The Last Illusionaire: After 70 Years, Jazz Saxophonist Lance Owens Cuts an Album

On West Knoxville's Robindale Road is an unassuming rancher on a hill with a small vegetable patch out back. Accessible by way of an aisle between a few winters' worth of stacked firewood is a remarkable basement rec room. Sliding doors separate it into three almost-soundproof chambers. In the smallest is a drum set. In the largest is a Yamaha upright piano and a stand-up bass.

In the darkest room is a standing soundboard and a double-screen Macintosh computer, tended by Allen Smith, engineer of this homemade recording studio. Also in the room is internationally renowned jazz pianist Donald Brown, who's lately been doing some record-producing, praised in the June issue of Downbeat for his work producing saxophonist Kenny Garrett's new album.

And sitting in a folding chair, in white sneakers and pleated twill slacks, a work shirt, and a cloverleaf Celtics cap, is Lance Owens, holding a big 1914 model Conn tenor sax. He has only occasionally played in public in recent years, but some musicians consider him one of the finest saxophonists who has ever lived in East Tennessee.

He has trouble with his teeth. Lower front teeth are important to a saxophonist. He just has the one left, and it's vibrating. But when he plays "The Shadow of Your Smile," his tone is strong, sweet and sad, with nothing suggestive of dental imperfections.

When he plays the melancholy Antônio Carlos Jobim bossa nova tune, "Meditation," he jokes that his version should be called "Medication."

After he hits his stride with Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone," they take a 15-minute break, and Nelda Hill, the often-surprising downtown librarian who has organized several jazz festivals and a jazz documentary, comes downstairs carrying a Litton's chocolate birthday cake with white icing and happy birthday candles alit. As it happens, the cake is for Owens, the recording artist, who's turning 89 today. He seems pleased to greet it, and with one quick breath he blows out all 13.

Owens' eyes are hazy, and he admits he can no longer see well. But he gets around without help, and for a busy afternoon keeps abreast of the complicated business of recording an album.

It's their second day at work on it. The first day yielded an interesting recording of "Sweet Georgia Brown" with a funk backbeat, Owens' idea. But he wasn't feeling that well yesterday. If today's any indication, he's playing a little better at 89 than he did at 88.

Donald Brown's wearing a splint on his right wrist. After years of hand surgery to correct stress-related damage, he hasn't been playing keyboards much for the last year or so, but hopes to get back to it in a couple of months. Today he carries a college-style spiral notebook. During a take he stands up and sits down a dozen times, sometimes throws his headphones down like a football coach. He knows the accompanists well. The kid on the piano is his son Keith; the kid on the drums is his son Kenny. Filling in on bass is David Slack, no relation.

Brown doesn't coddle the talent. Most tunes end without applause, or praise. That's the way it is in studios; there are takes, and retakes, nobody wants to make unnecessary noise for the recording, and nobody's trying to congratulate prematurely. But after the Ellington piece, Brown says,

"That was a bad solo, Lance."


"That was a great solo."

"Thank you, sir."

Sitting in the studio room with him, you can't hear anything but his saxophone, and the thocking of the valves sounds like a vigorous tennis game. Somehow the thocking disappears when you listening on the headphones to the sax with the other instruments, and it sounds like a professional recording.

About 70 years after beginning his performing career, Owens is recording his debut album.


Originally from Johnson City, Owens learned violin at age 6—that would have been in 1929—and eventually performed in his school "symphonette." At all-black Langston High, Owens played the sousaphone for the marching band. "That's the big one—when you go marching, the wind blows you across the field."

In 1931—he recalls that year precisely—the 8-year-old began listening intently to jazz, on the jukebox down the street and on the radio at home, late at night, when the hottest players performed live. "I snuck downstairs to hear the radio." His father didn't like it. "He was trying to keep the electric bill low, and I was supposed to be in bed." He was especially taken with Count Basie and Benny Goodman.

