Although my late mother wasn’t aware of it, she shared a birthday with several of my jazz heroes — drummers Art Blakey and Billy Higgins, the AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie and the AACM bassist Fred Hopkins. During my years on WKCR I never had an opportunity to interview Buhaina, and although Billy Higgins came up several times, we never had a discussion comprehensive enough to merit an archival posts.
However, Fred and Lester joined me many times in the studio. To my regret, I still haven’t transcribed the proceedings of the wide-ranging Musician Show that I did with Lester in the mid-’90s (it’s on my to-do list, along with several other radio encounters). But I have transcribed what happened when Lester joined me with two of compatriots in the Art Ensemble of Chicago — drummer Don Moye and bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut — and am posting both interviews below. These, and a mid-’80s interview with Fred Hopkins coming directly after this one, have been on the web for a number of years at http://www.jazzhouse.org, home base for the Jazz Journalists Association.
Then I’ll post a drummers panel that I conducted on a memorial show for Billy Higgins on WKCR after he passed in 2001.
Lester Bowie & Don Moye (WKCR, 1995):
[MUSIC: Brass Fantasy, "Remember the Time" (1992)]
Welcome back, Lester Bowie, for the first time in about a year.
BOWIE: Yeah, thank you, Ted. Glad to be back. Always glad to be back at good old WKCR.
You’re involved in so many activities. What’s been going on with you in the last year? Has Brass Fantasy been very active? Are your newer projects getting off the ground, being realized? What’s going on?
BOWIE: Well, I’ve done quite a bit in the last year. We’ve done an Art Ensemble tour. We’ve done a Brass Fantasy tour. I have a group called Brassy Voices, which I used at the ’94 Winter Olympics. We toured that this summer as part of my organ group, along with a Norwegian brass section and a large Norwegian choir. We did that this summer, and also immediately following that we toured with Brass Fantasy, and immediately following that I toured with my organ group…
You live in Brooklyn. How many days have you been home in ’95?
BOWIE: Well, I’ve been home enough. [LAUGHS] I’ve been home enough!
Keeping busy, though.
BOWIE: Trying to keep busy. I get involved in a lot of projects. There are a lot of musicians like myself who don’t have record company backing or managerial sort of things. We have to hustle really hard to get things happening. But fortunately, because of the people that are really supporting this music, I’ve been able to do quite a few projects.
Well, you’ve been a real proponent of self-reliance and do-it-yourself for most of your career as a musician. I guess it goes back to your Army days when you were an MP Sergeant, I believe?
BOWIE: I was a policeman. I never made Sergeant. I was an Airman Third Class for a while, until I got busted. Then I was nothing! [LAUGHS] But I’ve been able to do quite a few things. And we’ve always had to be self-reliant, because you can’t wait for someone to do something for you. You have to go out and do it yourself. We felt so strongly about the music, and the only way to get that happening was to actually try to produce it ourselves.
I think in a certain way you’re referring to the years when the Art Ensemble began to stretch into a global reach, and your experiences traveling across the country in 1969 and 1970. Talk about that a bit.
BOWIE: Well, we had to go to Europe because we weren’t getting enough support to sustain ourselves in the States. We moved to Europe in the beginning of 1969. Now, prior to that, we had been working about four times a year. We’d work four gigs a year, we’d have about three hundred rehearsals — but we were only working about four days out of a year. But when we got to Europe, after we were in Europe about three days, we were working six nights a week.
Now, in Chicago, and before leaving, what sort of gigs were you doing to sustain yourself? I know you were a musician who kept quite busy.
BOWIE: I’m also a musician who has a lot of children. I have six children and six grandchildren. So I had to stay busy. It wasn’t just about wanting to stay busy; I had to stay busy. I mean, that is the crux of everything we’ve been doing. The music is so vital to us, and our families are also vital to us, that we have to rely upon only ourselves to get it out there.
But tell me about the type of musical situations you were playing in during those years, and before meeting the AACM around ’65 and ’66.
BOWIE: Well, up until then I had been doing a lot of R&B gigs. I did carnival gigs, circus gigs — I did any kind of gig I could get. I auditioned for James Brown three times. I just saw him on a plane last month. I told him, “Man, I tried to audition for your band three times.” I never got the gig. But I really enjoyed his music anyway. But I would do that. When we first started with the Art Ensemble one night, and Jackie Wilson the next night, then back to the Art Ensemble and an AACM concert, and then off on the road with Jerry Butler or Joe Tex or Rufus Thomas. I worked with just about all of the R&B people during that period.
How was it different or similar from the way that music functions today? That may seem like an obvious question, but you have a first-hand perspective on it.
BOWIE: Well, at that time, all of the artists carried big bands. I mean, they all had big bands. They did big shows. So it let us get a lot of big band experience in the R&B idiom. To show you the caliber of people, when I first came to New York to work at the Apollo (Reuben Phillips was the bandleader then), I was in a trumpet section where John Hunt was the lead player (who has died), but the other players were Kenny Dorham, Blue Mitchell, Johnny Coles, Marcus Belgrave and me — and I’m sitting on the end, scared to death.
Were you in there for a week?
BOWIE: Well, we used to come to the Apollo all the time. We’d come in for a week or two at the time. At that time we would do the Apollo one week, and then there was a theater in Brooklyn that we would follow up the next week in Brooklyn. I was on the last part of the chitlin circuit. We used to work all of the theaters. The Royal Theater in Baltimore, the Howard in D.C., and the Regal in Chicago, the Riviera in Detroit. I came along right at the end of that area.
These bands obviously were inflected with a very heavy jazz aesthetic and were very much connected to the jazz music of that time.
BOWIE: Right. Well, all of the musicians that were in the band were jazz musicians. To work then, you had to work in that sort of situation. All the guys that were doing the guys’ arrangements were jazz arrangers. So it was very close. At one time, it was very close to the music. It wasn’t so separated as it is now.
Was playing, say, straight Blues gigs part of your experience as well, or was it more the R&B things? I know a few people were house musicians for Chess Records in the Sixties.
BOWIE: Mmm-hmm. Well, when I first met Earth, Wind and Fire, all those guys were studio musicians at Chess. But all of the musicians, like I said at that time, worked in various contexts, in an R&B context. And it wasn’t just so much the gig; it was hanging out. Like, I was hanging out with Marcus Belgrave and Johnny Coles; they took me under their wing. That experience also; not just the musical experience. We have to think of the music not just as an academic experience, but as a very spiritual thing. Just hanging out with these guys, seeing how these guys looked or how they had fun. All these sorts of things were very important to me.
I’m not just giving you the biographical third degree for the fun of it, but to show a little bit of the connection between what you’re doing now with Brass Fantasy and these early experiences with large horn sections, and I’m sure with brass bands back in your teen years in high school and part of your early trumpet schooling.
BOWIE: Yeah. Well, everything in jazz is connected to your life experience, and you try to relate what you’re doing to your life experience. I worked in that sort of situation, I enjoyed working in that situation, and I still learn from that situation and still enjoy playing in all sorts of situations. So all this is very, very important.
Don Moye has just entered. The two of you have been performing together about twenty-five years now.
MOYE: That’s right.
You two first met in Paris, or in France?
MOYE: I met him in Detroit.
What were the circumstances? What was your first impression of Lester Bowie and what were the circumstances under which you met him?
MOYE: I met him at a concert at Wayne State University. It was Lester and Roscoe [Mitchell] and Malachi and Philip [Wilson].
At that time, a lot of the Chicago musicians were going to Detroit rather frequently for concerts and hooking up with the like-minded Detroit musicians.
MOYE: , Yes, we had a connection there. We did our own festivals with the Strata people in Detroit and with the B.A.G. organization in St. Louis that we would produce ourselves. There was a lot of exchanging of everything in those days.
Don Moye, what did the music sound like to you? Were you performing in open-ended situations at that time as well?
