Jazz professor awarded prestigious fellowship

Of 180 scientists, artists and academics, one USF faculty member was the only professor from a Florida university to be awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009.

Chuck Owen, founder and artistic director of the USF Center for Jazz Composition, received the Guggenheim award for his contributions to the jazz community.

Over the course of his career, he has published more than 40 jazz ensemble compositions, won more than a dozen awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and was nominated for a Grammy.

Owen said he hopes to use money awarded to him to write a double concerto for saxophone, guitar and orchestra that would combine a jazz and contemporary symphony orchestra — a luxury he said he did not think he would have time for until he retired.

To devote his full time to this project, Owens asked USF for a year long sabbatical with pay.

USF will allow Owen to take the leave because he will be persuing a great opportunity for the school and for himself, said USF spokesman Michael Hoad.

School of Music director Wade Weast said the Guggenheim award will bring recognition and prestige to USF, especially to the School of Music.

“It’s probably the biggest award since I’ve been here, and probably the biggest award in the history of the School of Music,” Weast said.

Since arriving at USF in 1981, Owen has assisted in the chartering of the jazz studies major. He also drew on his knowledge of jazz to build the program up to its present status. More than 40 undergraduate and graduate courses in jazz studies available this semester.

Owen said he enjoys teaching his undergraduate jazz composition class because for some students, it’s the first time they are given the opportunity to create music.

“It’s such a joy in seeing that come alive — to see them say, ‘This is cool, I might like to do this one day,'” Owen said.

Leon Slater, a graduate jazz composition major, said he took Owen’s undergraduate jazz composition classes.

Slater said though hearing notes emerge from a sheet of music remains a rewarding part of composing jazz, his own desire lies in trying to figure out how composers accomplish certain styles.

“It’s that recurring theme that comes up: ‘Oh, that sounds cool — I wonder how they did that?'” Slater said.

He said there have been instances when Owen has lost track of time in the class becuase he was so absorbed with teaching.

“He brings excitement to a subject that might be considered dry,” Slater said.

In addition to teaching, Owen directs the Center for Jazz Composition, the only  university-based research institute dedicated solely to jazz composers. He also leads Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge, a large jazz band that includes musicians in Florida.

“Jazz is a huge part of the cultural life of the world,” Owen said. “It was a music that was born and bred in this country and represents one of our greatest contributions to the artistic life of the world.”