An Interview with Lester Bowie
A talk with
by Fred Jung
Hard-line traditionalists frown on Lester Bowie. He doesn’t neatly fit into any cute categories and he is as anti-establishment as you will get. After all, Bowie is a card carrying member of the AACM, making him one of only a handful of musicians who are doing anything creative in modern music. It is too bad that working class musicians like Bowie are slowly being eliminated all together from jazz, but isn’t that in line with contemporary society. Has anyone not seen the decline of the middle class in America? I had an opportunity to sit down with Bowie and he let loose on the current state of jazz, his new album, and his beginnings as a young man in St. Louis. This is his portrait, unedited and in his own words.
LB: My father was a music teacher and he was a high school band director in St. Louis for thirty years and then he also played trumpet. So quite naturally, all of us learned how to play music from the very beginning. I think I started when I was about five years old and I’ve been playing ever since. I turned professional when I was fifteen, started doing gigs with people like Sonny Boy Williamson and Chuck Berry and then I just went on from there, a lot of rhythm and blues people and eventually jazz. I always wanted to be a jazz musician, but it wasn’t always possible to make a living playing jazz. So I got a lot of experience from circuses and carnivals and various rock and roll and rhythm and blues acts, The Impressions, I was the music director for Fontella Bass, Jackie Wilson, Albert King, Oliver Sain, Little Milton, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, just a whole host of all of the people that were on the rhythm and blues scene in the early ’60s.
JazzUSA: You stated that you wanted to be a jazz musician from the very beginning, what attracted you about the music that you wanted to make this your life’s endeavor?
LB: When I was coming up in the early ’40s, Louis Armstrong was very popular and some of the records we had around the house was of Louis Armstrong. And at that time, jazz was the supreme music. It was the pop music of that time. Rhythm and blues was just beginning to, sort of, take hold. Louis Jordan and cats like that, in the late ’40s and early ’50s, they started to take hold, but during that time jazz music was considered the star and I wanted to be a trumpet player like Louis Armstrong. Clyde McCoy was another one of my favorites. We also had a couple of Clyde McCoy records and at that time he had a hit called “The Sugar Blues.” The lifestyle attracted me. I would read about the jazz musicians and everything about the whole genre just, sort of, it appealed to me. My father was a trumpet player and a music teacher and I don’t even remember actually when I started. And I’ve never played anything else. I tried other instruments, bass and fiddled around with the piano, but I’ve never really attempted to play anything but trumpet. It was a favorite then and now.
JazzUSA: Aside from your father, any other influences?
LB: When I was coming up, St. Louis was quite a jazz town and there was a lot of musicians around and I, kind of, followed them around. I listened to a lot of records, of course, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie also helped me. I’d like to point out that usually musicians have two sources of influence. You have the musicians that you have heard on record or read about. You’ve listened to their music and their styles influence you and then you have the musicians that you actually hung out with, actually, that really did help you. I always admired Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie and even though I knew them briefly, I never knew them that well. Johnny Coles and Marcus Belgrave were two people that, we actually ran together. They really gave me pointers, literally gave me pointers, so I think they were really influential in my selection of this music and the trumpet.
JazzUSA: Let’s talk about your association with Roscoe Mitchell.
LB: Once we got together, I knew I was home. For example, I was working as Fontella’s director and we were doing a lot of shows. We were traveling around a lot, doing a lot of shows. We finally ended up moving to Chicago. After about a year in Chicago, doing jingles and playing with various bands in Chicago, I was getting, kind of, bored, because there was really no challenge to the music. And then there was a baritone player that took me to an AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music) rehearsal and this was where I met the whole AACM. Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band (Eddie Harris, Roscoe Mitchell, Donald Garrett, and Victor Sproles) was rehearsing and Roscoe and Muhal and all the AACM members were there, Malachi Favors, they were all there. Once I went in that room, I immediately knew that I was home. I had never seen so many crazy individuals in one space. I felt immediately, immediately I felt at home. By the time I got home from the rehearsal, Roscoe was calling me on the phone and wanted to start a band and we started rehearsing the next day and we’ve been playing together ever since. It’s been about thirty-three, thirty-four years now.