MOYE: Yeah, I was going to school at Wayne State towards a sort of in-between period of my life, deciding what I wanted to do about the music. Because I knew that the school situation wasn’t happening. So I was spending a lot of time at a place called the Artists’ Workshop, and the people around there, Charles Moore, a trumpet player, Danny Spencer, a drummer, John Sinclair, a writer and critic, was around at that time. So it was a whole scene, with a lot of people, you know, academics, creative types, and then some other people coming around. So they had concerts all the time. They brought people in like Marion Brown, and Roscoe would come in, Lester and people like that. That was the general climate.
What gigs were you doing then for survival, rent and so forth?
MOYE: Oh, I was playing with a couple of African… At that time there wasn’t the whole emphasis on world music and ethnic music. It was just an African Folk Tradition ensemble. There were some people in it from Uganda, and some people from Nigeria. It was like kind of a Foreign Students Association band, and we used to study rhythms and everybody would get together. Then that evolved sort of into a performing dance troupe type situation. Then I was still studying drums. I wasn’t really playing drums professionally at that time, more congas and percussion.
What was your path from America to Europe that led you to meet the Art Ensemble?
MOYE: Well, I went to Europe from Detroit, with a band called Detroit Free Jazz. The only one of that band that’s still around working is a guy named Ron Miller, a bass player — he’s in New York now. So we went to Europe. We just paid our way and went to Luxembourg, then we went on to Copenhagen and Morocco and all around in Europe. Then I left that band when I was in Rome, and started working at the Radio Italian… I was doing house percussionist at the Radio-TV in Rome, and then playing with people — Gato Barbieri and Steve Lacy, people like that. So I ended up going to Paris with Steve Lacy and his band, and that was the time when I ran into the Art Ensemble again.
As I’ve heard that story, they were sort of working with different drummers and trying to find someone who would fit the group, after Philip Wilson had originally been in there and went off on a gig with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Lester, what was your first impression of Moye on hearing him?
MOYE: Oh, my first impression was good immediately, because I could immediately tell that he was a well-rounded musician that was capable of performing in many different types of music. And our music consists of a lot of different mixtures of genre, and we needed someone that not only could play one way. I mean, we needed someone that knew how to keep the tempo, but at the same time knew what to do when there wasn’t a tempo — and that’s kind of hard to find.
Now, in Brass Fantasy today the drummer is Vinnie Johnson, who seems to need no help in keeping the tempo, but Don Moye functions as a real sort of colorist and commentator and punctuator of the music with a whole array of percussion. Talk about the different functions that you serve in Brass Fantasy vis-a-vis dealing with the trap drums.
MOYE: Well, you said it pretty much, the colorization of different parts. Because Vinnie is a complete drummer in the context of he never loses the beat. I mean, he is a consummate professional. So in my experience of playing with drummers that don’t really work with percussionist that much, working with him is good, because he always leaves space for anything else that might happen. So that’s where I can do my thing. Because a lot of drummers, they don’t leave any space for any more colorization; they color everything, and then the colors might end up being the same. But with Vinnie, with the breadth of his experience, and just the way he plays, that’s the perfect hook-up for us. Then that pretty much says it.
[MUSIC: Brass Fantasy: "My Way" (1990)]
Having heard the band Brass Fantasy last night, there was an energy and tightness like they’d been on the road for a couple of months or so. But Lester, you say Brass Fantasy has been performing a fair amount, but this is the first time in a little while.
BOWIE: Well, we just finished my family reunion, which was in Frederick, Maryland. We produced a concert as a gift to the area and to the town and to the country. We had a free concert, featuring my brother’s band, Joe Bowie’s Defunkt, and my other brother, Byron Bowie, did the intermission (he has a one-man band), and Brass Fantasy. It was a very successful concert, 1200 people there.
That’s where originally your father’s side of the family is from.
BOWIE: That’s where I was born and that’s where our family home is in Maryland.
I don’t think everybody is aware that the Bowie family has a very long and distinguished musical history, and that Lester’s father was responsible for the education of a number of musicians in St. Louis. So say a few years about your father, who is now 90 years and thriving.
BOWIE: He’s 90 years old, and going to exercise class three days a week. He won second place in the marathon for men over 70. So he’s doing very well. He and all of his brothers were musicians, and his father also was a trombonist, back in the last part of the Nineteenth Century.
Did he play with brass bands in Maryland?
BOWIE: We had a brass band called the Bartonsville Cornet Band, which was founded in 1911. The group was formed by my father’s father, my grandfather. There’s a picture of that band on the All The Magic album [a double-LP on ECM]. At that time, my father’s oldest brother was the bandleader, Uncle Walter. But all of my uncles played music, all of the sisters married musicians — it goes back. My great-grandfather was a musician who played the organ in church. So we went back all the way to the time before the Emancipation.
Now, you say your father had aspirations to play European Classical Music which were frustrated by Jim Crow.
BOWIE: Right. Well, you had many musicians during that time… My father was educated during the Thirties. He got his degrees then.
From where, by the way?
BOWIE: He got his first degree from Hampton Institute in Virginia, and then he studied after that for his Masters at the University of Wyoming. But at that time you had a lot of players, which much to our good fortune, these guys weren’t really allowed to get into these symphony bands. I mean, they had aspirations to be in symphony bands. People like Captain Dyett. I had a great brass teacher named Marshall Penn, who must have been one of the greatest trombonists of the era. But there was no possibility for them to get Classical positions, so they ended up teaching high school bands. Like I say, it was very good for us, because we got a top-flight musical education for free, in high school.
There’s also a rich brass tradition in St. Louis. A lot of Germans settled there and in Cincinnati and brought in their brass tradition. It also goes back to the riverboats and Charlie Creath and Dewey Jackson and Clark Terry and Miles…
BOWIE: Clark Terry and Miles and all those guys, yeah.
How aware were you of that tradition coming up? Was that something you felt very connected to?
BOWIE: Oh, yes. We were very connected to the tradition of the trumpet players having their own voice in St. Louis. Miles Davis was a favorite, and there were a lot of guys that were coming through. Webster Young, and Clark was around… It was a very inspiring period. And we were very conscious of the St. Louis approach to music.
How would you define that? What’s the St. Louis approach to the music?
BOWIE: Originality. You had to really be original. You could play well in St. Louis, you could play just like Miles, and everyone would say, “Oh, you sound very good. You sound just like Miles. But come back when you get a few notes of your own.” So there was a very conscious effort to try to remain original and to play something meaningful that was your own.
Don Moye, do you come from a musical family as well?
Take us back a little bit into your family tree.
MOYE: Well, I’m from Rochester, New York. My father wasn’t a professional drummer, but he played at the Elks Club in Rochester. They had a lot of active bands. They had a drum and bugle corps and they had a marching band, and then they had different smaller ensembles that used to play at the club, a place called Pithout(?) and Elks Hall. So my father and a couple of my uncles were pretty active in that. Then I had four uncles who were part of a territorial band in the late Thirties and Forties in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, like that. It was called Al Hartzog’s(?) Jungle Rhythm Band. That was my cousin’s father. Four
Was that a band that played stocks for dances and so forth?
MOYE: Yes. And my grandmother, she was active. She even booked a Duke Ellington concert one time. He came to Rochester in 1935, and the Elks Women’s Auxiliary, they hired him to come in and everything. So not necessarily a professional background, but my family members were involved pretty much with the music.
So presumably as a kid, you heard all the current music of the day and the big bands…
When did it become apparent to you that you were going to be a drummer?
MOYE: Well, actually, what happened was, my grandmother, she used to cook… She was like in charge of the kitchen and she cooked, and sometimes ran a place called the Pithout(?) Club, which was right next door to the Elks Club. I used stay upstairs with her all the time, and come downstairs at night. The people at that time were Grant Green and Johnny Lytell and all the organ greats; you know, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff and Jimmy Smith.
That’s who would come through.
