When I spoke with Andre Dowell last week he was in Washington D.C. for the annual Kennedy Center Honors, a prestigious lifetime artistic achievement award that’s given annually by the JFK Center for the Performing Arts. Dowell was representing the Sphinx Organization, where he serves as Chief of Artist Engagement. Sphinx—which also provided talent for the ceremony—has close ties to composer Tania Leon, selected as one of this year’s honorees alongside George Clooney, U2, Gladys Knight, and Amy Grant. It’s a big deal, but this sort of event is par for the course for Dowell. In fact, on the same day as our call, he was named one of MusicalAmerica’s Top 30 Professionals of the Year.
But when Dowell hopped on the phone, it didn’t sound like I was talking with someone mixing and mingling with the upper crust in our nation’s capital, or being given prestigious national awards. It sounded like I was chatting with an old friend.
“Mannn, you’re in Las Vegas?” Dowell piped. “My favorite city! You should’ve told me, we could’ve done the interview there!” He explained that he plays poker semi-professionally, and has spent many a long night hunched over a dimly-lit card table in a Vegas casino.
Despite how it might sound, poker isn’t a vice for Dowell. In fact, it’s an art form that’s closely related to both the work he does with Sphinx and his own personal music, as a percussionist. Originally a student of computer science, Dowell possesses a very analytical mind, something he says is perfect for both percussionists and poker players.
“There’s a direct correlation between the subdivisions [you work through as a percussionist] and math,” he said. “And poker, you’re talking about both math and reading the room, reading people,” he said. “That’s just like music, too. As a musician, you have to read the room, feed off everyone's energy, and elevate what’s happening. With poker, it’s the same thing. You’re reading the table and making analytical decisions in your mind based on what you see.”
“Sure, there’s money on the table,” he continued. “But it’s not about the money. You play a $100 table the same way you play a $100,000 table. It’s about art. It’s about what’s there.” His perspective has clearly paid off. He’s no slouch. In fact, Dowell, who played extensively online in the early 2000s, has also played in the WSOP (World Series of Poker).
“Let’s just say I’ve been to Vegas quite a few times,” he said, laughing.
Get Up There and Play
Growing up in Tennessee, Dowell was immersed in the music and culture of Black Southern Baptist churches from a very young age. “I fell in love with music there, in the church,” Dowell said. “Southern Black Baptist churches have a lot of singing, great artists, piano players, organ players, and drum players.” All told, it’s the perfect atmosphere for a budding musician.
When Dowell was 14 years old, he wanted more than anything else to learn to play the drums—inspired by the talented drummers in his church—but he had no way of getting his own set. Drum sets were expensive, far out of reach for a young black kid in the small town of Trenton. “But our church pastor was new, and he had a drum set background,” said Dowell. “He knew that I wanted to be a musician, and one Sunday, I just walked into church and he had a drumset waiting for me. No rehearsal, no stipulations. Just, ‘The drumset is yours, get up and join the choir.’
It was a catalyst that gave Dowell the opportunity to pursue a lifetime of music. He had the passion and the drive, but he may never have been able to pursue it without that drum set, without someone helping him through the door. “That’s the way a lot of kids learn in that church environment,” he said. “It’s very supportive. You have a whole team rooting for you. That’s how I started playing. I walk in on a Sunday morning, there’s a drum set, they tell me to get up there and play, man.”
Fostering Diversity for Black & Latinx Artists
Today, of course, Dowell works for Sphinx—a nonprofit with the stated goal of “transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts.” In short, he’s turning around and giving back, spending his days helping open doors for other young musicians of color.
To understand how he got to Sphinx and what it means to him, however, we have to go back to his roots, as a young black man who wanted to play percussion. Though he was “very much into math” in high school, and initially thought about simply pursuing a career in computer science, Dowell ultimately chose to study music as well. For almost all of his college career, he double majored in computer science and music, playing it safe, hedging his bets. He never wanted to give up on music, but he also found it hard to go full-steam and saw computer science as a “safe” backup plan.
“Everyone thought I [should] go into computer science because that’s where they thought the money was,” he said. “And that’s honestly the only reason I double-majored in music and computer science. Because people were telling me constantly, ‘You can’t make a career out of music. You can’t do it.’”
“2003 was the pivotal year … the year everyone thought I was crazy,” he said. “Man, I had just four classes left to get a comp sci degree, but I knew I was wasting my time and I really just wanted to go after music.” So Dowell ended up dropping computer science at the last minute, graduating from the University of Michigan with only a percussion degree—a bachelor's in 2005 and a master’s in 2007.
“But that anxiety that I couldn’t make a career out of music, that goes to the heart of what [Sphinx] does as an organization,” Dowell said. “At that time, hardly anyone that I saw who looked like me was making a career out of music.”