JazzUSA: Let’s talk about your involvement with your Brass Fantasy Band, From the Root to the Source, and The Art Ensemble of Chicago.
LB: All of those three bands almost comprise my total musical personality. It takes that many different groups to really satisfy my musical curiosity, so to speak. The Art Ensemble is the oldest band. We’ve been together for thirty-three years now. The Art Ensemble is just an art group. It’s experimental and searching and trying to extend the boundaries of the music, of the techniques, the compositions, the whole thing. We’re really searching, still are searching for a lot of newer things. Brass Fantasy is what I call my avant-pop band. It’s a show band as opposed to the Art Ensemble. The Art Ensemble is an art band. The Brass Fantasy is a show band. Instead of my normal, white lab jacket, I wear a white, sequin lab jacket with Brass Fantasy, because it’s a show band. We try to do is to play popular music, but in a creative manner and in a way that people have never really heard it before. It’s about reinventing it. It’s about taking a sound that was made popular by singers that sing it and making that same emotional feeling felt without having a singer, or guitar, or a bass, or keyboards. It’s about extending the language of the brass choir into the popular arena. The Root to the Source was a combination of gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues, a combination of all of the three. We have the rhythm and blues, Fontella Bass singing. We had Martha Bass, who has recently passed, who was a gospel singer. I had a, kind of, standard jazz quintet in the band and it was, kind of, a combination of all of those elements. We had the show elements. We had the rhythm and blues elements. We had the gospel elements, I mean that really focused on those areas and it takes those three to really express myself. I couldn’t really express myself in any one way, or with any one group, or playing one particular sort of style. I think the musicians of today are much broader in scope then they were, let’s say thirty or forty years ago. We draw influences from many places. We have much more information, just as the people have much more information. The audience now is very different from the audience in the 1950s. The 1950s were, even before that, when Charlie Parker and Miles Davis did their thing, when Duke Ellington was popular and Louis was popular. Louis was popular, damn near, before flight. Planes were made out of fabric, so the times have changed. People have more information now. People have computers. People are on-line. The audience now will go to a jazz concert one day, the ballet the next day, the opera the day after that, and then a blues concert the day after that. They are much more informed and it takes much more music to really impress them or to give them information they don’t have and that’s what I’ve been concerned with.
JazzUSA: The majority of the mainstream media is traditional and the audience, as you perceive, is hungry for new knowledge, does the mainstream media, critics and writer, impede on jazz’s progress into the twenty-first century?
LB: Boy, it really does. It really impedes on it, because what happens is people, they believe what they read and they, instead of pushing to expand the horizons of the music, most of the critics have been very conservative about, conservative that I must say, in a very incorrect way. It’s been a complete misinterpretation of what the tradition of jazz is. You have this group of people that are traditionalists and they call themselves in the jazz tradition, and yet they forget that the jazz tradition is creativity. It’s innovation. It’s moving forward. It’s a young music that’s growing and to impede the growth of that, to stunt the growth of that, to me, is a crime. And that’s what has happened. The writers have really stunted the growth of the music. The music now, if it wasn’t for the few musicians that continue to push forward, there wouldn’t even be any music. The music would have stopped. It would be dead, just like classical music has been killed off.
JazzUSA: There are very few classical composers that are receiving any notoriety, if fact, you could probably count them on one hand. Most of what is being released was composed hundreds of years ago. You can’t count the amount of Beethoven’s 9th that there are on the market today. Do you fear that what has happened with classical music will happen with jazz?
