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About this Piece

One of the last concerts performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2020 before the pandemic shutdown was the American Youth Symphony’s premiere of a new violin concerto by Kris Bowers, performed by Charles Yang. That event was captured in the short documentary A Concerto Is a Conversation, directed by Bowers and Ben Proudfoot, which was nominated for an Academy Award. The film’s title is the way Bowers defines a concerto for his grandfather Horace, and it features the two men having their own conversation between generations, revealing a story about the elder’s adventures in overcoming Jim Crow racism and moving to Los Angeles to become a successful business owner.

Kris Bowers grew up in LA, near the corner of Crenshaw and Washington and attended the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. Like Horace, he was often the odd man out—one of the few Black students at his school and later Colburn, where he studied jazz and classical piano. He also felt out of step with the stereotypical music young Black kids were presumed to like; Bowers loved classical music and symphonic film scores by composers like John Williams. Maybe it was that slightly angled posture that gave him the aerodynamics to excel upward, or maybe just the combination of natural talent and enormous discipline, but Bowers leapt to the heights of Juilliard and then, in 2011, won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition.

He was always attracted to hybridization and straddling genres. After college, while playing jazz gigs around New York, he performed strings and piano on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Grammy-nominated album Watch the Throne. His Thelonious Monk prize led to a record deal with Concord Jazz, and Bowers’ debut album in 2014, Heroes+Misfits, announced his arrival by combining pretty much all of his inspirations into an ambitious musical mélange—everything from jazz to R&B to electronica to classic film music—in a series of politically charged tone poems and grooving scenes.

It was inevitable that Bowers would bring his misfit synthesis to the screen and fulfill his childhood dream of scoring films—and he has the Queen of Soul to thank for that. Aretha Franklin was at the Thelonious Monk semifinals and was so impressed by Bowers that she asked to meet him, then called him up a few weeks later to discuss his career. When she heard Bowers wanted to score films, Franklin set him up with her publicist, who landed Bowers his first scoring gig: the 2013 documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. Soon he was scoring other documentaries (Kobe Bryant’s Muse), television (Dear White People), and feature films.

He was made for the movies, especially at this moment. Bowers’ arrival coincided with an explosion of stories being told by Black filmmakers, as well as a high volume of music-centric films. In 2018, he was not only called on to provide a dramatic score for the Oscar-winning drama Green Book, but his hands played the jazz piano onscreen for the character of Dr. Donald Shirley (played in the film by Mahershala Ali). His combined jazz and classical background informed scores for biopics about jazz singer Billie Holiday and about Aretha Franklin herself, bringing it all full circle. But Bowers is too restless, and too versatile, to be trapped in one genre. He scored the Ava DuVernay miniseries, When They See Us, like the horror story it was for the four innocent boys falsely imprisoned for the murder of a jogger in Central Park.

He matched the anachronistically pop-meets-19th-century-England aesthetic of the runaway hit Netflix show Bridgerton, time-traveled to the 1970s feminist movement for the series Mrs. America, went to outer space and into the cartoon world with Lebron James in Space Jam: A New Legacy, and, most recently, scored the Will Smith film King James about the father of Venus and Serena Williams.

“For me,” Bowers says, “it’s the alchemy of music and emotion and storytelling. That’s what I loved about being a performer. I didn’t necessarily like the attention of being on stage—I thought that was nice, but that wasn’t the thing that gave me joy. The reason why I love being a pianist, especially in the jazz context, is because most of the time I’m accompanying people. Even when it was my turn to take a solo, I always thought about storytelling and emotion. How do I feel in this moment? How do I want to convey that feeling? And in the best moments, everything else disappears.”

—Tim Greiving