The soulful sounds of the saxophone are smooth and fluid as a fine, aged scotch. The sultry music floats through the Bowery Bros. on a given Saturday evening, caressing the ears of passersby and beckoning them to come in and sit for awhile.
A group of women cheer for the trio on stage while a few jazz enthusiasts sit at the bar and listen, tapping their feet along with the music. Brass instruments adorn the wall between black and white silhouettes of jazz musicians.
“I like the intimate venue,” Jeff Smith said of the venue. He and his wife, Kristie, sit at the bar to watch the band.
The trio includes Rich Mowers on sax, Billy Barnard on guitar and John Thorene on electric guitar. The trio has worked together many times over the years.
“I feel privileged to share the stage with them,” Mowers said. Barnard said he feels the same way.
“Rich is the best sax player in town,” Barnard said.
Barnard said part of Rich's success as a saxophonist is his history of playing in blues bands. Barnard has been teaching music at the University of Minnesota-Duluth for 40 years and has collaborated with Mowers on many occasions, both in the classroom and on stage.
Mowers has been a music teacher at Esko High School for about 25 years, but has been playing most of his life. He teaches band and two jazz band ensembles.
“Playing makes me a better teacher,” Mowers said.
The early years
Mowers grew up on the family farm in Cromwell. His grandparents Earnest and Alice lived there, as well, and were instrumental in his musical upbringing. His grandparents played in a big band in Duluth for many years, he said.
His grandfather also played the violin and encouraged Mowers and his siblings to listen to a variety of records at home with him.
His father, Jerry, now 91, taught the accordion when he was not working at Diamond Match in Cloquet. Jerry began playing at 12 years old and still plays piano at the Cromwell United Methodist Church every other weekend. He alternates weekends with his daughter.
One of Mower's oldest memories is his dad playing piano every day at home.
“Music was just played,” he said. “Mom (Edna) sang to us all of the time. Music was all over the place.”
Mowers began his musical journey on a very tiny accordion under the supervision of his father and the encouragement of his mother, he said.
His grandparents played in different venues from Cromwell to Duluth, as did his dad and siblings over the decades. Mowers started playing electric guitar when he was a freshman in high school with his older brother's rock band.
“My brother would make me tapes for me to learn,” Mowers said. “It’s mind-blowing how much access kids have to music now.”
Jerry said his son always picked up learning a new instrument quickly.
“He was something great,” Jerry said. “He was always appreciated because he was good with people.”
Mowers attended the University of Wisconsin-Superior on a basketball scholarship after graduating from high school. He took a semester off, then returned to study music. He earned a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in education-instruction.
He taught at several schools in Duluth before he landed in Esko. He always played in a band along the way, he said.
He performed with or accompanied notables such as Wayne Newton, the Harry James Orchestra, Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, the Mills Brothers, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Johnny Mathis, The Big Time Jazz Orchestra, The Club Saratoga Jazz Trio, Lounge Lizards and his current band, the Bowery Bros. Jazz Trio.
Influencing the next generation
Several of his students continued to play after graduating high school. One, Tim Rahkola, is a music teacher at Wrenshall. Boyd Smith, a 2011 Esko grad, plays drums full-time with the rock band Social Animals. The band tours the world and is currently on the west coast.
Smith said Mowers took him aside and asked him to join jazz band in seventh grade.
“That specific day has had a direct impact on my musical career,” Smith said.
Smith considers Mowers a musical mentor and said he occasionally stops by the school to visit.
On a trip last year, Smith played a song for Mowers he hadn't recorded yet, and spoke to the Mowers' music students.
Mowers gives his jazz band students the opportunity to play at public venues, including the Kiwanis, the annual Jazz Festival at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and a Big Band Dance in Duluth, which will be held later this spring. The dance will be open to the public to either sit and enjoy, or get out and show off their swing dance moves.
"Of course I enjoy the kids getting better on their instruments, but I really enjoy the kids becoming better people," Mowers said. "The vices here are making our job harder. The phones are a distraction for their time off. The parents really need to help the teachers out by setting the parameters for practice time. That's huge."
Mowers collaborates with other local music teachers to have a jazz day each spring. The event will be held at Barnum this year, with Esko, Moose Lake jazz and Cloquet Middle School bands attending.
"This is something I need to have," Mowers said of the school jazz band activities. "I have a passion for jazz music."
Mowers said he is also looking forward to the 30-year celebration for the Duluth Big Time Jazz Orchestra at the Norshore Theater Friday, April 17. Mowers has been performing in the band for 28 years.
“Rich is the number one guy, as far as I am concerned,” Jerry said.