During my 23 years as a host on WKCR, I had the honor of hosting trumpeter Lester Bowie on several occasions, including separate in-studio interviews with him and Art Ensemble of Chicago bandmates Malachi Favors and Lester Bowie, which I first posted in 2011. (https://tedpanken.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/a-wkcr-interview-with-lester-bowie-r-i-p-and-don-moye-and-lester-and-malachi-favors-on-lesters-70th-birthday/)
Here for the first time I’m posting the proceedings of WKCR Musician Shows that I did with Lester in 1994 and 1998, respectively.
Lester Bowie – Musician Show, WKCR, May 18, 1994:
[MUSIC: Lester Bowie, “Rope A Dope”-1975; Brass Fantasy, “Da Butt”; Brass Fantasy, “For Louis (by Philip Wilson)]”; Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Charlie M”]
TP: With me in the studio after an arduous… It seems to be a tough day for interborough traffic. How are you doing.
LB: Doing pretty good.
TP: When we were discussing the show, you gave me a long list. We’ll start with a pairing that seems as unexpected as you might hear at a Brass Fantasy concert — Bullmoose Jackson and Kenny Dorham. Bullmoose Jackson “Sneaky Pete” with Lucky Millinder, 1947.
LB: Bullmoose Jackson was kind of the music I listened to as I was growing up. I listened to a lot of R&B. Kenny Dorham represents the record that really turned me into jazz. That one, the record you’ll hear after “Sneaky Pete,” is the one record that really made me want to be a jazz musician. “Sneaky Pete” is sort of my background. This is what I came up hearing in the house.
TP: You said your mother liked this.
LB: My mother liked “Sneaky Pete.” She liked Bullmoose Jackson.
TP: You had a lot of rhythm-and-blues 78s in the house.
LB: A lot of 78s in the house. A lot of all kinds. We had Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Earl Bostic, a lot of that…
TP: Your father was a band director. Did he know the musicians? Did you get to meet them as a kid when they’d come through St. Louis?
LB: No. Actually my father wasn’t a jazz musician. He was a classical musician. He was a guy who would have been with one of the symphonies, had there been Blacks being hired or had there been some Black symphonies.
TP: What was his instrument?
LB: His instrument was trumpet, and he taught high school bands. He was a high school band director for 30 years in St. Louis.
TP: Was he your teacher on the trumpet?
LB: He was my first teacher, of course.
TP: How old were you?
LB: You know, the first time somebody asked me that, the first time I did an interview, I didn’t know. So I had to call my Daddy! I had to call back home, “Hey, when did I start playing?” Because I don’t remember. So he said he was giving me the mouthpiece in the crib. So we just the official age at 5, because he said I’ve been playing longer… I have no knowledge. I don’t even remember picking up the trumpet.
TP: So you don’t remember a time when you weren’t playing trumpet?
LB: No, I don’t remember any time when I wasn’t playing trumpet.
[MUSIC: Bullmoose Jackson, “Sneaky Pete”-1947; KD & Jazz Messengers, “Soft Winds”-1955]
TP: That Kenny Dorham solo on “Soft Winds” inspired Lester Bowie.
LB: That was a great period. We wanted to look like Art Blakey. We used to go around trying to look like the Jazz Messengers and everything. It was a great period.
TP: By “we” you’re talking about you and some like-minded teenagers in St. Louis in the 1950s, I take it.
LB: Yes. John Hicks and Oliver Lake and Philip Wilson and I were all in high school together, along with guys like Dick Gregory and Grace Bumphrey. We were really into that sort of sound in the 50s. We were all teenagers in the 50s. So that was the thing that was really hip.
TP: What did that sound mean to you at the time?
LB: It just meant something hip. Art Blakey and them were HIP. You dig? They had their thing, and it was just hip…and that means whatever that means. That was happening. They were hip. The people who were into that sort of thing were hip. Everything involved with that whole Art Blakey bag was hip.
TP: At this point were you trying to play this music? Did you have teenage bands? Were you working this stuff out?
LB: Actually, that’s why I chose this next selection. We always wanted to be jazz musicians. But at the time, in the 50s, I didn’t think it was possible. Everything was against me trying to be a musician. We weren’t encouraged to be professional musicians. Even though I had been a professional since 1955, I didn’t believe that I was going to be one for the rest of my life. So Art Blakey was sort of a dream. We wanted to be like that. That dream continued for many years afterwards. We wanted to play jazz, but the reality was that if we wanted to be around later to play jazz, we had to learn how to become professional musicians, and in doing that… The reality of the life of the music is what’s coming up next. This is Little Milton’s band. I think it was me playing, either me or Paul Serrano. I’ve played this solo so many times, I do believe it’s me.
TP: Was this from the 1960s?
LB: Yes, it must be early 60s, 1963 maybe, or 1962?
TP: When did you start going between St. Louis and Chicago? What were some of your early gigs as a trumpeter, “within the reality of the life in music,” as you say?
LB: I used to go down to Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas, with Little Milton.
TP: How did he hook up with you?
LB: Well, Little Milton was in St. Louis. St. Louis had a quite active blues scene. Albert King was there. Oliver Sain was the other… These were the three big bands, and there were other smaller bands. Ike Turner was there. So there were a lot of gigs, Ike and Tina and… Just a lot of gigs around town for musicians. And all the jazz cats worked with these bands. Albert King, you should have heard his band before Albert came out. Man, Albert King’s band was smoking. “Cooking at the Continental.” All of this Art Blakey wannabe song thing we were doing as blues musicians. But we were doing blues gigs.
TP: I guess that was the case for a lot of R&B bands in the 50s. Ray Charles had David Fathead Newman, Marcus Belgrave, Ed Blackwell…
LB: Well, you had to learn that first. When students ask me, “How do you become a jazz musician?” I say, “The first thing you’ve got to become is a pro and learn how to feed yourself with the instrument,” and then in doing that I was doing a lot of blues.
