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.