It should come as no surprise that Mark Lowrey found the piano before it came looking for him, thanks to an older sibling and some keen, innate curiosity: “My older sister was taking lessons. I used to go to the piano after she had left to try and make it sound like she did.”
The piano would become his life-long partner, but not until after middle, junior high, and high school flings and romances with other instruments, including the French horn. All that would lead him to his current, lofty place in Kansas City’s music scene: a dedicated, in-demand full-time musician—a jazz pianist at heart but an explorer of all flavors of music—who has entertained in his hometown and beyond for more than half of his 40 years on earth.
Lowrey recently answered questions from IN Kansas City about the people who mentored and inspired him on his music journey, about how he navigated the pandemic, and about his life-changing missions to Africa.
What experience or person in your childhood is most responsible for you becoming a professional musician?
That’s a tough one to narrow down, so I’ll mention a few big influencers. I had a great piano teacher, Ms. Greer, just a few blocks up the other side of Antioch Road growing up, who taught me reading, sight reading, and technique from fourth through ninth grade. My middle and high school band directors were phenomenal teachers and humans as well, and I have the pleasure of still keeping up with them to this day. Another early musical influence was my best friend’s older brother, who was a guitarist/composer that showed me music I’d never heard and later had me play in his jam band.
What bands or artists first appealed to you and why?
Around the fourth grade, that best friend’s older brother introduced me to Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes and the musical Chess. Especially the former: Its open wound-like passion would emotionally overwhelm me. As a 10 year old, I was almost addicted to that warm heartsickness that pop chord changes can evoke.
What was the first album you owned?
I don’t remember my first, but along with Tori Amos there were Garth Brooks, Boyz II Men, C&C Music Factory. My first CD was Stone Temple Pilots’ Core, but that wasn’t until the eighth grade.
What do you remember about your first public performances?
As soon as I started, I was playing a lot in church, but the first performance I remember was the fourth-grade talent show at school. I played Right Here Waiting For You by Richard Marx. I won.
Were you involved in music in school?
I played violin in fifth and sixth grade. I hated it. Mr. Clark, the middle-school band director, took time after school to let me try all the instruments, and we landed on the French horn, which I enjoyed playing until after high school. I was never great and didn’t practice much, but I loved the occasional revelry that comes from 80 people playing music together, and band in high school was a great hang.
In eighth grade, once a week, a few other musically driven band kids and I went to choir instead of band. I sang in an a cappella choir in high school and accompanied the jazz choir. I was also in a jazz big band. My senior year was grammar, film appreciation, and five music classes.
Who are your favorite pianists, in any genre, and why?
Brad Mehldau is probably my most favorite. I mean, there are so many: Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Art Tatum, Paul Bley, Bill Evans. Mehldau has a great touch and strong left hand. His harmonic approaches are broad but recognizable, from early Art of the Trio records to the epic, synthy 2019 protest piece, Finding Gabriel.
More than just an elite musician, you are also an engaging entertainer. Who influenced you in that realm?
I slowly and somewhat unconsciously realized that I would have to be mindful of how I come across through my words and stage presence, probably years later than I should have. I’ve always hidden behind my instrument, but I also naturally prefer to lead a band.
Lonnie McFadden, Barclay Martin, and Dave Stevens, three very different entertainers whom I have played with for years and years, taught me by example that it is a big priority to let people know that you appreciate their attendance. They all did it very differently, in ways that complement their artistry and personalities. I’m still learning about stage presence, but I do know that the best gigs are the ones that I’m not using brain space on worrying about whether or not I look like a dork.
What musicians in Kansas City have influenced you most and how?
This is going to be impossible to narrow down. I’ll list as briefly as possible the most impactful, but will surely regret leaving people out; coming up when and where I did, offered many mentors.
Brad Cox, Jeff Harshbarger, and Beau Bledsoe all played together in Tango Lorca and helped me with so much. Brad gave me gig opportunities like introducing me to Lonnie McFadden, for whom I became the main pianist for more than 15 years. Jeff introduced me to new music and taught me both on and off the bandstand. Beau taught me how to play tango music. He gave me a car once.