TP: So, “We’re Going To Make It” featuring Lester Bowie’s first recorded solo?
LB: I don’t know if it’s the first. But it’s an early one, believe me.
[Little Milton, “We’re Going To Make It”]
TP: Lester now thinks it may have been another tune by Little Milton that he took that solo on.
LB: It was something on that album, but I forget which one. We used to play it all the time. It’s representative. There used to be fights actually every night. We would do that tune last. By then everyone was drunk, and they’d say, “Well, we ain’t got a cent to pay the rent, but we gonna make it,” and the shooting would start. It would start with that one.
TP: A provocation.
LB: Yes, it was very emotional.
TP: Was Little Milton working a lot? One night stands or week-long gigs?
LB: no, we only did one night stands. We played in the South. Most of the winter we played Mississippi and Tennessee and Alabama and Georgia, Florida, and during the summer months we’d do more Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, northern Arkansas, places like that.
TP: was Little Milton the only band, or were you hooked up with Oliver Sain as well?
LB: Actually I was with Little Milton for a while. Oliver Sain was with Little Milton. Then Oliver Sain and Fontella, who was my first wife… I met her with Little Milton initially. They developed a band, the Oliver Sain Revue, and I went with them. Albert King was another band I was playing off and on with a lot.
TP: All the top St. Louis blues bands. What would you say your experiences in those bands meant to you in your later development as an improviser on the trumpet?
LB: I learned how to vamp my ass off! Boy, I know a lot of vamps. But actually, I learned a lot about show business, mostly about show business, and a lot about trumpet technically as far as playing for a long period of time. Like I said, those vamps, sometimes…like the end of that one we just played, “We’re Gonna Make It,” that might go on for 20 minutes. 20 minutes of doing that. So I really learned a lot about pacing, and I learned a lot about show business, both in the blues circuit and on the carnival, circus type thing.
TP: Did Little Milton was play the carnival circuit?
LB: We didn’t play those gigs. That was another circuit. There used to be some Negro revues. There was the Silas Green revue…
TP: That goes back a long ways, to the 1920s and early 1930s…
LB: Yes. I was with Leon Claxton. Leon Claxton had a Harlem and Havana Revue.
TP: What was the nature of that type of gig? What you’re talking about is a shared experience that a lot of black musicians went through before you in their formative years.
LB: I was really lucky. I came in at the tail end of a lot. The cats were really very nice to each other. We had a lot of communication between musicians. When I first came to New York, I was hanging out with Kenny Dorham and Blue Mitchell, Johnny Coles. The tail end of that whole chitlin’ circuit. I was very fortunate to come along at the very end of segregation. You see, in 1955 I was almost 15 years old. So I was right at the end of segregation and the whole chitlin’ circuit. I got to play the Apollo and the Royal Theater… It was a great time.
TP: The black hotels.
LB: All the hotels. All that sort of thing, yes. The circus, like I said, was a traveling road-show. We traveled all over the Midwest, the upper Midwest, and up into Canada.
TP: Was that one of your earlier gigs out of high school?
LB: When I was in high school I had a band, and we played a lot of parties and dances and radio shows and things like that when I was in high school. After I got out of high school, I went into the military, and in the military I started playing with blues bands a lot. Then after I got out of the military of course I continued…
TP: In the military, did you also do Army marching bands and stuff?
LB: no-no. I was a policeman.
TP: You were a policeman. Amiable cop.
LB: I’ll tell you what happened. When I got in the Service, the guy said there were no openings in the band. He said I could be in the bugle corps. But I had come up… I guess I’d been in concert bands, and I didn’t think bugle corps were that hip, so I didn’t want to be in the bugle corps. So I had the choice of being in the bugle corps, a radio operator, or a policeman. So I went for the one that carried the gun. That was the policeman. Sounded like fun to me?
TP: Did you ever have to use it?
LB: No, I never had to use it. Well, actually I was on a pistol team for two years. I was a pretty good shot. But I never got to shoot anyone.
TP: St. Louis, of course, is a city with a rich trumpet tradition, a tradition of brass instruments and teachers of brass instruments, and the trumpet players who came out of there are legion, from Dewey Jackson and Charlie Creath to Clark Terry and Miles Davis (from East St. Louis). Were you very aware of this tradition coming up in St. Louis?
LB: Well, you knew there were a lot of bad cats around that played, some really excellent musicians. You really had to have kind of an individual style. You had to be able to play a common language of tunes, but you had to have an individual style after that. You had to have your own sound to really be respected in St. Louis. There was a very diverse trumpet style. So we were very aware of that. We were aware of guys like Clark Terry who just come in and kill everybody. There were so many stories about Clark and about Miles as we were coming up that were just fantastic.
TP: Since we just spoke about Miles Davis, let’s play his “Bye, Bye Blackbird” from the 50s.
LB: Miles probably made more impact on me than anyone. I not only had a lot of respect for Miles’ playing, but just his whole ATTITUDE, the way he looked. I remember I saw this ad with My Funny Valentine, that polka-dot tie he had on… I went out and bought me a tie. As soon as I saw the album, I got me a tie just like that to wear to the gig that night. I was really into Miles.
I always say Kenny Dorham is what really turned me out into jazz, and his influence really turned me out to be a jazz musician, but Miles’ influence really made me an original. The things that I learned from him and through his music really made me want to become my own voice and really showed me how to become my own voice.
[Miles Davis Quintet, “Bye Bye Blackbird”-1956; Clifford Brown-Max, “Donna Lee”-1956]
TP: That’s Clifford Brown on what might have been his last public performance…
LB: Oh, it’s that one. Oh.
