EPHRAIM OWENS IS A GEM IN THIS CITY. I HAVE BEEN A FAN FOR A LONG TIME. WHENEVER HE SHOWS UP TO A SHOW, YOU KNOW YOU HAVE MADE THE RIGHT CHOICE. THE SOUND THAT HE CREATES JUST LIFTS YOU OFF AND TAKES YOU TO PLACES THAT WORDS DARE NOT GO.AD: You are one of the best trumpet players I have ever seen. I often wonder why you are in Austin. I mean, I dig it, and I know there are multitudes of bands doing their thing in town, but there is not much of a jazz scene here. The Elephant Room holds it’s own, but jazz seems to be the one major ingredient that’s missing in the Live Music Capital. What do you feel about the jazz scene here in Austin?
EO: I think it’s pretty weak. There are places that come and go. I have to be optimistic about the whole thing. Unfortunately, the Elephant Room is pretty much the staple jazz club here. There’s never really been a real strong core group of individuals that come to check out jazz. In circulation, jazz isn’t like the top thing. A lot of people don’t get it. That’s one of the reasons why the fan base in the clubs doesn’t exist as long. It’s intellectual music in a sense. It’s a level of understanding that I would have to say choice people come and see it. It’s not like a whole lot of people that cater to that music. Like the Elephant Room, a lot of people don’t like to go down there because some of the real hard core listeners, they don’t like all the smoke. It caters to the older people. They don’t really have a place to go because of the smoke and atmosphere.
AD: Are you from Austin?
EO: I’m from Dallas. I’ve been in Austin twelve years.
AD: In those 12 years, has the jazz scene ever peaked or has it pretty much been a quiet scene throughout?
EO: When I first moved here, there were more places to play. Cedar Street, you had Speakeasy. At that time, the Victory grill was going strong. There were a lot of real good bands playing, too. That was exciting. Right now, it seems like the club owners don’t really care about the musicianship. It’s like the dollar. They think if you get more people in the band for this amount of money, then the quality of the music is better. Two cats are like really playing. I’m not gong to do a gig for real cheap and then have five guys like making 30 dollars. Clubs think bigger is better, when smaller can be better musicianship.
AD: How long have you been playing?
EO: I’ve been playing since I was eight.
AD: How did you decide what instrument you wanted to pick up and how did that evolve?
EO: It’s very interesting how that came about. I kind of got, I hate to say, bullied into playing, but I did. Some cats in school were like threatening me like if you don’t play trumpet or coronet, we’re going to beat you down. So I ended up getting the coronet and got started doing all classical. That lasted for a while. All five of the cats were in the band with me and bossing me around a little bit. Then they finally got out of band and tried to make me get out of band. I had to fight to stay in band. So I stayed in band and they left me alone and that’s how it all began. Then I went to see Roy Hargrove and it kind of tweaked my brain from classical to jazz. Eyes closed. Not reading music. It was all new to me. I haven’t gone back to classical since.
AD: Tell us about the Ephraim Owens Quintet?
EO: I’ve been doing that thing for about two or three years and pretty much using the same guys. We play jazz tunes, just seeing where it goes and changing it up, rather than playing it the same way every time. It takes it’s own course. I’m trying to get more serious about presenting more of my own music and stuff.
AD: Do you have a structured way you want to perform and then you improvise, or is it all just improvised?
EO: With jazz standards, you play the melody down and then solos and then that’s when you can take it to another place, when you get into the solos. It can go from funk on one solo to straight man swinging. There is a structure, but I guess you could say a loose structure. There’s melody and then solos and then you always go back to the melody. Or not necessarily come back to the melody. It just depends. After you play the melody, you can go anywhere you want to out there. Either come back to it or come into another song or whatever.
AD: You are one of those people that I always see at good shows. How do you know what shows to show up and sit in? Do they call you in advance and ask you out?
EO: You know, yes, sometimes. And I go out and check things out. I’m really kind of spoiled and really blessed cause I’ve kind of developed a name around town. That sounded arrogant. But it’s like I can show up and people are kind hearted enough. I never would just jump up on stage because that’s bad etiquette. But I’ll stay on the side of the stage and see if I can sit in. I might wiggle my fingers. Either they let you sit in or not. The shows I go to and normally play at are bands that I like and they like what I do and that’s kind of how it works out. Like Karl Denson, when I got picked up with him, they let me know when they were coming into town. I get calls or just show up to good shows and have that opportunity to sit in. I’ve been blessed to be able to do that. It’s a beautiful thing.
AD: What do you think about the build up of Austin, how it’s changing?
EO: I don’t like it at all. I really don’t. I don’t like all the people that’s coming in. Just thinking about how it used to be. It used to be such an intimate and very personal … I mean, Austin will always like be that way. It’s real busy. It’s a different feel since all the construction. I get road rage sometimes. I hate sitting in traffic. Traffic has gotten so bad. I hate to see the whole earthiness of Austin being sucked up by corporations. Maybe more work is something kind of positive. Maybe more people buying CDs. Maybe more private parties.
AD: What would you say to other artists in town? What kind of advice would you give to up and coming musicians?
EO: Do your thing. Austin is a perfect place to build a good sound. It’s a breeding ground for making something happen, you know. Do your thing. Write your own tunes. Form your own band. Make your own sound and then take it somewhere. I’ve been fortunate enough that my closest friends are musicians. There are some nights where the gig is just killer. No thoughts. Everything just hooks up. I’ll have an idea and Philip will play it before I can get it out of my horn. Same thing with Brennen. There’s this understanding that we have that creates this comfort zone. Then people come out and then they get it. I had somebody come up and say “I felt what you were saying,” not I heard what you were playing.
AD: What sets apart Austin from other towns you played in?
EO: People. This is a people place, man. That’s why I moved here. I haven’t been to a place where I felt as welcome.
AD: Everybody is connected here.
EO: For real, you know.
AD: I know you from hanging out at Ruta Maya smoke shop a long time ago. Everybody has like a connection.
EO: It’s true. It reaches way back. You run across somebody you haven’t seen in forever and all of a sudden it’s like this person knows this person who knows this person and then it comes right back to you one way or the other. When I came down here, you know I came from Dallas, me and Fred Sanders. I thought I had a hookup here. I made the call and my friend said we don’t have the space for you to stay. We had a gig at the Elephant Room. These guys were hanging out. They didn’t know us from Larry, Moe and Curley. We were like, we’re probably going to sleep in the car because we don’t have no money. These guys said just come crash at the house. That just tripped me out. These cats don’t know us at all and they just welcomed us into their pad. We played a little bit and jammed and just hung out. I was just sold from that point on. The genuine goodness of this place. And I’ve played a bunch of places. The only place that comes close, I guess is maybe San Francisco, which feels kind of the same. Austin is like a big family. My mom and my cousins and my best friends, they come down and they love Austin. I know at times they wonder what I’m doing or what’s really going on. But they come down and they see the love people have for me. They’re down with me being here. They know I’m doing all right.
AD: What do you think of the Austin Daze? It’s gone through a stage of evolution.
EO: I think the concept is happening. I think it’s proper. What I have checked out represents what’s going on in and awareness of Austin. Everybody I know knows it and checks it out.