Lonnie McFadden has been a huge influence on me. We’ve played so much music together, and playing with him and drummer Donivan Bailey (rest in power) was a joy. Donivan and I had a deep musical friendship whose nature was beyond words, and I think even non-musicians could sometimes feel it. We were swinging.
Miguel “Mambo” Deleon, percussionist, singer, and salsa bandleader took a chance on me when I was definitely too young for his 12-piece band, Grupo Candela. He taught me about clave. Afro-Cuban music remains a big influence and love of mine, and he really gifted me with his knowledge and time.
Roger Wilder is my favorite Kansas City jazz pianist. I love his harmony and the quotes he’ll drop in. There really are so many more, but this is already long.
Complete this sentence, please: “Many people would be surprised to hear that some of my favorite bands/artists are …”
Many people would be surprised to hear that I’m obsessed with Impressionism and, really, a lot of early to mid-20th century classical music. Check out the Ravel piano concerto in G major; the second movement is the banger. I’m also getting into a lot of ‘70s stuff I’ve missed: George Harrison, Wings, early Peter Gabriel.
If you could do anything else that satisfied you as much as music, what would it be?
I really enjoy cooking. If love languages is a thing, I think gift-giving is one of mine, and I take pleasure in cooking for people. Also, I’ve only been whitewater rafting once in my life, but I think I love it.
You have gone on a few missions to Africa. Talk about those and what they meant to you.
I’ve been on three trips through the Medical Missions Foundation. The first two were to Ouélessébougou, Mali, in January 2011 and 2012. There, the art team was mostly doing presentations in schools to spread the word about the importance of hand-washing with soap. We employed a guy that had a PA system and generator who DJ’d weddings in the village. He brought in a local hip-hop artist, Petit Ballo, to be the “hype man” for our school shows.
I went to Lachor Hospital in Gulu, Uganda, in September 2019. I played my keyboard in the big courtyard where families of patients stayed so they could cook for their recovering relatives. I also spent a lot of time in the burn unit, playing puzzles with the little ones or giving piano lessons while their parents had their bandages changed. That trip was a little harder on my heart; some of the trauma I witnessed became something that I’m still unpacking.
There is a shrine near the nuns’ quarters at Lachor that holds the remains of the caregivers that stayed behind to care for patients and help contain the virus during the Ebola outbreak. They knew that they would certainly die of Ebola, which is an absolute nightmare. It was by far the holiest place I’ve ever seen.
The other side of it was seeing the kindness, expertise, and dedication among the doctors and nurses. Medical Missions Foundation should be a point of pride in Kansas City, and I hope they get more support to keep doing the incredible work they’ve been doing all over the world.
As much as anyone I know in our music community, you took on the pandemic forcefully, making the most of streaming remote performances and keeping in touch with so many of your loyal fans. What did that experience teach you about performing and communicating with an audience?
I definitely learned that we all need each other. I felt appreciated during a time when everyone was talking about who is “essential.” I am lucky that it was possible. I already knew this, but it became more internalized that I need to play for other people.
In general, though, I’ve come out the other side with a little less faith in humans; there are so many that abandon science, reason, and base-level compassion just like that. But I think it’s important to not let it get me down—and focus on what connects us instead of what doesn’t.
Assess the Kansas City music community: What are its strengths? What does it need more of?
My ear really isn’t to the ground like it has been previously, so I’m looking forward to seeing what new art is here or on its way. I’m playing some club gigs, but most every weekend, I’m playing with my friends in Lost Wax. We play wedding receptions and corporate events here and in Chicago, Tulsa, and St. Louis. It’s a great, fun band, and I love the work, but it’s got me at more country clubs and hotels than jazz clubs and house party jams.
What I do know is that the caliber of musicianship here is high, and there are a lot of great musicians relative to the population. Ninety percent of people in this city don’t know or care about that, but I certainly enjoy it, both as a bandleader who likes to hire bad-asses to play with and as an audience member.
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