MOYE: Yeah, mostly. Organ trios and an occasional saxophone, Gene Ammons and people like that. So that was exposure. Actually, drums were around all the time, because in Rochester in the post-War period and going into the early Fifties, a lot of the people who came back were involved in these drum-and-bugle corps to keep people active in the V.F.W. and the American Legion and everything. So in that part of the country, on the East Coast especially, there were a lot of drum-and-bugle corps and different types of things like that. So that was an active type of activity in my area. So I was always around these drum-and-bugle corps, and that’s how I really took my first lessons, for studying rudiments and stuff like that.
When did you first become aware that there was such a thing as different styles of playing jazz drums, and individual personalities who were playing, and who were some of the people who appealed to you as a kid?
MOYE: Well, that didn’t happen until I really got more into school, like going into high school, in the late years of grammar school.
So it would have been around 1960, 1958, ’59…
MOYE: Yeah, around there. Some of my early influences really were like Jo Jones (I heard him a lot) and Kenny Clarke. But I didn’t ever get a chance to see them play. I didn’t really get a chance to see anybody that much until I moved to Detroit, and that was like going into ’65, around in there. And I had been up to New York a few times, but most of my early experience was just whoever came through Rochester pretty much.
So your first real hands-on experience at watching top-flight jazz drummers was in Detroit.
Roy Brooks was there, I know.
MOYE: Right. Well, he was touring most of the time then.
Who was around Detroit?
MOYE: Bert Myrick. Ronnie Johnson. He was like a 17-year-old phenom from Detroit. He stopped playing for a while. I think he’s playing again now, but he was really… Those were the people that I saw more than anybody else. And Bobby Battle was around in those days. Then a lot of the Motown people, because they had those clubs there and everything, and we would go to the clubs and see some of those people. Then Elvin… Whoever came through. That was at the period of the decline of Jazz clubs in Detroit, but there were still enough places around where in any given week you could see two or three different top-flight bands.
BOWIE: I’d like to mention one thing here, when we talk about these territorial bands and what R&B bands were doing back then. You know, the R&B bands, for instance, B.B. King or someone like that, they would come to towns like Amarillo, Texas, where I was in the Service, and they satisfied everybody’s passion for the music. I mean, they didn’t only just play Blues or R&B. The first hour they would play all band originals. I mean, they had great musicians in the band and they had some great arrangements. So that when you went to see a concert, you didn’t go to see Blues or Jazz specifically. You went to see this music. And in that concert, it satisfied everyone’s… Whatever they wanted to hear, they heard it in that concert. And I mean some heavyweight Jazz. You got guys like Marcus Belgrave playing trumpet in these bands; you can imagine what kind of things were going on.
MOYE: Also there wasn’t the concern about labeling and everything. The only thing, when people would come out, it would just be a concert of music. It wasn’t like there’s going to be a Jazz concert or an R&B concert. A band was going to come in and play. And inside that band’s repertoire, like Lester was saying, it would cover a whole lot of different musical styles, plus their own originals. But there was never a concern about having a Jazz or Blues name featured or highlighted in the programming or the promotion of the event. It was a concert, and everybody that wanted to come out and hear a good night of music would be out there, and then they would dance with the music and everything.
You were speaking of the arrangers in these bands. Brass Fantasy is really, in a certain way, an arranger’s band, a band where contemporary arrangers put their personality on a wide range of music interpreted by some extremely personal and original improvisers. How arranged is the Art Ensemble when you’re playing? Is it a spontaneous thing every night? Do you start with a kernel and then develop it from there through your mutual intuition…?
BOWIE: No, it just depends on what we want to do. If we say, “Okay, let’s start with the kernel tonight…” As a matter of fact, we’ve got an expression called “stoop and hit.” But on the other side of that, there’s quite a lot of arranging done, too. As a matter of fact, a lot of the things that people think aren’t arranged are very meticulously notated. It depends every night, like I say. We don’t have a set formula that we say we’re going to do 30 percent written material and 70 percent improvisation. It can be 70 percent written and 30 improvised, or it can be all improvised. It just depends.
MOYE: And then, because of the nature of the type of projects we’ve been doing lately, with symphony orchestras, and then we had a Blues project, we’ve been doing a lot of different things which require arrangements for all of these people to be able to play the music. So all of our compositions can be adapted for larger ensembles, just through… It’s a matter of picking arrangers that can really handle what we want to have done.
One of the showpieces of Brass Fantasy is a very stark arrangement by Earl McIntyre of “Strange Fruit,” the Billie Holiday-Lewis Allen composition. You played it last night, and an arrangement appears on The Fire This Time, the latest release by Brass Fantasy.
BOWIE: I’d like to say one thing about Earl McIntyre and the host of other arrangers. There are so many talented musicians here in New York and throughout the country that don’t get a chance to express themselves. Somehow we’ve gotten into the bag of musicians only playing their own songs… You know, we used to play each other’s songs. We used to play each other’s music. This is what gives you an input into other styles, into other personalities. And Earl McIntyre (I just wanted to mention) is one of the great arrangers of our time…
You and the Village Vanguard band, among others.
BOWIE: Oh, he does quite a few arrangements for a lot of people. But there is not a great outlet for people like this any more. There is nowhere for him to get someone else to play his music. Nowadays, you write a song and you play it yourself, and no one else plays your song because they want to play their song, instead of sharing and playing each other’s music and making the whole music grow. Earl is a key part of that.
Two other very strong arrangers are trumpeter E.J. Allen and Steve Turre, who have contributed numerous arrangements to the Brass Fantasy book.
BOWIE: Yes, great arrangers.
[MUSIC: Brass Fantasy, "Strange Fruit" (1992); "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" (1990)]
Lester Bowie & Malachi Favors (WKCR, 11-22-94):
The Art Ensemble of Chicago is in New York this week at the new Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard Street, their first New York appearance in a number of years. I’d like to welcome Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors from the Art Ensemble to the WKCR studios. How long has been exactly since the Art Ensemble has worked in New York City, Lester? Do you recollect?
BOWIE: It’s been quite a few years. At least three, no?
FAVORS: Oh, no. It could be four or five.
It’s probably been about that. I think the last time maybe you were at Town Hall or something.
BOWIE: Town Hall, right.
Has the Art Ensemble been very active, slightly active, moderately active in the last few years?
BOWIE: You could say we’re moderately active. We’re not overwhelmed with work. But we’ve been working enough to survive. That’s about the story of our lives.
Of course, everyone in the Art Ensemble has taken on individual tasks and preoccupations outside the Art Ensemble. Malachi, you live in Chicago, and people in New York don’t get to hear you nearly enough? What’s going on in Chicago right now? Last July when I was there it seemed there was a pretty active scene.
FAVORS: Oh, yeah. There’s quite a bit going on in Chicago with the AACM. We’re coming up on our thirtieth anniversary, so we’re preparing for that, and in the meantime we’re doing concerts around the city. Maybe in July when you were there, you were just there at an inopportune time.
Well, I just missed a jam session on the night of July 4th at 66th and King Drive which I thought wouldn’t be happening that night, because it was July 4th, but indeed it did happen, and I was disappointed in myself.
FAVORS: Yes. And I was there.
Yes, I had heard! Lester and Malachi just arrived, and we’ll get into the interview portion a bit later, after we s hear some very recent music which hasn’t been heard publicly. It’s the Art Ensemble of Chicago with a symphonic orchestra.
BOWIE: Well, it’s a project we did last year that ended up being a documentary on German TV. It was a collaboration with the Civic Orchestra of Bremen, Germany, which was just forming. They were just moving from Frankfurt to Bremen. They’re called the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonik. They were just moving to Bremen, and this was their first project as the official civic symphony.
Were the arrangements done with the Art Ensemble?
BOWIE: The program consisted of six pieces. Four of the pieces were Art Ensemble greatest hits, so to speak, and the one piece from a German composer, I forget his name, Wilfred Donner maybe, and the other piece was by two Austrian composers.The arrangements for the Art Ensemble and the orchestra were by Earl McIntyre, who is a very great arranger living here in New York.
