From One Cat to Another, Happy Retirement Professor Bowden

Sam Casale remembers and recounts the lasting impact of Professor Mwata Bowden as both a teacher and mentor as Bowden retires from the UChicago faculty after 27 years.


UChicago Humanities and Music

Professor Bowden speaks before one of his ensemble performances.

By Sam Casale, Contributor

It’s October 1, 2018, and on my phone is a saved voicemail from a 773 area code. “Hi Sam. This is Mwata Bowden calling you about [your] audition for the University Jazz Combo, I’d like to offer you a spot in the band, please call me back when you can. Thank you, goodbye.”

As a fourth-year, I’m unfortunately at that phase in my academic career when I can’t recollect every page of every handout I’ve ever read, every p-set I’ve ever toiled on, nor do I remember each class that I’ve ever attended. Hell, I barely remember what I studied last night. However, I will never forget the day when Mwata Bowden, the newly-retired head of the Jazz Combo and X-tet, called me to offer me a spot in his band. Three years and a pandemic later, I still regard that as one of the best phone calls I’ve ever received in my entire life.

Mwata Bowden joined the University of Chicago’s faculty in 1994, and after a 27-year-long career as the man in charge of all things pertaining to jazz on this campus, he held his last class on May 30, 2021. I know this because I had the opportunity to serve as his TA this past year and aided in the transition to an online format. Even until as recently as eighth week, we experienced technical problems on a near-constant basis. Connections were lost, emergencies popped up left and right, and we spent the first two quarters using a deeply frustrating and barely functional online playing tool. Combine these technical nightmares with a class of musicians who hadn’t been able to play in person for over a year, and you have quite the predicament. It takes a special type of teacher to be able to hold onto, let alone engage with, a class of young musicians stuck on the lag-filled digital nightmare that is Zoom. That being said, Mwata somehow managed the impossible and gave each student an experience that was both engaging and beneficial. Not even a global pandemic could stop him, a seasoned pro, from conducting his class and teaching the students, whom he affectionately referred to as his “cats.” My only regret for the first-years is that they never will have the pre-pandemic in-person experience that I was fortunate enough to have when I was starting out at the University. Some of my fondest memories at this college have involved me and anywhere from three to six other musicians playing in Goodspeed Hall, with Mwata orchestrating and conducting all the while. Not all songs were equally memorable. While I can still remember the first time I took a solo over Erroll Garner’s “Misty” like it was yesterday, I couldn’t tell you a single other tune we played that same day (although it was highly likely we played Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” based on our set list from our end-of-quarter Tea Time Concert). For the songs I remember, the notes I forget, and everything in between, Mwata was always there to help each of his cats play to the best of their ability. As an employee, a student, and a friend, I want to say thank you to one of the most influential mentors in my musical journey.

Thank you, Professor Mwata Bowden, and congratulations on your retirement.