Gone Fishing

Remembrances of Lester Bowie

Lester and I met in high school in St. Louis and from that point on we were always hangin' out. He was a leader then—on his soapbox preaching, calling the shots as he always did. If you were ever around Lester, you were definitely following.

He was a prodigy on the trumpet—started around the age of 10 or 11 and was playing gigs by the time he was 15. He had a hard bop band back then that was one of the most exciting bands I'd heard up to that point. He was always trying to get as much experience as he could. The first band I toured with was with him backing up people like Solomon Burke and Rufus Thomas. I remember we left St. Louis for the West Coast with two trumpets and by the 10th gig this other cat was ready to quit because Lester was playing so much stuff. He played with carnival bands, circuses, funk bands, marching bands, anything that called for trumpet he wanted to do it. All of that came into play when he got with the Art Ensemble. But when he heard them, that was it for him. No more hard bop. —Oliver Lake

Lester was like a colonel, a go-getter. He had that leadership quality. He had an energizing spirit that could amass people and move things forward. He was about the breaking down of all boundaries. In the '60s he pushed the idea of everybody in the AACM getting out and taking the music beyond Chicago—which meant not just the United States, but everywhere. Musicians who don't go anywhere don't gather any information. The music we were creating wasn't coming from one stylistic concept, so we needed as much information as we could get from all kinds of places and all kinds of music. It was really good to have somebody like Lester around pushing everybody out. That had a major impact. He was on the go constantly, tirelessly. He didn't have time for no jive stuff. It had to be authentic, real, happening. You ever hear him do "Hello Dolly"? People tried to say that was a joke like they tried to say Rahsaan Roland Kirk was a joke, but humor doesn't lessen the seriousness of what you're doing. It actually broadens it. What would life be without comedy? It would be a drag, wouldn't it? Lester had a vocabulary that was about bringing all of these so-called light things to the forefront. When he became the second president of the AACM the first thing he initiated was a four-day 24-hour concert. We were sleeping in the theater and getting up to play in shifts. That was the kind of thinking he had. He was a salesman, one of the chiefs. He could throw up a dream and take cats on a journey. —Henry Threadgill

Lester Bowie (second from left) with the Art Ensemble of Chicago
photo: David Gahe
Lester Bowie (second from left) with the Art Ensemble of Chicago

Lester and all the cats in the Art Ensemble of Chicago had incredible vision, almost unheard of in the so-called jazz scene and especially in the edgy area of music they were playing. Their business organization and infrastructure really gave me something to aspire to. In the late '70s and '80s the Art Ensemble used to move around like the big rock acts, with two vans, four or five roadies and a drum tech. They had a bus 20 years ago. It was a lemon, but they had a bus called The Sludge or something. Funny thing is when they rode into town, Lester would be in front riding shotgun on his motorcycle wearing a black leather jacket, smoking his cigar, looking like the scout and the general. —Craig Harris

We became good friends after I joined Brass Fantasy, and we used to go fishing all the time. Go out to Sheepshead Bay and catch bluefish, blackfish, and fluke. We'd also talk about our dreams. Lester had visions, and a lot of the things we talked about while we were fishing came to fruition.

There used to be a joint over in Newark called L.C., an old-time jazz-soul joint with the organ trio kind of thing. I used to gig over there with different guests like Cassandra Wilson, Arthur Blythe. Lester did one with me. This is in the hood where people just want to tap their foot, and we were just playing straight-ahead, playing the blues. Man, Lester played the shit out of this stuff—he was swinging, playing the changes, and it was popping. He sounded a lot to me like Blue Mitchell in that straight-ahead style. The innovators of the AACM, Muhal Richard Abrams, Lester and whatnot, were rooted in the tradition, and could play Charlie Parker if they wanted to and then go on and do what they did. It's quite notable that of all the elders that are still with us, Max Roach was at Lester's funeral. Max, being an innovator himself, recognized that Lester was contributing something of lasting value to this art form. —Steve Turre

He was an original. That was my take on him and Anthony Braxton and that whole school that came from Chicago. Originality—that's the thing that marks us in our music. I'll tell you a wonderful story: Kenny Dorham was working with Bird, writing charts for Billy Eckstine's Big Band, and had his bachelor's degree from Texas University. He was also going to Manhattan School of Music to get a degree in music education so he could teach. One day he told me, "Man, they flunked me on trumpet, I'm going to the NAACP about this." He didn't understand that when you take trumpet you have to sound like every other trumpet player, or else you can't play with the orchestra. That's the mark of classical music, but with us the mark is you've got to have your own personality. Lester and all the guys who came out of the Chicago school understoood that. That what's happening is not how much you play but what you play.

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