Lester Bowie: Gittin’ to Know Y’all

LESTER BOWIE plays trumpet the way Leo Watson scats. His music is a funfair hall of mirrors with as many straight lines as a switchback and the nervy adrenalin of a vaudeville comic who, any second, expects the emergence of that long pole with the crook from the wings. It’s a carnival style, but the content is as caring as a beakful of pre-chomped nourishment for the fledglings.

He was born in Frederick, Maryland, in 1941, and grew up in St. Louis. His father was a straight trumpet player with eyes for an orchestra, but being black, ended up teaching High School. Lester never stopped practicing, never stopped dreaming.

“When you’re young, you can really have some weird ideas. I’d read the story about how King Oliver called Louis up and took him to play second trumpet with him, so I used to play aiming out the window hoping Louis’d drive by and hear me and say, ‘Lester — come and play second trumpet with me!'”

The dues came harder than that, and Lester went on the road with Leon Claxton’s Harlem Revue.

“I don’t think the same type is in existence now. I think I was one of the last modern cats to have worked in a tent-show carnival. They had sideshows, rides, a chorus line, comedians, singers, they had the Alligator Lady, the Half Man, all these freaks in little tents. It was a regular straight-up-and-down show — the only exception was most of the people were washed-up. Everybody was older than me. The girls were like prostitutes, they were all selling pussy because we were going places that had never seen black girls. We went up to Canada, and after we’d finished the show at night, the mayor and the police chief’d be there queueing up.

“It was one of the hardest gigs I had in my whole life. I mean, it was like a 12-hour gig, man — 12 to 14 hours a day of playing continuously. The show started at ten in the morning, and they had what they called a ballet. The ballet is where you go out in front of the tent on a platform, and you play to pull the crowd in. When the tent gets full, you go back in and do the show, then after that you go back out front. You do that ALL day long.

“The first day, my lip was this big, man! Swolled up from that kinda playing — but it taught me how to pace myself, how to relax. And I’d be playing an hour ahead to practice my chords and stuff before the job started.”

HE TURNED pro at 15, heading a unit which combined Dixieland, boogie-woogie and R&B, and comprised trumpet, alto, piano, sousaphone and the occasional drummer. At 17 he joined the Air Force, and then attended Lincoln University and North Texas State, gigging with James Clay and Fathead Newman off campus. On the road again, he backed everybody from Rufus Thomas to Little Milton.

Back home in St. Louis, he’d been playing with Oliver Lake and Phillip Wilson, but getting little public response. Wilson explained the reasons to me: “The whole thing in St. Louis, they don’t want nothing new to happen, anything kinda strange, you know. Just mainstream kinda stuff. We was playing all kinds of music — rock ‘n’ roll, any kind, didn’t matter, trying to take it to another level where it wasn’t restricted. After a while it got to a point where it wasn’t going nowhere because of the people, the mentality. They couldn’t move their thoughts and we felt surrounded, man. We had to go.”

Bowie, Lake and Wilson tried their music on California, no sale, before Bowie moved to Chicago in 1966. That did it. The trumpeter sat in with Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band, and wound up on his first day with Roscoe Mitchell’s and Joseph Jarman’s phone numbers.

The early days of the AACM were wildly active, everybody dropping by to experiment with everybody else, and staying all day. Bowie, a motor-cycle freak — “there was this little old English chick that had a motor-cycle shop on the South Side, she was an artistic, riding-academy type, that’s the bag she was in — I bought my BSA and took lessons from her in the fine points of keeping your knees in” — turned up for gigs at the Hungry Eye on Wells Street with trumpet under one arm, and crash helmet under the other.

The first AACM album, Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound, was the result of pressure on Delmark by Terry Martin, Jerry Figi, John Litweiler and Chuck Nessa, plus a healthy mad-money profit from Junior Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues. It sold 1,300 in the first year, but subsequent album sales proved that Chicago, and America at large, did not want to know. By 1969, Bowie, Mitchell, Jarman and Malachi Favors, now grouped as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, decided to take their music elsewhere.