LB: You are right, Fred. They are trying to do the same thing with the music. You see, Fred, once the culture is under control, if we control all the art in this country, we can control the people. Music, classical music is about stimulating the intellect. Art is about stimulating the intellect, but once it’s controlled and killed off like that, they call it canonization and I call it blowing it up with a cannon. Instead of developing the music, they stop the music in it’s tracks. That has happened now. Lincoln Center is supposed to be the most important thing to happen to jazz. Nothing has happened at Lincoln Center. Nothing has been created there. There are no great musicians coming out of there. Wynton Marsalis is supposed to be the king of the trumpet. This is the first time a leader has been elected by someone other than the musicians themselves. It is a shame because that is the attempt, to do exactly the same thing they’ve done with classical music and with everything else. It happens also in painting. The creative painters don’t get a break. It’s hard for them to get out of here. It’s really very difficult and that is a problem.
JazzUSA: Who are some musicians that are moving the music forward?
LB: The most organized of all these musicians has been the AACM, which was an organization that was dedicated to moving the music forward. Muhal Richard Abrams, with his Experimental Orchestra, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Leo Smith (Wadada Leo Smith), Leroy Jenkins, there are countless number of members within that group that are trying to move the music forward. And then you have, for example, we were inspired by Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, who are also still struggling very hard to survive in this music after all of these years. You’ve got a countless number of other musicians. You have some musicians in Detroit and in St. Louis, Oliver Lake, the World Saxophone Quartet, the late Julius Hemphill, all these are musicians that were writing in an entirely different way, but whose work has almost been buried or stymied. I mean, we survive because of our belief in the spirit of the music, but it’s been very difficult and I’m afraid that after we’re gone, I don’t know what’s going to happen with this music. Unless there is a group of people, and I don’t see it in the younger musicians, because as you said, Fred, they’ve been, sort of, scared off. I don’t see a movement of twenty, twenty-five-year-old, thirty-year-old musicians towards playing creative music. I just don’t see that. The musicians that are creative are William Parker, oh, and there’s a drummer named Leon Parker, who is a younger musician, I really like his work. He has a different approach to drums. And there’s Olu Dara, who is a guy my age that’s been out there a long time. There another, Graham Haynes, who is a young trumpet player that’s trying to do things. But these guys are having a very, very hard time. I would imagine, a worse time than we have had. It’s an effort to kill the music. I hope for the sake of this society that doesn’t happen because jazz is the first music that was representative of the whole planet, of all the people on the planet. It was the first music that could accept influences from anywhere and it’s the only music that is in a growth period. All the other music has been killed off. African music has been that way forever, Chinese music, or Indian music, but jazz is growing. It’s going through all these different things. It’s still growing but, like I said, they’re trying to stop the development of it.
JazzUSA: You mentioned a few names, Oliver Lake, who had to form his own label to put out his music, and Cecil Taylor, his recording output has diminished drastically, what happens when these musicians, these standard bearers fall?
LB: Well, I would hope that there would be someone, some guy, somewhere that would continue this work. It doesn’t take but a few. Hopefully, there will be a small number of musicians that will continue this work. But the problem is, will they be heard? This number is going to continue to get smaller and smaller, where as, there may be fifty people now that were involved when I was coming up. It may go down to ten after we’re gone. After that, I just don’t know. I would hope that the music would survive. I believe that it will survive, but will it survive, will the society, of which this art is designed to enhance or to help develop, will it benefit from the music? I have doubts about that. And then what happens is, everyone just goes to sleep. We’re much easier to control if we don’t think. Americans have been known through the world over as a country that doesn’t want the populous to think too much. Don’t think about this. Do what we tell you to do. I think it will just get much worse.
JazzUSA: When I spoke with Phil Woods, he referred to America and Americans as “having a lot of growing up to do”.
LB: It does. A lot more, not just a bit.
JazzUSA: Are these growing pains or a conscience effort by those in power to suppress the music?
