Wilmington’s Clifford Brown Jazz Festival returns next week, starting up Wednesday and running through Friday.
And while Clifford Brown is Wilmington’s most celebrated jazz musician, not much is known about his teacher Robert “Boysie” Lowery who taught so many jazz musicians – locally and beyond.
Several of his students are still around and still playing jazz in Wilmington, and have much to say about Lowery the teacher, the man and his legacy.
Gerald Chavis is a name familiar to local jazz aficionados.
His trumpet is on display in the Delaware History Museum, but he still performs regularly in the area and leads the Wilmington Youth Jazz Band.
And like Clifford Brown and so many other legendary jazz musicians, his jazz journey traces back to Boysie Lowery.
“When I was home from college, I discovered Robert Boysie Lowery – and that changed my life,” Chavis said.
The discovery came in the 1970s when Chavis was in his early 20s, and playing in an R&B band with Lowery’s nephew Sean Koontz, who recommended he meet Lowery.
“One day after a gig – or one night – he said, ‘You need to go talk to my uncle,’” Chavis said. “I said, ‘Who’s your uncle?’ He said, ‘Boysie.’ And that was it. Within the first lesson, I knew I had to get more.”
What hooked him was Lowery’s unique approach to teaching music.
“He got in my brain and started making me think about things I hadn’t thought about, or re-thinking things I’d already thought about,” Chavis said.
Chavis began visiting Lowery several times a week – sometimes for a private lesson, but other times just to observe how he worked with others.
“With other teachers, once I could play the notes in the right places, we’d move on to something else. With Boysie – once I got the notes in the right places – he’d say, ‘Now how is that supposed to sound?’ Well I didn’t know – and he would just smile, and tell me to keep practicing,” Chavis said. “He never gave you the answers to anything, but he would ask open-ended questions and the answer would be different for different individuals, so you would have to answer it for yourself.”
He used what was called The Lowery System, also called “the method.”
“1, 6, 4, 2, 3, 5 ,1 5 – 1 to 6, 4 to 2, 3 to 5 to 1….,” said Maurice Sims, describing “the method.” Sims also studied with Boysie Lowery and was a friend of Clifford Brown’s.
In the 1950s, Sims became one of the first black radio hosts in the United States, and spun Brown’s first commercial record on the air. But Sims says it wasn’t Clifford Brown who put Wilmington on the map when it came to jazz.
“He never approached Boysie’s ear – or Boysie’s ability,” Sims said. “He just learned what Boysie taught him.”
Lowery was born in 1914 in North Carolina and grew up in a musical family. Sims says his family was full of geniuses. Lowery studied music with his father – who was a bandleader – as his brother Bud, who played clarinet and saxophone. Boysie’s first instrument was the trumpet, and he played in a band with Bud called the Deuces of Rhythm.
He eventually settled in Wilmington in the 1940s. Sims said he tired of playing all night in Philadelphia jazz clubs and not getting paid the same night, unlike in Wilmington.
“He’d get paid every night – before the bar closed, you got your money,” Sims said. “By law the bar had to be closed at midnight.”
Lowery had another good reason for not wanting to play into the wee hours of the morning. For over 50 years, he was busy teaching jazz lessons – some of which took place after the bars had closed. And, he became world-renowned.
“Some of the world’s brightest and best – when they came to Wilmington – would make it a point to go visit Boysie and introduce himself,” Chavis said. “Like Wynton Marsalis and Valery Ponomarev, Hugh Masekela, Donald Bird – just tons of musicians, and those are just the trumpet players.
He taught lessons for many years at the Christina Cultural Arts Center.
“At Christina, there may be 10 musicians in the room – all different ages – and all working on different things and it would be one big room, and it would sound like total chaos,” Chavis said. “And he’d be listening to each of us and as we were practicing I’d be facing one corner, someone else was facing another corner, and this guy’s on the piano – and he’d be listening and he’d holler out across the room, ‘Give that quarter note its full value’ or something like that. He would be listening even if he was working with somebody else. Things would catch his ear.”
Later in life, he taught primarily out of his home on Broom Street that Chavis and others considered a safe house. His basement was set up to accommodate a band. While Boysie focused on the music, his wife focused on everything else.
“We all called her mom, she was the mother hen. She took us aside and would tell us things we needed to know. Because we were all young musicians, wild and crazy,” Chavis said. “ It could be anything from clothes that didn’t match to needing to comb your hair. So she would take care of that part – and make sure you were fed – and he’d take care of all of the educational stuff, the musical stuff.”
