Kenny Phelps, drummer and visionary entrepreneur, is intent on generating widespread and lasting visibility for Indianapolis-based musicians through a rainbow of performance, outreach and recording activities under the umbrella of the Owl Music Group, an outgrowth of the award-winning recording label Owl Studios, founded by J. Allan Hall. And in the process he wants to help change people's lives for the better.
Phelps, newly home from two years of touring worldwide with the legendary DeeDee Bridgewater, is on the cusp of a major homage to his mentor of twenty years - Steve Allee, and a major "gift back" to other fellow players and the community at large.
It's mid-afternoon when we meet at the Jazz Kitchen to talk about the plan to gain national attention for local talent and also meaningfully touch the lives of people who are going through hard times. We're sitting at a table near the stage, sunlight filtering through the curtained doorway. The Jazz Kitchen staff moves into set-up routine. Phelps is wearing a suit, shirt open at the collar. His soft voice launches into a low-key narrative tracing a journey that begins with him as a "four-or five-year-old banging on pots and pans until my parents bought me a drum set."
From there it was finding ways to gain the skills, bringing his love of playing to church events and moving forward with Rhythm and Blues groups and into the jazz community through meeting Steve Allee in 1994 at the release of Magic Hour. It was a turning point for Phelps.
"Initially I learned by doing. Steve kept pushing, helping me develop all aspects of playing; I feel I've been surrounded by good mentors. When you are surrounded by high quality you can't help getting better."
Phelps says. "What got me to the point of being recognized by DeeDee Bridgewater started with local, playing with the people who live and work here, building trust over the years. It was a big leap from playing with the American Piano Association [during the 2012 jazz piano competition] to being asked by DeeDee if I wanted to work with her."
It was while Phelps was overseas that the "opportunity came up" to purchase Owl Studios and build from its established reputation into a new direction as Owl Music Group.
"What we need to do is move from what's always been to what's definitely possible. Local talent can't be opening only for national headliners. We need to be the headliners. We are trying to control our local [music] environment, build brand new audiences in different arenas while bringing forward our rich history and attach each artist to a cause we can support."
Phelps explains that for every ticketed event "we will give part of the income to another organization." For Cynthia Lane, it is supporting cancer research. Steve Allee is committed to assisting Wheeler Mission residents.
"Gospel Jazz Experience" concerts provide Phelps with a platform to bring together the different communities he has worked with - church, R&B, jazz. "We all have different experiences and things in common. It's important to bring people who don't normally work together to be together. It was essential for me to come back from this opportunity to tour to do something for the Indianapolis community."
At this point Steve Allee arrives, preparing to go on for that evening's concert. Phelps points to Allee's wide national reputation in a variety of genres as a composer and player, ticking off film, television, albums, touring with headliners. "I'm passionate about the direction we need to go," says Phelps. "With Steve you can't ask for anything more to make it happen. To bring our heritage, our local talent to national attention."
"Music passes through us through mentors to share with audiences, to complete the circle," adds Allee. "We share it and move it on. We're fortunate to have people in our lives who shared and showed how to make it your own voice. 'I can play like me.'
Allee talks about being moved by comments from residents at Wheeler where he and Phelps share concerts. "Music is subjective, it's one of the places where every answer is right. Yet it has to be transcendent, it has to move over the bandstand as a vapor into the audience."
And then, it's time to stop talking and start playing.