Interview: Endea Owens

The award-winning bassist and composer – one of jazz’s rising stars – discusses her two upcoming concerts at the International Festival

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 4 minutes
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Endea Owens | image courtesy of artist
Published 21 Aug 2023

Endea Owens is full of joy. There’s a lot going on right now, it’s a lot to handle – but it’s great and she feels great. “One of my prayers for last year was to do this very thing – to take my band internationally and tour and help people, so it's kind of a surreal experience,” she says and her eyes begin to water, just a bit.

The Detroit-raised bassist and composer is one of jazz’s most exciting emerging talents. Mentored by the likes of Rodney Whittaker, she’s toured with names such as Diana Ross and Solange, amongst others. This year, amid touring Canada and Europe, she’s also releasing her debut album, Feel Good Music.

Watching her play – whether with her own band or in the house band on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert – is quite remarkable. There’s something warm and open about it; Owens’ sound welcomes you to it.

“The bass wasn’t my first choice,” she admits. Owens started with violin and piano, attending church four times a week and playing by ear. She first came to the bass through Mozart’s 'Symphony No. 25'; having played it on violin, she tried the bass part entirely unread. “My orchestra teacher saw that and he said, ‘Play the bass or get an F,’” Owens smiles. “He always told me that I would thank him later for that.”

That teacher was, of course, correct. After graduating from The Juilliard School in 2018, she formed her own band. Endea Owens and the Cookout is made up of musicians she’s met throughout her time in New York. She writes the music herself and offers it as a “roadmap” to the band, trusting them to take it in the right direction. “What I love about jazz is the freedom of it all,” she says. “It’s always different every time – it can’t be duplicated.”

One of her two Edinburgh International Festival performances this year will be a piece commissioned by the festival and inspired by Martin Luther King’s ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech. In the past, she’s also written and performed a piece based on the life of Ida B Wells. For Owens, telling and retelling their stories is vital. “It’s important to uphold the great people in history,” she says. But she doesn’t want to create martyrs; rather, she wants to remind us of their humanity, allowing us to realise our own potential. “It's going to sound big… But it's also going to sound familiar and homey. And heavenly.”

Certainly, Owens’ faith is central to her work. “I view my music as very spiritual, soulful music. And those are two things that you can't really put a description on,” she says. Categorisation isn’t important – Owens is looking for something that transcends.

This desire to connect comes into play outwith the music also. She often ends her performances with an affirmation, welcoming the audience to join her. “Some people don’t know how to speak well about themselves,” she says, voice heavy. She picked up this practice from her good friend and jazz singer Jazzmeia Horn, who she previously toured with. She continues: “When you feel good, you can take that out everywhere you go.” Owens wants to be, and is, part of a greater ripple effect – of connection and kindness. Love for herself and love for others is at the forefront.

In summer 2020, Owens started the Community Cookout, providing free music and meals to under-served neighbourhoods in New York. For Owens, it’s about connecting folk while giving back, having grown up with charitable organisations herself. “It is one of my life’s greatest joys.”

But this summer, Owens also wants a much-deserved moment for herself. “I want to sit down and take it all in,” she says. “That's the takeaway: to just be proud. To keep going and keep striving.”

Endea Owens will most certainly keep going and keep striving. There’s a brilliance about her, one that we’re lucky to witness – at the Edinburgh International Festival and beyond.