over the past decade or so. “What I love about her the most is her ability to tell a story and connect with the audience - she knows how to get your attention and how to keep it.” She has since worked practically every jazz room of note in the southeast, from Key West to Charleston. In recent years, Cole has become a favorite with local audiences, typically fronting for Adkins’ band, the illustrious Raisin Cake Orchestra, at places like Prohibition Kitchen.
For Bowlus, the genesis of this particular project dates to the spring of 2019, and a gig at the Jazz Corner in Hilton Head, but he’s been preparing for this moment all his life. So, in fact, has pretty much every working jazz musician of the past half-century. The first couple generations of jazz musicians drew inspiration from ragtime, the blues and New Orleans marches; by the Swing Era, these standards had been augmented by the hits of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley—the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, etc. The melodic and harmonic innovations associated with bebop were extrapolated from the chord progressions of those songs, and post-bop was liberally doused by the music of The Mouse. This makes a lot more sense than one might think at first.
Walt Disney was himself a lifelong jazz fan, which is no surprise, because Walt Disney was from Chicago. He was born there in 1901, and he didn’t move to Hollywood until July 1923. Louis Armstrong had moved to Chicago just ten months earlier, and he was already perhaps the hottest musical act that city had ever seen to that point. We don’t know if Disney ever saw Satchmo’s sets with King Oliver at the legendary Lincoln Gardens, but he surely heard some of the music Armstrong made during his first-ever recording sessions from April and June of that year.
Disney paid regular lip-service to the genre throughout his own career, in shorts like 1929’s The Jazz Fool, Mickey’s Gala Premiere (1933) and Music Land (1935). His company also cast several jazz-adjacent talents in his films, like Phil Harris and Louis Prima in The Jungle Book and, decades later, “Catwoman” Eartha Kitt in The Emperor’s New Groove. The story eventually came full-circle, when Armstrong made an entire album of Disney songs toward the end of his life, in March 1968. (“When You Wish Upon a Star”, in particular, is one of his finest recorded moments.) Legend has it that Disney personally asked him to make the record, in one of his final acts. Walt Disney died in December 1966, too early to hear the finished product, but he lived long enough to know that his film music was be enmeshed into the fabric of jazz, forever.
The proper push for Disney’s inclusion in the jazz canon began with Dave Brubeck, who issued Dave Digs Disney on Columbia Records in 1957. Brubeck was bulletproof at that stage of his career, so the record went over nicely, and that spurred others to follow suit. Chief among them was Miles Davis, whose version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” from March 1961 pretty much sealed the deal. With him in the studio that day was longtime co-conspirator John Coltrane, who four years later made his own move on the oeuvre. His quartet’s ruthless take on the Mary Poppins classic “Chim Chim Cheree” was in a similar vein as his iconic work with “My Favorite Things.”
Subsequent generations of jazz musicians spent their formative years learning this music in schools like UNF. To be fair, some of the more tragically hip among them may well balk at playing these songs, like indie-rockers playing Elvis or mumble-rappers rocking a Roland 808, but the true heads get it, and they get it good. “I love the songwriting. The melodic and harmonic content are interesting, but they leave space and room for creativity. These types of songs that are simple but beautiful and have a certain depth really lend themselves well to being rearranged and reimagined in different ways.”
Taken in context, these songs are delightful little bon-bons of perky joy. Taken out of context, the creative potential is virtually limitless. Most recently, for example, our own Jamison Williams III done dragged the Disney songbook into the 21 century, kicking and screaming, literally, having now recorded almost every single song in a free jazz vein, using instruments that range from soprano sax to his now-infamous array of several hundred vintage gamecalls. Personally, my favorite set of Disney music was recorded in concert by Sun Ra in Germany, 1989. John Gilmore’s languid, lengthy, lustrous solo on “Someday My Prince Will Come” is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful things ever recorded.
“I feel that Disney movies and songs are so relatable to multiple generations,” says Bowlus, “and there are so many good ones that people remember. I wanted to show listeners a beautiful new way to hear these songs and fall in love with them all over again.” By this point, the list of jazz artists who’ve reckoned with The Mouse is so long that it defies recapitulation. And now, finally, Josh Bowlus and his band will make their stand. “I've been wanting to try this one for a while,” he says. “Disney uses a lot of swing and improvisation in many of their earlier movies especially, like The Jungle Book and of course Aristocats. Even though more of the modern movies use songs that sound more like pop, they are deeper and more thoroughly developed than today's pop songs on the radio; it's more than just four chord changes. It's an interesting and memorable melody.” Within the Disney songbook, Bowlus’ personal favorite is an unusual one, given his jazzical druthers: “A Whole New World”, from Aladdin.
The point of articles such as these is usually to generate advance hype, and hopefully to help sell some tickets. That is not the case, not in this case. No hype is needed, because the show is basically sold out, already. Another ten standing-room only tickets have been added, and you can maybe jump on those, but only if you hurry. For those who fail, fear not: the project will be reprised at the Velvet Note in Atlanta on March 20 and 21. Bowlus also works a more generalized style as part of the house band for Al Maniscalco’s jam sessions at The Parlour on the first Friday of every month; the next one is scheduled for February 7. He will also be taking his trio to Good Times in Savannah on February 22, playing the music of Ahmad Jamal. You really can’t go wrong with any of it, and neither can he.