[MUSIC: Art Ensemble with Orch.: "Charlie M" (1994)]
Let’s discuss the origins of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It’s been twenty-eight years since Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound came out, featuring Lester and Malachi. Malachi, when did you first meet Roscoe Mitchell? You’re really the first two of the five members of the Art Ensemble who hooked up.
What were the circumstances? Were you at Wilson Junior College at that time?
FAVORS: Yes, I was at Wilson, and Roscoe was also at Wilson. I don’t remember… I think it was a musician that I knew named Teddy, he got married, and Muhal Richard Abrams was at the wedding, and Roscoe came in and they played some, and I asked Muhal who was the man playing the sax, and he told me it was Roscoe Mitchell, and he introduced us. So I came into contact with him at Wilson Junior College.
You mentioned a couple of things that make me want to ask some more questions. Now, you knew Muhal Richard Abrams at that time. You were a working musician around Chicago by the early 1960’s, weren’t you.
Talk a bit about your background. I think you’d been active through the 1950’s in the clubs and venues of Chicago.
Somewhat? A little bit?
FAVORS: Somewhat. During that time there was a lot of entertainment going on in Chicago, a lot of clubs on the South Side, and they needed bassists, pianists, and… I was on call. I was just beginning. And when they couldn’t get this bass player or that bass player, I would get a job on the weekend. There were so many clubs.
That’s how a lot of musicians got started.
Milt Hinton wrote that he played a couple of years getting the call on the weekend, and then it gradually built up.
FAVORS: Yes, that’s the way it happened.
There’s a recording with Andrew Hill in the late 1950’s.
Were you two involved in a trio as a working, regular situation?
FAVORS: Yes. I don’t remember how Andrew and I met, but I hooked up with Andrew, and we stayed together until Andrew left suddenly and came here to New York.
What type of places would you be playing in? What were the clubs like?
FAVORS: At the time, smaller clubs would have maybe three or four pieces, and a singer who could sing the Blues and Pop, and maybe a shake dancer (we don’t see those any more). That’s what the clubs were like. It would take me some time to collect my thoughts on it; it’s so long ago.
I know that one of your major influences on the bass was Wilbur Ware.
FAVORS: Wilbur Ware, Oscar Pettiford…
But Wilbur Ware was in Chicago. So I gather he had a very direct impact.
FAVORS: Mmm-hmm. Israel Crosby.
Talk about them a little. In a previous conversation you mentioned having gone to him and studied with him a little bit.
FAVORS: Well, I studied with him as far as I could. You know, Wilbur Ware didn’t read. He generally played by ear. So you just had to pick up from him by listening to him. He was just a born musician. He had the talent… It’s just unexplainable. He didn’t read. He could tap-dance, play drums, and that was it. And when I heard him, he just blew me away.
How about Israel Crosby?
FAVORS: Israel Crosby was another bassist… Well, there are so many bassists that I like. Oscar Pettiford… I saw Oscar Pettiford before I ever knew Wilbur Ware. We had a theater like the Apollo here in New York — the Regal.
On 47th Street.
FAVORS: Mmm-hmm. All the big bands used to come there, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl Hines, Satchmo, and Cab Calloway, who just recently died — and I would go in… Duke always would have these great bassists with him, and I just liked the bass. But when I saw Oscar Pettiford with Duke, that just blew me away. From then on, you know, I got a bass and tried to learn, and that’s when I ran into Wilbur Ware.
So seeing Oscar Pettiford made you want to be a bass player.
FAVORS: That’s right.
Were you playing music at that time?
FAVORS: No. No, I wasn’t playing music at that time. I was in a little quartet, you know…
A vocal quartet?
FAVORS: A vocal quartet.
There were a lot of those around, too.
Talk a little about your early musical education. Was it in high school? Was it private lessons? Was it being self-taught on gigs or just picking things up?
FAVORS: Well, picking things up, and you know, from different musicians like Jodie Christian and Wilbur Ware. I’d go around buying books. And I was told I had to learn the chord changes, so that’s what I did. I used to carry the scales around with me and that sort of stuff. The only schooling I had was when I went to Wilson Junior College for about a year.
And then you were in your twenties already, I take it.
You also worked with the King Fleming Trio. He was an important figure in Chicago.
FAVORS: Right. After Andrew Hill I worked in the King Fleming Trio.
He had a big band, he played trios. Talk a little bit about his style and approach to music.
FAVORS: Well, I didn’t know him when he had a big band. I only knew him, I worked him maybe a couple of years. Two or three years I worked with him. After working with him came Roscoe. No, I worked at O’Hare a couple of years, and then I met Roscoe. It’s hard to piece all of this together.
What was Roscoe Mitchell into when you met him? What was he sounding like? What sort of things was he exploring?
FAVORS: He sounded like Bird to me.
Elaborate on that a bit.
FAVORS: Well, he’s quite different now in that he’s found himself. But I was quite impressed because I heard a Bird sound coming out of him.
When did you start hooking up with him for concerts or performances or rehearsals?
FAVORS: It was between ’63 and ’64. I think we had our first concert in 1964. It was with Alvin Fielder and Fred Berry, trumpet, Roscoe and myself.
Was playing with Roscoe your first experience with extended structures and new music and so forth, or had you been working in those areas before?
I played a couple of gigs with Sun Ra. And I saw this African ballet group, and that turned me on to the Africanism in music. I kind of got into it with Andrew Hill. But in meeting Roscoe in the so-called “free” music, I just opened up. That’s what was happening.
You knew Muhal Richard Abrams at this time, too.
FAVORS: Oh, yes.
Had you played with him, or were you working in extended situations with him?
FAVORS: No. I knew Muhal, but we never really had worked together.
Then I guess the Roscoe Mitchell group kept playing and developing the music for several years. Did you join the AACM when it first was chartered in 1965?
FAVORS: Yes, I am an original member. I’m not a founder, but I’m an original member of the AACM.
Were you also going to the Experimental Band rehearsals and concerts before the AACM was officially chartered?
FAVORS: No. I went to a couple of their rehearsals, but I didn’t stick. Because at that time I was married, and trying to go to Wilson Junior College…
And work and make a living and the whole thing.
So it was hard to do that.
But your impression of the type of music that they were doing struck you as the way you wanted to go.
FAVORS: That’s right.
I believe it was 1966 when Lester Bowie came to Chicago from St. Louis, and I guess off the road as well. Talk about the circumstances that brought you to Chicago and your first encounters with the AACM.
BOWIE: Well, ’65 I believe was the year I came to Chicago. We recorded in ’66, but we were playing together before that. I was in Chicago quite a while before I knew any members of the AACM.
What were you doing? Arranging, working in blues groups?
BOWIE: Well, my wife had gotten a hit record. Fontella Bass was my first wife, and one of her records was starting to hit. I don’t think it was “Rescue Me.” It was… [END OF SIDE A] … companies like Brunswick Records. I just did a lot of sessions. And of course, playing around with bands like…George Hunter was one big band I played with.
He’d had a big band for about twenty years ongoing in Chicago.
BOWIE: Yeah, he had a band for quite a while.
How did you find the scene in Chicago when you got to Chicago there? Was it satisfactory? Not satisfactory? Were you looking for something different?
BOWIE: Well, when first got to Chicago, like I said, I was on the Rhythm-and-Blues scene and on the studio scene, and I was getting bored actually. There was nothing really happening. I mean, I always had wanted to be a Jazz musician, but I had been doing a lot of R&B, and you know, I did a lot of things to survive. So one of the fellows who was with George Hunter whose name was Delbert Hill, he played baritone, he knew I was getting bored, and he said he knew a band that rehearsed that I may find a bit more interesting — and it was the Richard Abrams Experimental Band. I went over there for a rehearsal one day and that was it.
You’ve been quoted several times as saying you ran into a bunch of people who were as out as you were!
BOWIE: Yeah, I saw all these maniacs in the same room. It was quite unsettling there for a while. But it was like I was at home. I mean, you’ve got so many of these complete, like, eccentric individuals, but playing together and really doing some different kind of music. I found it quite exciting.
