From the RW Interview

Lester Bowie: All the Magic

Revolutionary Worker #1032, November 28, 1999

The RW Interview is a special feature to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music, literature, science, sports and politics.

The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views expressed elsewhere in the Revolutionary Worker and on this website.

On November 8, the great trumpet player and composer Lester Bowie died at the age of 58. In 1985 the RW had the pleasure of interviewing this amazing musician about his life and his art. The following excerpts are from this interview.

RW: Could you talk about the method of musical creation that you use. Specifically, how the subjects of your music are developed in terms of themes?

LB: It's a combination between dealing with the spiritual things--the spiritual aspect is very important. People tend to not understand about the spiritual aspects of music, because these are the aspects that develop the themes. You see, the themes are the basis...a lot of it is done spiritually. I play what I feel like playing. Before anything else comes, something will just come in my head and say, "Man, play `I Only Have Eyes For You."' And without me trying to say, "What is this trying to say?", I just get this idea I'm going to play this song. I'll just try to play it as well as I can. That way it's coming spiritually first, and once you have the spiritual idea, then technically I'll try to polish it up. I'll learn the song good. You know what I mean? Do a nice interpretation of it. A nice little original, fresh way of saying it. So it's a combination of both of these ways. After you have an idea of what you're trying to do, you develop it the same way you develop music. You practice and you rehearse. You just keep going over and over it until you get it right, but the vision comes from the spirit. It just comes "shhh" and you just do that. It's like the vision tells you to be a musician. You just say, "Well, if you're going to be a musician, you just have to start being a musician."

RW: One characteristic of the Art Ensemble is that the band uses a lot of unusual instruments.

LB: We're trying to develop a world music that's expressive of our condition--and when I say our condition, I mean the human condition on the planet. So we use a lot of instruments that we make ourselves and we use a lot of instruments that people give us. People get where we're coming from and they bring us gifts of instruments. Usually, every place we go we get gifts of all sorts of things. Instruments, works of art, photographs. People are trying to give something back that we can use because they see that we're trying to use that. So when we go to Switzerland, let's say, someone will present us with some Swiss bells or a Swiss alpine horn. And we in turn try to use these things to reach more and more people. So when we play a place, a Swiss guy will say, "Hey, yeah. That was that horn I used to hear when I was a little boy up in the mountains." (laughs) And then he can kind of see that he is also a part of this.

A lot of time I hesitate to say "my music" and "our music." I hate to say it because I don't think music is exclusive. I don't think I have any music. I'm a musician so I'm trying to transmit this but I have to get it from all over. The music that we play isn't mine, it's yours, it's everybody's. It comes through me because I'm trained. I'm a trained conduit of music. But it is the music of us all. We can use instruments from China. We just have to study Chinese music. We played music that drove Africans crazy. We used to drive African people crazy in Paris. They couldn't believe it. And then they couldn't believe that none of us had been to Africa. It would be a culture shock anyway because of the whole thing trying to go from a little village in Senegal to Paris. And then they would hear us and it would be like awe. They would act as body guards for us, and they would do a lot of things. And we'd never been to Africa. That let them know that this whole thing was universal--that there was an empathy throughout. "Yeah, those guys are playing. You guys are those jazz guys from the States? And this is what you play? Right on!!" So that's where the instruments come from, a lot of different people.

RW: What are some of the things that Great Black Music and Great Black Musicians are up against?

LB: What are we up against? Oh man, we're up against everything! We're up against a whole scene. I couldn't begin to even get into it. Just by calling us jazz musicians we're up against everything. As soon as that word comes out of their mouth we're up against, I mean, everything! From a hotel reservation on up, it can be trouble. A stage hand might get smart with you if you're a jazz musician. (laughs) If you're a jazz musician and you've got a gig at Carnegie Hall, the stage hands might get smart with you. (laughs) You know what I mean? We go in opera halls sometimes--and because you're Black... we work in these hip old Italian opera halls there. The old stage hands, the concierges and shit, like, they'll get down with you, like, "You know, what the fuck you mean..." You come in and it's like desecration of the temple or something.

We're up against a whole system that not only feeds off of what we do, it keeps everything so divided that we don't even know what it is we have. And people don't even realize what we actually have. Like I say--divided it's so profound, united they don't even want to think about it. Nobody wants to think about the Great Black Music. They don't want to think about that. That has some profound implications. So, we're up against everything.

RW: I want to ask you about the song "Theme for Soco" From the Urban Bushmen album. That song is clearly about a people's struggles and eventual victory. There's a real optimism to that song, which I think runs through the Art Ensemble's work as a whole, but it really stands out in that song.

LB: Yeah, there is a lot of optimism. What we're trying to say is that we know that this is going to be hard, but at the same time we know that it's going to be beauty at the end of it all. We know that once we can put this together, once the cultures do become together and the people learn to understand and work together, it's going to be beautiful. This planet can really be nice and we believe that it will actually happen, even though a lot of pessimistic people are saying it won't. It's going to be really nice and we try to convey that in the music, but at the same time we try to show what we have to go through. Like, for instance, "Theme for Soco"--it's war there for a while. There's a lot going on. It wasn't easy to get to that triumphant end. It took a lot of things. But we believe that people and goodness will eventually triumph. And it will. I know this already. Thing is, we want everybody else to know it. (laughs)

RW: A lot of the songs, both by the Art Ensemble and on your solo albums, have a lot of very vivid images of everyday characters in everyday situations. For example, "The Great Pretender," "New York Is Full of Lonely People," "Rios Negroes," "Southside Street Dance" are just a few that really bring people to life. Some are sad, some are very joyful. There's a very broad range of feelings and moods. Is that something that you consciously strive to create?

LB: Yeah, I think we do. We're everyday people, first of all. We're just everyday people. We, the Art Ensemble, I don't think we think of ourselves as exceptionally talented or anything like that. We're just regular everyday musicians, everyday persons. It's just that we've learned to work together. Us. So we're kind of everyday characters. But we're trying to say that everyday characters if they can come together and work hard--to their capacity--and I think we have uniform capacities. Some people have capacity for more alcohol than others. Some have the capacity for more work. But if everyone works to their capacity, they can create something that is truly unique and profound.

So I guess that's all part of why we have these various characters in the music, because it's kind of an extension of us. Just regular everyday cats--but, working together we can make some earthshaking news and that's what we're saying in general about humanity. I mean, the people are what make this planet, not just these privileged few. They aren't representative of Earth. I wouldn't consider them to be representative. It's the masses of people, and what they can do. They are the ones that are representatives of what's happening. And if they can ever work together, it's just unbelievable what can happen.

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