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Lester Bowie : A Memoir & Appreciation

It's a crying shame Lester Bowie has died. The loss to contemporary music is truly unfathomable. But because Lester had such a prolific, eclectic and brilliant career, the landscape of music will be forever impressed with his mighty footprints. In that sense, he is still very much with us.

I first heard Lester Bowie at a live concert in 1978, playing with the newly-formed New Directions group of Jack Dejohnette; Eddie Gomez and John Abercrombie were on board, too. They smoked their way through some of the music heard on the ECM album of that name, a funny version of "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?" and a show-stopping "St. Louis Blues". It was on the latter that Lester Bowie kicked Miles Davis out of the penthouse of my Trumpet Gods Apartment Complex, once and for all. I still have tapes of that concert, and on it, Lester displays the entire history of the trumpet, at least since they first stuck valves on the thing and turned it into the modern virtuosic chromatic instrument it is today.

I immediately bought every record I could find with Lester on it, and on those early Delmark and Nessa recordings, I studied all the crazy yawps and fnirps, braaps and brawls that characterize Lester's playing in that time (late 60's-early 70's). Despite the startlingly new sound of his playing, Lester Bowie was not a revolutionary player. It's not my intention to try to label the man, but I will say that, unlike the generation that followed his, Lester and his circle of compatriots in the AACM were encyclopedic in their embrace of "the tradition". His solos don't merely refer to Buddy Bolden, Herbert L. Clarke, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Bubber Miley, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Bix Beiderbecke, Roy Eldridge, Buddy Anderson, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Clark Terry, Thad Jones, Chet Baker, Cat Anderson, and all the rest. The music in Lester's horn contains all those players, and more. They're swallowed whole, fully digested, reconstituted, and re-assembled. A phrase that might begin with a rush of sure-footed bebop notes would careen into a hairball of overblown noise, then slide out of that with a back-arching half-valve smear before landing on its feet on a simple cadence right out of Sousa. But the object of this seemingly overachieving collage-ing isn't to say, "Hey, I know the tradition and I can play it all because I've paid my dues." Lester just says, "It's all music and it's all beautiful and it all works together when I play it."

I found myself at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York, during the New Year's Intensive session of 1978-79. In residence was the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Lester's daily classes were seminars in bebop. Over fast-moving rhythm changes, he assigned each section of the student orchestra a line of Lester's own devising, playing it over on the trumpet rather than handing out charts. His line for the trumpets was more than I could manage (I didn't have half a chop, having just picked up the trumpet a year before), so he generously gave me an improvisatory wah-wah obbligato to play in a kind of call-and-response with the section. He dealt with a wide range of student abilities with the same beautiful attitude. There wasn't a hint of condescension or dissing; he simply wanted to make sure everyone had a part to play. By the end of the week, he had the whole 30-plus group jumping! I never heard Lester's "Sho' Nuff Orchestra", which was composed of AACM masters and played in New York at around the same time, but I imagine the musical process was pretty much the same. It was all about creating community with respect, love, and above all, smokin' fun.

Lester also gave a couple of trumpet "master classes". There were about five or six trumpet player-students at CMS that winter-one of them was Hugh Ragin! (Hugh was my roommate, along with Bob Sweet, author of the highly recommended Music Universe, Music Mind. Hugh made his connection at that New Year's Intensive—for a listen to a recent flowering of that connection, check out his contributions to Roscoe Mitchell's latest Note Factory album on ECM.) I just listened while these fantastic players shared ideas and stories. I'll never forget one of Lester's. He told a story of his relationship with Miles Davis that was a howler. He told us that, at first, Miles hated his playing and told Lester if he ever caught him onstage, he'd punch him out! Of course, Miles came around eventually, and invited Lester to his penthouse for a party one evening. "Bring your horn, I want everyone to hear how bad you are", Miles told Lester. Miles went around to everyone there, repeating, "You gotta hear this cat, he's baaaaad. Lester's one bad motherfucker", Lester rasped, imitating Miles' fingernails-down-a-blackboard voice. "C'mon, Lester, get out your horn. Play!" Miles commanded. "He's baaaad." By this time, Lester said, he was completely surrounded with interested onlookers and had no other option, so he got out his horn and began to blow. Miles immediately stopped him and said loudly, "Shit! I thought you were good!"

Lester was a man of the world, and told us of his travels to Jamaica, Nigeria, Mexico, India, and Japan, as well as Paris and San Francisco. The lyrics to "Jah", Lester's opener on the great AEC album Nice Guys, are basically a self-portrait. Lester's passport was the horn, and he played and partied with local musicians wherever he went, including the great Fela Kuti. In fact, Lester wrote a piece in tribute to the Nigerian master-"Fela"-in the high-life style of Fela's band, and rehearsed it and a reggae-flavored piece with the CMS orchestra. It's hard to believe it now, 20 years later, but the students couldn't cut those rhythms-because they'd never played or studied reggae or high-life music. Lester was a pioneer in bringing world rhythms to American audiences, and musicians.

All of this is to say that Lester Bowie was much more than the trumpet player for the Art Ensemble of Chicago (no small chair to hold down!). Just to list some of the things Lester was into before they became part of our current multi-cultural gumbo: African high-life, Jamaican reggae, brass-band music, organ trios, and, of course, the bebop legacy. I think Lester will be remembered as one of the most influential musicians of his generation.

Even more than that, Lester's friends and admirers will remember a man who was supremely intelligent, cultured, loving, light-hearted, generous and spiritual.

Lester, thank you for being.