Charles Owens is in his element when he plays jazz with his saxophone, dressed in a dark suit, red tie and black fedora.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, he regularly played to hundreds of elementary school kids as part of a program organized by the Los Angeles Jazz Society. The “Jazz in Schools” program brings this music to many campuses across LA county.
During Black History Month, Owens’ band plays for about 6000 kids. He has led these performances for more than 20 years with his saxophone, flute or clarinet.
At age 83, Owens is a legend in the music world. He played with Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Barbra Streisand, Frank Zappa and many more.
“I get up thinking about music. I go to bed thinking about music,” Owens says. “We are planting the seeds of jazz wherever we go.”
In each school auditorium, the musicians talk about jazz history and its groundbreaking leaders. They play songs the kids know but never thought about as jazz, like the “Peanuts” and “Pink Panther” themes. They even ask the kids to sit behind the drum set and play their own solo.
Owens was about the same age as these kids when he touched a saxophone for the first time on a trip to his father’s family home in Oklahoma. “Everybody in his family played an instrument. There was a saxophone, trumpet, piano, drums trombone sitting around in the living room. I had a good time messing with the instruments,” he remembers.
Back home in California, he asked his mother to send for his uncle Henry’s saxophone. He wanted to play like Charlie Parker. Later he joined the Air Force Band and eventually studied music in Boston and Los Angeles.
He mastered many instruments and soon toured with jazz greats like Buddy Rich and Mongo Santamaria’s Afro-Cuban band. “I sat next to some of the greatest musicians in the world, talked to them. Just to hear these guys made me want to be better.”
He also played in the movie “La La Land.”
Now Owens has become the teacher that young musicians look up to and want to work with, such as Michael Alvidrez, a latin jazz bass player. He plays with him at elementary schools, in orchestras and bands at local clubs.
Alvidrez says Owens is one of his favorite people: “He always encourages you to play with heart and fun. He knows so much of history and he has got lots of wisdom.”
Charles’ main passion now is to pass on his knowledge. He teaches a weekly jazz class at UCLA, and is teaching his 9-year-old grandson the saxophone.
Now when he’s onstage, he sits down more than he used to. His memory is no longer as sharp as he would like it. But the fingers on the sax are as loose as they always were.
Owens still practices his instruments for hours every day. He says he likes to make up music. “I figured that there are still sounds that I haven’t made yet and maybe nobody else has either.”
Once stay-at-home orders are lifted, you can watch Owens and his band play regularly at the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach — during Saturday brunch and Happy Hour Jazz.