Now, had you been exposed to this type of music at that point in playing it or listening to it? I mean, were you listening to John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman?
BOWIE: Oh, yeah. No, we’d been into that sort of thing, into Ornette and that whole scene in St. Louis, playing it for years before, playing it with different types of groups. Because you know, we never could find enough guys to play, so we’d be out in the park with two saxophones and a bass and a drum and a trombone and a trumpet. So we were used to playing in that sort of thing long before I came to Chicago.
Malachi, were you were checking out John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and the whole…?
FAVORS: Oh, yeah.
Did you go see them when they played in Chicago?
And it impressed you the same way that, let’s say, hearing Roscoe impressed you?
FAVORS: Oh, yes. Most definitely.
When did you first encounter John Coltrane musically?
FAVORS: Well, when he was with Miles.
And he caught your ear then, coming through Chicago?
FAVORS: Yeah, right.
How about Ornette Coleman?
FAVORS: I just heard him on recordings, and he caught my ear. At first I listened and I said, “Mmm, this guy is doing something here,” and then finally he just warmed me, you know.
I think he came through Chicago in ’62 or something at the Sutherland.
FAVORS: I think I saw him. I think so, if my memory serves me right.
Can either one of you describe what a rehearsal session of the Experimental Band or later the AACM Rehearsal Band would be like? Would someone be assigned to bring a composition in from the previous week, and then everyone would play it? How was it set up?
BOWIE: Well, I don’t remember it being that… It wasn’t that formal. It was just the guys brought in music, and we just played it. I mean, it was like just a normal rehearsal, like any other band, except the music was a bit different. But we just all came and met, and they passed out the charts, and then we would run through… Let’s say in a particular evening there were five or six charts we would run through, from Braxton or from Muhal or whoever.
Would Muhal’s charts let’s say from 1965 be similar to let’s say charts from the early 1980’s or the present? Allowing, of course, for his development and growth.
BOWIE: Well, we’re talking about the early Sixties now, the early and mid-Sixties, and of course, they were quite different then. I mean, it was interesting music. Muhal is one of the great composers and arrangers. It was really exciting. And the thing that’s really so nice about the AACM is you had all these individuals. I mean, you had Threadgill’s music, you had Braxton’s music, Roscoe’s, Joseph’s. I mean, it was just unbelievable, the difference in the approaches. So they were all really very fresh. We weren’t really everyone coming out of the same thing.
I think in Chicago it’s always been one of the precepts for jazz musicians that you have to have a different sound, something to really distinguish you from everybody else. If somebody’s doing this, then you have to do something else. Is that true…
BOWIE: Well, that’s true not only in Chicago and St. Louis. That used to be true in the music. I remember reading something Max Roach said that Jo Jones told him [SIC: LESTER YOUNG], and that was that you can’t join the throng until you sing your own song. And that’s not something that was unique to Chicago; that was a basic tenet of the music.
So what were you looking for in 1965? In other words, Lester, you were a trumpeter influenced by Kenny Dorham and Miles and Don Cherry and so forth. Had you found a direction as an improviser, or was that something that encountering the AACM helped you to grapple with?
BOWIE: Well, the AACM… I mean, I had found my way as far as I had found an approach that I was taking. But the AACM just opened up… It was the first group outside of my buddies in St. Louis where I could really play like that.
Who were those buddies in St. Louis?
BOWIE: [Julius] Hemphill and Philip Wilson and [Oliver] Lake. We would be playing like that. Outside of St. Louis, I couldn’t play like that anywhere else. But that’s why I was so excited about meeting the AACM, is because I could really expand, I could really open up. With Roscoe’s band, I could just really open up and be myself, which was kind of a multi-faceted sort of approach.
So did Roscoe immediately ask you to start working with the group?
BOWIE: Oh, yeah. By the time I got home, what happened is that Muhal… You know, I sat in, and Muhal put the music down, and so I had to take a solo, and then after I took the solo everybody wanted my number, and by the time I got home from the rehearsal, Roscoe was calling: “Come on, man, let’s get a band!” And we started rehearsing. We were like rehearsing the next day!
Malachi, what was your first impression when you met him?
FAVORS: I didn’t even notice him! [LAUGHS] No, I was really impressed. I had no idea that he was going to stick around. I just didn’t think he was going to stick around until Roscoe came to me and said, “Did you hear the trumpet player?” I said, “Yeah, I heard him. Yeah, he’s great, man.” He said, “What about him coming with us?” I asked Roscoe, “Did you ask him already?” He said, “Yeah, and he said ‘Okay.'” So I was elated. I still didn’t believe that he was going to join, because I’d also learned that his wife was Fontella Bass, and she was hot.
BOWIE: And I had a Bentley, so they couldn’t believe I was joining the AACM. I would pull up to the AACM meetings in this like really hip Bentley!
FAVORS: Yeah, he had this Bentley and stuff. But he came on in and stuck.
Wilson Junior College was a place where many people who became very prominent in the AACM attended. Apart from Malachi and Roscoe, Joseph Jarman and Henry Threadgill went there. What was the music curriculum like? Did it have a big impact on you, or was it…?
FAVORS: No, it was just basic music. In fact, Mr. Wang, one of our professors, he’s still around, and he’s always in a sense bowing to us for turning him on.
That must be a very interesting thing for a teacher to have all these young musicians start turning world music around.
FAVORS: Yeah, well…
What sort of gigs did Roscoe Mitchell have in Chicago in the mid-1960’s? Were the established clubs in town accepting of the music? Were you having to set up your own gigs? How did that work?
FAVORS: No, the established clubs were not accepting our music. We just had faith, rehearsed every day. I had a Volkswagen Rabbit at that time, and we started with the little instruments, and all the little instruments would be in my Volkswagen Rabbit…
BOWIE: The Beetle.
FAVORS: The Beetle, right-right. We went down on Rush Street, and got a job; it was Lester, Roscoe and myself.
Just the trio.
FAVORS: Yes, it was just the trio at this time. And we got fired the first night! However, a fellow came up to me a week or so later, and he said, “Man, I heard you all down there on Rush Street. What was that music you’re playing?” He said, “Man, it got to me.” And that built me up. All wasn’t lost. Here was somebody who heard the music and really liked it.
BOWIE: Remember the time…? There was one time we were getting gigs, and we were gigging around Chicago with this same trio. And we got about five or six gigs all over Chicago in different places, and we were getting fired after each one of those gigs. We got fired! Each time we got fired. But the music would be smoking, and we couldn’t understand why they were firing us. I mean, we were playing like “No Business Like Show Business.” I mean, we would put these hip suites together which would have some standards in it, but some would be out; but really a club set that we thought should have been acceptable because it was a… But I guess because we turned it into a suite or something, I don’t know, but we would get fired every night. But we always got paid. So when we figured it out, we’d just like get five gigs a week, we’d get fired every one, but at least we’d have work those five nights!
When did the little instruments start getting incorporated into the arsenal of the Art Ensemble?
FAVORS: Well, I think I started from an African influence. As I told you, I saw this African ballet, and I just felt that this music belonged in Jazz, in so-called Jazz. I remember once I came… We were going to have a concert or a rehearsal or something, and I came with these little instruments, and Roscoe asked me, “What are you going to do with that, man?” I said, “I’m going to play them in the concert!” And from then on, after that, we just started elaborating on little instruments. Pretty soon Roscoe and Joseph and Moye, they were little instrument kings!
Was there an African music community in Chicago of any consequence, in terms of learning the qualities of the instruments, or again was it a process of self-exploration for you?
FAVORS: Self-exploration. At that time, I didn’t know of any.
BOWIE: I’m sure there were some Africans there, but there was no African community like there is a Haitian community here or something like that. The only Africans were us.
Well, let’s hear what the band sounded like. Because in 1966, 1967 and 1968, the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet and Lester Bowie and Joseph Jarman, with Malachi Favors (who did not record under his own name) were heavily documented, or at any rate adequately documented… Or maybe not.