TP: That’s from Philadelphia, the night before they drove to Chicago and crashed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. From The Beginning and the End, Columbia Records. [ETC.]
LB: Clifford’s articulation and his sense of time and his sense of melody… I guess his everything was just fantastic. If he had lived, there’s no telling what might have happened.
TP: We’ll now hear something from a forthcoming release by one of the many groups Lester works with. One thing I admire very much about Lester Bowie is your ability to keep 4-5 projects going almost simultaneously, which a professional — as you implied — has to do in contemporary music. We have the Leaders, Brass Fantasy, the Organ ensemble, various improvisational projects, the Art Ensemble of Chicago of course. Say a bit about the Leaders.
LB: The Leaders is a group that’s basically an extension of the bag that we’re playing just now. This is our impression of the Miles Davis and the Clifford Brown and the John Coltrane. This is our interpretation. Of course, we can’t do it like they did it. We don’t try to. What we try to do is to add how we relate to this idiom and update it.
TP: One thing that’s interesting about the band is that all the musicians, as befits the name “Leaders,” have worked in many different areas. How does the material get selected? Is there a musical director? Is it a collaborative situation?
LB: No, we don’t have a director. We just bring in music. Guys bring in music, we play it, we like it, and we just play it. Because the Leaders is the kind of group that you can trust damn near anything anyone does. If Kirk Lightsey brings in a song, it’s going to be a good song, and it’s going to be played well because we’ve got the people to play it well. So we don’t have too much of a problem selecting music. It’s just about getting some gigs!
This is a piece by Cecil McBee, who is one of the great unsung composers of our time. There are so many musicians who have so much talent that just isn’t heard, and Cecil is one musician who’s one hell of a writer. This tune is called “Slipping and Sliding.” It’s a real slow blues.
[The Leaders-“Slipping and Sliding”;
TP: Some material that anyone outside your inner circle hasn’t heard befor.
LB: They haven’t heard it. That was at the Winter Olympics this last year in Norway, and that was a concert that featured my quartet, which consisted of Amina Claudine Myers, Famoudou Don Moye and David Peaston, the vocalist you just heard; the Brass Brothers, which is a Norwegian brass band; and also a 65-piece choir. Singing is in David’s blood. He’s my first wife’s youngest brother. He’s Fontella Bass’ youngest brother. He’s the son of Martha Bass. So he’s been a great singer since he was a kid. I’ve been knowing him since he was 5 or 6 years old, and he was always a great singer.
TP: The Leaders hasn’t done a New York gig now for two years now, something like that.
LB: No one has asked us. We always play when we’re asked, but we’re not often asked to play.
TP: Speaking of the Leaders and the group we just heard, Lester became famous throughout the world as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, whose way of living, whose way of carrying themselves musically really served as an inspiration for several generations of musicians. In this next section, we’ll explore the antecedents of the Art Ensemble. We’ll hear music by Albert Ayler and Don Cherry, and the music of the “avant-garde” of the early 1960s. What was your exposure to that? When did you first hear Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Ayler, and so on?
LB: I started hearing about Ornette when I went to North Texas State, which was in 1961 or 1962. This was after the Army. That record he made in 1959 I started to hear in the early 60s. Just to say a word about Don Cherry: He is another one of the unsung heroes of the trumpet. Don has probably got more music in his big toe than most people have throughout their entire careers. He’s a consummate musician. He is music. He is a very musical person. And his style opened up not only myself but a whole generation of other players. He was the cat after Miles, the guy who came up with something different to say after Miles had said what he had to say.
TP: You responded to him right away? It immediately hit with you?
LB: At first, no. “What is this? This cat can’t play.” But then again, I said the same thing about Miles when I first heard Miles. “Oh, man, what is this? What kind of tone is that?” Then upon closer examination, and me maturing myself, I realized what happened. Same thing with Don. I think I first heard Don when I saw him. He came to St. Louis with Sonny Rollins. Then when I saw him, I got a good appreciation for him. Then I went back and listened some more, and it really opened me up. It just opened up all the possibilities of what could happen.
TP: You came to Chicago in 1965-66.
LB: I came to Chicago in 1965, after the Watts Riots.
TP: But apart from the AACM, there was a community of like-minded musicians in St. Louis. Were you linking up with them? Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake…
LB: As I said, I was in high school with Oliver. A lot of us were hanging around…we were the St. Louis bunch. Floyd LeFlore, Philip Wilson, John Hicks, Jerome Harris, Leonard Smith…a lot of musicians who were together. These musicians were later to become B.A.G., the Black Artists Group, just as in Chicago the Muhal Richard Abrams Experimental Band, which started in 1961, was later to become the AACM. Well, B.A.G., upon seeing what we were doing in Chicago, formed an organization which was very similar.
TP: Were these musicians inspired by the same… Were you pushing the envelope?
LB: We’d been pushing the envelope for a long time, even before that. We’d been pushing the envelope really all the time we were playing. What you play as to what you work is one thing, but what you did for fun… Hemphill and I and Oliver, we used to go out in the park and just play. This is long before I came to Chicago. We would go out and play. I first met Hemphill at Lincoln University in Missouri. We were playing some pretty advanced things then. We were always trying to play these sort of things, because we were pretty up to date, because the tradition that we grew up with was that you had to be up to date. You had to be able to say something different. It wasn’t enough just to be able to say something, even if you said it nearly as well as someone else did; you had to really be saying different to get some real respect. So we were always looking for other things. And once we found what they were doing in Chicago, it kind of confirmed the feelings we’d had all the time — Oh yeah, we’re not the only ones.
TP: When did you first find out about that?
