Remembering Jazz Trumpeter Lester Bowie The noted trumpeter was on was only 58 when he died of liver cancer in 1999. Despite his short career, Bowie made significant contributions to jazz, exploring the avant-garde with techniques like blats, growls and half-valve effects.

Remembering Jazz Trumpeter Lester Bowie

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(Soundbite of music)


Tonight in San Francisco, musicians and jazz fans will gather for a concert paying tribute to jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie. Next month will mark the 10th anniversary of his death. His musical legacy will be saluted tonight by such performers as James Carter and members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which was co-founded by Bowie more than 40 years ago.

Lester Bowie was both a great jazz scholar and a great showman. He was enthusiastic about all kinds of music, from avant-garde jazz to R&B and doo-wop, and he recorded playful, wonderful versions of everything from the "Howdy Doody Show" theme song to "The Great Pretender."

Terry Gross spoke to Lester Bowie in 1989.

(Soundbite of song, "The Great Pretender")


When did you start playing rhythm and blues standards with the band?

Mr. LESTER BOWIE (Musician): Well, when I first started playing professionally, at age 15, I played with a group called the Continentals that was backing up a lot of doo-wop groups during that time; this is 1954 to '59. And one of the first songs that I learned was "The Great Pretender," so assuming that jazz always expounded on contemporary music, I was always confused as to why jazz guys never really picked up on what was happening for the doo-wop guys in the 50s. So to pick up that slack and to fill that space, I decided to do it myself.

GROSS: Did you ever turn your back on those songs yourself because they weren't jazz and you were a jazz musician?

Mr. BOWIE: No. I've always been a professional musician first. I always tell any student that I have, if you want to be a jazz musician, you first have to learn how to feed yourself with your instrument. After that, you can specialize. And another thing, we in jazz aren't supposed to be so closed-minded as to turn our backs on any kind of music.

GROSS: Did playing with people like Solomon Burke and Jackie Wilson, Rufus Thomas, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle give you a sense of the theater of music?

Mr. BOWIE: Oh yes. Definitely. Definitely. And then it taught me a lot about staging and just how music moves and how it affects people.

GROSS: Did you do steps and wear jackets, and did you have synchronized horn movements?

Mr. BOWIE: I did the steps, we wore the jackets, but I didn't like the fast moves. You know, one time I auditioned for James Brown; actually, I auditioned three times. I never got the gig, but I was always glad I didn't because I didn't want to flip my trumpet around like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOWIE: I was scared. That's the only trumpet I had.

GROSS: Well you mentioned James Brown; you do "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" on your new record. Tell me why you chose that one?

Mr. BOWIE: James Brown has been one of the influential people in music for the last - since I was in high school, since 1955. And this is just part of our homage and our respect for his music and what it's done for jazz and what it's done for rhythm and blues, what it's done for the rap music of today. He's truly the Godfather of Soul.

(Soundbite of "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag")

GROSS: Let me ask you about your playing. You tend to play in the cracks between notes a lot. And you do these flub notes that are perfectly controlled. You know exactly, or you seem to know exactly, how you're going to miss a note. And I was wondering how you develop that kind of technique?

Mr. BOWIE: Well, I used to tell people, I built a whole career off making mistakes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOWIE: What I do is, if I make a mistake I just learn how to do it on purpose, so then I've got the note that I should've hit and I got the notes that I didn't hit, but I know how to make both of them on purpose.

GROSS: Well, do you think of yourself as having a lot of technique as a player?

Mr. BOWIE: Well, I probably got the most advanced technique in brass, as far as the newer elements that I use. I don't have the best, by any means, as far as the standard trumpet classical technique, but who cares?

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Did you ever care?

Mr. BOWIE: No. Afraid not.

At the time - my father was a classical musician - trained as a classical musician in the 30s. And when he came up there was no hope of a black man ever getting any - being with a symphony orchestra in the States, so I didn't even consider that. It was never part of my - never part of it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BOWIE: Plus, the music kind of bored me a little bit too.

GROSS: We were talking before about the theatricality of music and the matching jackets that you'd have to wear when you were playing with rhythm and blues bands and doo-wop groups. You wear a lab coat when you perform with Brass Fantasy. How did you start using that as your stage uniform?