At any rate, the first recording is on Delmark, the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, entitled Sound, featuring the following musicians. Four horns, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Lester Lashley, the trombonist and cellist, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre on tenor sax, Malachi Favors, bass, and Alvin Fielder who is still active in the music around Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he’s a pharmacist, on percussion.
Let me point out an additional sidelight. That day, August 10th, was also the date that my first daughter was born. So I mean, there were a lot of things happening on that day! I think I got arrested or something that day. It was really a weird day!
[MUSIC: Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, "The Little Suite" (1966); excerpt from "Congliptious" (1968)]
We were speaking before about the years in Chicago and the development of the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble. I guess the next significant milestone for the group was your incorporating Joseph Jarman, who had been going in his own direction and was working with his own ensemble into the group I guess around 1968.
BOWIE: Yes. Two of the guys in Joseph’s group died. It was a pretty traumatic period for Joseph, and for all of us actually; these two guys died rather suddenly. And Joseph got together with us after that.
Malachi, had you hooked up with Joseph prior to his joining the group? Or was it primarily with Roscoe?
FAVORS: No, I hadn’t hooked up with Joseph until he came into the Art Ensemble.
What do you remember about Charles Clark, the bassist who worked with Joseph Jarman? A brilliant bassist by all accounts and by his recordings.
FAVORS: Oh yeah, he was a great young bassist. He had everything happening for him. I noticed that sometimes we’d jam together, and he would pick stuff up like that. He was great.
BOWIE: It was really a shock when he died, because Charles was really like the epitome of health. He rode a bike and ate vegetables and did the whole scene. When he dropped it was really a shock, because he just dropped dead at a subway stop.
Christopher Gaddy, the pianist, had heart trouble.
BOWIE: Well, Christopher had been sick. He had been in ill health for a while. He had been sick, so we knew he was sick. But Charles, just like all of a sudden somebody calls me up and says, “Charles is dead.” It was unbelievable.
How did the group start to change its focus after Joseph Jarman came into it? What qualities did he bring in that hadn’t been there?
BOWIE: Well, we had done quite a few concerts together anyway, before he formally joined the group. We had been working together. As a matter of fact, we had done big things with his group and our group. We used to have some quite interesting programs in the AACM. You wouldn’t believe some of the combinations of individuals and instruments that we had. But anyway, getting back to Joseph…
Some examples, Lester!
BOWIE: I mean, we would have concerts that would just… It’s hard to describe. We’d have Joseph in Roscoe’s band and in Braxton’s band, and just so much excitement, so different. I remember the first festival we did. We hooked up with the guys from St. Louis who formed an organization similar to the AACM, from our example — they started a group called B.A.G, Black Artists’ Group, in St. Louis. There was another group in Detroit. So we started having exchange concerts and having our own mini-festivals. I remember the first time that the St. Louis guys came up, and the Chicago guys were kind of chesty, “Hey, we got this down” — we were kind of chesty. Hey, Lake and LeFlore and Scrooge, they came up, and they was like walking all over us. Hemphill… They were walking all over the AACM cats! It was so exciting, just the music… To hear so many people within this so-called…
That’s why Malachi says “So-called free.” People, when they think of Free Music, they just have one thing in their mind, [SINGS INCOHERENT LINE], and that’s all that happens. But there’s so much more expression and emotional depth in that sort of music. And when they came up, it just kind of shocked everyone just to realize just how great musicians are wherever they happen to be from. They don’t have to be from New York or Chicago, or you don’t have to have ever heard of them — and they are just outstanding.
I think one thing that impressed a lot of people who were impressed by the new music in the Midwest was the level of structure and layering on of structure into the music.
BOWIE: Well, what we did, we felt free to express ourselves in anyway that we thought of. If anyone had an idea, we’d try it. It wasn’t like, “Oh, man, we can’t do that; that’s not Jazz” or something similar to that sort of thought. “Oh, man, we can’t play that; there’s a tempo there” or “we can’t play that; there’s no tempo there.” We were just kind of open to every possibility, every idea someone had.
Did Jarman help in terms of bringing in the theatrical aspect of the Art Ensemble?
BOWIE: Yeah, he was part of that. And also his spoken words… Joseph is also quite a poet, and he brought that sort of approach…
He’d already recorded “Non-Cognitive Aspects Of The City” and things like this.
BOWIE: Yes, and he brought that thing into play. I mean, he brought his personality. I think the easiest way to say that is that he added another dimension because he was another person, and he put his personality into what he was doing.
And a very strong personality…
…that could stand up to people like Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors and Roscoe Mitchell.
In 1969, the Art Ensemble packed its bags and laid down some roots in Europe, in France, and traveled around Europe. I’d like you to talk about that decision to leave Chicago and go to Europe, and the circumstances by which you carried that out.
FAVORS: Well, at the time, Lester again was becoming quite restless, and he came to us and said he was going to get a trailer and take his family, and move them to a trailer, and just travel up and down the road. So I listened, and we didn’t know what was going to happen. The AACM got a letter from Europe, from a person by the name of Claude Delcloo, a drummer, a French drummer. He wanted the music to be brought to France. However, he didn’t have any money to bring us there or anything. So at one of the AACM meetings Lester got wind of this and came up with the idea that he would finance the trip to France for the Art Ensemble. And that was the beginning of it.
Did you foresee, Lester, how you would then start making your way through France? Did you know people there, for instance?
BOWIE: No, we didn’t know anyone.
Except [Claude] Delcloo.
BOWIE: Except Delcloo, who was the… But we had come to an impasse. We were working in the States maybe four times a year, which is about what we’re still doing thirty years later! But we were working about four times a year, but we were rehearsing every day, and we had really come upon something that we felt we could dedicate our lives to. I mean, I couldn’t dedicate my life to being an R&B trumpeter, Malachi didn’t want to just work at the Holiday Inn for the rest of his life. And we had a group that we knew had a unique sound, a language of our own, and we knew we had something to contribute to the music, and we wanted to do that exclusively instead of, you know, I’d do a gig with the Art Ensemble one day and the next day Jackie Wilson. I wanted to all Art Ensemble. That was impossible for us in the States, for us to be able to sustain ourselves and our families off of what was happening in the States. So we said, “Let’s go to Europe. We’d read in the magazines all the reports of how Europe was more accepting of the music. And immediately… I think we were in Europe three days, and we were working six nights a week. And within a year, we had done two hundred concerts.
Well, there are at least a dozen records that came out of the two years in Europe. There was a very large community of American musicians living in France when you got there, and different members of the Art Ensemble participated in recordings by different members of that community in all sorts of configurations.
BOWIE: There was Archie Shepp and…
FAVORS: Philly Joe Jones.
BOWIE: …Philly Joe Jones there, Hank Mobley, guys I had dreamed about — we were all there playing together. Kenny Clarke, Art Taylor. It was a quite exciting period.
FAVORS: Yeah, they accepted us.
BOWIE: And they accepted us, no problem.
Everybody was open to what you were doing?
BOWIE: Yeah, no problem.
FAVORS: Frank Wright, the great Frank Wright.
Arthur Jones and Jacques Coursil and all…
One thing that seems to have been important in the way the Art Ensemble has developed over the years is… This may seem like it’s coming a little off the wall. But the military background of several of the members, Jarman, Bowie, Roscoe, and were you as well, Malachi?
Would you talk about that? Is there something to that, that it helped you in terms of your self-sufficiency or ability to really make your own way through the wilds of the business.
BOWIE: Oh, definitely. I mean, if we weren’t veterans all used to soldiering, I don’t think we would have survived all this time. I mean, all that we learned in the military… There’s a lot that you have to learn when you’re fighting this battle of music, which we are still fighting. So we’re soldiers, and that training really helped us.