LB: When I found out about the guys in Chicago… I moved to Chicago in 1965, and I did mostly studio work — jingles and blues sessions and a lot of bootleg R&B sessions. But I was getting kind of bored. I played with big bands, dance band type things and situations. A guy named Delbert Hill took me by Muhal’s rehearsal. And when I walked in that room and saw, like, about 25 of the weirdest cats you can imagine in one room, I thought, “This must be home.” Muhal told me to take a solo, and I took a solo, and everybody took my number. By the time I got back home, the phone was ringing. It was Roscoe. “Do you want to start a band?”
TP: What was your first experience with Roscoe Mitchell like?
LB: It was great. The first time we played this tune, “Afternoon In Paris.” I just remember how well Roscoe played this tune, but it was different! He played it really differently but really hip, but in a completely different way. He had all the changes and everything, but just a different way. So immediately I got a lot of respect for what they were trying to do. Because all these guys were really good musicians. They all had some different things happening.
TP: Let’s talk about the AACM from, say, 1966 to 1969, when the Art Ensemble packed up, went to Europe, and established itself. Were you playing primarily with Roscoe Mitchell? A lot of people in the AACM?
LB: I was playing with Roscoe. That was the base group. But I was also playing with the Experimental Band, and we were playing in a lot of different combinations. At one time, the AACM…we were putting on concerts every night, 6 nights a week. We were also doing festivals where we had other groups come in. We were doing festivals that would last 2 or 3 days — really like long festivals. We had one that was 72 hours long; I mean continuously 72 hours. So we were doing a lot of advanced musical concepts in a lot of different combinations. I played with Braxton, with Kalaparusha, with Muhal, in just about every combination possible. Because we wanted to play, so we got us a place and we presented ourselves 6 nights a week. There was so much music that was lost, it was unbelievable.
TP: It was an incredibly fertile. One of the principles was that everybody had to bring in new music, original music, creative music.
LB: Right. That was part of the requirements of being in the AACM, is to be a creative musician. That’s what it was about. It was an association for the advancement of creative musicians.
TP: But most of the musicians were doing other things professionally, as you were in the studio, or Ajaramu with Gene Ammons, or Muhal with Eddie Harris…
LB: Yes. But you had your dream of what you want to do, and then you have the reality of who you are and what you are doing presently — and if you want to continue to play music, you need a gig. I would be with the Art Ensemble one day and be with Jackie Wilson the next.
TP: This question may be too broad to answer. But what do you think it was about Chicago that enabled something like the AACM to exist? Other cites like St. Louis had strong organizations, but none of them lasted and held together the way the AACM did.
LB: Chicago is hip. I’ll tell you, even today, I think our most advanced audience, the place I think I’m best appreciated is Chicago. It’s the one place I can really relax and play damn near anything that comes to my mind, and it will be listened to. Chicago is a very advanced audience. I don’t know if it’s that they were trained that way. But we always had that kind of support, of some people who were very interested. Not necessarily by the thousands. There weren’t a lot of them. But the people who had a very deep interest in what we were doing, and we had an interest in having it happen.
TP: Was it having an audience and not having to play in a vacuum? Did it have anything to do with the way people accumulated musical information in Chicago?
LB: you have these circumstances which are provided by fate. You just have a certain amount of guys, certain type of personalities were brought together by Jesus, I guess you could say. And the music was strong enough in that it could survive. Because you don’t survive unless there is some strength in what you’re doing. Your music isn’t around, you aren’t around as a musician if you don’t have something to say. You just aren’t around in this business 20-30-40 years as a fluke. It takes a lot of concentration, and the music has to be able to withstand the test of time.
TP: Originally the Art Ensemble was you, Malachi Favors and Alvin Favors…
LB: Yes, and Kalaparusha. Roscoe had a sextet when I met him. He had a band already. But after I met him, the pressure got to be a little bit more. We started traveling. We started rehearsing every day. So the guys who couldn’t rehearse every day started to kind of drop by the wayside. Guys who had other jobs couldn’t really hang with us, because we got busy. We would take off and go to California, stay 2 and 3 months, and just rehearse 12-14 hours a day. So the personnel pared down. We went down to 3 guys. That’s when some of my boys from St. Louis started coming up. Leonard Smith came up, Philip came up, and then they got with us. That’s how it began.
TP: Joseph Jarman joined the group after Christopher Gaddy and Charles Clark, his very close friends and collaborators, died within 6 months or a year of each other.
LB: Yes, they both died and Joseph joined us. Joseph also had a very nice group with Christopher and Billy Brimfield, Fred Anderson. He was the other group. So we were sort of rivals, Joseph’s group and Roscoe’s group.
TP: Did you all hit it off immediately with Joseph Jarman?
LB: Oh yeah. You see, the AACM, everything just fit like a puzzle. We had guys from different persuasions, guys who played different things, guys who’d been with Gene Ammons to Jarman who’d done things with John Cage. We had all of this. But we all respected each other’s expertise in their field. You have to understand that all you can do in music is be you. You can only do your thing. You can’t really do anyone else’s thing. As much as I love Miles, I can never be a Miles Davis, or a Kenny Dorham — or anyone. I can’t be anyone! I can’t even be a Wynton Marsalis. I can’t be that. I can only be myself. And the only way that people can understand that is through listening to these aspects of the musicians’ personality.
TP: Let’s hear some music that relates to the Art Ensemble and some material that most people haven’t heard from the Art Ensemble. We’ll hear Don Cherry through his association with Albert Ayler, from the 1964 recording in Copenhagan, Vibrations, for Freedom Records initially. They recorded two versions of “Ghosts” on that session — we’ll hear one of them. Gary Peacock on bass and Sunny Murray on drums. Lester subsequently recorded “Ghosts” with a very different beat on another record.
