Remembering Lester Bowie

Lazaro Vega BY

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From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in December 1999.

Lester Bowie played several concerts and made one so far un-issued recording in the late 1990's with Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio plus poetess Ntozake Shange. The evening of grooves, improvisation and poetry came to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in September 1998 and played the Urban Institute For Contemporary Arts. 200 attended. The artists drew upwards of 500 in Chicago and Philadelphia said El'Zabar.

Prior to the concert in phone calls setting up the interview reprinted below, Bowie mentioned his family's situation, the empty nest, and that he'd recently purchased acreage in Maryland to build a home and studio on, but with only one bedroom. I was like, with so much land, why not build a house with several bedrooms? "Because if I do then all my grand kids are going to want to stay there," he said with a burst of laughter.

At intermission of the Grand Rapids concert a listener mentioned that Bowie seemed to be using more circular breathing than usual. "In this music you use everything," he said. Prior to this1998 concert with percussionist Kahil El'Zabar, saxophonist/pianist Ari Brown, bassist Malachi Favors and poetess Ntozake Shange, Bowie spoke from his home in Brooklyn with Blue Lake Public Radio's Lazaro Vega.

All About Jazz: First, how many different bands are you currently involved with either as a leader or as a sideman?

Lester Bowie: I'm only involved really right now with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Brass Fantasy. I do special projects such as the one we're doing with Ntozake. I'm working, also right now, with the Diane McIntyre dance ensemble. We're working on a dance project. But mostly it's just the Art Ensemble and Brass Fantasy now. That keeps me busy full time, sure does.

AAJ: I know for a while you had the New York Organ Ensemble and were pretty involved in The Leaders.

LB: Yeah, right. Well it got to be too much. What happened, all the groups started getting popular and it got to be too much work to handle.

AAJ: So you've cut back to maintain your focus. How do you feel about the Art Ensemble being voted the Acoustic Jazz Group of the Year in the Downbeat Critics Poll?

LB: It was a surprise. We were kind of surprised that it happened. Other than that, I think we must have won that before, probably twenty years ago or so. But it's always nice to win anything, I guess. But I mean it doesn't really mean anything special. It's almost like a meaningless award. Jazz groups have to make a living any way.

You know when I was younger I used to look at Downbeat Magazine and I figured anybody in Downbeat must be making a living. But as I got more into it, I learned that wasn't always necessarily the case, especially in our case.

AAJ: Something along those lines that's kind of interesting: Now, today, when John Coltrane's records come out on Impulse! no matter if it's A Love Supreme, or Ballads or the record with Johnny Hartman, or Ascension, they sell 20,000 units.

LB: A lot of jazz is like that; it sells over a period of time. They always say that jazz doesn't sell, but it's a lie, because it does sell, and it sells consistently year in and year out. For example, what you mentioned, the 'Trane records will continue to sell more and more as time goes by. So, they do sell quite a bit of records.

What happens is these records are taken from the artist. I hope 'Trane's estate is getting the money. Because I know a lot of artists they re-issue and re-issue and the artist receives nothing.

AAJ: Especially over in Europe when the copyright laws run out sooner than they do in America. Since we've touched on it, how important is recording to you, and do you feel you should be on a major label such as Verve or Blue Note?

LB: No, actually, we have a release coming out on Atlantic Records, the Art Ensemble has one (Coming Home Jamaica) and also the Brass Fantasy has one (The Odyssey of Funk and Popular Music).

AAJ: It's been a long time since you were on a major American label.

LB: Yeah, right, but that doesn't really mean anything, either. You would think that anyone on a major label would be doing something, but when you speak of major label that means something to maybe a big pop star that might be getting some sort of benefit from the major. But we still don't get anything.

Most of these labels they'll promote you for about a month, and then they'll just put it in the bin. And they keep selling it. They know that they can sell these copies 10 years from now, or 20 years. So there's no really big push to expand the audience.

What I've been trying to do for years is to get the music played on a station other than jazz stations, you know, to expand the audience. Especially the work I've done with Brass Fantasy. We've done things by other sorts of artists. For instance, on this latest record we did Marilyn Manson, and we also did Puccini, we did Pavarotti's "Nessun Dorma." I would like to hear the music played on the stations that play that sort of music. You know what I mean? If we play a Whitney Houston song I'd like to hear it on the same station that plays that sort of stuff. But the jazz thinking is such that (laughs), it is so limited that being with a major is even more frustrating than anything else.

AAJ: So, one way or the other, recording it is sort of just another part of your promotional kit.