In one of Dowell’s first college concerts, this fact was presented loud and clear. A group of three or four black people in the audience was waving at him throughout the performance time. At intermission, they came down and waved him over to the edge of the stage. “I was like, ‘Wait do I know y’all?’ And they were like, ‘No… But you’re the first black person we’ve seen on stage!’” The moment proved to Dowell that fostering diversity was a cause worth pursuing.
Dowell got involved with Sphinx in 2000, performing as a musician in the Sphinx orchestra during a national competition. The organization was founded at the University of Michigan, however, so throughout college, Dowell was given many opportunities to perform with and work for Sphinx. Post-grad in 2008, after a year of working as a freelance musician, Dowell signed on with Sphinx, managing the group’s chamber orchestra, now known as Sphinx Virtuosi (Check out our interview with Tommy Mesa, one of the outfit’s principal cellists).
Dowell went on tour managing the orchestra and was soon offered a full-time job in January 2009 as Chief of Artist Engagement. “I fell in love with the work,” said Dowell. “It’s that simple.”
Specifically, Dowell works directly with both pre-professional and professional artists. For the former, he works to connect them with opportunities to advance their careers, and for the latter, he works with venues to ensure they have policies in place to ensure diversity, among other things. Although he isn’t performing music full-time like he’d hoped to as a kid, Dowell is extremely satisfied with his role at Sphinx. “I find it fulfilling being able to help artists, but I’m also able to play on the side,” he said. He performs in a ragtime band and has played with Sphinx ensembles, as well. “It’s a great balance of my artistic side and my computer science background, because I’m always thinking of managing things in a formulaic manner.”
A Changing World
In recent years, topics like “diversity” and “inclusion” have moved front and center, which has largely been a good thing for Sphinx and the work it does, according to Dowell. “It’s interesting to hear people speak about diversity today,” he said. “Because Sphinx has been doing this work for 25 years. And today, after the pandemic, George Floyd, and so on, things are changing. We’re able to have these conversations much more openly today, and institutions are really making consistent, dedicated efforts to change their policies in a way they didn’t in the past. It’s a changed world.”
While Sphinx’s overall goal is to foster overall diversity in classical music, the organization focuses primarily on Black and Latinx artists. At first glance this might seem like taking a blinkered view, but Dowell says the decision comes from a point of recognizing the realities of the industry and taking action to uplift those most poorly represented.
“Black and Latinx artists make up only around four to five percent of on-stage orchestras,” he said, “but the makeup of the United States for Black and Latinx is around thirty percent. The number of Asians in American orchestras, for example, is actually much greater than what the population is in the United States.” In short, Sphinx works to address the problem of diversity where it is most pronounced, among Black and Latinx artists.
One of Dowell’s recent hobbies is making his own bow ties. In fact, he brought his sewing machine to the hotel in D.C. and made a bow tie right before the Kennedy Honors began. Though he only began making his own more recently, he’s worn bow ties throughout his career. He was drawn to them, he said, because he felt they added a level of sophistication and class to his appearance. “As a young black male going into classical music, into spaces where you are the minority, you have to have an image that speaks when you come into a room,” he said. “Or at least that’s what I used to think.”
“I thought I had to carry myself a certain way. I thought I needed to be wearing a tie, to look sophisticated, to look professional.” He thought his cousin looked good in a bow tie, so he adopted one himself. Now his bow ties are a staple.
Making a bow tie doesn’t take that long, at least for him. “If I want to put a lot of love and care into it, it takes me about 45 minutes to an hour to make a bow tie,” he said, “but the thing about bow ties is that they aren’t supposed to be perfect. They’re supposed to have their own individual character, their own personality. So sometimes I’ll just whip one up in about 15 minutes.”
Dowell’s personal collection contains over 50 bow ties, many of which he’s made himself. But he doesn’t have a favorite bow tie—perhaps because he gives them all away. “If someone compliments my bow ties, after the event I’ll just take it off and give it to them,” he said.
Even though friends and family regularly tell him he should sell his bow ties, he’s never sold a single one, just offered them to others for free. His philosophy here seems to evince the same passion that led him to drop computer science and chase music.
“I’m not looking to make money,” he said, “I’m just looking to make people happy.”
You Can Make a Career Out of Music
Despite his myriad hobbies and pursuits, from poker to percussion to crafting his own bow ties, Dowell didn’t hesitate when asked what his biggest passion was. The answer was “None of the above.”
“My focus is on my kids,” he said. “I have a seven-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son.”
In a sense, even the work he does for Sphinx is uplifting his children. Due to his efforts with Sphinx, he’s able to raise them in a world with more diversity, more opportunity, and more open doors for musicians of color. If Dowell’s son or daughter wants to pursue a career in music—thanks to Sphinx’s tireless work—they won’t have to go to college for something they aren’t passionate about, with everyone telling them, “You can’t make a career out of music.”
They’ll have spent their childhood surrounded by proof that statement is wrong.