[MUSIC: Albert Ayler-Don Cherry, “Ghosts”-1964; AEC-1968, “Carefree” and “Tatos-Matos”; John Coltrane-Wilbur Hardin; AEC and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonik in Bremen, 1993 – Charlie M]
TP: That symphonic collaboration is one of a number of monumental projects AEC has done with large ensemble…
LB: My latest project is Lester Bowie’s Hiphop Feelharmonic…
TP: Lester said that his playing during the 1967-68 period documented in the Nessa box was impacted by Wilbur Hardin.
LB: Every time I picked up the flugelhorn, I would feel this Wilbur Hardin thing. I always liked Wilbur Hardin. Actually, when we were playing “Carefree,” it reminded me of that. That’s when we decided to play the Wilbur Hardin piece. But Wilbur Hardin and Johnnie Splawn, who was another Philadelphia trumpet player…I really liked the way they played.
TP: In the 1970s, Lester spent time in Jamaica and in Nigeria, and broadened his musical palette.
LB: It not only broadened my sense of music; it broadened my whole sense of life. I went to Jamaica. When I got there and was in my hotel room, I had five dollars to my name and I didn’t know anyone in town. But I stayed two years, so it was a great experience. The Skatalites, a band I got to play some with in Jamaica… By the way, I’m going to make a record with them next week. So this whole concept of going around the world and playing with other musicians always was very appealing to me. Finally I decided just to one day go. No one was ever inviting me. You know, I never get invited anywhere. I never get invited… They have the kings of the trumpet, it had every trumpet player in town but me. They don’t invite me to festivals. I’m not invited to anything. So a lot of things, I just decided that if I really want to do them, I go myself. I went to Europe myself, I went to the Caribbean myself, I went to Africa myself — with little or no money.
TP: And a trumpet.
LB: And a trumpet. It helped. Because if I hadn’t had that trumpet, I’d have been long dead by now, I’ll tell you.
TP: Did you go to Jamaica for the express purpose of checking out the music and becoming involved in it?
LB: Naturally, when I go places, I always try to get involved with the musicians who are there. That is the entire reason for going. But there’s always a voice in my head. This voice kept saying, “Jamaica, Jamaica, go to the Jamaica.” I wanted to go to Jamaica. I didn’t see just being a starving jazz musician on the Lower East Side. I said, “If I’m going to starve, I just want to be on the beach.”
TP: How about your experience in Nigeria, and particularly with Fela?
LB: I also went there with no money. The Art Ensemble had just finished doing a European tour, and I took my money and bought a one-way ticket to Lagos. I had about $100 when I got there, enough money for one day in the hotel. I didn’t know anyone. A waiter in the restaurant suggested that I go to see Fela. I said, “How do you get there?” He said, “Just get in the cab; he’ll take you to Fela’s.” So I got in the cab. He took me to Fela’s. I pulled up in the courtyard of this hotel which he had taken over, because the authorities had burned his house down. A little guy runs up to me as I got out the cab. He says, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m Lester Bowie.” “Where are you from?” I said, “New York.” He saw the horn in my hand. He said, “Are you a musician?” I said, “Yes. I’m from New York.” “You play jazz?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, you must be heavy, then.” I said, “Well, you know, a little bit.” “Well, you’ve come to the right place.” “Why is that?” He said, “Because we’re the baddest band in Africa.” From then on I was just home. I went in and met Fela, and Fela said, “This guy is moving in with me.” So I was with Fela as his honored guest for the next 6 months.”
Fela was a very political musician. He has very strong political beliefs. He taught me what it would be like to be an African musician. It’s like being a chief. Fela had 8 wives when I was with him, and he eventually went up to 27 wives, and there were a lot of people… It was really quite an experience! I’d never experienced anything like it before. I came back and married one woman. That was it for me. Before, I always thought, “Yeah, I’m an African man; I’m gonna get me 2-3 wives, keep one on the road, one at home.” I went to Africa, stayed with Fela, saw all the problems he had with those women. I came back, I got married to one woman — I’ve been married to her ever since.
TP: That was the main lesson.
LB: Yes, the main experience!
TP: Any insights into the African way of music-making that are applicable to what you do?
LB: Well, the African way of music-making is the same way we make music. You just get together and you start playing. You start making up music. Basically, that’s it. You just get together and start playing and making stuff up. If somebody comes in and says, “Play this,” you play that. When I was there, I got to play with Fela, and I got to play with King Sunny Ade — I played with a lot of the Nigerian bands. It was a matter of “Just play.” It wasn’t a big thing, “ok, man, we’re going to get this part here, we’re going to do this…” It was just, like: Ok, you got your horn with you, man? Ok, try this, play this. That’s the way it is.
Same way with the art Ensemble or anyone else. People ask me about the Art Ensemble, “How do you rehearse?’ I say, “Like everybody else; we just go over and over until we get it right.” It’s the same as everyone uses.
TP: Let’s hear the Skatalites. This is “Dick Tracy”.
LB: Yeah, “Dick Tracy.” This is Tommy McCook and all the Jamaican guys. There are some killing Jamaican musicians. You had the indigenous Jamaican music, but you had this big hotel industry that had a lot of great musicians. Dizzy Reece is a great trumpet player who lives here in New York who’s Jamaican. Sonny Gray is another great trumpet player who was Jamaican. So I really learned a lot when I was in Jamaica.
[Skatalites, “Dick Tracy”; Lester Bowie Feelharmonic]
LB: That’s the first time on radio. It’s just for you, Ted. You and WKCR who have done so much fine work over the many years. You guys have hung in there, and we appreciate it.
TP: Well, you and your partners in the Art Ensemble of Chicago and so many musicians have been hanging in there for a lifetime, and we’re hearing the distillation of a lifetime of experience on the Musician’s Show, particularly with someone who encompasses as many musical idioms and ways pathways of self-expression of Lester Bowie, with a consummate sense of practical reality. I guess we have to answer a question from several listeners… When can people next hear you in New York?
