As I have traveled the world as a jazz musician from Jacksonville, I’ve found that there are only a few jazz musicians from Northeast Florida that everyone recognizes. Globally, saxophonist Bunky Green is at the top of that list.
In 2015 I was on tour with Christian McBride Trio when we played a concert at Wigmore Hall. I remember running into Guggenheim Fellow and jazz saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. He said, “I heard you are from Jacksonville, Florida which is where Bunky Green lives.” When I asked how he knew about Bunky, he replied “He is only one of the greatest modern saxophonists in jazz.” I asked “Is he regarded like that?” Rudresh said “Yes.”
Fast forward to just a few months ago. I was teaching at Juilliard and my student Sophia Kickhofel mentioned that one of her influences was the great Bunky Green. When I told her that he lives in Jacksonville, her jaw dropped in amazement.
It Could Happen To You with Bunky
Years ago when I was first learning how to play jazz, I remember being told I needed to go to the University of North Florida and meet Kevin Bales who was running the jazz program. Kevin truly has a heart for jazz education and, at that time, UNF had a world-class jazz faculty full of active-professional jazz musicians that were relevant and known in the jazz world at large.
Kevin quickly identified that I had a connection to jazz and he decided to take me under his wing and expose me to some great musical experiences. I was part of a local youth jazz combo that he led, and was always involved in River City Youth Band, as well as the Douglas Anderson band that would perform at the Koger Matteson Jazz Festival at UNF annually.
The spring before I graduated high school, I had just been accepted to Juilliard and Kevin invited me to play with Bunky Green, Ricky Ravelo and him for one tune at UNF to celebrate Ken Valentine. The tune we would play? “It Could Happen To You,” originally composed by Jimmy Van Heusen.
At that time I was studying the drummer Philly Joe Jones, so I was really into driving the beat. And while I had not quite learned how to accompany a saxophonist of Green’s magnitude, everyone was gracious to me.
I remember the way Bunky played the melody – very melodically scarce. He left a lot of space and all of a sudden I felt like I was in his orbit, swimming in no particular direction. Everyone in the rhythm section changed how they were playing and started watching Bunky like a hawk.
Bunky started playing motifs and phrases with more intensity; his knees buckling, eyes squinting. He kept diggin’ in. The crowd was in awe of him as he finished his solo.
I am swingin’ away on the ride cymbal, not knowing how to contain all the sound and force I can feel coming from Bunky’s saxophone. I am watching him, accented rhythms, beats; trying to catch rhythms from the piano, lock in with the bass. I’m holding on for dear life.
Kevin took a solo, then I soloed, and the song ended.
I remember not feeling that normal affirming notion that I won or performed well. Actually, I felt lost. But it wasn’t a negative kind of lost; it was a feeling like I had just defied all of the rules and took an expansive musical journey. And I liked the feeling very much.
I recount that experience now, writing from Terrassa Spain, where I have been on tour with my band “Gen Y” for the last week. I have a talented, 18-year old bassist on the road with me named Ryoma Takenaga. He has been telling me every night that it’s been such a learning experience. And though he feels lost some days in the music, the entire journey is actually mirroring what life is.
In jazz education, the true test is to throw a student in the water, or on the bandstand, with master musicians and see if they sink or swim.
The gift that Kevin granted me – an opportunity to sink or swim with Bunky Green – it’s a gift I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I got a chance to experience playing modern jazz with one of the greatest living jazz saxophonists on the planet. Bunky never said a word to me, he just took me on an unforgettable sonic journey and gave me a peek into the feeling of mastery.
It could happen to you, too.
A free concert celebrating the 90th birthday of jazz legend and UNF music educator Bunky Green, featuring UNF alumni and former students of Bunky, including Tom Dietz (’91), Al Maniscalco (’92), Rob Denty (’94), Eric Riehm (’99), Mike Emmert (‘10), Tracy Morris (’12), along with be Barry Greene and Rudresh Mahanthappa, is featured at the UNF Music Department’s Recital Hall; 1 UNF Dr., Jacksonville, FL 32224. Concert begins at 4 p.m.
Ulysses Owens Jr. is a Grammy Award-winning drummer, Director of Small Ensembles at The Juilliard School, and a published author. His writing has appeared in Downbeat Magazine, Florida Times Union, Jazz Times Magazine, Percussive Arts Magazine; and his books have been published by Hal Leonard, and Simon and Schuster. He was named 40 under 40 by Jax Business Journal in 2022, is a member of the 2023 Leadership Jax class; and a recipient of the Ann Baker McDonald Art Ventures grant from the Community Foundation of Northeast Florida.