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Michigan State University

In Service to New York City Neighbors: Endea Owens '15

Framed photo of Endea Owens playing bass.

In Service to New York City Neighbors: Endea Owens '15

Endea Owens understands the transformational power of music, the art’s ability to inspire, motivate and unify.

As a high school student at the Detroit School of Arts, Owens, a violinist who taught herself to play bass by listening to Mozart and Bach, watched stageside as Rodney Whitaker, MSU’s Distinguished Professor of Jazz Bass, dazzled students with a live performance.

“At that moment, I knew a career in music was possible,” Owens said.

After earning her degree in Jazz Studies from MSU in 2015, Owens moved to New York City to attend the renowned Juilliard School. Four years later, her career as a musician took off, as Owens toured with Diana Ross and landed a position as the house bassist on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Music, she said, unlocked hidden opportunities and spurred a newfound confidence.

“I’ve been so blessed,” Owens said.

As she watched people lose jobs and loved ones amid the COVID-19 pandemic’s earliest days, and saw accelerating social angst following the May 2020 death of George Floyd, Owens thought music, such a positive force in her own life, could similarly uplift others.

In response, Owens launched The Community Cookout, a New York City-based organization striving to build stronger communities through music, meals and activism. At Community Cookout events, Owens pairs up to 200 free meals from local restaurants with live music from a group of 7-8 musicians she personally pays.

“Let go of the stress for these two hours because we have food and music,” she beamed.

Over the past two years, Owens has hosted Community Cookout events in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Harlem, where people told Owens they hadn’t heard jazz on the street in years—a striking revelation given Harlem’s fabled place in the genre’s history.

“Whenever people hear music outside, they gravitate toward it,” she said. “Music brings such a spirit of joy and togetherness.”

Community Cookout events, she continued, have injected positivity and joy into some of the city’s most distressed communities, delivering hope and grace alongside meals and music.

“It’s just like Rodney coming to my high school,” Owens said. “You have to show people you care, and that their life is valid.”

The Community Cookout continues to grow and generate momentum. Owens has developed partnerships with local churches to expand outreach, and also crossed state lines with an event in Newark, New Jersey.

“I have to keep this going,” she said.

“If people feel like no one is with them, that there isn’t a community, I’ll create  it for them.”

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