Mr. BOWIE: Well, I started using a lot of - I've used a lot of different ones. I've been a priest. I've been a hard hat. But the white jacket kind of stands for research and I've been a researcher and I consider the stage as my laboratory.

GROSS: You always look to me like the mad scientist...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...when your wear it, you know - that you're cooking something up in your laboratory.

Mr. BOWIE: Yeah, Jack Sheldon once told me that I was like a psychiatrist gone berserk or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Let me change the subject to the Art Ensemble of Chicago. What part of your playing and your personality does that group bring out?

Mr. BOWIE: Well, the Art Ensemble is the artistic, the research, the multiethnic influential heavy. I believe this is the most difficult that I play is with the Art Ensemble. I can play things with the Art Ensemble that everyone else would know what to do, but just hold their eyes opened wide. So it's the most advanced musically of all the groups.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Did you think of yourself as being an avant-garde player when you helped form the group in 1965?

Mr. BOWIE: No, we didn't - we never considered ourselves avant-garde. I mean, people considered us avant-garde. We've been trying to live that down now for the last 25 years. So it's - because avant-garde has sort of a negative connotation. When people think of avant-garde, it means something that they're going to have difficulty understanding, something that's going to be maybe chaotic, you know. Avant-garde doesn't really mean that. It means just something that's a little bit ahead of its time. It doesn't necessarily mean it's atonal or it's a bunch of confusing sounds that may be difficult to decipher. So it's kind of hard to live that down and we - that label was kind of stuck on us.

GROSS: Well, the Art Ensemble is really a group that not only plays, you know, challenging music but they, you know, it's a group that really knows how to have fun and that is also like Brass Fantasy, into theatricality. Most of the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago wear face paint for performances. I believe you usually don't.

Mr. BOWIE: I sweat too much. I'd have paint all in my mouth. It would all down in my horn, up in my nose…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOWIE: So I don't use it.

GROSS: Was there ever any pressure on you to do it so that you'd fit in with everybody else?

Mr. BOWIE: No, there's no pressure to fit in because if you fit in with the Art Ensemble, you fit out…

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOWIE: …because it's about being individual. It's about expressing yourself any way you want to. The whole idea of the paint is the tradition of the mask. In order to prepare yourself to play music, you try to put yourself on another level. You want to become out of yourself, become the music itself, you know. And to do this it requires changing something. I don't want to look the same way I look walking down the street as I do when I walk on the stage. Because on the stage is when I'm presenting my craft and when I really have to concentrate and get into what I'm doing, and the change of costumes, the paint, all of this helps.

GROSS: How did you join the Art Ensemble, or I should say, how did you co-found it?

Mr. BOWIE: Well, what happened is I moved to Chicago. I was married at that time to Fontella Bass and she got a hit called "Rescue Me," and we moved to Chicago. And after playing in the studios and doing the jingles for about a year, I heard about Richard Abrams' experimental band and I went in and sat in with the experimental band, and the next day I was the member of the AACM, and Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and I were all rehearsing together.

GROSS: It must have seemed like a big leap at the time for you musically.

Mr. BOWIE: No, not actually. You have to understand - you don't go from bag to bag in this music. You don't say, well, I'm jazz, I'm R&B. I have always wanted to be a jazz musician. I have never wanted to be anything other than a jazz musician, but I also knew that I may have had to be a country and western musician to survive until I could play jazz for a living. So it all works together, one helps the other. I mean, my R&B experience helps me right now. My jazz experience helps me when I go to India or to Africa to play, you know? If you can play Bebop, you can play just about anything, you know, all the patterns of just about any music in the world. So I can use my Bebop experience to help me play Chinese music. I can use the Chinese experience to help me further enhance or play something new on something else. So it all works together. You don't try to be just, you know, it's not just like one at a time. I'm R&B for a couple of years and I'm into jazz, it's - it all kind of fuses together.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BOWIE: You're welcome.

BIANCULLI: Jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie, speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. Next month marks the 10th anniversary of his death at the age of 58. A tribute concert takes place tonight in San Francisco at the Herbst Theatre.

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