‘Give it your all’

CBS ‘Late Show’ bassist Endea Owens returns to MSU


Few musicians dig deeper or glow brighter than New York-based bassist, composer, singer and bandleader Endea Owens, the special guest at this year’s MSU Jazz Spectacular. Owens is a proud representative of her hometown of Detroit and MSU, where she began her jazz education.

MSU jazz studies director Rodney Whitaker recruited Owens to MSU after visiting her high school in Detroit and hearing her play. Since her time at MSU and the Juilliard School, Owens has taken off like a comet in New York, landing a prime gig as the bassist in the house band of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on CBS. She has also played with top artists like Wynton Marsalis, Diana Ross and trombonist Steve Turre and toured with her band, The Cookout.

In 2020, Owens founded Community Cookout, a nonprofit that has helped to feed over 3,000 New Yorkers and hosted over a dozen free concerts. In 2022, she composed an original piece about the life of pioneering civil rights activist Ida B. Wells for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Owens talked with City Pulse about playing on “The Late Show,” her globe-trotting summer tour, her love of biking and many other things.


Is it a good time to be a musician?

It’s always a good time to be a jazz musician. You do your work, give it your all, and success will find you. I also see a change in people. They want to hear more natural sounds. People are listening for different things. Beyoncé just released a country album, way on the other side of things. My friend, Samara Joy, sings traditional jazz music and sells out halls. So yeah, it’s a great time.


What is it like playing on “The Late Show”? I imagine every day is different and you must learn things quickly.

Oh, yes. Sometimes, we have to learn the music on stage while we’re taping in the middle of the show. The guest might come on and say, “Oh, I used to listen to this song when I was growing up,” or, “This song reminds me of my parents.”Then we have to accommodate that, to go with the energy and flow of the show.


How did you get the gig?

I didn’t know anyone in the band at the time. About two years ago, Joe Saylor, the drummer, saw me playing at Smalls Jazz Club at 4 a.m., just a random gig I had. I was always doing these late-night sessions. He called (then band leader) Jon Batiste and said, “You have to check out this bass player.”  Jon called me, and we talked about music and life for about an hour. About three months later, the manager called me to sub on the show on bass. I was like, “Sorry for that other bass player, but I am coming to get the gig.” I did what I usually do: play the best I can. I gave it my all. They wanted me back for two months, and in 2019, I signed a contract.


Can you recall a couple of experiences that were particularly memorable?

Solange (Knowles) is great. When I learned her music, she sings everything. Nothing is written down. I had to play what she sings and get the phrasing correct. With her, I learned how to flow through the music and get rid of my preconceived concepts of how it should be. I was able to be in the present moment, which is great. It almost reminded me of a more avant-garde classical music with her. And Jennifer Holliday — my favorite moment with her, the most inspiring moment, was her singing “I Am Changing” a capella. Whew! I can’t listen to vocalists the same way. The power, the determination to reach the audience and give a clear, precise rendition of a song — it blew me away. I was like, “That’s how you do a one-woman show.”


It sounds like the gig demands a lot but also gives a lot back.

Everybody I’ve played with, not just on the show but my whole career, has been so generous. (Detroit trumpeter and jazz legend) Marcus Belgrave gave me my first gig. Every day, he was just happy to play and give. There was never a day when he was like, “I’m just not feeling it today.” I try to live my life by their example.


How would you describe Rodney Whitaker’s influence on your life and career?

Marcus sent me off to college, and Rodney took up the baton. I remember coming to Michigan State, where there were a lot of strong musicians, and it took me a while to learn some things. Don’t get me wrong. I could always play. Let’s get that straight. But some people gave me a hard time like I’m not good enough to be a student there or to do this or that gig. Rodney put so much patience, time and knowledge into my life so I could have all the tools necessary to have a blossoming career wherever I go. Rodney doesn’t have to teach because he’s such an incredible musician. Everyone he’s ever played with talks about him and how much they miss him being in their band. He still tours, but to take time for over 30 years to teach students is quite admirable.


Do you have any musical plans for the future you can share?

Yes, I do. I have a lot of major U.S. festivals coming up. I’m getting ready for the Kennedy Center (for  an all-star tribute to composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams on May 10 and 11). I have three European tours, Montreaux, Fontainebleu, the Nice festival — I’ll be all over the place. I start playing with (piano legend) Kenny Barron in May. I still do my community outreach organization, the Community Cookout. I’ve started to partner with the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival and the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. Yeah, things are on the up and up!


That’s a packed schedule. What do you do to recharge?

I sit down and relax. Last year, I felt like I overworked myself. I was pooped. But I try to do the things I love. It might be as simple as riding my bike. It’s so therapeutic. I live in New York. There are so many things, so many cultures to pull from. I go to different areas, talk to people and get their stories and stay inspired to go to shows. Music is a big portion of my life, but my life also determines the music. I like to make sure my mental health is always in a good space so I can bring the best parts of me forward. The worst parts of me — not the worst parts, the human parts — whichever parts come to life, I try to write what that sounds like on the paper. What melody is that? What is that sadness? What is that joy, that grief, that determination? I need to stay in constant motion, but I also need to know when to sit still.


Jazz Spectacular Finale Concert, with Endea Owens, MSU Professors of Jazz, Jazz Orchestra I

Saturday, April 13

8 p.m.

Fairchild Theatre

542 Auditorium Road, East Lansing


(517) 353-5340



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