LB: Well, I do definitely see that it is a conscience effort to, by media, by the leaders, the people in power, there is definitely, without a doubt, a conscience effort to suppress this music. Hopefully, we will get past this. Hopefully, one day the people will hear what we’re doing and once we can get, if we can just crack that door and get a foot in, there’s a lot that we can make available. I think we can really change things, if we are just heard. For example, the Brass Fantasy, is a group that’s been together, I’ve had that group for eighteen years. Most people are just becoming aware of that group, but that group has been surviving for eighteen years. Here’s a group that once you’ve heard it, you almost fall in love with it and it opens the door for a lot of other things. Hopefully, through the work we’re doing and for the next few years, we are trying to make sure that this music is available to the masses. If that happens, I’m sure that things will change. People will, once people hear a new sound, and people want to hear it. It’s not that the populous doesn’t want to hear it, it’s just the people in between us and the people that don’t want to get this music heard. The people are ready to hear something. They’re hungry for it. I see it everyday. I see it in their faces when they hear us play music that they haven’t heard before. It will survive. I don’t believe that it’s going anywhere. If we can ever get through, one thing about our generation of music is none of it has ever cracked through this barrier. No one has any power. None of us have any backing. None of us are getting grants or anything like that. We’re not getting any sort of funding. We’re not even getting support. We’re not even getting heard in this country. I worked in the U. S. once or twice last year. Most of the work is done in Europe and in Japan and in Australia, every place else but here, where the music was born.
JazzUSA: Why is it easier to make a living playing the music in Europe?
LB: It’s like what we were saying about this being a very young society. The Europeans know that they benefit from art. They use art to stimulate their young. A concert in Germany is half full of people under the age of twenty, maybe even a tenth of those are under twelve. The rest are of all ages. This is a young society that doesn’t realize the importance or the connection between the art and the intellect. The older societies realize that. They realize there is something to learn in this music, there’s something they can teach their young. They’ve got some jazz schools in Europe, and Germany, and Italy, and they’ve got some musicians in Italy and France that are just unbelievable, because they have been learning from these musicians that have been shunned in the States. So they understand that. They’ve gone past what we’re into now and they realize that any new art form, regardless of where it comes from is of importance and will aid in the stimulation of their intellect, and thus enhance their society. They realize that. We, here, haven’t gotten into that yet.
JazzUSA: Using the recent example of the American media’s fixation on the happenings in the Oval Office and how Americans perceive something such as sex so differently than Europeans, is this society breeding a society of fear?
LB: People are afraid to expand their intellect. Their mind is not familiar. It seems as though the American power structure is intent on keeping us unthinking, that way we will just be consumers, and service, and employees. It’s like we don’t understand that people need to think to develop this society. They think that they know. They think that they’ve got a safe percent of people in this country that know which way we should go and they want to go that way. They don’t want to take a chance on anything else happening. What it does is it narrows the scope of thoughts of the people here and it just keeps us more uninformed, which is really a drag because like you said, Fred, every place else in the world, what’s going on with Clinton is a joke. I mean, it is a complete joke. Americans are always considered jokesters anyway. We were always jokes. I used to sit up in this café in Paris and the Americans will walk by and you see the French giggling, ‘Here comes some Americans.’ And they laugh. ‘Those Americans, they don’t even know how important jazz is.’ That is happening because the lack of knowledge of their own music. Just to give you a quick story, Fred, I was coming back from Italy on a plane. On one side of me was this woman with two Ph.D.’s and the other side of me was this guy who was an old Italian baker. So I got to talking with the lady with the Ph.D.’s and I was telling her the same problem and how we are just so uninformed and how we know nothing about the music. I said, ‘For instance, you, with all your degrees has no idea of the culture of America. You know nothing about jazz.’ She goes, ‘Well, I really don’t know anything about it.’ I said, ‘Now watch this. Neither one of us knows this guy. Let me ask this guy next to us, old, Italian guy, what he knows about jazz.’ I just mentioned jazz and this guy started naming records and naming people. He knew all about it. He was telling me about all the records he had. He was coming to the States to visit one of kids, but he was just a random European that knew more about American music than an educated, intellectual American, and it just really embarrassed her and it also illustrated what we’re talking about now.
