The Legacy of Lester Bowie

Revolutionary Worker #1032, November 28, 1999

"Jazz is neither specific repertoire, nor academic exercise...but a way of life."

Lester Bowie (1941-1999)


Hearing Lester Bowie was always a mind-expanding musical feast. Seeing Lester Bowie perform was always an exciting visual drama.

Bowie told the RW, "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." He played this way. And he lived this way.

He could make that trumpet talk. And every time he stepped on stage, Bowie coaxed and invented something new out of his instrument. If the notes had been visible, we'd have seen round, square, multi-sided and amoebic. The stage was always a construction site for Bowie to build the trumpet's timbral vocabulary. Each song was another chance to extend the range of wind through brass.

One minute angry growls and jagged glissandos. The next comedic squawks and gargles. Then whispers of soft sweet blues, boisterous New Orleans, or be-bop, straight ahead (with a twist). He'd challenge convention with fractured, dissonant notes, with sassy, rebellious attitude.

A controversial interpretation of the classics. A pop tune with searching improvisation that connected a multitude of simultaneous riffs. An excellent listener, merging with the current mood and flow of the collective harmonic experience.

His white lab coat told us a lot about how he saw the music. It was a grand experiment every night: "We're trying to research our way into the future...we're trying to further emphasize, further illustrate..."

A journey with Lester was always full of surprises. Always daring. Always exploratory. Always moving.

We will miss Lester Bowie. But he has left us with a lot. And his musical legacy will surely live on.


"In order to express myself as a musician, it takes a lot of avenues. One avenue alone does not really do it. I need to play in a lot of different situations. Playing in a duo is a situation, playing with a brass band is another one and with the Art Ensemble, it's still a different situation. It's only when you put all these together that you can get an idea of what I'm trying to do. I'm doing a lot of things, I just finished teaching music to kindergarten children in Vermont. I don't want to limit my vision."

Lester Bowie in a 1997 Interview in Le Jazz

When he was five years old, Lester Bowie picked up a trumpet and started blowing into it. This was the beginning of an incredibly diverse and unconventional musical life.

Bowie's artistic journey started in St. Louis with blues and R&B bands, then moved to Chicago in 1965. Here, he hooked up with other forward-thinking, adventurous Black musicians like Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton and Joseph Jarman. This was a meeting of like-minded visionaries. And the explosive collaborations led to the formation of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)--which promoted free collective improvisation and progressive composition.

Lester also joined with others to form The Art Ensemble of Chicago, which stood at the forefront of the free jazz movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The group's music was pluralistic--fusing advant garde with jazz traditions, reaching back into 1920s New Orleans, mixing in marches, spirituals and Bach fugues, and incorporating African ingredients. It was carnivalesque and shocking--a theater of colorful robes, painted faces, whistles and gongs. And the Art Ensemble's discourse combined atypical sounds from traditional instruments with original tones created on instruments from around the world--or newly invented by some audacious musician. The group's motto was, "Great Black Music--Ancient to the future."

In 1995, Lester told the RW: "We had to decide on a name that would be descriptive of what we were doing and would give dignity to its practitioners and the people that believed in it. And at the same time the term `Great Black Music' is sort of a healing, or, it makes one submit... For someone to say that they respect Great Black Music means they can respect Black people, which is what we need happening now. We need to all respect each other."

Lester took his music all over the world. With the Art Ensemble, he lived and played in Europe. He traveled to Africa to play with the world-famous Afro-pop musician Fela Kuti. He spent two years in Jamaica playing and teaching trumpet. He toured Senegal, playing with African drummers.

Bowie's music drew from the deep well of bitter experience by Black people in America. At the same time, he was always looking forward, connecting with and learning from what was new, fresh, and on the horizon. His artistic concept reflected an optimistic view of humanity--and the ability of the masses of people to struggle for a better world. He stood with the rebellious youth and he identified with radical politics. And he tried to connect his music to the masses, to popular cultural expressions of different kinds--combining free jazz with reggae, oldies, hip hop, funk, and rap.

In 1986 Lester brought his Brass Fantasy to the South Bronx in New York for the first Biko Fest. This was an all day music festival in honor of revolutionary Stephen Biko, who was murdered by the South African police. The sounds of jazz, rock, rap, reggae, poetry and African drums resonated through the ghetto in a powerful expression of solidarity with the Azanian people struggling against apartheid. Bowie took the stage and announced, "The first song we're gonna do is dedicated to P.W. Botha, president of South Africa. It's entitled `Piss Water, Kiss My Motherfuckin' Ass, Bald-faced Motherfucker."'

In the mid-1980s Bowie founded Brass Fantasy, an eight-piece all brass band, plus drums. This new group was yet another exploration into the unconventional. According to Lester, Brass Fantasy was "an extension of the brass tradition, incorporating the brass choir, the New Orleans brass band and the European brass ensemble.... It's about extending the parameters of the brass ensemble, the technical aspects of the instruments themselves as well as the whole concept of the ensemble."

Brass Fantasy's repertoire was always familiar but always brand new--bending and evolving the standards of everything from funk to Latin, R&B to top-ten pop. Here, the composer and arranger in Bowie really flourished--with free interpretations of popular songs, like "The Great Pretender" and James Brown's "I Got You"--and on their last CD, Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People" and the Spice Girl's "Two Become One."

In 1997 Lester told Le Jazz magazine, "A band like the Brass Fantasy is a way to do creative writing. Any time you can take a song made famous by a singer and take a brass band with no guitar, no keyboard and no electric bass and put it all together it takes really a creative writing. People don't even realize until two days after the show `Wait a minute! They didn't even have a keyboard!"

Lester's serious vision, social commentary and comic sensibility came through in his music, the titles of his albums and CD, as well as his choice of songs. There was "Rope-A-Dope" (for Muhammad Ali), "Let the Good Times Roll," and "Miles Davis meets Donald Duck." He recorded "Journey Towards Freedom" and "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday's searing song about a southern lynching.

On May 1, 1992, the day after the L.A. Rebellion, Lester Bowie was in a recording session for his next CD. He introduced one cut saying: We lost a close friend a few weeks ago. A drummer named Philip Wilson was murdered in New York. But since then, that even seems small. This is for him and us and them..." When it came out, the new CD had a photo from the L.A. Rebellion and was titled, "The Fire This Time." That summer, Brass Fantasy played the Chicago Jazz Festival. And when the band did "Strange Fruit," Bowie unexpectedly pulled out a gun and fired shots over the heads of the audience--jarring them into the music's profound connection with reality.


Lester's daring and beautiful experiments in notes will always be with us.

As he put it, "The beauty of the art still survives, regardless of all the pitfalls and obstacles it has to go through. We're still able to create even though we've been at this for 30 or 40 years without proper recognition. But we're still creating and we're still here..."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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