As huge jazz fans, we are so impressed with Jazz musician and trumpet player Alex Owen. After graduating from Connecticut College, Alex moved to New Orleans to work with a non-profit geared toward ending housing discrimination in Louisiana. He eventually started a band called the Messy Cookers – aptly named after his own sloppy cooking technique – and they’ve been playing together ever since. Although he now loves music and plays jazz for a living, Alex shares his advice on why never closing doors on opportunities, even at a young age, can lead you to your passion down the line. We are excited to introduce Alex Owen!
Name: Alex Owen
Education: BA in International Relations and Hispanic Studies from Connecticut College, High School Columbia Prep.
How do you define ‘seizing your youth’?
I would define it as going out and doing what you love. I don’t think there is an age limit, or minimum, to trying to make your dream happen. When I hear the term “seizing your youth,” I think of having the opportunity to try things out and see what happens. Sometimes it’s a risk, but if you don’t take those risks now, then when will you?
What did you major in at Connecticut College and how did you determine what to study?
At Connecticut College I majored in International Relations and Hispanic Studies, and I minored in Music. I also was part of the CISLA program. I picked my majors just based on what classes I wanted to take. I had studied Spanish in high school and I wanted to continue to learn the language and become proficient, and I really liked the interdisciplinary focus of the IR major. It just seemed that the majors seemed to fit what I wanted to study. Of course, I wanted to play music as well, so the minor just seemed to fit what I was interested in.
What or who inspired you to become a jazz musician?
I think what inspired me was really just to follow my passion. I don’t think I ever sat down and thought, “I want to be a jazz musician.” I loved playing traditional jazz music at Connecticut College where I first discovered this music, and I also loved being in the jazz ensemble. I wanted to move to New Orleans because I knew they had a great scene for traditional jazz, but I wasn’t sure in what capacity I was going to play.
When I moved to New Orleans, I actually was part of a fellowship program called AVODAH, where I spent a year working full-time at the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, a non-profit working to end housing discrimination in Louisiana. It wasn’t until about mid-way through my first year that I started the Messy Cookers Jazz band and started to find gigs and get a little bit of work. I realized that I really loved the music, and while I also loved the work I was doing at the Fair Housing center, I really wanted to focus on getting better. It became apparent that if I wanted to gig more and get more work, it wouldn’t be feasible to work full time and try to focus on both things. After I started to get work, I decided that I could really be a jazz musician, and that’s when I decided to focus on it and teach music part time.
Tell me about your college bands The Endpiece and Funk the Police. How have those experiences shaped your current music?
Those were some really great bands to be a part of. When I look back at my college experience, some of the fondest memories I had were from those two bands. I think those experiences were incredibly helpful because they taught me so much about being in a band and what the dynamics are like. One thing I learned from being a musician is that it takes so much work to make the music great. You have to practice, you have to find different roles, and you have to learn how to create chemistry with your other band mates in order to make great music. I’ve found that in any style or genre of music, this is true.
You also have to be able to find common ground among different personalities. While I don’t play the style of music that those two bands played anymore, I still take what I learned from those bands about working together with other musicians to make great music, and it’s something I use every time I play with people today.
How do you stay motivated on-stage night after night of performing?
It’s definitely tough to do this. It’s certainly easier when you are playing a crowded venue. The hard thing to do is really be on your game when it’s the third or fourth set and it’s a slow night. I think what makes some musicians truly great is that they play the same way whether there are 100 people in the place, or two people. I really try to focus on just making great music at all times and I try not to worry about the crowd. Obviously, I’m always paying attention to the crowd, especially when I’m the bandleader. But once we pick a song and we get into it, I try to block it out and just try to make great music. Ultimately, that’s the most gratifying thing, and it’s something that I could do every day for the rest of my life.
Where does your band name, Messy Cookers Jazz Band, come from?
Ha-ha, this is a pretty funny question. I was making a comment to myself the first year down here that when I was cooking, I made a pretty big mess. I lived on campus all four years of college, so I never really learned how to cook before I moved down to New Orleans. All of a sudden, I realized that I had to cook for myself, so I learned the basics and was able to get by. I guess my technique was still a little sloppy. I was cooking for my housemates one night and I made the comment about how I was a messy cooker. My roommate Jeremy was walking by, and he went “I think I just found your band name.” The name was just too good to pass up.
How does living in New Orleans inspire your music?
I think living here is great because to play the music I want to play, which is traditional New Orleans jazz, I’m able to learn from the best. There are great musicians still working all the time today, who themselves came up playing with and learning from some of the all-time greats. It’s really a privilege to be able to hear them play on almost any given day or night, and to occasionally have opportunities to play with them. I think hearing what they have to say, and listening to the way they approach the music, is key for me to also try and play this music. I try to utilize their advice in every gig I play.
What is one of the greatest lessons you have learned from being a musician?