LB: Actually, no one has asked to hear me again in New York. I don’t really know. As soon as someone asks, I’ll be glad to play in New York. I just finished at Sweet Basil’s, and they usually ask me every two years. So it possibly could be another 2 or 3 years before…
TP: It looked like they had a good week, though.
LB: They had a great week. They always do have great weeks. We always have great crowds. It’s not about that, because we draw well all over the world.
TP: Let’s enumerate your bands. How many entities is Lester Bowie part of at this point?
LB: We’ve got the Art Ensemble, Brass Fantasy, the New York Organ Ensemble, From the Root To the Source (which we still work occasionally). We work Brass Fantasy along with Root To The Source, which is the gospel singers with Brass Fantasy. The Leaders. The latest is the Hip-Hip Feel Harmonic. Next will be 500-piece orchestra. After that, 2,000. After that, 10, then 20, and then 100,000 musicians. At least.
TP: Will this be done in conjunction with an Anthony Braxton solar system piece?
LB: I think it will be done in conjunction with my retirement.
TP: Finally, and I can’t resist this. Mr. Bowie, is jazz as we know it… Never mind.
LB: Well, it all depends…if we know anything.
TP: How about the Art Ensemble and Brass Fantasy productions on DIW. Are those ongoing? Will a stream of recordings be flowing to your public?
LB: No. We did 9 of those records. They were mostly released in Japan. Whether or not they will get over here, I don’t know. The guy who was our connection with DIW is no longer with the company, and neither are we.
[Brass Fantasy, “The Great Pretender” – 1992]
[END OF PROGRAM]
Lester Bowie (Musicians Show, WKCR, Feb. 25, 1998) – Sides 1-2:
[AEC, “Imaginary Situations”- 1989, DIW; Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, “Old”-1967; AEC, “Galactic Landscape” from Naked-1987; “Illistrum”–Fanfare-1973]
TP: Lester, you’ve been involved with Roscoe Mitchell musically since 1966. We’ve done shows on various topics, but never specifically on the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
LB: Almost 33 years.
TP: There’s a oft-told story by you of first encountering the AACM at a re hearsal of the AACM Big Band, and seeing 30 people in the same as “crazy” as you were, is how you’ve put it. Is that when you first met Roscoe Mitchell and Malachi Favors?
LB: That’s when I met all the members of the AACM. I’d been living in Chicago since late 1964, and I’d been doing gigs with Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler, and doing commercials and studio gigs — and I was pretty bored. There was this guy, Delbert Hill, who said, “Well, if you’re bored, let me take you over to Richard Abrams’ rehearsal. You won’t be bored there.” And I wasn’t. I went there and to meet so many… When you’re a musician, like myself, there’s usually a small group of you that always run together, that travel around and barnstorm the country and hang out and all of these things — 4 or 5 guys. But when I went in the Richard Abrams rehearsal, there was 30 guys, and all these guys are like berserk! These are like bizarre, eccentric personalities. But at the same time, they were working collectively for the collectively good.
TP: At the time, you were let’s say 25 years old, and already had a lot of experience. You’d been in the Army, you’d been on the road with various rhythm-and-blues bands, circus bands. You came up in St. Louis where your father was a distinguished music educator. You were immersed in jazz and different trumpet styles. What aspects of your backgrounded prepared you for the music you heard when you entered that room? Had you been hearing Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry?
LB: I’d been listening to everything, especially Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Trane, Miles… When I came up in the music, we always assumed that we had to learn everything that had existed, and at the same time create something else, something of our own. I think I read once that Jo Jones used to say that you couldn’t belong to the throng unless you sing your own song.
TP: I’ve heard that attributed to Prez.
LB: Prez? Someone said that. And that idea is what we kind of came up with. That’s why we came up with what we did. We had to come up with something different than Miles and Trane, and something different from Ornette and Cecil. So we came up with the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
TP: How would you describe what it was you did that was different?
LB: Technically, I think we infused different forms. Our freedom was not so much in the freedom of what people think of as free jazz. When we thought of free jazz, it meant we were free to play anything we felt like playing. So therefore, we were able to mix tempos, to mix timbre, to mix everything. To be able to associate or to relate to any form of music. To play one form behind another form, and to mix them both, to play them both at the same time, to play one backwards and to play one forwards. I mean, we were just into experimenting with everything that was laid before us. We were experimenting with all the music of Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, but at the same time we were infusing the music of Africa and India.
There’s my wife. She brought me here!
TP: the early records with Roscoe Mitchell…were you composing at the time, or was it mostly you fitting into his ideas about the shape of a performance?
LB: As far as composing, any improviser is a composer – so I’d been composing for years before that. Matter of fact, some of the tunes that I got famous with the Art Ensemble, some of the famous Art Ensemble tunes that I recorded were tunes that I composed when I was playing with Little Milton. You take tunes like “Zero”; it’s one I did when I was with Little Milton. It was an Art Blakey type takeoff, that sort of thing.
But at the same time, when I met Roscoe, I was playing everything I could. I just did everything I could. I was playing jingles. I was playing theater. I was going on the road. I was doing record sessions. I was doing blues gigs — and at the same time, doing AACM gigs. I’d be with the Art Ensemble one night and Jackie Wilson the next night. So I was just at that time playing as much music as I could, just to get as much experience and put as much in the memory banks as possible.
TP: When did you start to make that turn towards having the Art Ensemble approach to music being what you were going to do?
LB: Well, we already had that approach to music…
TP: What I mean to say is, as opposed to doing the gig with Jackie Wilson and doing all that eclectic activity, to make THAT be your commitment.
