Lester Bowie 1941–1999

The Avant-Garde’s Tireless Trumpeter Goes Out Swinging

When an e-mail informed me of Lester Bowie's death—at 58, on November 8, of cancer—I was reading Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, and suddenly everything he wrote about Goethe and Marx seemed to be about Lester. "Why should modern men, who have seen what man's activity can bring about, passively accept the structure of their society as it is given?" A pretext for avant-garde jazz if I ever heard one. A subsequent idea, that revolutionary activity will undermine bourgeois rule by expressing energies "the bourgeoisie itself has set free," is pure Lester: Lester in his long white lab coat, with not one but two Mephistophelian goatees waxed into points, his hair a flattop, his eyes smiling and luminous, his trumpet knifing the air with jerky parabolas of sputtering fragments, like a machine in need of oil.

Lester was the most bourgeois of underminers, the wiliest jazz provocateur of his generation. He earned the glint in his eye honestly, along with the six children and 10 grandchildren, the Brooklyn brownstone, the Lexus, and the cigar that accentuated his preternatural calm; when he removed it, he was seriously intelligent, expansive, and funny, but when it was in his mouth you half expected to hear the heh-heh-hehs that occasionally marked his records. He was raised in St. Louis, where his father played trumpet, but he was formed by carnivals, the Air Force, a flock of r&b and soul bands, the liberating wonders of Muhal Richard Abrams's Experimental Band, and the pop culture all around him, especially that of the 1950s, which he tweaked as only a fan can. Maybe you have to know that era to be moved by the 40 seconds of "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain," intoned with his plump, creamy timbre on The Great Pretender (ECM, 1981), climaxing a side with the relentless title number, a peanut gallery's "It's Howdy Doody Time," and a cataclysmic snapshot called "Doom?"—the '50s tied up with Kate Smith's bow.

Another formative influence was his idol, Louis Armstrong, whom he celebrated when the great man was still alive. You can't imagine how refreshing it was to encounter a young avant-gardist in the early '70s who understood and loved all of Armstrong, not just the '20s classics. When Lester recorded "Hello Dolly" on Fast Last! (Muse, 1974), everyone assumed it was a send-up. But you only have to listen to realize how urgently personal and affectionate it is, a eulogy from one who knows, right through to the chortling sneeze of a coda, one of the essential tracks of that decade. "Hello Dolly" began Lester's ardent 25-year pursuit of what he recently titled The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music (Atlantic, 1998), the only record, I'm confident, with tunes by Puccini, Cole Porter, the Spice Girls, Andrew Lloyd Weber, Teddy Pendergrass, Notorious B.I.G., and Marilyn Manson.

In that period, Lester devoted most of his energy to the punctilious Brass Fantasy and the grievously undervalued New York Organ Ensemble (with James Carter and Amina Claudine Myers never better), which made two albums in 1991 for DIW that will make my shortlist for the decade. Some of his pop excavations fell flat. Avant Pop (ECM, 1986) was all pop and no avant, though it boasts Lester's memorable solo on "Blueberry Hill" and his chorale "No Shit" (sample lyric: "No shit/No shit/No shit/No shit"). But he ultimately brought the two poles together. If the initial "Great Pretender" achieves some of its levity by comin' atcha and atcha and atcha, the tight Steve Turre arrangement on Brass Fantasy's The Fire This Time (In + Out, 1992) gives it the satisfying feel of a hard-earned theme song, climaxing another essential disc, one that also includes Turre's version of Jimmie Lunceford's "Siesta at the Fiesta," E. J. Allen's best writing and playing, and the affecting "For Louis," composed by and dedicated to the memory of Phillip Wilson. Turre also arranged (and plays a wicked solo on) the title cut from My Way (DIW, 1990), a reminder that Lester at his best isn't a satirist. His dirty secret was the same as Armstrong's and Fats Waller's—the stuff they play is the stuff they love, animated by a strong sense of irony.

But all this was part of Lester's later phases, and it's the earlier period I most relish, because I can't imagine the 1970s without him. Berman writes that 1960s attempts at modernism failed, but "sprang from a largeness of vision and imagination, and from an ardent desire to seize the day." True: Coleman, Taylor, Coltrane, Mingus, Ayler—only they did not fail, Marshall. "It was the absence of these generous visions and initiatives that made the 1970s such a bleak decade." Right again, or so it appeared until we New York provincials began to hear of a generation of musicians in Chicago who went national only after a triumphant stay in Europe. They were nothing like the preceding avant-gardists, though they could not have existed without them. They played everything and they played nothing (the longest rests on records ever); they revealed technical aplomb while developing a methodology that put their skill in question. They almost always went out swinging, but before that—this was the Art Ensemble of Chicago's m.o.—they put you through an anthropological hour of bells, chimes, chants, beeps, blats, honks, and squalls. Man, you earned your catharsis.

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