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Long Live Lance

There should be a Lance Owens award for Prevailing Most Coolly Over Adversity.
 
Mid-week, jazz fans were shaking their heads at a cruel twist of fate that, the week of his long-awaited album debut, 89-year-old saxophonist Lance Owens went into the hospital with a bad case of pneumonia. Owens, who has been a professional saxophonist since his days in the army in World War II, has played for hundreds of appreciative audiences, mostly in projects led by other musicians. But he has been little known by name except among fellow musicians, some of whom hold him in awe.
 
Last year, he recorded his very first album, and his long-planned album-release party, delayed from its original date in November, was to be held Friday evening at the Knoxville Museum of Art's Alive after Five music series.
 
His friends were rooting first, of course, that he'd pull through from a disease that's especially dangerous for fellows his age. Some dared to hope that he might get better in time to make a token appearance at the show, and wave to the crowd. But it seemed most likely the show would go on without him. Other musicians were prepared to take his place on stage: Saxophonists Will Boyd and Tom Johnson, pianists Keith Brown and Jason Day, bassist David Slack, and drummers Kenneth Brown and Danny Taylor. They're all fine musicians, worth coming out to see.
 
Owens was still ill on Thursday, and had to cancel a live-radio interview. He was still in the hospital Friday morning. Friday afternoon, he was released. Four hours later, reportedly against doctor's orders, Lance Owens was onstage before a standing-room-only paying audience estimated at 220 in the museum's Great Hall. Wearing a sharp dark suit and a light-blue paisley tie, he was the 89-year-old man recovering from pneumonia, blowing a big tenor saxophone.
 
Leaning back comfortably in his chair, his legs crossed, he played "Lil' Darlin.'" Accompanying him was somewhat younger saxophonist Will Boyd--and, behind them, star pianist Donald Brown, still recovering from surgery on his hands, playing stand-up bass. Owens' sound was smooth and sure, and needed no handicapping for the extraordinary circumstances. Leaving age and any recent infirmity aside, he was, Friday night, still one of the best saxophonists in the Tennessee Valley.
 
He played "Here's That Rainy Day," accompanied by sax veteran Tom Johnson, then another song from the record, "In a Mellow Tone." That last number came with another surprise. At the Mason & Hamlin grand piano was Donald Brown, making a rare and unexpected appearance at the keyboard. The most accomplished jazz pianist who has ever lived in Knoxville, Brown has been sidelined by hand surgeries and therapy, and still hasn't returned to playing as a regular thing, but for this special occasion, he chose to accompany Owens, and was more than up to the challenge. Brown is the producer of Owens' album.
 
After playing for almost half an hour Owens got a standing ovation, of course, and most assumed that was the end of it. Helped offstage, Owens took a break, but wasn't exactly resting. With the help of librarian Nelda Hill, he sold 72 copies of his new CD. Greeting a long line of well-wishers, he signed all of them.
 
Then Owens returned for three more, a jumping blues tune, then the standards "What's New?" and "Cherokee." This time, Allen Smith, owner/engineer of the West Knoxville studio where Owens recorded, sat in on bass.
 
The large crowd was racially diverse--the Alive After Five series is one of the very few venues where you encounter that sort of thing--and among those who came to witness were several professional musicians, like noted bluesman Wallace Coleman, a recent performer at the series. Some were seeking inspiration, and finding it. Donald Brown remarked he hopes he looks and sounds as good as Lance Owens at 89.
 
The show went well past the prescribed 8:30 end time. Owens was obviously moved by the crowd, perhaps the largest that has ever come out to see him as the headliner. "This is the summit," he was overheard to say.
 

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