There are a lot of good lessons I’ve learned. One is definitely how to take criticism and how to take rejection. Every musician is going to have self-doubt, get yelled at on a bandstand for making a mistake or not knowing a song, get fired from a gig, or get turned down for a gig. It’s very discouraging, but the best thing to do is trust in yourself and trust in your ability. I’ve found that during the tough times, trusting myself has allowed me to stay positive, remain focused, and continue to make great music.
What is the biggest challenge with being a musician? The best part?
There are a few challenges with being a musician. I’d say one challenge being unsure know when your next paycheck will be coming in. Especially as someone that is new to town, I’ve gotten a lot of gigs last minute. Since I’m still trying to establish myself, I’m in a position where if I can make a gig, I take it. It’s definitely hard to adjust your schedule last minute. The schedule can also be grueling. Working nights can be really hard, especially since I teach during the day. You really have to alter your life schedule to fit your work. Sometimes this means trying to eat a big meal to last you the 4-5 hours you will be out since you don’t have access to food. Other times, this means trying to hang out with friends during the day because when they are free night, this is when I’m working.
On the flip side, the best part of being a musician is that it’s greatest job in the world! I get to make awesome music, something I would do anyway in my free time, and then I get paid for it. I’ve been fortunate to get work with some world-class musicians, which is an awesome experience. There are many nights when I can’t believe I’m sharing a bandstand with some of these people. It’s also gratifying when you can tell that you’ve touched people with your music. When I’ve just spent a night making music that you know was great music, and people come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed it, that really makes it gratifying.
Any tips for learning how to play an instrument?
The biggest tip I can give is to be patient. Something I tell my beginning band students all the time is that Louis Armstrong didn’t sound like Louis Armstrong when he first started playing. Music is like a totally new language; nobody just wakes up a genius. Everyone works at it and tries to make new strides. When you are learning a new instrument, take pride in whatever progress you make, however small, and focus on achieving each milestone. Eventually, before you even realize it, you will start sounding better and playing an instrument will become more fun.
How do you overcome self-doubt (or stage fright?)
Like learning an instrument, this comes with practice. The more gigs I play, the more confident I become in myself, and the easier it is to overcome stage fright. Stage fright, and self-doubt, is a part of being a performer, and is something that becomes easier with practice. Whenever I get nervous, I also try to remember that there is a reason I’m on the bandstand. If I’m a sideman, I try to focus on the fact that someone called me to play the gig with him or her, so I must be doing something right. As a bandleader, I try to remember that the venue likes us enough to hire us, and the people I’ve hired like playing with me enough to want to play with me, otherwise they would’ve said no.
What advice do you have for youth who want to be professional musicians?
My advice is to go for it. If you feel it’s what you want to do, and it’s what you are most passionate about, then absolutely go for it and don’t hold back. People are definitely going to tell you that you can’t do it, or that it’s not stable, etc. These are things that almost all professional artists face at one point. If you are driven enough and determined enough, you can sustain the bumps in the road and make it happen. It’s also ok to take a part-time job or do something on the side to make ends meet, even if it’s not exactly the work you want to be doing. I’ve been lucky enough to find work teaching music, which is something I love and plan to pursue, but I know other musicians and other artists who’ve had all types of weird jobs not related to their art. As long as it doesn’t directly interfere with your art, I say there’s nothing wrong with getting a job to pay the bills.
What do you do when you’re not making music?
I really enjoy spending time outdoors. I’m fortunate that New Orleans has a temperate climate (other than the summer), which allows me to go running, spend time in parks, and generally do activities outside. I also spend time with my girlfriend, watch TV shows, and spend time with friends.
What does a day in your life look like?
Ha-ha, depends on the day! Usually my weekdays consist of teaching during the day. I have a little break in the afternoon, where I usually exercise and get other work done (the work never stops for musicians). If I have a gig that night I’ll eat an early dinner, warm up a little, prep for the gig, and head down early to set up. If not, I’ll either go to hear other bands and sit in, or just hang out and rest. The weekends are mostly about gigs. If I don’t have a daytime gig, I can run errands, hang out with friends, and then go to my gig later. However, some weekends I just spend it running from gig to gig. The great thing about being a musician is that no two days are the same!
What motivates you in your everyday life?
I always just try to be the best person I can be. Whether I’m playing music or not, I always try to be nice to others, to spend quality time with other people, and to be true to my craft.
What advice would you give your 15-year-old self?
I would definitely tell myself that music isn’t dorky, that I should be pursuing it. I think at 15, I really was into sports, and not so much into music. Playing trumpet was more of a chore my parents made me do (and I’m glad they made me do it), and I wish I had treated it differently. I think a lot of this was that I didn’t realize how much fun playing was, and I didn’t think it was that cool.
Image: Hot Steamed Jazz Festival; all others from Alex Owen