Jonathan Rowden ’07 was born in north Los Angeles near Sun Valley. His father’s career as a pioneering worship leader and missionary caused his family to move around quite a bit and also sparked Jonathan’s love of music. He started playing the saxophone at the young age of seven years old, after hearing the sax player on an album his dad was recording. He served in music ministries and spent a number of years as a part-time worship leader/director at a small church plant in Orange County, but his interest as a jazz/creative musician only grew stronger. He graduated from Vanguard University in 2007; where he was classically trained by Ken Foerch and went on to pursue a Master’s degree in Saxophone/Jazz performance at CSU Fullerton. In 2013, he formed an original band, the Jonathan Rowden Group, performing exclusively original music for the first time.
- What instrument(s) do you play?
A: Saxophones (mostly tenor and soprano these days), some woodwind double like flute and clarinet. I dabble with piano, drums, and guitar, but mostly for writing purposes.
- When and why did you start playing?
A: I began playing the alto saxophone when I was 7 years old. My father was a singer-songwriter/Christian music pioneer when I was a boy (we spent a huge amount of time touring with him when I growing up) and he hired a Seattle-based saxophonist named Richard Cole to play on his second album (I think). I heard him playing in the DIY studio we had in the garage and I guess I really liked the sound and asked him to teach me how to play. My dad actually thought I was too little to do it, but Rich gave it a shot and gave me a few lessons. He got me started on all the fundamentals of the instrument, but we moved to California before too long. Somehow I managed to stay interested and continued to play independently until senior year of high school, at which point I decided I wanted to pursue the saxophone professionally. Most of my early life, I wanted to be a comic book artist, so it really took everyone I knew at the time by surprise.
- How has music impacted your life?
A: I suppose it’s complicated to describe, since music has been a constant in my life since I was a boy. When I would go to bed at night I’d fall asleep to the sounds of my dad writing music on the piano or guitar in the room down the hall, experience music in all sorts of situations, and had a really eclectic collection of CD’s, tapes, and some LP’s growing up. In order to say how it has impacted me, I’d have to imagine life without it. Music was a good friend to me in some pretty dark times. But once I chose to do music professionally, my relationship with music changed and went through many stages. I think it has given me a creative outlet that is very unique and allows me to really explore nuanced personal expression, and my faith both in the abstract and otherwise. Once I discovered that I could write music without trying to pay homage to any style or genre in particular, my eyes and ears really opened up.
- How did your time at Vanguard help you grow as a musician?
A: My time at Vanguard was spent building an intimate connection to my horn. I sacrificed a lot of time working on my playing. I was very focused – there were a lot of personal desires that needed to be put aside for the sake of the longer goals I had. My time studying with Ken Foerch was foundational, and his pedagogy of the saxophone is exactly what I needed at that time. I was always really self-motivated but Ken showed me that I could overcome technical and mental blocks that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. Greg Glancey taught me a lot about theory and really gave me the freedom to explore a lot of music that (believe it or not in a music program) other students would basically scoff at. In many ways, there were few students during my time at VU that were really pushing themselves, but I strongly believe that being in a small program where I wasn’t extrinsically obligated to “do thus and so” for 10 different groups really benefitted a self-motivated person like me, who had a LOT of technical work to do. I just took advantage of the time and hit the shed.
- What have you been doing since your time at Vanguard?
A: I completed my Master’s degree in saxophone/jazz performance at CSUF in 2011, during which time I created my band now known as the Jonathan Rowden Group. The band went on to release our debut album “Becoming” in 2014 on the Los Angeles based creative-music label Orenda Records, including a West & East coast CD release tour stint, and the album received a nice review in the world-renowned Downbeat Magazine. The Jonathan Rowden Group is now prepping/fundraising to record our second album, slated to hit the studio in April – there will be some previews available on my website. I’ve continued teaching in a number of different capacities over the years (something I began in 2004), and am currently serving as the adjunct professor of saxophone at Cal Baptist University and leading/or co-leading jazz/jazz-combo programs at a few high schools. In 2015 I founded Tear It Down Los Angeles | Orange County with is a non-profit organization that produces shows in OC and LA, featuring many of the brightest and best up-and-coming creative-music artists in southern CA. We will be producing a Downtown LA Arts District Jazz Festival the end of 2016. Finally, I created WYR which is the highly experimental side to my musical personality.
- What is your new film project about?
A: WYR TERRANIGMA is a full-length concert film (think about it like a live album but with studio-production value and incredible filming) of entirely improvised, experimental music. The core of the ensemble WYR is made up of two drummer-percussionists (Chris Wabich and James Yoshizawa) and myself on saxophones with electronic effects and gadgets. The group improvised on a loose-formal score of instrument/color/timbral cues. This sounds intellectual, but really, the music is pure heart – there’s almost no instruction, just play. For TERRANGIMA we invited two incredible vocalists Areni Agbabian and Joanna Wallfisch to join us. Areni also played prepared piano, and Joanna used a looper to created really interesting vocal effects. The collective sound is something with it’s foot in jazz, new-music (classical), electronic-ambient, and really just anything that feels right in the moment. With so much freedom, you’d think the music would lack focus, but because of the world-class musicianship of my collaborators, the music is incredibly focused and really “lives” in it’s own universe. I think that the best music does this – discovering the intended nature of a given musical moment, and finding a way to live it out to the fullest, or helping its natural direction come to fruition, is what makes this as focused as it is free. There was no rehearsal, only conversation. What I found is that if everyone’s personalities just “make sense” together, their aesthetic sensibilities can come together in some very surprising and beautiful ways during the performance.
- What advice do you have for current VU students who are involved in music or otherwise?
A: I think I have three suggestions. First, utilize those practice rooms and don’t be afraid to be a hermit. Good friends will understand. Secondly, don’t wait to start creating your own projects – this is a time in your life when you will (likely) have more time and opportunities to hone your craft than when you graduate and the real world sets in. Third, it’s never too soon to begin looking at what you want your career to look like, and to go out there and start creating opportunities for yourself. Find a mentor, get involved professionally, and never convince yourself that you’ve “arrived”. That’s an easy road to complacency and inactivity.
- What are your top five favorite songs to play?
A: Of the songs I’m playing with my band, I’d have to say I really enjoy two new songs I wrote and those of my bandmates. 1) The Wait (a electro-pop/drum & bass-meets-minimalism inspired original) 2) 133 (an ethereal original named after a lovely drive on an OC toll road which costs way too much) 3) Ruins of Númenor (an epic original composed by my bandmate Ryan Pryor) 4) Snowing In Paradise (an original song composed for my wife’s hometown of Paradise CA) 5) Can’t decide on the 5th…
- What do you have planned for your music in the future? Any other film projects possibly?
A. There are many exciting plans, actually. We will be releasing a new album this year (2016) with my band the Jonathan Rowden Group with plans to record in April/May. The band will be performing at the incredible MENG CONCERT HALL at CSU Fullerton on March 12th (please join us). There is a possible WYR studio record on the horizon as well. Additionally, I am in the throws of crafting a vision for a YouTube series of short music films, exploring outdoor locations with improvised and composed material with a variety of collaborations. There are some other editorial things coming up that are really, really exciting for me but I’m not at liberty to share them publicly as of yet.
As Jonathan had previously stated, he and his band are having a HUGE OC show on March 12th at Meng Concert Hall in Cal State Fullerton and would love for you all to attend. There, he will also be raising money for his NEW ALBUM! Click HERE for more details!
To listen to more of Jonathan’s music, keep up with current events or get into contact with him, you can visit: