Kris Bowers on his Oscar-nominated ‘A Concerto is a Conversation,’ and music for ‘Space Jam’ v. Disney Hall

Kris Bowers is a 32 year old who wrote music for Netflix’s “Bridgerton,” Ava DuVernay’s Emmy-winning series “When They See Us,” the Oscar-winning film “Green Book,” and the upcoming “Space Jam” comedy. 

He’s the star and co-director of a short documentary called “A Concerto is a Conversation,” which is nominated for an Oscar this year. It’s a recording of a conversation he had with his grandfather.

Kris Bowers talks to KCRW about his grandfather’s roots, making the film, and composing classical music for the modern ear.  

KCRW: Tell me about the impetus for making “A Concerto is a Conversation.”

Kris Bowers: “I co-directed with a friend of mine named Ben Proudfoot, and Ben and I've been friends for about five years now. And he originally reached out to me because the LA Phil had commissioned him to create a short doc that talked about the intersection between music and Los Angeles. 

And since I'm from here, and I was writing this violin concerto to be premiered at Disney Hall, he asked if I wouldn't mind him following me and doing this short documentary. And it just so happened that the day we met, I was coming from an event celebrating my grandfather, where they dedicated the block where the cleaners is, to him. It's called Bower Square now. And so it was like a Tuesday morning. And Ben was like, ‘Why are you so dressed up?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, well, I came from this event.’ 

And then I went into this whole story about my grandfather and how he grew up in Bascom, Florida and hitchhiked here, and then a couple of years later, he had the cleaners. Ben immediately was like, ‘We have to figure out how to get that into this story, that has to be a part of this.’ And so we just started talking about how we could incorporate my grandfather and how we can make this really more of a dedication to him.”

Kris Bowers speaks with his grandfather in the Oscar-nominated documentary short, “A Concerto is a Conversation.” Credit: Breakwater Studios / The New York Times Op-Docs.

Your grandfather grew up in a rural part of Florida and experienced racism, and basically said, “I gotta get out of here.” He made his way to Los Angeles, where he started a cleaning business. Can you talk about how he started that?

“First he got here, and he only had like $27 or $28 in his pocket. He was also a teenager at the time, and was just trying to find any work that he could. He started going through the phone book and calling cleaners to see if they needed anybody. He called as though he were an employment agency trying to play somebody. He eventually found one and then said, ‘I'll send somebody right out,’ and that person was him. 

When he got there, he ended up stepping on a steam pedal or something like that, and the steam shot up. And he screamed, and the guy was like, ‘You've never been in a cleaners before, have you’? And he's like, ‘No. This is my first time.’ The guy said, ‘Okay, well, look, if you work for me for free for 30 days, I'll teach you everything you need to know about the cleaning business. You can go from there.’ And so he said, ‘Yep.’ And eventually he bought the cleaners from that person. And my grandfather needed somebody to help run the cleaners and get the business started. And so the gentleman offered his daughter, who ended up being my grandmother. And that's how they met and how they started the cleaners.”

What does he think of you and your chosen profession? In the beginning of the movie, you tell him what the definition of a concerto is, and it's also a lovely metaphor for your conversation.

“I think there are moments where you could look at either of us as the soloist. Especially for me, looking at myself that way, I feel like the orchestra represents my grandfather, our family, and the support that they've given me my entire life. 

I feel like he's just incredibly proud. I think he's very surprised that I could make a living from being a musician. I think that's something that he didn't really think was that possible. But from the very beginning, he was just always so supportive. My grandparents were at almost all of my recitals and helped financially with most of my music education. 

In the documentary, I say that he's my manager, because he called himself my manager from the very beginning. He was always the one to not only give me advice and things like that, but in general wanted to instill in me this business-minded attitude toward life. Now at this point, I think he's blown away by what's happening in my career and everything, but primarily, he just wants to make sure that I'm happy. 

In the film, it's funny, he talks about where I went to school, and he's like, ‘Yeah, somewhere in New York,’ and I was like, ‘Juilliard.’ He's like, ‘Yeah, wherever it was, whatever that is.’ And that's always his mindset, which I think is so humbling and helpful. This film got into Sundance, and I told him about it. And he was like, ‘Okay, well, what’s Sundance? Is that a good thing?’”

Does he know what the Academy Awards are?

“Well, yes. It's funny that you asked that, because he does. But then at the same time, the Oscar nominations came out the morning after the Grammys. I called my grandfather that morning. And he was like, ‘Yeah, I was sitting at home watching this award show last night. And I was waiting for them to announce our category. And I was like, I don't know why they're not saying anything about it. And then somebody said, this was for music. But I said, well, the documentary is about music.’ But he was watching the Grammys, thinking that the Oscar nominations would happen at some point.”

Will you go with him to the ceremony?

