May 19, 2024

Lester Bowie
A Retrospective
[ Based on an Interview conducted in New York, 1988 ]
by Phyllis A. Lodge

Trumpeter/composer Lester Bowie was born in Frederick, Maryland on October 11, 1941, and was raised in St. Louis, Missouri. Bowie was five years old when he discovered the trumpet. Bowie very firmly informed me that: “I was influenced by a lot of people; you have to understand that. A lot of people did different things.”

First was his father who played trumpet and was a high school band and choral director. Bowie also studied under Mr. Carionne who was a specialist in European classics. Another one of his teachers, Mr. Marshall Penn, was a brass instructor at Lincoln University.

Bowie includes among his trumpet influences Louis Armstrong, Clyde McCoy, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard. It was Kenny Dorham, however, who became pivotal in Bowie’s decision to make music his life’s work. In Bowie’s words: “When I heard Kenny Dorham, it turned me out. I listened to him a few times, and that’s when I decided.”

There were several groups that inspired Bowie, simply because he liked the way they sounded. The classic groups led by Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Miles Davis largely influenced much of the way Bowie heard music.

Bowie developed his charming and sometimes uproariously humorous musical style by listening to artists like pianists Art Tatum and Cecil Taylor, as well as saxophonists Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Johnny Coles and Marcus Belgrave were personal influences who were there to help him and support his efforts. Ultimately, Coles, Belgrave and Bowie made up the trumpet section in a number of rhythm and blues groups during Bowie’s early music days in St. Louis. Trumpeter Bobby Danzie, another St. Louis musician whose style was much like Miles Davis’, also encouraged and helped the younger Bowie when he was still learning his instrument.

Lester Bowie had a hand in initiating a number of musical groups in St. Louis, Chicago and New York and his educational experience is primarily a culmination of these experiences. While still in St. Louis, Bowie assumed the role of musical director for vocalist, Fontella Bass. Bowie also helped to form BAG (Black Artists Group), as well as the Great Black Music Orchestra.

After relocating to Chicago in 1965, Delbert Hill took Bowie to what he described as an “experimental band” run by pianist/innovator Muhal Richard Abrams. Bowie liked the group because it enabled him to become involved in many of the forms involving different types of musics. This began Lester Bowie’s affiliation with the internationally acclaimed Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). It was through the AACM that Bowie met Malachi Favors, Chico Freeman, Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell. Bowie subsequently met percussionist Famoudou Don Moye a few years later during a European tour of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, comprised of Favors, Freeman, Jarman and Mitchell, which Bowie launched while working with AACM. Bowie considered Sound (1966) with the Art Ensemble his recording debut as a leader, although he considers each of the musicians involved with that recording to be leaders in their own right.

Upon relocating to New York, Bowie had the opportunity to meet and learn from Kenny Dorham and Blue Mitchell. Dorham and Mitchell provided Bowie with support when he first arrived in the “Apple”, sometimes by just hanging out with the younger newcomer to the city. “They were ‘just nice guys…” Bowie recalled in acknowledgment of his indebtedness to the two musicians.

In 1984, Bowie was extended an invitation by a German Festival to put together a group of his choice to perform for that one particular event. It was during this time that Brass Fantasy, one of Bowie’s favorite brainchildren, was born. Bowie had always had a fantasy envisioning an entire brass ensemble, so he seized upon this opportunity to bring the vision to life. Brass Fantasy, the result of that vision, was a tremendous success at that time; and that music continues to delight listeners to this day.

The group of musicians Bowie assembled for Brass Fantasy literally sparkled with creativity and enthusiasm. Stanton Davis, Gerald Brezel & E.J. Allen joined Bowie in the trumpet section; Vincent Chancey was on french horn; Steve Turre and Frank Lacy were on trombone; Bob Stewart on tuba; Famoudou Don Moye on percussion; and Phillip Wilson on drums. At the time of this interview, Brass Fantasy had recorded three albums: Avant Pop and I Only Have Eyes for You, both on the ECM label, and later Twillight Dreams, was recorded on the Virgin/Ventura label. [NOTE: I went out and discovered a much later Brass Fantasy release that retained Chancey on french horn and Bob Stewart on tuba. It was entitled The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music, and Bowie goes all out to indulge his creative fantasies by including the music of Puccini, Cole Porter, the Spice Girls, Notorious B.I.B. and Marilyn Manson. Odyssey… was released in 1998. Other personnel included Joseph “Mac” Gollehon, Ravi Best and Gerald Brazel joining Bowie on trumpet; Luis Bonilla, Joshua Roseman and Gary Valente on trombone; Vince Johnson on drums and Victor See Yuen on percussion. He even includes vocals by Dean Bowman and Joseph Bowie. There was also a variation in trumpet personnel from Avant Pop. Along with Stanton Davis there was Malachi Thompson and Rasul Siddik.]

