Born in a trunk? Not quite. But with relatives into brass instruments
dating back to the nineteenth century, you could say Lester Bowie was (almost) born
in an instrument case. The case was in Frederick, Maryland in 1941, but he was raised
in St. Louis, Missouri. His trumpet-playing dad was a high school band director who
owned a master's degree. Then, not an easy feat for a black man. By age five Lester
was taking lessons from a proud father and by 14 he was under the wing of St. Louis
t rumpeter, Bobby Danzie, who was instrumental in tuning the young Bowie's jazz ears.
A year later he was broadcasting and directing his own band. Later he joined the
air force at 17, and played in "after hours" R&B clubs in Texas.
It was while in the service that Lester began to incorporate elements of his early
idol, Louis Armstrong , into his own style of playing. By the time his stint
with Uncle Sam's regulars ended, those ears had absorbed Kenny Dorham and
Freddie Hubbard , as well. An across-the-river (East St. Louis, Illinois)
local kid had further tickled Lester's lobes as Miles Davis ' smoothness crept
into Lester's playing.
If you're getting the idea that Lester Bowie is a hybrid, with roots and branches
of varying hues, well, you're getting the righ t idea. But His eclecticism does not
stop there. He went on the road with Blues, R&B, circus bands and carnival tent
shows, settling back in St. Louis to form a hard-bop group with drummer Phillip
Wilson , which included John Chapman on piano. His association with the likes
of Oliver Lake , J ulius Hemphill , and Floyd LaFlore , led
to the formation of the Black Artist Guild (BAG).
Lester landed in Chicago in 1965 with his entire band in his horn and embarked on
the obvious next exploration, the so-called "fr ee-jazz" movement. He joined
the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) the following year.
As he walked into the room for his first meeting, he was startled to see a passel
of musicians the world
was not yet ready to take to its bosom: Malachi Favors , Kalaparush Maurice
McIntyre , Roscoe Mitchell , and many others. From that not quit e chance
meeting sprang the Art Ensemble of Chicago , among the most influential and
creative groups in modern music: Lester Bowie (trumpet), Roscoe Mitchell ,
Joseph Jarman (woodwinds), Malachi Favors Maghostut (bass), and eventually,
Famoudou Don Moye (percussion).
Moving into the 70's and 80's, Lester's penchant for "serious fun" led
him to albums under his own name with titles such as "Rope-A-Dope" (for
Muhammad Ali), "Let the Good Times Roll", "The Great Pretender",
"Its Howdy Doody Time", and "Miles Davis meets Donald Duck".
Originally a nine piece ensemble, Brass Fantasy, Lester's current band, now boasts
ten assorted trumpets, trombones, French Horns, tuba and drums. Nothing escapes their
repertoire: the free, obscure, standards of decades past, funk, Latin, R&B. Brass
Fantasy plays them, pokes fun at them, but is always in good taste.
Lester believes in expanding his musical philosophies. In that endeavor, he is a
Yale Fellow, and a Visiting professor at Harvard and Dartmouth, as well as a clinician
and lecturer. Lester calls it all "avant pop". In fact, he named an album
just that. His philosophy: "All's fair in love and war....and music is both.....so
use anything, as long as it works".