LB: That's exactly what it is. Right now what we're pushing for, actually, is to develop a really visible Internet presence. Because I believe that the future of the music lies in the Internet. It can be sold on the Internet. These record companies are going to be going out of business pretty soon, because people are just going to be downloading what they want to hear.

And there are a lot of people interested in creative music, there are more and more and more. That's really going to grow. I mean, like you say, the Coltrane albums really sell a lot. They release one and it's at 20,000, it will be at 50,000 next year. Because people really got tired, too, of the same old formatted sort of thing, and the same old formatted music. They were missing all the enthusiasm, the creativity; that whole excitement about the music was lost. A lot of people are really going back looking for that.

A lot of people knew from the beginning, people that supported us from the beginning. But a lot of people are looking back and taking another look and finding that there was something there. Because they got so bored with what's going on. And we need something. This is a different age. People have computers, they're multi-cultural, and they have many interests. They're not just interested in one sort of music any more. These people are interested in a wide variety of music, and that's what we're into.

AAJ: I think it's going to take awhile for the corporations, all six of the major entertainment giants, to catch up to what the people want.

LB: Exactly, but what's going to happen is people are going to catch up themselves, because, like I say, we're going to make everything that we can do available on the internet, and the internet is sort of an equalizer. You can establish a presence on the internet; you can have just as much of a presence as a major company or anyone else.

We're developing a Web Store right now. We have a new book that's coming out, and all this is in the last proof read right now, and will go to the printer's next week. And the Web Store will be open by December the first. The address is aeco.com. That's going to be a whole store. We're starting out printing up this coffee table size book, a glossy, really nice book about the whole story of the Art Ensemble, photos, interviews, a lot of things, a lot of information. It's going to be the first of our book publications. Along with caps, T-shirts, and develop a fan club, the whole scene. We're going to do it over the Internet.

This is the first that will be actually our own web site and store. That's going to be nice. We're going to release CD's we made years ago just for collectors, things that haven't been readily available. We're going to make all that stuff available.

AAJ: Can we talk about music as music? The Art Ensemble, to me the "ensemble" word is key there because its ensemble music at it's most fluid, and I was wondering if you could comment on the musical process of ensemble playing with that group?

LB: Well the Art Ensemble is exactly what it says; we're the Art Ensemble. We're really trying to develop music that can help stimulate intellectual thought. We think the answer to the problems of society lie in being able to raise the intellectual level. So the music is intended to do that first of all. It's intended to sort of kick-start the creative process.

The music we play is kind of hard to explain. It's music that we really feel. It's like we take all sorts of elements, all sort of different reference points, and we have the freedom to be able to reference anything at any time. And at the same time to be able to listen and to be able to instantly create a situation.

Many times you never know what's going to happen. You'll play songs that you never thought you were going to play. You play ensemble things that you had no idea you were going to play two minutes before. It's just about really being sensitive, and trying to play a music that is about music. It's about emotion, it's about traveling through these different emotions, and it's about showing the listener all these pictures. We expect the listener to have, like, a movie going on when they hear us. That's what it's all about for us.

It's about being in tune with what music is—without limitation of what is or what isn't, without necessarily regarding a certain rule. We have the freedom to either play a tempo or not to play a tempo; to play a note or not to play a note; or to play what some people would say is a sound.

The way we look at it, everything is a sound. A chord is just the name of a sound. They say C is a pitch; it's the name of a sound. So is a cat's meow a sound, so is a motorcycle, so is anything. There are a lot of sounds. We try to incorporate any sounds into the music. Sounds of life. Sounds of everyday, and incorporate that as part of the music. It's just like an endless research into the music that the deeper you get into it, the deeper you get into it.

And all of it you can't explain yourself, it's something you have to really do.

AAJ: That's why I like listening to you because it's what jazz is supposed to be, it's carefully considered listening, but at the same time spontaneous and freewheeling.

LB: That's what I always thought it was supposed to be, like you say. These are the elements that really constitute the music.

We have to understand that this is a very young music. We're just beginning to really develop this music. This is not a time to put in any narrow definitions or parameters on what this music is because we're only at the beginning of the possibilities of this music. We're just beginning to learn the importance of music in our society. What we as musicians and artists have to offer to the intellectual development of the people that live here.

Music is very important. It's important as a tool for learning, it can be a tool for healing, it can be no telling what, as long as we remain free to be able to create the music, to be able to experiment and to really research, and to really get time to develop the music.