“That's what we're hoping. He's had some issues with his cancer that have returned and some health things that he's figuring out the best way to navigate. But I have to be honest, I think this is helping him keep going. Every time I talk to him, I'm calling to see how he's doing health-wise, and just check in on him. And he's always like, ‘Well, what do you need me for? Where do I need to be? Is there another interview I have to do?’ 

And I think this is exciting for him, especially because he's the kind of guy that I remember, even in his 80s, I would go over to their house and he'd be on the roof trying to fix something. So I think this is nice for him to have something to focus on. And I think he's just so overwhelmed that people respond to his story in this way.”

I want to talk about your rise to where you are now and how you got into music in the first place. Your parents encouraged you to pursue music and piano at a very early age?

“Yes, ‘encouraged me’ is one way to put it. They decided before I was born. They used to take fine piano sampler CDs and put it on my mom's stomach. And neither of them were musicians. They came from difficult backgrounds. I think my grandfather really helped build this foundation for our family. But it wasn't easy. 

And so my dad grew up in that. My mom grew up in Detroit. And they put me in classical lessons first, and I wasn't really responding to it. I mean, I liked playing piano, I liked that I was kind of good at something, but it wasn't something that I was connected to. And my parents decided that I would try jazz lessons. And also very smartly kept me in the classical lessons the entire time, but then put me in jazz lessons as well, because they figured that might be a space to express myself and all of that.

And once I found jazz, and improvisation, and the ability to transcribe things, and use my ear to express myself, then the piano became totally my thing and something that I was in love with. But it was really just because my parents went all over LA to find the best music education for me and did whatever they could, whether it was, pulling our family's resources together to help me be able to have access to that.”

You went to Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. And you went to Colburn and Julliard. Did you find your way back to classical music when you were at Juilliard?

“It was before that. It's really film score that was a bridge for me with classical music. I'll never forget when I first learned some of the classical pieces that were references for ‘Star Wars.’ And I was so in love with anything that John Williams did. By the time I was 13 or 14, when I started to hear these classical pieces, and these classical references and composers that I could tell he was influenced by, or some of these other film composers I loved were influenced by, it really clicked for me in that moment. And all of a sudden, I was like, ‘Oh, wow, now I can hear this classical music in a different way and connect to it in a different way.’ But luckily, I think film score music is what really piqued my interest in that in high school right before Got to Juilliard.”

You've had a lot of success in that department. I mentioned “Green Book,” but also “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.” And you've worked with Justin Simien and on “Bridgerton.” A lot of these projects come from Black creators, and they're telling a lot of complicated stories about race and time. I'm wondering how you think about composing music, especially when considering composing music in the classical tradition, when also considering storylines involving race and the exclusion of a lot of Black musicians and composers from the classical music tradition?

“I think that, one, it feels like a great responsibility. I feel very lucky and fortunate to be working on the projects that I'm working on and writing the type of music that I'm writing. And so I always want to just try to do the best I can to pay the people that came before me as much respect as possible. 

And, and I definitely think that that comes in whenever I'm working on a project, whether it's writing something music, like ‘Bridgerton,’ or working on something like ‘Space Jam,’ wanting to make sure that it feels like I did my homework, essentially. And there's a lot that comes into that too, I think just being a Black composer, and always growing up feeling like you need to be 10 times better just to be on the same level, or considered to be on the same level, as everyone else. 

But ultimately, as far as when it comes to the writing and the process, for me, it's just all about emotions, because that's what brought me to this in the first place. What connects me to music in the first place, once I figured out I could be in a certain emotional headspace and sit at the piano and play from that place and express myself without saying anything. 

And on the other side of that, feeling like I've moved that energy and have connected to something I think is what made music this thing that I felt like I just had to do and couldn't get away from. And that's why film scoring was so attractive to me, is because that's what the job is, interpreting the emotions and feelings of this film and the story, and translating that into music and into theme. And so having that strong emotion to be chasing I think is always the North Star.”

How have you looked at composing for something like “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” but also your own work to be performed at the Disney Concert Hall? They have different audiences. One is firmly in pop culture, and one is in “high culture.”

“My favorite things have been the things that can be appreciated by both sides. You think about a composer like Beethoven or John Williams, John Williams is a composer that the average person can be moved by and listened to and sing melodies from and all that. And at the same time, you can go to any incredible institution and go incredibly deep into his music and understand the complexity and sophistication of it.

And so, for me, with writing music for ‘Space Jam,’ firstly, I think that there's that whole Looney Tunes tradition that is not easy, and it's very tied to classical music. And the score has a lot of hip-hop beats and influences and a lot of production. The orchestration is pretty intricate, and there's a lot of stuff going on. And I really love how with John Williams, it’s felt more than heard. It sounds very simple. And then you get deeper and deeper into it. And all of a sudden, you realize it's way, way more complex than it looks or sounds. So I'm always trying to go for that, like work really, really hard, and then try to make that sound as easeful as possible, which can be a challenge.”