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 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.
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 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
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.
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