Gone Fishing

Remembrances of Lester Bowie

At Lester's funeral, it was just fabulous when all the trumpet players played and marched around the church at the end. There wasn't a dry eye in Saint Peter's. It exemplified what that whole school is about in being very spirited and collective. They understood that the essence of this music is not about imitating but being yourself. —Max Roach

Lester was sartorial splendor. He strode in classic two-tones in spring, classic boater in summer, and the perfect leather for riding a 750 or a Harley. He gave notes on the new shops in Soho, and how to flash just the right glint of watch and silk at the mortgage desk. He reminded me of home, especially when he came back from Maryland with a whole crate of crabs. He was never stingy or shy when it came to good living. He was the man in the corner booth in a hotel in Tokyo with the best cognac and the Cuban cigar. The man who knew the chef at the best restaurant in Sicily, the one to see on where to buy clothes in Milan, or Paris, or anywhere. After knowing him 26 years when i ran into him i still always felt like i should have on better clothes, but he helped me get easy with the gray hair. Lester was the kind of guy who would never be old, always tough, always proud, who always made you want to have his respect. Getting it was like you finally got yourself a handmade suit. —Thulani Davis (from her eulogy)

I was fortunate in having seen people like Miles and Hendrix, Sly Stone enough times to recognize that nothing they did was ever random or by accident, that it was always with intent. Lester was in that vein. Lester was a masterpiece. —Craig Street

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 I did a duet tour of Holland in the late '70s and I don't think I've ever learned so much just sitting next to somebody. At the risk of sounding corny, he had a knack for the vernacular of the horn. Sitting next to Lester you could, for example, see what the Cootie Williams stuff was about at close hand. He encompassed and synthesized the whole trumpet vocabulary. He brought the whole continuum of the trumpet lineage into the avant-garde, brought the whole trumpet baggage with him in a way that was obvious—pointing back without quoting.

One of the most impressive things Lester did when we first met was describe Rasul Siddik's playing to such a tee that years later when I walked into a club and heard this trumpet player I knew it was Rasul, because Lester had described his technique so well. —Butch Morris

Lester was part of that great continuum of St. Louis trumpet players that includes Shorty Baker, Clark Terry, and Miles Davis. He used parts of the trumpet that most people don't deal with: the low tones, the pedal tones, the growls and smears. Always doing it his way, never mimicking, and always honest. He taught me how to use the horn when you're tired. He used whispers in his playing and he taught me how to play soft. Told me that'll put years on your career. —Craig Harris

It's kind of ironic now, but right before he got sick he was thinking, "I'm not going to be able to play this way much longer, what am I going to do?" I was always reassuring him that he could do whatever he wanted to do musically, but he said he just wanted to go to Maryland, fix up the house, be a regular guy, and fish. I don't know if it was a true feeling, but I think he wanted to stop and do something totally different that had nothing to do with music. I think he always played so hard and was such a die-hard stage musician that he didn't want to look at the possibility of doing something else.

He would always dive into stuff—like when he came off an Art Ensemble tour, went to Nigeria, and ended up staying in Fela's camp. Before that trip he had this whole thing about how he was going to be an African and have several wives. Staying around Fela for about six months changed his mind about having more than one wife. When he came back, that's when we got married. After Fela, one was enough.

I don't think he was worried about his legacy, but because Art Blakey was also born on October 11, he said, "I guess I won't be played when I'm gone, because that's Blakey's birthday too."

During the six months that he was sick he got an award from the mayor of Chicago, who declared it Lester Bowie Day. He said Dizzy had told him that when you get one foot in the grave, that's when they start giving you all these awards.

I told him, You can't leave me, I'm going to jump in there with you, and he said, "No you're not." I asked him what would you do if it was the other way around. He said, "Well I'd be sad for a little while, then I'd sell the house in Brooklyn, and move to Maryland and go fishing." He was a realist. He handled everything in life that way, and that gives me strength. —Deborah Bowie

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