Saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Ralph Bowen has remained on an even keel in the precarious world of traditional jazz by always combining his performing and recording activities with university-level teaching positions. Bowen is best known to jazz fans as a co-leader of the '80s band he formed with Michael Phillip Mossman, Out of the Blue.
Based in New Jersey, Bowen is on the faculty at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, where he teaches jazz theory and saxophone and conducts the Rutgers Jazz Ensemble. He was raised on a cattle ranch and his father worked as a real estate broker in Acton, a city an hour west of Toronto, Canada. Bowen's family worked the ranch to supplement their income, and his father worked at the ranch part-time, given his love for farming. Bowen, the youngest of five children, grew up shoveling manure and baling hay, but began taking piano lessons as a five-year-old. He began playing clarinet at age ten and got into the saxophone shortly after that, inspired by the example of his oldest brother. His parents took him and his siblings to see the big bands of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Buddy Rich. He began playing in dancehalls around Acton and Toronto as a 13-year-old, working with a ten-piece band, but the turning point for him came when he got his driver's license at 16, so he could shuttle himself back and forth between Acton and clubs in Toronto. He also graduated from high school at 16, and then attended summer school for saxophone at the Banff School of Fine Arts, where he met Pat LaBarbera, an influential saxophone teacher. At Banff, he also met pianist Renee Rosnes, who later settled in West Orange, New Jersey. Bowen left home for the club scene in Toronto as a 21-year-old. He also began making weekly trips to the University of Indiana. He moved to Indiana and began college at 23, stayed there for two years until he heard about an audition for a new group being formed in New York City, Out of the Blue. Michael Phillip Mossman was the leader of this group, and he suggested Bowen come to Rutgers University to finish his college education. Bowen arrived on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University in 1986, earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees. He began teaching there in 1990.
Through the ensuing years, Bowen has recorded with a lengthy who's-who of jazz players, including Rosnes, Hank Jones, Orrin Evans, Ralph Peterson, Jim Beard, Shirley Scott, Benny Carter, Trudy Pitts, Kenny Barron, Kenny Garrett, Lewis Nash, Jon Faddis, Claudio Roditi, Stanley Turrentine, Michel Camillo, Lou Rawls, and many others. Bowen considers the chance to record with Benny Carter in the late '80s as a high point in his recording session work career, on an album recorded at the State Theater in New Brunswick. Bowen's discography of recent recordings under his own name is extensive. These include Dedicated, LuvPark, Pts. 1 & 2, Soul Proprietor, Keep the Change, Movin' On, and A Morning View. ~ Richard Skelly