AAJ: In terms of Kahil El'Zabar's Rituals Trio, I think you were one of the original voices in the band, in 1985?

LB: Yeah, I think so.

AAJ: So, in terms of that group, where do you feel it's going?

LB: This is a whole different direction with the spoken word.

We've been involved with a lot of different projects. I really wish sometimes that people in this country could really see some of the projects that we've been involved with: symphony orchestras, bands of African drummers, blues musicians. During the Olympics at Lillahammer, the 1994 Winter Olympics, the Brass Fantasy played with a Norwegian Brass group, part of my Organ Group and a 65 voice Norwegian choir. There are so many things that have been done that people aren't really familiar with.

This voice thing is one of those sorts of projects. Like I told you before I get involved with special projects, and Ntozake has been involved with us for quite a few years, we did things twenty or thirty years ago on the West Coast, and up and down the East Coast seaboard. So we've had a long history of working together. She's of the spoken word of the same generation we're of (music).

AAJ: How does that pan out in concert? For instance, are you playing Kahil El'Zabar's music and then she's integrating with it?

LB: We're doing some of Kahil's music, but we have some things that we do. We just finished a recording. We have some pieces that she had that we put the music to. It's really nice.

AAJ: With that element of spoken word, is that another element in ensemble music, or are you dealing more with regular song form and keys?

LB: No, no,no,no,no—this is right in the same bag. I would say you have the same basic idea in the music, this sort of creative development of the music, but adding the spoken word as another instrument, you know what I mean? It would be the same if it were a saxophone or trombone. Ntozake is another instrument. There are pieces of hers that we've set to music. It's really interesting.

You have to hear it to understand it. There's really no way I could explain it except that you know my reputation, the people that are involved, and you know Ntozake's reputation and quite a few people are familiar with her work. So we kind of pull with two different directions. We really have quite a mixed crowd.

AAJ: In your early training in the circus and in Jerry Butler's R&B bands, I was wondering how that upbringing impacts your music today?

LB: Well, actually, my roots are that. I mean I'm just an advanced R&B cat as it is. That's all I am, basically, is like an advanced rhythm and blues cat. (Laughs).

AAJ: Real advanced!

LB: (Still laughing) Yeah. But, I mean, my whole foundation was in that because I began playing professionally at a young age and did a lot of shows. It's really helped me in later years; it really helped my approach in terms of developing. That's one of the things I bring to the Art Ensemble, a lot of experience I had playing shows. So we were able to organize the music in a way that it could be acceptable as a show also. We had to work at it. We had to go into certain ways or methods of dealing with various types of audiences.

Initially we began to do a lot of festivals. And festivals require really some planning For instance one of the records we made, "Baptism," was done right there in Michigan at the Ann Arbor Jazz Festival, that's on Atlantic Records and that's being re-released here soon, also.

Any, anyway, that's what I mean about my showbiz-ness background.

AAJ: Do you see yourself as part of the St. Louis trumpet school with Shorty Baker, Clark Terry, and Miles Davis?

LB: Yeah, well I guess I am. I'm from St. Louis...

AAJ: and you play the trumpet!

Bowie...And I play trumpet. Those guys were inspirations to me and other guys that were not as well known. There was a guy named Bobby Dansy who was a friend of Miles who was one of the trumpet players around St. Louis who was very influential to me.

But in St. Louis you come up, you know Clark Terry, you hear all his music, and you know all of Miles songs. You had to know all of Miles's tunes even to gig you know what I mean? I had to know all of his songs to even have a jazz gig. So I guess I'm part of that St. Louis tradition.

AAJ: During that time a jazz musician could put their children through college by playing their horn. There was work. There were the territory bands. Here in Grand Rapids we had a show drummer named Benny Carew who led a group that toured and at one time featured Hank Jones or Wardell Gray. People could work. And the rhythm and blues bands that you were in, it gave people an economic opportunity as well as a musical one, and that stuff is just gone now.

LB: Yeah, that is really gone. Like you say, there was a time when you could work. I always tell my students when you're going to be a jazz musician the first thing you've got to do is be a professional musician, and that means you have to feed yourself with the instrument. That means you've got to work. But like you say the opportunities for work now are really diminished.

When I came along everybody had a big band. B.B. King had a big band. He's got a stripped down band now, but I mean he had an actual big band—three trumpets, a couple of trombones. Bobby Bland had a big band. Everybody had a big band.

AAJ: Albert King.