“WE DIDN’T know anybody in France — we just went. I sold everything I had and I bought the tickets,” said Lester. “We were to the point where we wanted to do our music exclusively. We were playing together, but Malachi was working at the airport lounge playing in a trio, Roscoe was working at the adding machine factory, and I was going all over the road with Jackie Wilson or somebody. We knew that if we did it in a spectacular enough fashion, we’d create enough interest to get some work. If they don’t recognize it here — go over there.

“What most people don’t realize is if they work towards their art as hard as they work for anyone else — the same eight-hour day as you’d put in for General Dynamics Corporation or a bank or a post-office — you’re gonna get results. Some people don’t like to put the time in — they feel when they’ve developed something, they’ve got this great art. You’ve gotta market yourself, wake up every morning at eight, hustle and work — on the telephone, writing letters, sending your photos. You’ll get some work. That’s what we did.”

On the second day in Paris, the Art Ensemble played at the Lucernaire theatre and immediately scored extensive press coverage. A week after that, they cut an album, and in one year performed 35 concerts for the French Ministry of Culture. They lived cheaply together on a country estate, bought a couple of trucks, and toured Europe for close on two years. The Art Ensemble had put itself on the map.

“We had to leave Chicago to let people know what was happening. When you get into this prophet type of thing, you have to be somewhat of a vagabond. You can’t stay regional — not if you have something the world wants to hear. Being a musician, there’s an obligation to spread the music. You’re like a messenger. See, the thing is nobody really had anything in mind for the AACM, except it had to grow. What it grows into we don’t really know ourselves.

“We’ve had a record label for 10 years, on paper — registered members of the Phonograph Manufacturers’ Guild and all that — but we’ve always had the philosophy that before you got the label, you have to have a market. You have to create a demand for what you’re doing before you put your energy into records.

“I’ve seen too many artists put their energy into getting a label, control-my-own-destiny and so on — and they sell 500 copies, get discouraged and the shit fades away. You’re controlling something nobody wants. I predict that in the next four years, AECO is gonna have the most complete jazz catalogue in the world. We’re a truthful company — like we pay our artists 50 per cent royalties, not 5 per cent.”

The Art Ensemble label has already issued an AE of C album, solo albums by Favors and Moye, and plans solos from Bowie and Mitchell before turning to other musicians.

ONE OF THE trumpeter’s many projects is a training camp in Jamaica, where he lived in 197(? — RBP Ed) — “music all day long. Just like the Army, except it’ll be music. Your horn’s gotta be clean an shit, just like your weapons at Boot Camp. Teach ’em and get ’em doing the history of the world’s music. You’d walk through the ground and hear it all — African music over here, dixieland shit over there, who-get-the-funk from over here.

“See, we haven’t been allowed the means by which to develop the music. We’ve been denied the methods. We aren’t given the money and facilities. If we were, the music’d be on a much higher level. We’ve gotta start realizing the contribution that all of our peoples have made to this planet, because the next phase we’re going into is inter-planetary.

“The division between nationalities and races is getting much closer because of communication: We’ve gotta learn to respect each other because soon we’re gonna run into some other shit out there — and they’re not gonna know nothing about these little sub divisions we got. All THEY’RE gonna know is, like, ‘you earthling been fucking up’ — you dig.”

His current preoccupation is his 57-piece orchestra, formed in December for a one-off concert. With a 15-piece trumpet section, nine trombones, a tuba and 17 saxophones, including an alto line that features Mitchell, Jarman, Lake, Threadgill, Hemphill and Blythe, it looks like nobody’s minding the Lofts. All the parts are being learned by rote, and Bowie hopes to take it on a world tour once a year.

Previous projects on the grand scale can be found on Gittin’ To Know Y’All with a 25-piece band at Baden-Baden, and the soundtrack for an abortive movie, Crescendo which involved the Art Ensemble and a 30-piece string orchestra from the Paris Conservatory, which is released on a bootleg album entitled Art Ensemble Go Home for Galloway Records.

“I like small groups too — guess I’m most comfortable in a five-piece band, but at the same time, I have to be doing duos and solos and big bands just to keep me going. I get bored if I do one thing exclusively. I always sit in a lot — on all periods of anything Even if the musicians’ level isn’t up to mine, there’s certain elements of all music that can do me some good.