He didn't like everybody from his era, including a couple who toured East Tennessee in those days. Fats Waller, he says, was a drunk. Cab Calloway was a "clown." Owens favored the more serious performers.

By the late '30s, he especially admired Basie's star saxman, Lester Young. "He was the cause of my picking the tenor sax," Owens says. Especially memorable to him is the tune "Every Tub," a fast dance tune, presumably named for the old proverb "Every tub must stand on its own bottom." On the 1938 recording, Young's vigorous solo stands out.

Owens was a bright kid, and went to college at Tennessee State in Nashville, studying to be an electrician. "That's where I started to fool with the saxophone." He got handier with it when he went off to the service during World War II, with the Army Air Corps. Sent to the Pacific, his engineering outfit, the 1872nd Engineer Aviation Battalion, built roads and airports, dodging the occasional Japanese sniper. He was keen to learn electronics. "If you had a skilled job, you didn't have to do KP or guard duty."

He also played sax in a quintet that became popular with the other troops, even though most were amateurs. The guitarist helped the horn players learn their instruments. They played popular hits of the day: "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," "When the Lights Go On Again." Some of the Allies had perhaps never seen a real black jazz band. "The Australians treated us like George III."

A high point was when they performed with a USO show in New Guinea. "Our little band played for Bob Hope," he says. "Bob was congenial," he says, "a fine fellow. Spontaneous in his rhetoric, too."

At one point he was shipped to New York for further electronics training at a GI school. It was there that he got to see some of his heroes, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, at the Apollo Theatre—as well as Lester Young himself.

He still speaks of him in awe. Lester "Pres" Young died at age 49, in 1959, but Donald Brown says he hears Young in Owens' playing. "Without question," Brown says. "You can hear his influence, but you can also here Lance's own voice."

Owens himself is modest about that. "He could blow one note that could set you on fire," he says of Lester Young. "And I can't do that."

Back to reality after the war, Owens moved to Knoxville in 1948 and with an associate set up a radio-repair shop on Douglass Street in Mechanicsville. "We'd replace tubes and stuff like that." When he heard a dance band called Willie Gibbs and the Illusionaires, he thought, "I'd kind of like to play with those guys."


Gibbs, a talented multi-instrumentalist and arranger whose day job was working for a trash-can company on Cooper Street, was much admired by musicians. Owens talked his way into a tryout, and for almost 20 years, Owens was an Illusionaire. They were regular performers in black clubs along old Vine Avenue, like the Elks Club and the Workers Club, an uninhibited speakeasy. Owens' favorite, the Workers Club, was located on the third floor of the Keller Building, which still stands on Summit Hill Drive.

Though they played some R&B, the Illusionaires specialized in what Owens calls "real dance music, classic-type dance music. The Ray Anthonys, that kind of people. Of course, good dance music is just modified jazz."

The Illusionaires' reputation was regional. They toured Kentucky and West Virginia, traveling as far afield as Miami—they did a couple of tours of Florida—and earned a three-month gig playing at Polk Air Force Base in North Carolina.

The big-band era was waning, but trumpeter and pianist Gibbs, who did most of the arranging, tried to maintain the Illusionaires as an eight-piece band. "That way, if a piece was missing, the ones who were left could make it sound like a full band."

Among the prominent Illusionaires was a fellow saxophonist, Rocky Wynder, stranded in Knoxville by a traveling troupe. Wynder was younger than Owens, and more interested in bebop, a postwar development Owens never wholly embraced. "I don't like a whole lot of notes, where you don't understand what's going on," Owens says, even when it's the best performers, like John Coltrane. "Sometimes, it didn't sound like anything."

He and Wynder got along, though. In recent years they discussed doing an album together. Wynder was still Knoxville's leading bebop avatar when he died early this year.

Owens recalls that in 1949 the Illusionaires were the first black band to play at a University of Tennessee auditorium—UT was all white, at the time, unfamiliar territory, and he doesn't remember which one—and started playing for white fraternities and country clubs, especially Deane Hill. When an upscale white club called C'est Bon was on Alcoa Highway, they hired the Illusionaires to open it. "It was a huge success," Owens says, "900 people in that room, packed like sardines in a can." Musicians called the C'est Bon the Cesspool, but Owens says that wasn't a commentary on the facilities.