LB: Albert King. Everybody had a band. All the traveling shows had big bands. When I did a lot of work with these traveling shows that were put together for the Temptations and Redd Fox and all these different various acts there was always a big band with that. There's no opportunity now for this to happen. Which is, I guess, a reason for the stagnation of the music, I don't know.

AAJ: Because of economics.

LB: Well you know musicians have to make their own economics. I've got six kids. I've got one more to get through school. I've got one that's getting a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago right now. You have to work, and you have to make work if it's not available. And you have to travel. What musicians have to do now is be world travelers. Because there is work in Costa Rica, or Shanghai, all you have to do is get there and go out.

There's no such thing as not having a band. As an American Jazz Band you can go anywhere in the world and get work. But what you have is most people are afraid to make that commitment now. Unless that commitment is made it's the only way you can develop and audience, it's the only way you can get work to keep a band working. You have to travel and you have to make your own work.

Like you say, you don't have that opportunity, now.

AAJ: The chitlin circuit is gone; all those big bands are gone.

LB: All the cats were in those bands, man. I played in a trumpet section with Kenny Dorham and Blue Mitchell. I mean all the bad cats were doing these shows. You know what I'm saying? We were doing the Apollo, and the Royal Theater, the Riviera in Detroit, the Regal. There was a whole scene happening. And not just those theaters but there were dances and concerts going on all over the country all the time. We were always working.

AAJ: That must have been a great time.

LB: I'm glad I caught the tail end of that. It was really fortunate to get that.

And now is a different thing, there are different rules. We just can't go and try to turn the clock back, that's not happening anymore. You've got to figure something else out.

AAJ: Yes: hustle to survive.

LB: That's right.

AAJ: So are you headed out with the Art Ensemble next?

LB: Actually, I'm on sort of semi-vacation right now because we've been touring since March.

AAJ: I understand you did the West Coast tour with just Roscoe, yourself and Don Moye.

AAJ: Right, because Malachi was sick.

AAJ: Malachi had his pace maker put in, right?

LB: Right. He's doing O.K. now. He's doing great.

AAJ: will he make the gig in Grand Rapids?

LB: Yes, that's going to be his first one, I believe. Then we start touring. After that we go from there to Europe, and a European tour.

AAJ: ...with Rituals?

LB: No, no. Rituals goes and does a gig in Europe, but then that's it for Ritual. Then the Art Ensemble begins its tour.

AAJ: Louis Armstrong was a lead player, the trumpet in the New Orleans band was the lead instrument, and it played the melody. In the Art Ensemble do you see yourself in that role at all? Most of the roles in that group are different, you've redefined roles, but do you think the trumpet is a lead instrument in that group?

LB: Oh yeah, the trumpet is a leading instrument in a lot of things. The trumpet is forceful. That's all I play is the trumpet whereas the rest of the guys are more multi-instrumentalists, playing all kinds of other stuff. You could say that, the trumpet is a lead instrument.

In our situation it's not always that the trumpet is playing the lead at any particular time. We maybe playing something but the bass is actually lead and the trumpet and the saxophone are just comping. Or it could be a drum lead, or whatever.

AAJ: I did an hour long radio show on you the other night and featured the second side of your "One and Only" solo trumpet from the album All the Magic. The first piece on the second side, "Down Home" is like a study in the low register of the trumpet, pedal tones. And I was absolutely amazed, because I've got a cornet and I mess around with it. I know a few things about playing a pedal tone where you drop the jaw, let the tongue settle down and blow a lot of air. But you were playing melodies in the pedals, and that just blew me away. To be able to get into that low thing usually the most I can do is make a blat. Or make a low note and it will have a ten second duration at the most. But to be able to move it in contour to a melody just blew me away man.

LB: (Laughing). Like I said, pedals, they're notes, they're just other sounds. You have to learn how to use 'em. You have to just practice them; you have to practice them a lot. You can't wish you could do it and then do it. It's like you've got to practice them and get the breathing and get them to where you project and where you control it, control the pitch. It just takes work, that's all.

AAJ: Wow, it'd take a lot of work.

LB: Yeah, a lot of work! A lot.

AAJ: The contemporary trumpet tradition to me is Don Cherry, you and Leo Smith. And Leo is really doing some wild things on the trumpet right now.

LB: I haven't heard Leo for a while; I'll have to check him out. Leo's good. I remember when Leo first came to the A.A.C.M. Straight up from Mississippi, a little country boy and stuff (laughs). But I mean he really developed nicely. He's just got his thing happening, but it's been developing for a long time.

Photo credit: Robbie Drexhage

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