FAVORS: We got the discipline. It helped discipline you to problems and hardship. When I go back to the Army, getting up every morning at 5 o’clock, soldiering — it was so hard. Sometimes I’d cry because it was such a routine. But at the same time, it was building me up, building my discipline up and my manhood. And it enabled me to go through quite a few things that we went through out there on the road, just going up and down the road, traveling to California, no gigs, just packing up, going…
That was before you went to Europe, right? Around ’67?
BOWIE: I mean, we’ve lived in tents, we’ve lived in barns…,
BOWIE: …we’ve lived in the trucks… I mean, we’ve had all the camping equipment. All that bivouacking we did in the military helped us go through all of these things we had to do to keep this band alive.
Specifically, Malachi, the years you were in the Army were like out of high school or something, like ’55, ’56, ’57?
FAVORS: Yes, you hit it on the head.
Did you play music in the Army?
FAVORS: I had a cello that I took with me, and I tuned it like a bass. All the time I was training, after I’d come back off of the field, I would go get my cello.
But you weren’t in a band.
FAVORS: I was a soldier all the way.
Did you play off-base at all?
FAVORS: Yes, I got to play some gigs with a piano player, Don Green.
Where were you stationed?
FAVORS: Camp Adderberry, Indiana. We played at the PX, the orderly room or whatever they called it.
Europe is also where you encountered the fifth member of the Art Ensemble, Don Moye…
FAVORS: Yes. But just before you go over there, I’d like to mention a couple of members in the Art Ensemble, what their service job was in the Army. Lester Bowie was a military police… [LAUGHS]
BOWIE: That’s right, the po-lice.
FAVORS: Joseph Jarman was a paratrooper.
How about Roscoe?
FAVORS: Uh, I don’t know…
BOWIE: Roscoe was in the band.
FAVORS: He was in a band?
BOWIE: Roscoe was in the band, yeah.
FAVORS: He was the only one who functioned as a musician in the Armed Forces.
Back to Don Moye, now. He met up with you in 1970, I guess, in Paris?
Were you working in a drummerless situation all the way through there, or were you picking up a drummer here, working four pieces there…?
BOWIE: Well, we basically worked without a drummer, and every now and then we would sort of audition a guy, and take them out to maybe a gig or two to see if they could fit in.
What would it take for a drummer to fit in with you?
BOWIE: Well, it wasn’t about what it took. They would either just come and fit in or they didn’t. It wasn’t about that we had a list, “Okay, man, did he do this?” or “How was he…” It was just an automatic sort of spiritual thing. I think the spiritual part of the music has really been neglected. And the Art Ensemble, aside from all the military training and this and that, is a very spiritual sort of group, and we do a lot of things that the spirit tells us to do. And the spirit just says who’s right and who’s not right. They just come in… Moye came in, and it’s twenty-five years and he’s still here.
He brought a lot of business type attributes to the ensemble as well.
BOWIE: Yes, he does quite a bit of business. That’s one of his talents. Languages is another one of his talents. Also with playing… First it was the music. First people fit in musically, and then after… Because at first he didn’t do any business. But at first it’s just about the feeling and the spirit of the music, and whether or not you fit in musically — and whether the dogs like you or not! [LAUGHS]
Well, I think the Art Ensemble has always embodied a combination of the spiritual aspect and a very pragmatic side in terms of organizing the music and preserving yourselves as an entity. Because there are very few groups in music that have been together as long as the Art Ensemble. During the time that you were really active as a group, which is about a twenty-year period, there are very few precedents for that.
Let’s hear some recordings that represent the Art Ensemble in their European period. There are so many to choose from and so little time to do it. We’ll hear “A Jackson In Your House” from 1969. Lester, you believe that’s the first recording you did in Europe.
BOWIE: This is the first recording that we did in Europe, yes.
[MUSIC: AEC, "Jackson In Your House" (1969); "Proverbes" (1970); AEC with Symphony, "Zero" (1994)]
“Proverbes 1,” is from Les Stances A Sophie, a movie soundtrack by the Art Ensemble, a film I have yet to see, on Nessa, recorded in Boulogne on July 22, 1970, and the first recording featuring Don Moye with the AEC. [ETC.] It seems like you did about four records that week.
BOWIE: We were really quite active. You can imagine, coming from the States where we were completely inactive, and then to go to Europe and get so much work was overwhelming.
The Art Ensemble came back to the States in ’71, and basically things hadn’t changed much; maybe they’d gotten a little worse.
BOWIE: I read something from someone who was interviewed. They asked him, “What about Europe?” He says when he goes to Europe he’s an American idol, but when he comes home he’s just another idle American. It’s really a shame. The States is missing so much music, it’s unbelievable. It’s just unbelievable how much music we are missing that we are creating! But we are missing all the artistic and cultural benefits; we’re just throwing it out the window.
Also, the members of the Art Ensemble started to pursue their own interests. Lester spent time in Africa and in the Caribbean, and everyone explored different areas. Yet the identity and artistic weight of the Art Ensemble just grew and grew and grew, as is evident on a slew of recordings made between 1972 and the mid-1980’s, which we don’t have time to go into now. Then in the mid-Eighties you embarked on a recording contract wherein you got production rights and total control over a whole series of recordings via DIW Records. That’s the next material we’ll be hearing. We would need a good 24-hour bivouac to give the Art Ensemble the justice it deserves. But a few words about this series of projects and how it came together.
BOWIE: First of all, we have had ideas for the last thirty years that we have not been able to really deal with. There are a million projects we wish we could get into that we haven’t really had the opportunity to develop, like for instance, the thing we just heard with the symphony orchestra. In the 1980’s, the Japanese gave us a contract to produce whatever we wanted to. It kind of gave us an opportunity to just touch some of the things that we really wanted to do.
And one of the things that we wanted to do was a collaboration (and I must emphasize, a collaboration) with some South African musicians. We contacted this choir called Amabutho, which lived in London and South Africa, and we got together, and we just had an artist’s collaboration. I want to point that out, because it’s not just us playing and some South Africans playing. I mean, we actually worked this together. We brought the guys here to the States, we rented a big house, and we just rehearsed and had great dinners for the next two months, and we put this music together. So it was really quite enjoyable for all concerned.
Other projects included a collaboration with Cecil Taylor, a recording matching Brass Fantasy with the Art Ensemble; a beautifully recorded, rigorous session called Naked from 1986; Ancient to the Future, you went through a series of covers of very meaningful tunes from Popular music, reflecting your experiences.
BOWIE: That’s right.
In that regard, I’d like to bring back the point that you all continued to function as musicians outside of the Art Ensemble. Or was there a time when it was exclusively the Art Ensemble?
BOWIE: No, that was part of the plan. See, we decided, when we began, that we would be together thirty-forty-fifty years later. We knew that we had to… We didn’t want to limit anyone’s growth. We didn’t say, “Well, you have to play with the Art Ensemble,” because you can’t grow that way. We encouraged everyone to go out. We used to call the Art Ensemble OCS, which in the military means Officers Candidate School, where you train officers. We trained bandleaders, so that each one of us were able to know all the functions of carrying a group around, and to take that experience to other groups of musicians. In turn, you learn from that experience. I mean, we take our experiences with the Art Ensemble to our individual groups; we in turn get this experience back, and we bring it back to the Art Ensemble, which enables us to keep growing in all ways.
Now, the Art Ensemble has incorporated world music always in its programs. Malachi was talking about the beginnings of that, seeing the African ballet troupe. I think that was really able to come to fruition in this series of recordings in the 1980’s.
BOWIE: Well, the whole world music concept… I mean, we were always into world music. I mean, the AACM was into world music long before anyone was really talking about it. I think we really started the emphasis on that sort of thing.
Well, Malachi brought the African music in, Jarman has always been interested in the musics of various Asian cultures. It’s an amazing blend.
FAVORS: Also, Don Moye had a hand in bringing in the tradition and the technique of African music. My thing was just the spirit African. Seeing that I am African-American, I just came from the spirit form of the music. But Moye knows the technical form of African music, and has been to Africa.