"Everything was real good—good sound system, congenial people," Owens says. "Of course, you didn't mingle much with the customers." It eventually burned, to be replaced by the Senators Club, which also hosted dance jazz.

But in the late 1950s, when a jazz club opened at the southwest corner of Cumberland and 17th, it set them loose. The proprietor was the Illusionaires' agent, Gordon Sams, who was, for a time, Knox County register of deeds. Hard to believe today, Gordon's Townhouse hosted the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and also saw the early careers of local practitioners Bill Scarlett and Rocky Wynder, and Lance Owens.

He enjoyed playing for pay, he says, "but you're having more fun when you're playing impromptu." It's interesting how many black R&B performers and white country performers snuck out to play jazz together at night. It wasn't always what paid, but it was what they loved.

One of Owens' proudest moments was the opportunity to sit in with legendary pianist Stan Kenton's band. "They thought they were going to blow this little local band off the stand," he recalls. "They didn't succeed."

The Illusionaires was an all-black band, except when Joe Kishiyama was playing drums (he also played bass in other bands). Japanese immigrant Joe Kish, as he was known, worked in the poultry industry as a "chicken sexer," and lived in a nice house off Alcoa Highway, where he sometimes entertained his bandmates. "He was quite a prosperous little fellow," Owens says. He's not sure what became of that anomaly. "When we lost the war with rock 'n' roll, Joe Kish disappeared."

"We finally got into Cherokee [Country Club]," he says, in the '60s. "They didn't have black entertainers at Cherokee for a heck of a long time."

Deane Hill remained a main gig for Owens, during and after the Illusionaires, playing the cocktail hour with a quartet. Drummer Danny Taylor played with Owens there regularly beginning in the early 1970s. "Lance was always very melodic, very sentimental," says Taylor, who attended the Robindale Road session. "And though it may sound like a corny way to put it, delicious."

Owens hasn't played to big audiences very regularly since Deane Hill closed, about 25 years ago. He was a paid musician, but always kept a day job. He finished his career working for Knoxville College, as a one-man physical plant, doing wiring, plumbing, heating, air conditioning. "I like that work," he says. "I wish to heck I could do it now. But I can't see."

"I've been through everything but a hanging and a flogging," he says.

These days, Owens is a regular at Broadway Sound, which hosts jazz old-timers on Tuesday evenings, often playing with pianist Margaret Seagraves,

He counts his blessings. "Would you believe blowing a horn is good for you? That's why I don't have lung cancer. When you smoke, the smoke don't get to stay down there."


After a couple of mistakes on "The Shadow of Your Smile," Owens apologizes about his teeth. "My choppers was acting crazy, that's what it was."

He hears every error as soon as the producer does. "That's one of the things about going blind, gentlemen," he says. "Your hearing gets better."

"The Second Time Around" goes better. "That cat on top of it," Brown says after Owens' solo. "You're a week ahead of it."

Owens smiles. "Man, I couldn't take you cats in 10,000 years."

The saxman keeps his seat throughout the session, but his producer does not. Donald Brown, 58-year-old music professor and esteemed jazz recording artist, jumps up, rocks, nods, taps with his pen. Even with the recent national praise, he's donating his time to get Lance Owens on CD—as are his two sons and everybody else in Smith's studio. Brown first heard about Lance from other musicians when he moved here in the 1980s, he says.

"Everybody said you should really hear this guy. When I heard him play, I understood all the hype," Brown says of Owens. "He has a sophisticated, intellectual approach, but his reading is simple and lyrical and communicates to the heart of the average listener."

Brown just finished the fifth CD he's done for international jazz star Kenny Garrett. In the Downbeat article, Garrett calls Brown "an inspiration.... I aspire to be able to write like him."