Music was a way of life for the Lowery family – and Boysie’s approach was contagious. Among those he attracted was local trumpet player Tony Smith. Smith was a year younger than Gerald Chavis and like him, starting practicing with Lowery while home from college.
“I came back and heard Gerald Chavis and he was playing all over the horn and I said ‘uh oh, I bet he’s with Boysie,’ and he was,” Smith said. “So I said, ‘I’m going to Boysie.’ ”
Smith credits Lowery with helping him form his own musical style.
“Mr. Boysie always wanted us to be able to play and have our own style. He’d always tell me I don’t want you to sound like Clifford Brown. And he said I used to tell Clifford I didn’t want him sounding like Dizzy Gillespie,” Smith said. “One of Clifford Brown’s close friends – he passed away recently – he came to hear me play and said you know Tony, years ago I thought you sounded like Clifford and then I thought you sounded like Freddie Hubbard and then I thought you sounded like somebody else. I finally figured out who you sound like. You sound like Tony Smith. That’s a big compliment.”
But Smith and Chavis say Lowery also had a way of focusing on their – and others’ – weaknesses and making sure the musicians he worked with didn’t let their heads get too big.
“I had some education and theory, and being about 20 something I thought I knew it all,” Chavis said. “His way of putting me in check was – ‘if you really knew all that stuff you’re talking about, I would hear it coming out of your horn, but I don’t hear anything.’ And he was right.”
Smith recalled a time Lowery asked him to play for a guest – Russian trumpet player Valery Ponomarev.
“I looked and Mr. Boysie was behind a chalkboard after I finished, and he had a handkerchief and he was wiping his face and I thought he must be crying,” Smith said. “He said, ‘Tony – you did everything right today. But I want you to come over to the house this evening, I need to talk to you.’ So I told my wife – my girlfriend back then – I said oh, he’s finally gonna tell me I’m doing pretty well. So I rush over there and he sat me down, and tore me a new behind. I thought I was gonna get me some praise and I jumped up out of there and said I ain’t never coming back here no more!”
But – he did go back, even after Lowery’s wife had expressed concern.
“She said, ‘Well how do you know he’s coming back Boysie?’” Smith said. “ ‘Cause he wants this, he wants this – he’ll be back.’ And sure enough, I was right back there.”
Despite his sometimes-harsh approach, Chavis says Lowery was unassuming and soft-spoken as well as a deep thinker, incorporating real world wisdom and advice into his lessons.
“I was at the time thinking everything had to be original – so I was reluctant to play something somebody else played,” Chavis said. “So he would say something like, ‘You don’t own anything. If you love something, that’s great but you don’t own it. And that’s the same in life – you meet somebody and fall in love, you don’t own them – just know that.’ ”
Chavis himself visited Lowery frequently up until his death in 1996.
“First thing he’d say was, ‘Where’s your horn?’ And he’d just start teaching at any level,” Chavis said.
He recalled a visit just a few months before he passed away.
“His wife had instructed all of us – we were all like their kids, we were over there all the time, all the musicians around here – and she said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t get him excited and don’t let him play his horn,’” Chavis said. “So I went by and she gave me the eye like, you know what the deal is. And she left us alone and as soon as she left the room, Boysie said ‘Go get my horn,’ and he could hardly put the horn to his lips but as soon as he started blowing, it was like he was 20 years old again.”
Even then – he still gave Chavis advice.
“And the last thing he told me was that he wanted me to play more augmented chords. He wanted to hear that sound in my solo-ing more,” Chavis said. “And he was absolutely right, I wasn’t using augmented chords at all.”
Now Chavis and Smith look forward to honoring their revered teacher each year during Wilmington’s Clifford Brown Jazz Festival. They play together in a tribute band.
And they were also recently together to celebrate the life of colleague Vernon James – known as Buddha – who died of pancreatic cancer.
He was another student of Boysie’s.
“Everybody who was anybody in music came,”Sims said. “And they made all of us stand up on this stage to show you how many people Boysie had taught.”
Smith says Boysie’s spirit’s still alive and well.
“He always told us that he was gonna live forever through the music we’re playing – and that’s true,” Smith said.
The Boysie Lowery Living Jazz Residency – named in Boysie’s honor – gives young jazz musicians the chance to learn from veteran musicians for two weeks every year.