Gone Fishing

Remembrances of Lester Bowie

Ain't nobody ever did shit for us, and we never made it an issue of getting into the politics of the mainstream. We were never part of that, never have been, and never will be. That's why they can all really kiss our asses now. They labeled what we did "hate music"—weird, avant-garde—and Lester never got his proper credit as an innovator of the trumpet tradition, but we're happy with how things turned out. We're not bitter or complaining. We realized early on that there was some kind of game going on. Understanding that to be a given, we kicked ourselves in the ass every morning to do what had to be done: taxes, office work, orientation for roadies, maintenance of our vehicles, blah blah blah. We have our own publishing company and we've paid for all of our shit. Fifty percent of the income the Art Ensemble makes goes into production, 50 or more, minimum. What does this shit mean? It means I'm sitting up in my goddamn 15-room house winterizing.

We got all kind of shit going on that's got nothing to do with music. Music is not enough, you've got to have life. People think we're about some kind of mystique, but we're just some regular motherfuckers trying to raise our kids and have regular lives. This thing is about 35 years of cooperative economics. More than music it's about sustaining our lives as opposed to the tragicomedy of the starving artist bullshit.

We never considered ourselves to be expatriates. We just went to Europe to work, not to say fuck America. Lester was always instrumental in establishing a base of operations for us, a headquarters. He also brought the element of family into the thing, because when they all went to Paris in 1969 he brought his wife, Fontella Bass, and their two kids, and they had two more kids while we were over there. Lester's whole thing was always tempered by the reality of having two kids.

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

The music was the focal point. It qualified what we were doing. Otherwise, ain't no reason for no grown man to uproot his family out of the kind of successful career Lester was having as Fontella's musical director, and go to Europe on some bullshit. You can believe that the structure of the whole thing was definitely calculated. When we got the house in Paris, Lester put five $1000 bills down on the table, said, "We'd like a house," and the next day we had a house. Before that, we'd been staying in an insane asylum just outside of Paris. The doctors were jazz fans, and gave us rooms and rehearsal spaces in this nuthouse.

When I joined the Art Ensemble, we would rehearse eight hours a day every day, and afterwards sit down and have a home-cooked meal in a home environment with the kids and the dog running around, just normal shit. Lester was more a diplomat than any of us—he'd been a Harvard fellow, a Yale fellow, and down at Dartmouth, and had a capacity to communicate with the intellectual and cultural elite. But he was also a regular motherfucker, with six kids and nine grandkids.

All the kids came out alright. None of the kids are in jail or dopefiends or were teen pregnancies, none of that shit. Two of Lester's sons work for us and his daughter is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago. She came out on the road and took care of her daddy at the end.

I did the Lester Bowie forum. That's how I got two homes, and everybody in the band has homes too. Lester turned a lot of people on to the whole schematics of that—Craig Harris, Oliver Lake, Steve Turre, Cecil Taylor, Betty Carter—turned 'em on to quality of life for your ass. Cats used to come around and talk to Lester about getting a home, and he'd customize a program for 'em. He was like, "Do you want a house, or are you just a renegade motherfucker?" A significant point for me is that, at the time of Lester's demise, his house was paid for and he had health insurance. It wasn't a situation where he was sick and we were running around doing benefits trying to collect money for Lester because he was in the paupers' wing unable to get proper treatment. We always had quality of life wherever we were, and Lester was the king of that. —Famoudou Don Moye

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