LB: I always wanted to be a jazz musician. Always. From the time I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a jazz musician. I never wanted to work Broadway or do commercials. I always wanted to be a jazz musician. But I understood at a very young age, that you had to be a professional musician first, and then if you’re lucky you can specialize. So I was being a professional musician. I was doing every gig I could. Man, I auditioned for James Brown three times. You know, I saw James on the plane. He came and shook my hand. I told him, “Man, I auditioned for your band three times.”
But I did every kind of gig I could. At the time with the AACM… You know, Hemphill and Oliver Lake and I had been hanging out for years before that in St. Louis, and as far as that concept or that way of playing, we had been doing that all the time. The way we play I believe is a natural outgrowth of the way you play after everything else has been played and you’re looking for something else.
TP: But there came a point when you and Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors, packed up, left Chicago, went to Paris, and laid down roots to function as the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I’m interested in the path from that apprenticeship process you’re talking about to a commitment to that entity.
LB: Once I met Roscoe and Malachi, that was it. We knew that that was it, I mean immediately, from the first time. The first time I met the Experimental Band… After I left that rehearsal, my phone was ringing by the time I got home, and Roscoe was on the phone. He said, “Ok, man, let’s get a band and let’s start rehearsing tomorrow.” I was in there rehearsing. That was the whole thing. We just rehearsed every day. We didn’t need a gig. We didn’t need a contract. We just rehearsed every day because we needed the music. And once we met each other and then saw what kind of music we had together, and saw that we had a unique form, we saw that this was the opportunity to fully devote ourselves to it. So you could say that when we left to go to Europe was when we fully devoted ourselves to playing the music of the Art Ensemble and nothing else. Before that, guys were working in hotels or whatever they could to make ends meet. But from that moment we went there, that was it.
TP: We’ll hear music from a forthcoming album by the AEC on Atlantic-Warner.
LB: This will be out in a few months, by the Fall. It’s a record we recorded in Jamaica. We had the recording project. We just had to spend this winter in Jamaica. That winter you had the big snow here in New York…well, we were in Jamaica making this record. It’s a rough job but somebody had to do it.
[MUSIC: AEC, “Via Tiamo,” “Grape Escape,” “Jamaica Farewell”]
TP: When we spoke before that set of music, we brought the Art Ensemble to France, where you joined a very dynamic cultural community, and you stayed there for almost two years, and things exploded for you. You must have made a dozen recordings.
LB: Yeah, we worked a lot. We were working 4 times a year in the States before we left, and we left for France, and when we arrived in France, after we were there 3 days we were working 6 nights a week. We had an entire theater at our disposal, called the Lucinaire, in Paris. That was our base, and from there we worked all over France and all over the rest of Europe.
TP: Do you recall the proprietor?
LB: I don’t remember. But the Lucinaire was a small theater that was just getting started also, and they were very much into creative music. When they heard us, they gave us the gig, 6 nights a week. We’d developed some sort of reputation before we got to Europe. It wasn’t like we just went to Europe and no one had heard of us. Joseph had made several records, I had made a record. Roscoe had made records — 5 or 6 records had been released before we got there. When we got there, we immediately were offered this job at the Lucinaire, and in three days we were working every night.
TP: Were you playing just as the Art Ensemble, or were you performing in conjunction with dancers, theater, and so forth?
LB: Eventually we did do things. We did a lot of projects with dancers, drummers, a lot of different people. But this was all the Art Ensemble. This was the Art Ensemble 6 nights a week.
TP: Talk in some detail about the larger picture in Paris at the time. There were so many musicians there at that particular moment, as documented on the BYG label, on America Records and so on…
LB: Paris was jumping, man. Paris was on fire – in more ways than one. I remember one time I was at this sidewalk café with my wife and a couple of kids, and this whole big van of police just exploded, and it went up in this ball of flames. I threw the kids in the truck, and we had to tear up two cars in the parking space getting out of the parking space, so we got away from there. But there was a lot happening. A lot of happening with students revolting, and a lot happening with the music. There was music all over Paris, and there were guys in Paris who had never been together before in the States. I mean, I never got the chance to hang out with Philly Joe Jones and Hank Mobley! These were my heroes. You’ve got guys like Philly Joe Jones and Sunny Murray, and you’ve got Cecil Taylor and Dave Burrell, and you’ve got Kenny Clarke, and you’ve got Memphis Slim. And you’ve got Max and Archie. There were just a lot of musicians over there, and we were doing a lot of projects together. It was really a very exciting time.
TP: The last few times you were up here, you came up once with Malachi Favors and once with Don Moye, and when you were here with Favors, the subject of your common military background… Except Moye, everyone in the Art Ensemble, had served a certain amount of time in the Army, and you treated the process of performing as a band with that kind of focus and discipline.
LB: Because of our military experience is the only reason we’ve even survived all these years, because we really know how to survive in the wild. We lived in sleeping bags and in tents for an entire summer in Europe. We had been thrown out of France, and we roamed Europe in tents, like gypsies, for four months or so.
But because of our military training, we were able to… We all had a common way of achieving an objective. The military teaches you, you want to move something, you put a man on each end of whatever it is you’re moving, and 1-2-3-lift, and you move it. You get things done. It really gives you a direct method of dealing with things. That’s what kind of fortitude and discipline it takes to really survive in this music, especially if you’re in the creative area of the music.
TP: What do you mean by the “creative area of the music”?
LB: Well, nobody likes you! It’s hard to find gigs. Everybody says you can’t play or you’re crazy or something, and what you’re playing… People don’t really have an understanding of what you’re doing, so you’re always in a kind of fight. It’s almost a military campaign just to survive. You pool your resources and you get these collective objectives, and you try to do these things. If we hadn’t had this sort of training, and we weren’t able to live the way we’ve lived… I don’t know many musicians who would even be able to survive in the conditions that we have survived in. I mean, we’ve lived in barns, man. We’ve lived in parked cars. We’ve lived in buses. I mean, LIVED there.
