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Trumpeter In The Cause of Great Black MusicCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Bowie, LesterThe death of Lester Bowie from liver cancer has robbed the jazz scene of one of its most colourful characters, as well as a musician of genuine stature. Bowie's bristling flat-top haircut, goatee beard and the lab coat which he habitually wore on stage became familiar trademarks in his work with both the long-running Art Ensemble of Chicago and in his own bands, notably his colourful Brass Fantasy.
Bowie combined the musical explorations and iconoclastic irreverence of the avant-garde with a jokester's zest and good humour. He knew when to lighten things up on stage, a fact brought home when his illness forced him to miss out on the Art Ensemble of Chicago's summer tour of Europe this year. Their concert in Glasgow in July, in which saxophonist Ari Brown took his place but not his role, took on a quite different, more austere aspect without his presence.
Bowie felt well enough to lead the Brass Fantasy on an October tour of Europe, but was taken ill in London, and flew home to New York. He was admitted to hospital, then sent home, where he died.
Lester Bowie was born in Maryland, but grew up in the south, initially in Arkansas and later in Missouri. In St Louis, he claimed he used to practice his trumpet by an open window in the hope that Louis Armstrong would discover him. He served in the army as a military policeman, and later said that the military background of all the musicians in the Art Ensemble had been instrumental in providing the discipline and physical and mental toughness needed to persevere in radical jazz.
He began his professional career playing mainly in blues and rhythm and blues bands, but was also involved in setting up the radical Black Artists Group and the Great Black Orchestra in St Louis. He married the singer Fontella Bass, who had a major pop hit with Rescue Me, but later concentrated on gospel music, and sometimes worked with Bowie and the Art Ensemble in the ensuing decades, even after their marriage ended.
Bowie moved to Chicago to be with his wife in 1965, and immediately hooked up with the group of avant-garde musicians which had coalesced around pianist Richard Muhal Abrams and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Bowie united with saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and bassist Malachi Favors to form the Art Ensemble of Chicago, initially as a trio, then as a quartet with saxophonist Joseph Jarman. The band moved to Europe in 1969, settling in Paris for two years, where they added drummer Don Moye to what became the most stable line-up in contemporary jazz.
The band lasted in that form until Jarman left to concentrate on non-musical pursuits in 1993, and has continued as a quartet until now. They adhered to their original musical philosophy, expressed in the slogan Great Black Music - Ancient to Future, incorporating not only the full range of Afro-American musical influences, from blues and gospel to free jazz, and also popularised the use of African percussion (the so-called "little instruments"), as well as adopting theatrical and ritual elements in their performances, including elaborate face painting and unusual costumes.
The Art Ensemble became the pre-eminent ensemble of the jazz avant-garde, and if their music moved more toward the mainstream in recent times, they were always capable of challanging and provocative -- as well as highly entertaining -- performances. The radicalism of their early work for the Nessa and Delmark labels in Chicago or ECM in Munich scarcely diminished when they signed to Atlantic. In later years, they recorded frequently for the DIW label in Japan, including collaborations with pianist Cecil Taylor and a South African gospel choir, and had recently re-joined Atlantic throught their subsidiary Birdology, for whom they produced one of the best of their 90's albums, Coming Home Jamaica , last year.
While wholly committed to the Art Ensemble, each of its members were also encouraged to pursue other projects, and Bowie was notably active in that regard. He recorded as a sideman with Jack DeJohnette, David Murray, Archie Shepp and Kahil El'Zabar, among others, and was a member of The Leaders, a stellar co-operative. His own bands included flamboyant (and flamboyantly named) outfits like From the Root to the Source, the New York Organ Ensemble and the Hip Hop Philharmonic Orchestra, but the best known of them was Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy, a group made up of an expanded brass section with bass and drums.
Bowie formed the band in the early 1980s, and they recorded a number of albums as well as touring regularly. Their speciality lay in arrangements of unlikely pop songs, a tendency which goes back at least as far Bowie's epic version of the doo-wop classic 'The Great Pretender' in 1981. The Brass Fantasy's book of arrangements included their distinctive (and not always entirely successful) re-working of songs by Michael Jackson, James Brown, The Spice Girls and Marilyn Manson, among others, including a version of Puccini's 'Nessun Dorma'
Bowie led the Brass Fantasy from the front, forsaking the white lab coat he used with the Art Ensemble for gaudy colours, and running through his whole range of tonal and timbral deviations. The trumpeter was constantly animated, conducting the band one moment, falling into a little two-step shuffle the next, or suddenly flipping into a dervish spin and firing off a stream of fractured trumpet phrases over the band's precise unison themes.
His playing in all of these contexts on both trumpet and flugelhorn absorbed and internalised a bewildering collage of styles and instrumental quirks -- one moment he would be growling and sluring his way through a melody line, bending and warping the timbre of his horn almost out of recognition, the next spiting out a flurry of seemingly disjointed phrases, and the next again laying out the same line with a rich, beautifully controlled sonority.
Bowie believed that jazz was a constantly evolving tradition, and had little time for the neo-bop revivalism of the last two decades. He used the past as a springboard into the future, the familiar as a gateway to the new, and believed wholehearedly in the freedom to express himself in any way he choose. The loss of his galvanizing presence as well as his unique musical personality will leave a gaping hole in jazz.
Bowie is survived by his wife, Deborah Bowie; six children, and two grandchildren.