Lester Bowie 1941–1999


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.

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.