TP: You’ve gone years with no gigs.
LB: YEARS with no gigs.
TP: You said you got kicked out of France. I never heard that story before.
LB: Oh, you never heard that one. Well, we weren’t actually kicked out. The ultimatum was actually we should leave or we would be escorted to the frontier
TP: By the gendarmes?
LB: By the gendarmes. We had been in France about a year, and then this Radio Luxembourg did a program about us. We were not there. It was just a program about this. They said “These guys are revolutionaries, and these are the Black Panthers of the music, and they’re out to rape your daughters and take over your government.” They did this whole thing about the Art Ensemble being these big revolutionaries. The next day, we heard the dogs barking. The police were at the gate. What happened is, at the end of the show they say, “Yes…and by the way, these guys live in Saint-Leu- la – Forêt, which is this little town outside of Paris. So whoever the prince or duke of that particular fiefdom…when he heard we were living in…
TP: The Intendant as they said…
LB: “You mean they’re living here in Saint-Leu- la – Forêt? Get them out of here!” So the police were at the gates the next day. Our dogs had them, though. They could only get to the gates. And we’ve got military training. They only got the gates. They didn’t get to the house.
So we heard the dogs barking. They were at the gate. Then they came in and they explained that we had to leave, and if we didn’t leave they would escort us to the frontier. We said, “Well, we just happen to be leaving anyway,” which we had happen, because we knew the heat was on and we were ready to pull out. So we left in the next couple of days.
TP: I gather you had a bus, and that became your base…
LB: Well, we were the first mobile musicians in Europe – the mobile jazz guys, let’s say. We were totally independent of any of the jazz musicians. The rest of the jazz musicians, you had to have interpreters leading them by the hand, and taking them here, putting them on trains and putting them in planes. But we could speak the languages, and we had 4 trucks. We could travel anywhere we wanted to. If things didn’t suit us one place, we’d go someplace else. We were the Great Black Music Army.
TP: One challenge of doing a 3-hour on the Art Ensemble Show is that a favorite track might be 23 minutes or 14 minutes, and we don’t have time.
[MUSIC: AEC, “Jackson in Your House”-1969; “The Key–Theme de Celine”; “Variations On A Theme of Monteverdi, First Variation”]
TP: That was the merest, sketchiest of representations of their actual output while in Paris. We’ll now move back in time a bit, and hear a track from an album that turned a lot of heads when it came out — Sound by the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet. It’s hard for me to think about this kind of music being made on the East Coast at this time. Maybe I’m projecting backwards, but it seems to me that a certain Midwest sensibility is involved. Can you shed any light on what that might be, or how you different, if at all, from what the people on the East Coast were doing then?
LB: Well, the East Coast, New York, is a marketplace. Not so much music is created here. Most of the musicians who have become famous came from somewhere else.
TP: It must be said that with Bird, Miles and Monk, a lot of that music was created here, uptown.
LB: You could say that. But usually, when music is perceived by critics to have been created in a certain place, it’s usually been created years before by these individuals. I’m sure Charlie Parker didn’t start playing like that when he came to New York. Same way with Miles Davis. We have to realize, music is created in a lot of places simultaneously. The whole story about the music moving up the river from New Orleans to Memphis to Chicago is mostly a fairy-tale. Music was being played in Spokane, Washington. It was being played in South Dakota. It was being played in Springfield, Missouri. Joplin, Missouri. Memphis, Tennessee. Kentucky. It was being played in Iowa. It was being played in Arizona.
One time the Leaders were doing a tour through Missouri, and we saw this old restaurant that looked like it might have been a country restaurant, so we figured we’d get some nice biscuits or something over there. So we went over there to get it, and this old farmer came up to us and he said, “You boys play jazz?” We said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, hell. You all know Duke Ellington?” We said, “Yeah, we know Duke Ellington.” He said, “He used to come through here all the time.”
So the music used to be in a lot of places. It was just sold in certain places. There were certain centers, publishing centers, recording centers, where it was sold. For instance, even in our particular instance, Hemphill and I were playing that music before AACM and BAG.
TP: When did you start playing with Hemphill?
LB: Hemphill and I went to school together. We were in Lincoln University together. I just went to Lincoln for a year. Hemphill had been going there for 8 or 9 years. He was one of those cats who was going to school for a long time. But we started hanging the. The next year, after I left Lincoln (Hemphill’s from Fort Worth), I went to North Texas State. Hemphill and another guy named Tom Reese were good friends of mine in Fort Worth. This was a long time ago.This was 1961, 1962, long before I went to Chicago.
TP: How does your analysis of New York being a marketplace, and other places not, apply to the music we hear on Sound, which sounds so distinctive and different from anything else that was happening then.
LB: Well, see, we in the Midwest, we really BELIEVED in the music. We were attracted to the music because of some sort of spiritual belief. I mean, we really believed in it. We believed in the POWER of the music. We didn’t care if we didn’t get paid. We didn’t care if we didn’t get any gigs. New York, you come and you’ve got to work. The rent is high. You’ve got to work. You can live in Chicago. You can live in St. Louis. You can live in Cleveland. And you can create music. You can find other people that really believe in it and that really do it. I think that’s the real difference. You have an economic pressure here in New York that you don’t have in other places. You don’t have the recording companies or the TV stations or the radio stations in Kansas City or in Springfield or Peoria. So you don’t have that sort of pressure. You’re kind of free to just create music.
When the Art Ensemble first started, we just went down in the basement and we rehearsed every day. Every day it would be 8 hours of rehearsal. No gigs in sight. But we rehearsed every day. It was just because of the belief that we had in the music.
[MUSIC: Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, “Little Suite”