ROCHESTER — Tyler Owens remembers sitting on a stool next to his mother, JoAn Owens, as she played piano and sang in church every Sunday when he was a little boy.
“To this day, she’s got the most beautiful contralto voice I’ve ever head,” he said.
A baritone tenor, Owens apparently inherited his mother’s pipes. He was scheduled to share his vocal gifts with area residents Saturday, April 29, in an evening concert at McQuaid Jesuit High School with saxophonist Jimmie Highsmith Jr.
Owens has written songs for recording artists such as Grammy Award-winning producer Michael Powell and blues diva Millie Jackson. Highsmith has shared the stage with multiple Grammy Award winners, including Alicia Keys and Wynton Marsalis. Highsmith and Owens are currently recording an album together, Owens added.
Titled “Smooth Jazz for Education Concert,” Owens’ and Highsmith’s show was planned to raise money for McQuaid’s Xavier Scholars’ program, which provides five six-year scholarships to students from six inner-city Catholic elementary schools. The program provides full tuition funding as well as other additional needs, from books to school dress to the financial assistance required to participate fully in school activities.
Owens graduated from McQuaid in 1981, and credited the school for helping him succeed as a musician.
“I think, in many ways, that the education that my mom struggled so hard to provide, saved my life,” Owens said. “She thought that a parochial school would prepare me better than the city schools.”
He noted that he was participating in the Smooth Jazz concert because he wanted other children to experience what he had at McQuaid. The school encouraged him to use his gifts, including his rich voice, which he often employs in the service of romantic songs. However, Owens stressed that he writes lyrics that are a little deeper than those inspired by the shallow sensuality embodied in many contemporary hits, explaining that he sees romantic love as a spiritual, cerebral and physical experience.
“Unless you’ve got all of those things happening, you’re not experiencing it to the degree God intended,” he said. “It’s the vehicle by which destiny is manifest.”
Owens, who considers Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, as his favorite singer, said his own music has been influenced by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Donny Hathaway. He jokingly added that today’s African-American singers might not be caught dead singing the song he first sang in public — “Mandy” by Barry Manilow.
“How many kids from the ghetto (today), their first public song, is going to be something by (American Idol’s) Clay Aiken?” he asked with a laugh.
However, he noted that he came up during a different time, when radio stations were less structured and more eclectic, and when his own family members listened to everything from jazz to soft rock. He added that he enjoys singing jazz because it offers both the freedom to create as well as the discipline of meeting musical challenges.
“It’s like being a painter, but with more colors to paint with,” he said.
Owens and Highsmith’s concert was a collaboration between McQuaid, the artistic and business communities, and such local not-for-profit organizations as Pathways to Peace, the Rochester Step-Off Educational Foundation, the Rochester Fatherhood Resource Initiative and New Inheritance Ministries.