Michigan Jazz Icons

Vincent Bowens, jazz saxophone and Tim Froncek, jazz drums spend a swinging week at MSU

Tim Froncek and Vincent Bowens work with MSU Jazz Studies students at a master class during their residency.

From an article in City Pulse February 18, 2015

When it comes to intense jazz instruction, some may recall the emphatic chair-throwing instructor, Terry Fletcher, in the Oscar-nominated film “Whiplash.”

Two intense, but much more friendly guest artists at MSU’s Jazz Studies program, drummer Tim Froncek and saxophonist Vincent Bowens, warmed the halls of the College of Music with their own brand of exuberance.

“I don’t discourage any player,” Bowens said. “Everybody has something to say.”

Froncek and Bowens, two of the state’s top jazz musicians, worked with MSU students all week, and toured with them to several schools around the state, then cappeed off the week with a concert Friday night concert.

Their joint residency marks the kickoff of a new Michigan Icons series at MSU and a geographical pincer movement by Rodney Whitaker, director of jazz studies. Bowens is a respected veteran of the Detroit scene; Muskegon-born Froncek is a staple of the West Coast school (think of Traverse City, not San Francisco) and a jazz instructor at Grand Valley State University.

Both musicians believe the popular image of controlling tyrants like the fictional Fletcher.

“Music is a spirit,” Bowens said. “Feeling and spirit. If you stifle it by trying to control it, you don’t get the true essence of the person you’re dealing with.”

“I try not to control the music, but to fit in,” Froncek said. “I might have to lead sometimes. But you have to know when not to be forceful.”

Froncek tells his students that drummers have to be ready for anything, including reading minds. Bandleader Hank Levy once told Froncek to play a beat “like a three-legged dog” at a nerve-wracking 1990s gig. (Levy was a specialist in odd meters who composed off-kilter charts for jazz legends like Stan Kenton and Don Ellis.)

“Sometimes people don’t know how to write it out, or even explain it,” Froncek said. “You have to learn to interpret for people who don’t know any musical terms.”

More than 30 years ago, at Detroit’s fabled jazz hothouse, Metro Arts Complex, Bowens enjoyed the kind of mentorship he brougth to MSU.

One of Bowens’ favorite memories was meeting dynamic drummer Roy Brooks in 1972, when Brooks was playing with jazz icon Charles Mingus. Brooks even brought Mingus to sit in with the students at the complex.

“It was a beautiful thing,” Bowens said. “You’re looking at jazz royalty. Herbie [Hancock], Freddie [Hubbard], whoever was in town would come in and play with us.”

It sounds like a lot of pressure for a young student, but Bowens basked in the generosity and patience of the elders and passes it forward whenever he can.

“The way I was taught is, everything you try is good,” he said. “I wouldn’t try to discourage any way or form.”

While still a youngster, Bowens fell in love with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins’ classic recording of “Body and Soul.”

“Once you heard Coleman, the saxophone was it,” he said.

Froncek got the bug when he saw Ringo Starr flipping his sticks (and hair) with the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

He skipped career day in high school. “I never thought of doing anything else, ever,” he said. “I just knew I was going to play the drums.”

Soon after, he fell in love with the big band sound of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Energetic drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich (a notorious jazz jerk) got him hooked on the physicality and coordination the drum kit demands. “It involves the whole body,” Froncek said. “You’re totally into it, and if you’re doing it right, the audience won’t sit still either.”

Being a big fish in the small town of Muskegon helped Froncek. When the Miss Michigan pageant, the circus or some other show came to town, he was the go-to drummer. His big break was a steady gig with Woody Herman’s big band (the fabled Thundering Herd) in 1982.

How do you impress Woody Herman when you’re fresh out of high school? The answer will not be lost on MSU students this week.

“By being a professional, showing up and doing the best I
can — that impressed him,” Froncek said Bowens and Froncek visited MSU for a quick introduction to the students. Bowens has fond memories of whisking 20-year-old Whitaker along on a tour of Mexico with Detroit pianist Kenn Cox in the late 1980s.

“We played real good,” Bowens said. “We went all over Mexico. It was a real nice situation.”

A week-long residency and tour is the ideal way to make a difference with students, Froncek said.

“Playing with them is where the learning takes place,” Froncek said. “I can give them a lecture all day. When you’re out on the road, you see how they react to the audience and to the other musicians.”

Bowens was amazed at what he heard at MSU.

“Man, those guys are playing,” he said. That’s good news for a humble teacher who thinks of learning as a two-way street.

“I’m going to learn from them, definitely,” he said. “I’m still learning all the time. Nobody knows it all.”

Michigan Jazz Icon Bios

Saxophonist Vincent Bowens grew up in Detroit, Mich., and studied music at Sidney D. Miller Junior High and Martin Luther King High School. As a teen, he participated in inner-city youth programs through the Metro Arts Complex where he learned from veteran musicians such as Marcus Belgrave, Sam Sanders, Kenny Cox, Teddy Harris, and Hal McKinney. Bowens later studied jazz at Oakland University under Marvin “Doc” Holladay.

A fixture in Detroit musical culture, Bowens has performed, collaborated, and toured with regional jazz greats like Roy Brooks, Marion Hayden, Geri Allen, Bob Hurst, Eddie Jefferson, Jack McDuff, Lawrence Williams, Francisco Catlett Mora, Rodney Whitaker, and countless others. He has recorded with Kenny Cox, Leon Henderson, Charles Moore, Kamau Kenyatta, Bigger, Rayse Biggs, Walt Symanski, and Jeribu Shahid. Bowens is a member of the Teddy Harris New Breed Bebop Society and Ed Nuccilli & Plural Circle. 

Download High-resolution Press Photo, courtesy Juan N Only. 

Tim Froncek, musical director and drummer, is also a teacher and lecturer. He was voted 2004’s “Jazz Musician of the Year” by the West Michigan Jazz Society. He has performed with jazz greats including Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd, Bobby Shew, Bill Watrous, Randy Brecker, Phil Woods, Rufus Reid, and Jon Faddis. Froncek has always been interested in jazz music because of the beat and the groove, which drew him to the drums. As a teacher, he directs the jazz program at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. Froncek is an affiliate professor at Grand Valley State University and is musical director of the Grand Rapids Jazz Orchestra and Muskegon’s Truth in Jazz Orchestra.

Download High-resolution Press Photo (JPEG)

February 16-20, 2015 Michigan Jazz Icons 
Monday, 2/16, Rehearsals with MSU Jazz Octets; Jazz Forum, 8 p.m. Music Practice Building 
Tuesday, 2/17, Workshops with MSU College of Music students
Wednesday, 2/18, Master Class with MSU College of Music students
Thursday, Friday, 2/19 – 2/20, Area school visits and performances: Okemos, East Lansing, Holt, Eaton Rapids, Williamston, and Fowlerville.
Friday, 2/20, Performance with Jazz Octets, 8 p.m. Cook Recital Hall

College of Music Media Release, Michigan Jazz Icons