“See, for example, I can be sitting up in Chicago without a gig, and needing to build my chops up. Trumpet’s funny — you gotta play it all the time. There’s no better place for me to go than one of those blues joints, and sit up and riff all night behind one of those blues singers. You’re not playing a bunch of stuff, but just that riff keeps the muscles tight, keeps that tone and rhythm together.

“WHEN I PLAY, I try to play everything I have heard or felt. I mean, I didn’t spend all that time at the carnival to never do that again, or spend all that time playing blues to push it to one side and say, OK — I’m avant-garde now. I didn’t learn all those damn chords for nothing! I’m trying to tie it all up into some sort of meaningful statement.

“Sure — you could take a computer and programme it to play four bars of calypso, four bars of blues, but you have to put it together so that it sounds like none of them, though you hear all those things inside it. I can listen to myself and remember the reaction I had when I did it. You can find which things draw a certain response, and elicit that automatically. It’s up to me to figure a way to put this in some sort of order, I figure I run about 35-40 per cent successful by my standards. The rest of the time I’m trying to do something, but it’s not really happening.

“I’m trying to deal naturally. If I feel it, I play it. If it’s a bugle call or a nursery rhyme or whatever — I don’t know all the deep reasons why I may think of doing them, but I deal with them as they come. I don’t want to put any preconceived barriers on what I do.”

Dissolving the labels developed his characteristic trumpet tone, with its half-valve effects, mutters and whoops. “St Louis cats were vocal maybe. A lot of the influences didn’t come necessarily from the trumpet, but from listening to all those blues guitar players and blues singers, and trying to get those effects. St. Louis was a real bluesy town, and when I play something half-valve, I’m trying to get something singers try to do, rather than something I heard another trumpet player do.”

The Art Ensemble’s theatrical trappings grew out of the same need to be free of classification. “We didn’t set out to bring out the theatrical a bit more — we just tried to establish an atmosphere where we were just free to express ourselves, period. We don’t wear paint for a gimmick. The guys who wear paint FEEL that way. I don’t because I don’t feel that way, but if the others want to, I’m not gonna inhibit their creativity. If you wanna stand on your head, go ahead — I’ll play a chord for you.

“Theatre is a natural aspect of music anyway. There were musicians long before there were records, and it’s only in the last 50 years that you’ve been able to hear them without seeing them. The rest of history, you had to see them and hear them at the same time, and seeing them was just as important. For me, I WANT to see Miles Davis, how does he look when he hits that note?”

LESTER MOVED his custom-made boa-constrictor trumpet case — a present from Nigeria, where he spent last year — and unpacked a book. It was an uncorrected proof of Dizzy Gillespie’s memoirs, entitled To Bop, Or Not… To Bop, and will be published by Doubleday.

“I’ve been reading this in bed. The parallel between when be-bop came in is similar to what happened to us. Same problems. Cats didn’t like ’em, thought they were trying to destroy the music. Only problem is, these same be-bop cats ended up saying the same thing about us. They didn’t really learn to be open from that experience.

“The thing I’ve had against bebop was that it closed the music back up. I think it was really beginning to open, and be-bop closed it down to certain cliques of cats, so that if you didn’t know a certain song or play a certain way, you weren’t really in. That’s like saying, can’t nobody play less they can play be-bop. It got too elitist. There’s some good blues players, some good Indian musicians.

“As far as those diatonic scales, be-bop is harmonically the most difficult thing you can do in Western music — and the only step beyond that is what we’re doing. Other sounds, other sonorities.

“The music of the future will bring all the musics more together. Jazz is the only music that can unite the whole world — the only music that’s even talking about bringing us together — talking about something good happening. Rock ‘n’ roll is talking about anything it can say to sell records. We’re the only musicians talking about the unity of mankind, and we get shot down as being some sorta race-haters.”

He quoted from the intro to his ‘Jazz Death’ solo: “Is jazz as we know it dead yet?”

“At that time, that’s all people were talking about. It’s a ridiculous question. How is jazz gonna EVER die? That’s why I added ‘yet’ — the people who asked that must’ve been wishing it was. Like they can’t wait to bury it — I’ll do the last shovel! Well, sometimes I wish I’d picked something easy like a doctor or a nuclear physicist, simple, you dig — like the President or some shit.”

And he laughed like hell…

© Brian CaseMelody Maker, 24 February 1979

Leave a Comment