Education, Inspirational Stories

Arts & Sciences: The Service of Scholar and Musician José Antonio Bowen


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By Jason Rubin

This fall, I became the father of a college student for the first time. My older daughter Hannah is a freshman at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland. I have to admit I’d never heard of Goucher and didn’t know much about it, other than it was considered a good liberal arts college and it offered Hannah scholarship money. So we packed up the car and drove down to Towson, a lovely town about a half hour outside Baltimore.

On check-in day, we arrived at the appointed time and stood in a line outside the campus center building. My younger daughter, 10 years her sister’s junior, is not so good at waiting around, so I took her for a walk around the area. In a courtyard by the campus center were tables of snacks and drinks, so we went in that direction. Nearby, a trio of musicians were playing: a guitarist, a percussionist, and a man who was resting one leg in a cast on a chair while playing the melodica, a keyboard instrument you blow into (or a wind instrument with white and black keys).

It was all very welcoming and nice, and later in the day, after we had gotten Hannah moved in and settled, everyone gathered in a large auditorium for the freshman class convocation. All the students marched in, a couple of remarks were made by gowned administrators, and then the president of Goucher was called up to speak. I was amazed to find that the man using crutches who rose to address the crowd was the same man who played the melodica earlier in the day. So the president of Goucher, José Antonio Bowen, is a musician, I thought. That’s cool.

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Jose Antonio Bowen

Later, to offset my feelings of missing my daughter, I Googled him to see what I could learn about this seemingly very interesting man. On his website (http://josebowen.com) I found out that Dr. Bowen is equally accomplished as a scholar and a musician.

As a scholar, he has served as:

  • Director of Jazz Ensembles at Stanford University

  • Founding Director of the Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (CHARM) at the University of Southampton, England
  • First holder of the endowed Caestecker Chair of Music at Georgetown University
  • Dean of Fine Arts at Miami University
  • Dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University

Dr. Bowen holds four degrees from Stanford: B.S. in chemistry, M.A. in music composition, M.A. in humanities, and a joint Ph.D. in musicology and humanities. He has written over 100 scholarly articles on music, was editor of the Cambridge Companion to Conducting, contributed to the text Discover Jazz, and was a co-editor of the 6-CD set Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology. He is also the author of Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom will Improve Student Learning, which won the 2013 Ness Award for Best Book on Higher Education from the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Needless to say I was very impressed, but I was mostly curious about Dr. Bowen’s career as a professional musician. You see, in my current job I have many colleges and universities as clients, and have met a number of their presidents. Some are remarkable individuals in their own right – others are less impressive – but all share one thing: they can’t swing. (Actually, that’s not true, as one of my clients was Berklee College of Music, whose president, Roger Brown, is a fine drummer.)

I was pleased to find that Dr. Bowen’s musical credentials are at least as impressive as his scholarly ones. To quote from his bio: “In over 35 years as a jazz performer, he has appeared in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas with Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby McFerrin, Dave Brubeck, Liberace, and many others.” He has released four CDs as a leader and despite the time and energy he must devote to his duties to Goucher, he maintains two active groups: a jazz quintet called Jam Pact, and an east-west collective called Bridge Ensemble, which recently performed at the College.

Bridge Ensemble.

About a month and a half into the school year, we returned to Goucher for Family Weekend. It was wonderful to see Hannah again and we took four days to explore the area and engage in on-campus events. One of those events was a jazz brunch. Sure enough, Dr. Bowen was on hand to perform with a group of very talented students, lending his melodica skills to a guitar/bass/drums trio.

As he played, I began to think about how music-making, among its many attributes, is a form of service. You play music for people, you provide entertainment for them – sometimes even healing. You bring something that otherwise wouldn’t exist into an environment to create a highly positive atmosphere. The president of Goucher College was in a room full of parents and rather than pressing the flesh in search of donations (which, believe me, is pretty much job number one for a college president), he was serenading us. He was giving of himself – not of his office or his position, but of himself. To us.

As I thought about it, my emotions shifted from pure and simple enjoyment of the music, to feeling touched that the man who runs my daughter’s college is so clearly dedicated to the psychic and spiritual health of his community, not simply its academic strength or financial performance. I became a big fan.

I had the chance to speak with Dr. Bowen briefly. I thanked him and told him how impressed I was by his ability to merge the two disciplines of academia and music. How does he find the time to keep both boats afloat?

“I probably spent only 10 hours playing music last year,” he said, “so it’s difficult. I am trying to play 10 minutes every night at the moment. I mostly do it because it feeds my soul. My first year at Goucher was my first year without doing a concert in 45 years. I spent about six hours preparing for the recent Bridge Ensemble concert; I can’t do that all the time, but maybe once a year.”

I can’t help but wish that I could trade places with Hannah. Though she is doing well and gradually finding her place there, I feel like there is so much I could learn from Dr. Bowen and want more chances to hear him perform. Alas, I am 400 miles away. But I feel good that my daughter is someplace where creativity is highly valued, and remarkably modeled by its president.

As musician:

José Bowen Quartet (Bowen: piano)

As scholar:

José Bowen TED Talk: Beethoven as Bill Gates

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