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Erasing Genres With Cinematic Flair: Kris Bowers Talks With Lara Downes

Lara Downes talks with Kris Bowers.

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The first time I saw Kris Bowers, it was only his hands. You saw them too, if you watched the 2019 movie Green Book. Kris wrote the film score and his hands stood in for the actor Mahershala Ali’s in the close-up scenes when the lead character, pianist and composer Don Shirley, is playing the piano. Kris’ playing expresses all the nuances of Shirley’s music, a unique classical/jazz hybrid that wove together many sounds and stories, much like Kris Bower’s work.

Maybe you’ve heard his music for Bridgerton or Alvin Ailey’s Dance Company. His violin concerto, For a Younger Self, premiered at Walt Disney Concert Hall last year. Kris’ musical life has been a high-speed journey, from jazz pianist prodigy to award-winning composer. He enjoys a creative freedom that allows easy movement between disparate styles, unrestricted by the categories that encumbered previous generations.

Kris and I are both lucky enough to live in the wide-open liberty of today’s musical world, and I guess it’s really that liberty that defines us, if anything does. This is a conversation about how we got here, and who led the way. There’s a powerful legacy of Black artists who somehow managed to defy the strict definitions and expectations of their lifetimes to make ground-breaking, genre-blurring work, even if it often came at great personal cost — Don Shirley, Hazel Scott, Nina Simone, to name a few. Their brilliance broke free of constraints, powerful enough to open closed doors and closed minds.

Here at the cultural crossroads of this new decade, Kris and I are profoundly aware of the long road behind us. As we step ahead, hopeful and determined, into the landscape of a new American era, it feels essential to look back at the footsteps of our ancestors, and to thank them for their journeys. With that debt of gratitude in mind, Kris shares his Oscar-shortlisted documentary tribute to his grandfather, who hitchhiked as a teenager in the 1940s from the Florida Panhandle to Los Angeles, where the Bowers family could put down new roots under the warmth of other suns — where his grandson would be able to step into a clear, bright future.

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