Brown says, "I don't really get to produce much. I thought, since I don't know when I'm gonna be able to play again, I'd find some compatible players and make a record."

He did the same with Rocky Wynder, in the same studio.

Allen Smith, the guy who lives upstairs from the studio, is a jazz fan, and a bassist himself who plays with local rocker Phil Fuson, who also attended the Owens session, taking photos. Smith arranged this studio about 10 years ago, with a Macintosh and a Pro Tools system and a rack unit, and since then has been recording all sorts of offbeat projects, from klezmer (two Dor l'Dor albums) to UT jazz guitarist Mark Boling's 2004 album Tune Me. Ira Sullivan, the well-known bop trumpeter from Florida, came here to contribute to an album by percussionist Carlos Fernandez. And Jeremy Wilson, the trombonist who became an American trombone legend when he earned a spot in the Vienna Philharmonic, made some early records here. For Smith, who does computer programming in Oak Ridge for a living, it's a basement hobby like none other on Robindale Road, and he loves it whether he gets paid for it or not.

Thanks to low-cost, high-quality digital recording technology, home recording, he says, has affected the industry in ways probably unsettling to industry giants in Nashville. "A lot of music not normally heard is being produced and recorded by independent folks," he says.

"I love working there," says Donald Brown. "Allen's such a sweet, great person, it's always interesting to visit, regardless of what's going on."


"Do it bebo, bebebo, bebebo. You know, like the old-timers do," says the fellow who just blew out the birthday candles. Owens admits he's just learning music theory. ("They don't do ‘do re mi' anymore," he says later. "They've changed the system from do, re, mi, to one, two, three. Now it's like a math class.")

Donald Brown defers to Owens about what tunes he wants to play, and in what key. The next one, the only one outside of the suave big-band tradition, is one they call "Slow Blues." Also known as "Going Down Slow," it was popularized by Howlin' Wolf.

"B-flat might be okay," Owens says. "Might be out of range for the pipes."

Brown looks at him. "What, you're gonna sing it?"

"One verse!" Owens says.

And he does:

"I have had my fun

If I don't get well no more.

I have had my fun

If I don't get well no more.

Now my health is failing me

And I am going down slow."

His voice is good, but resigned, his words convincingly blue. But the tenor saxophone belies the sentiments he's singing, and calls them a damn lie. It's strong, bold, soaring.


After a good three hours of recording, Lance Owens says, "Chops are about gone, y'all. They've held up pretty well." Donald Brown's not quite ready to let him go yet.

They're recording another tune, "On a Clear Day." And Lance Owens' saxophone, which sounds like it hasn't aged a day in 50 years, rises and looks around.

They do the torchy old Bing Crosby tune from 1931, "Out of Nowhere." For this number, Owens' old Deane Hill colleague Danny Taylor spells Kenny Brown on drums. Through a studio mike, Donald Brown barks orders to his musicians. "Keith, bring in the melody on that second eight. Do the head, then piano chorus, then sax chorus, then half a chorus with drums, then head out." They take a while to get it just right.

During the sessions, Owens often sits with his eyes closed, occasionally smiling, especially during Keith Brown's piano breaks. Donald Brown's 29-year-old son has developed a reputation of his own. While Keith is playing a bit from "Out of Nowhere," Owens grins and says, "Oh, that's gone, man!"

It's a hot afternoon, and the sun's shining hard into the percussionist's chamber, and by the time they finish "Here's That Rainy Day," an especially melancholy tune, everybody's glistening a little.


The exuberant Taylor proposes that the event be repeated: "Every year for the next 25 years!"

Owens deadpans, "I'll be having dandelion roots for breakfast by then."

Maybe, but by the end of the year, he'll have his first CD in hand. Though some decisions about mastering haven't been made yet, Lance Owens' debut CD will be finished by October, for an official release at the Knoxville Museum of Art on Nov. 11, Veterans' Day.

Corrected Correction: Joe Kishiyama played both bass and drums, depending on the band—but mainly drums for the Illusionaires..