He was up here in 1987, and brought many tapes featuring him performing with different ensembles in Africa. We’ll hear a selection from Art Ensemble of Soweto, which joins the Art Ensemble of Chicago with the Amabutho Male Chorus. [ETC.]
BOWIE: All these guys are really great musicians, and really great guys. I keep going back to the spirit involved in this music. It’s the person. We really had a great time collaborating with these guys, because we lived together and we had fun together. You can hear all of that in the music.
Lester, there’s a nice anecdote of how you hooked up with Fela in the 1970’s.
BOWIE: I had wanted to go to Africa for years; you know, Roots and you want to go to Africa… The Art Ensemble had been trying to go to Africa. We were working with the French Ministry of Culture, and they would send us everywhere but Africa. We knew they had a ministry in Senegal, they had ministries in Martinique and Guadaloupe, but they would never send us there. And we tried many years to go.
So finally, I just decided, “I’m going to Africa,” and after one of our tours, I just went. I didn’t know anyone in Africa. Now, I think Randy Weston gave me Fela’s name. He said, “Well, if you ever get there, check out Fela.” So I went to Nigeria on a one-way ticket. I didn’t have a way to get back. I had a hundred dollars. And it cost me fifty dollars to take the cab to get to the hotel. I had forty bucks left. I had enough money for the room and a meal, and I didn’t have any more money. I had just arrived about 10 o’clock at night, and I had to leave by check-out time. I didn’t know anyone.
So I went to the restaurant, and the kitchen was closing, and I got to talking with the waiters. They said, “Well, you’re a musician…” They couldn’t believe that I was like… “Here’s this American, and you’re just showing up? You don’t have any money or nothing? You’re out here with this trumpet? I don’t believe it.” So anyway, they said, “Well, you’d better go see Fela.” So I went to see Fela. The next day I got up and I said, “Well, where does he live?” They said, “Well, just get in the cab and just tell the cab driver to take you to Fela.” So I got in the cab and said, “Well, take me to Fela.”
Fela at that time had just been kicked out of his house. His house had been burned down by the soldiers; this was right after (?). So he had taken over this hotel. We pull up to the courtyard of his hotel. This little guy comes up to me as I get out with my horn. He says, “Hey, what’s that?” I said, “It’s a trumpet.” He said, “Where you from?” I said, “New York.” He said, “You play jazz?” I said, “Yeah, I play jazz.” He said, “Well, you must be heavy then.” I said, “Well, a little bit.” He said, “Well, you’ve come to the right place.” I said, “Why is that?” He said, “Because we’re the baddest band in Africa.”
So from that moment on, he took me to Fela, and Fela… [LAUGHS] It was funny. They had to wake Fela up. They woke him up, and Fela came in, and he said, “Oh, who is this guy?” He motioned for a guy to bring his record player, and he had some of those Jamie Aebersol type records, then he motioned for another guy to bring in his saxophone. So he put on this Blues, a Blues in B-flat, which is my specialty, right? So I played this Blues, man! One way ticket, you know I was blowin’, baby. After I played a couple of choruses he said, “Stop. Somebody go get this guy’s bags. He’s moving in with me.” So from that moment on, I was Fela’s guest of honor. I made three records with him, and it was quite an experience.
[MUSIC: AEC, "African Woman" (1989-90)]
“African Woman” is a composition by Elliot Ngubane of the Amabutho Male Chorus with arrangement by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, from a 1989-1990 recording session for the DIW label produced by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. For this date they were the Art Ensemble of Soweto, Chicago crossed out. [ETC.]
We have probably one more piece to play for you from an event in 1993, recorded for German television, a version of one of the Art Ensemble’s favorite compositions, Roscoe Mitchell’s “People in Sorrow,” which was recorded in 1969 in France and originally issued on Nessa Records. Malachi Favors, what’s special about this composition to the Art Ensemble. It keeps taking on new identities and permutations over the years, and I’ve often heard you play it.
FAVORS: When music is spiritual, when music is heavily spiritual, you just can’t explain it. I don’t have the words. Maybe Lester can explain it.
BOWIE: “People in Sorrow” is sort of a statement of our condition, and how we feel about people that are oppressed. I think it’s kind of a song for the oppressed which kind of tells about our sorrow, but also gives hope for the future. But it really shows just how sad the situation is in the Third World and in many African and Hispanic and different communities. It’s not a happy situation. And “People in Sorrow” is about that. It’s about people in sorrow.
Now, you’ve been saying that the Art Ensemble of Chicago came together with the idea of being together for thirty-forty-fifty years, and now indeed it’s 24 years with the current configuration, Malachi and Roscoe have hooked up for thirty years, and Lester’s thirtieth year will be next year. Do you see another decade? Is the level of commitment still there?
BOWIE: Oh, yeah, as long as we live. I mean, I don’t know how many more decades we’re going to be alive.
Well, in an ideal situation.
BOWIE: Well, in an ideal situation, yeah, we’d be together fifty more years — ideally. But that’s not the case. But we’ll be together as long as one of us is still alive to carry on the word until the last of us bites the dust.
Let’s say you’re playing a program of three nights in a club, say two sets a night, how is the material picked for suites? Everybody has a few dozen compositions, you have a huge backlog of performance material and history to draw on. Is it set up beforehand? Are you rehearsing a set body of material before you’re going out and performing? How does the Art Ensemble select its material in performance?
BOWIE: About ten or twenty minutes before we go on the stage, we say, “What do you feel like playing?” and then we just play whatever we feel like playing at that particular time.
Does it just take its own shape? Is it improvised out there?
BOWIE: Well, we put a basic sketch in our minds of what we may want to do, what tunes we may want to cover, but at the same time we don’t limit ourselves. We will play a song that we haven’t said that we were going to play, and we’ve conditioned ourselves, if something comes up, to go with it. You go with the flow. You don’t say, “Hey, man, we’re not supposed to play that this set.” You just kind of go with the flow. So we kind of put a sketch, but we leave that sketch open to change.
Are there set instrumental combinations, say, Roscoe and Jarman are going to do a solo, Malachi is going to play the balafon, Moye is going to do… Or does it just come up on the spur of the moment?
BOWIE: No, we do that sometimes. Yeah, of course. We get situations where we say we’re going to do this, or we’re going to start with this instrumentation. I mean, we write songs for all of those instrumentations. For every little bell, we’ve got the note of that bell, and every little stick and everything — we’ve got these things. So we set up situations.
How about the ritualistic aspects of the Art Ensemble? In other words, the aspects of ritual that you elaborate in a live performance. That visual component is one thing that’s really missing from your recordings.
BOWIE: Oh, yeah. Well, it is a ritual. I mean, we try to prepare ourselves mentally to perform. I mean, this is the epitome of what we do. When we go on the stage to perform, we are there for that moment only, and we try to spiritually condition ourselves to be open to receive whatever conflicts may happen, and shoot our way that particular evening.
Well, I guess after thirty years you can pretty much read each other’s minds.
BOWIE: Well, it’s not so much about reading. It’s about kind of going. You don’t so much read the mind, but you’re willing to accept. Malachi can play one note of something, and if it’s working, it just flows. I don’t know how to describe it. But everything isn’t planned out. I mean, sometimes we go on the stage with no idea. We have what we call stoop and hit, which means just hit. We ask, “Hey, what do you feel like playing?” Nobody says anything. “Well, let’s just stoop and hit.” And we go on out there with no idea what we’re going to play.
Malachi, you looked like you wanted to say something about thirty seconds ago.
FAVORS: Well, Lester said what I wanted to say. We just open ourselves to the spirit of the music and play. We received something to give to the audience.
BOWIE: We’re not always successful, now. We don’t want you to think that, oh, everything we play and everything the Art Ensemble plays is gospel — because it isn’t. But we are experimenting and we’re trying things. Some things work, some things don’t. That’s life.
So after thirty years, you’re still experimenting and still looking for new ways.
BOWIE: Oh, yes, definitely.
FAVORS: Just like life.
[MUSIC: AEC & Kammerphilharmonik, "People In Sorrow" (1993)]