JazzUSA: Let’s talk about your new Brass Fantasy album on Atlantic Records, The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music – Volume 1. Why a Spice Girls tune?
LB: You see, Fred, I’ve got four daughters (laughing). What we were trying to do with that particular record and with that group, the Brass Fantasy, is to play music that is familiar, but in a completely creative manner, in the way it’s written and in the way it’s presented. The Spice Girls’ song “Two Become One” is really a good song for flugelhorn and brass. It’s in a low key and it’s kind of mellow and it’s really a good song. That’s the main reason that I picked that tune. It really worked perfect for the band. At the same time, it was within the idea of what we were trying to do. We were trying to show, like the record says, it’s the odyssey of funk and popular music, and what a creative approach can do to this music. I’ve played these tunes for kids and these kids go crazy. They’ve never heard a song that they knew, played by a bunch of old men with horns (laughing). It just knocks them out! I tell you, I’ve played at elementary schools and some high schools and it’s unbelievable what happens when people actually hear this music. We’re trying to show kids that we appreciate what they’re doing. We appreciate the songs that they appreciate too, but here’s what we can add to it. This is what can happen when you utilize a creative approach. It can be this way. This song can be a million different ways. That was one of the traditions of jazz. That’s one of the things that made jazz popular. Miles Davis got popular playing songs from “Oklahoma,” you know, “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “When I Fall in Love.” All these were show tunes and this is what enabled him to reach out and get the popularity. I’m trying to do that same sort of thing with Brass Fantasy. It’s my last reach out saying, ‘Please somebody, please hear this music. Hear what the possibilities are.’ And once you hear the possibilities, we can open this whole new world of creative music.
JazzUSA: What is jazz to you?
LB: Jazz is really a creative music. I think it is the best way to really describe what it is. It’s a very creative and innovative music, with the emphasis on creativity, creative compositions, creative instrumentation, creative approaches to the music. I think it’s very important that we listen to this, because being creative and innovative is very important to our lives, very important.
JazzUSA: What would you say is your musical goal?
LB: I’m trying to be creative, but I have a very broad scope, a very broad idea of what the possibilities are for this music. The main thing is to be creative, to be innovative.
JazzUSA: I don’t think many traditionalists and critics have a clue who Notorious B-I-G is.
LB: I know it (laughing). I know that they’re going to be upset with me, but I don’t care. It’s OK. They can be upset. We’re trying to do that to show that there is so much separation in the music, and jazz is the music that brings everything together. It brings all the people together. I was talking to some group about racism and I said, ‘One thing that I’ve noticed is we don’t have that in jazz.’ Jazz fans seem to be cool. Somehow the music has elevated them above that. The music can elevate us above a lot of things if we just let it. And that’s what we’re trying to do, elevate the people.
JazzUSA: And the future?
LB: Hopefully, this record will get heard and if it gets heard here in the States, you can expect a lot from me. I’ve got so many projects in mind. The problem is, we all are getting much older. I am a sixty-year-old, almost sixty-year-old grandfather. I’ve got eight grandkids and two more grandkids on the way. I’m going to have ten grandkids in the next few months and so I hope people will pick up on this quickly, while we’re still around. If they do, we can show them things in music and combinations of music that they haven’t even heard yet. For example, in the States, they’ve never heard the Art Ensemble’s tribute to Chicago blues. We did a tour of that. They’ve never heard the Brass Fantasy, I did a brass/steel tour, which is the Brass Fantasy with a world champion steel band. We’ve done projects that no one here even knows about. If we can get through, if we can get enough attention, we can start to make these things available here. We can make them available. If we can get the people to hear the music, I’m sure there will be no more problems. The problem is only in getting heard. Like you said, you go to Yoshi’s (San Francisco) and there’s a line around the block. That’s because we’ve been going out there and they’ve heard the music. They know what to expect. They know it’s going to be exciting. It used to be a time that you go to a jazz concert and you were excited about the musicianship, excited by the music that they were playing, excited by the way they looked. We want to bring all of that back.