In 1967, Bowie recorded Numbers One and Two. Bowie also mentioned several of what he referred to as “Italian records”, under the Black Saint and Horo labels between the mid-to-late 1970’s. Much of this material was done with a quartet. One of them was entitled 5th Power (1978), and includes Arthur Blythe on alto saxophone, Amina Claudine Myers on piano and vocals, Malachi Favors on bass, and Phillip Wilson on drums. Other Bowie recordings include Fast Last and Rope-A-Dope (Muse, 1974); All the Magic, a double album set, and an ECM release, Great Pretender (1979).

In addition to his work with Brass Fantasy, Bowie recorded and toured with the LEADERS composed of alto saxophonist, Arthur Blythe, tenor saxophonist, bass clarinetist and producer, Chico Freeman, pianist Kirk Lightsey, bassist Cecil McBee, and percussionist Famoudou Don Moye. At the time of this writing, the LEADERS had released two recordings: Mudfoot which is a particular favorite of mine, (Blackhawk, 1986) and Out There Like This (Polygram, 1988).

Bowie truly enjoyed working with the LEADERS, because he enjoyed the musicians and the musicianship equally. In the trumpeter’s own words: “It (the work with the LEADERS) is involved with traditional jazz. “It’s fun and challenging to produce the sound, and the energy.” Having fun while in the pursuit and practice of his music is essential for Lester Bowie. The trumpeter would otherwise simply have tired of it. A highly innovative leader, Lester Bowie, felt that it was necessary to maintain an interest in the music, which he accomplished “…by consistently playing with interesting musicians and completely different sounds.”

The wild, zany and miraculous sounds Lester Bowie could “push through a horn” could be hilarious while maintaining a highly virtuoso quality. Every time I have ever heard Bowie perform, whether live or recorded, his music was enlightening, highly individualistic and filled with delightful surprises. Like one of my other favorite musicians, Thelonious Monk, Bowie could bend rules and play in the “free” style without losing the integrity of a number (or his listener) because he knew the rules so well. I picked up Avant Pop to create a spirit of his music around this piece. My expectations of his work were met and surpassed by the wit and beauty he brought to this project. Each and every selection on Avant Pop will have the listener laughing out loud on one hand, and voicing absolute awe for the genius of Bowie’s music.

The arrangements on each and every number are mesmerizing. I can see the pomp and even the robe of the Emperor in that number. In Saving All My Love for You, Bowie does his famous singing horn. I could barely contain my excitement over his interpretation. (I know the folks on the train where I was listening to the CD thought I was ‘crackin-up’. Did I care?) And B Funk will simply lay you out! Blueberry Hill was brimming with the power of that old New Orleans Funeral music. And I can see Willie Nelson with tears in his eyes listening to Brass Fantasy’s interpretation of Crazy. Steve Turre is one of my very favorite performer/trombonists and composers, and his composition Macho would do Machito proud. The next number on the CD, another hilarious Bowie parody on whatever it is he’s laughing at is No Shit. (Ain’t it the truth!) The ensemble winds the CD up with Oh, What A Night and brings the house down, wherever you happen to be listening to it at the time. Avant Pop is an experience that will do you good. It is also a typical example of how Bowie encouraged ‘leadership’ in all his musical associations, and this quality is crystal clear in Avant Pop. The other quality that is perfectly clear is that Lester Bowie was simply a beautiful cat!

Among Lester Bowie’s numerous awards: he was a three time winner of the Downbeat Critics Poll; Downbeat Talent Deserving Wider recognition; various polls in countries such as Japan, Austria and Poland. And Bowie also was a recipient of the Deutschgrammohpon Award and the Grand Prix du Disque.

It is obvious that Lester Bowie also gave back in numerous ways. Aside from the leadership-oriented groups he initiated, Bowie also lectured periodically at Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth Universities.

Up through the end of his brief stay on this planet (in November of 1999 at age 58), Bowie continually generated joy and beauty through his music. He left enough of that joy with us to the degree that if we listen to his music enough, we should never be sad again – at least not for long. And when at the time of this interview he was asked to share an insight with his reader on the music as a serious pursuit, he simply responded:

All’s fair in love and war; and music is BOTH.

Enjoy life a little more – become a collector of Lester Bowie’s music.