Lester Bowie 1941–1999

The Avant-Garde’s Tireless Trumpeter Goes Out Swinging

When I learned of Lester's death, I had to hear his first album, Numbers 1 & 2 (Nessa, 1967), which I hadn't played in at least 15 years. It holds up, truly, and so do its mates—Roscoe Mitchell's Congliptious and Old/Quartet and all the early Art Ensemble of Chicago LPs, to mention just a few Lester landmarks. These albums pass the time with an almost arrogant indifference to the clocks of the world. The music suns itself on the porch, and if it gets too hot for you, stick around, because the weather changes every minute or so. In assessing the influence of Lester and his comrades, consider Terry Martin's parenthetical liner comment on the instrumentation: "three horns and a bassist!!" That sort of lineup wouldn't merit a single exclamation point today. Lester's best-known band had four trumpets, two trombones, French horn, tuba, and two drummers!!!

About a quarter into "Number 1," Lester plays a lovely, lyrical passage of sustained notes, before kneading his timbre into more expressive and eccentric tones, ending in the tuba's range. Much has been made of his flutters and growls, his ascending rips that fade off into high, whinnying slurs or his guffawing half-valve effects, but he was a commanding, skilled trumpet player—here and in the startling unison episodes of "Number 2," the limning of the melody in part two of the Art Ensemble's epochal People in Sorrow (Nessa, 1969), and numerous other instances. He showed how much he could play one night in 1977, sitting in with Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan's, an encounter still talked about. A few nights ago, Eddie Locke, Roy's drummer, remembered that Roy arrived three hours early he was so nervous, and though, as always, he kept his crown, Lester acquitted himself admirably and the older guys were impressed—they didn't like the avant-garde, but they knew whatever he played must be deliberate, because he had the chops and knew the changes.

Listening to the discs today, it's hard to believe anyone questioned his ability, but the same doubts were registered about Ornette and Cecil. Lester's importance as a trumpeter can hardly be overstated. Except for Don Cherry, the instrument was all but moribund in the new music. Don Ellis's antics had become academic, Freddie Hubbard couldn't make the leap, and players like Bill Dixon, Mike Mantler, Donald Ayler, and Eddie Gale lacked either the technical or intellectual resources to carry through. In restoring the panoply of jazz trumpet effects, Lester brought it back to life and inspired a generation of brass players.

The Chicagoans' national impact was first felt in the mid '70s, and helped to overcome the direst malaise in jazz history. But they began recording in the 1960s—Lester's debut came out a year after Unit Structures, two after Ascension. Yet it divines a different world, far removed from the buoyant swing of Coleman, the steamrolling ardor of Coltrane, the virtuoso exhilaration of Taylor. Berman quotes Octavio Paz's observation that modernity is "cut off from the past and continually hurtling forward at such a dizzy pace that it cannot take root [or] recover its powers of renewal." That's just what Bowie and company were attempting to do, with their bells and harmonica, their irreverent reverence for blues and swing and pop tunes, their humor and ceremony, their music that only made sense if you listened, because you wouldn't get too far patting your feet.

Inevitably, perhaps, Lester renewed himself by returning to gospel and pop, the world of his past and the world around him, all bourgeois grist to seize a new day. Perhaps the symbolic moment of transition between the Art Ensemble Lester and the Brass Fantasy Lester took place in February 1979 at Symphony Space, when he conducted the 59-piece Sho' Nuff Orchestra, with a cast that amazed then and seems dreamlike now; the reed section alone included Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, David Murray, Arthur Blythe, John Stubblefield, Frank Lowe, Frank Wright, and Charles Tyler. The evening began when Jism Magazine's Dave Flexingbergstein ran out, press card in hat, and popped the question first heard on Bowie's 1968 "Jazz Death?": "Isn't jazz, as we know it, dead yet?" Lester rolled his eyes and said, "Well, that all depends on what you know." It ended with a churchy hymn, the band whooping in time, which showman Lester interrupted to inquire if we were having a good time. We absolutely were.

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