Lester Bowie was a rarity in jazz. As a charter member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, he was a card-carrying member of the avant-garde and made a significant contribution to extending the vocabulary of his instrument—the trumpet—and of jazz itself. At the same time, the music he created was enjoyed by a broader listening public. One reason for this was his openness to materials that other jazz artists would have sneered at—songs by the Spice Girls or Marilyn Manson, for instance. A large part of his accessibility stemmed from Bowie’s sense of humor. “His recordings often seemed like prankish arguments,” wrote Ben Ratliff in the New York Times, “that the only way to understand jazz is to see it both in carnivalesque and intellectual contexts, to play circus music and modernist post-bop, pure hit-parade pop and nearly academic composition.”
Bowie was born on October 11, 1941, in Frederick, Maryland, and first picked up a horn when he was five years old. His father, a trained classical trumpeter and a high school teacher in St. Louis, Missouri, worked with Lester daily. An apocryphal story has it that Bowie practiced by an open window in the hope that his hero, Louis Armstrong, would discover him. While still a
Born on October 11, 1941, in Frederick, MD; died on November 8, 1999, in Brooklyn, NY; married twice: Fontella Bass (divorced), Deborah Bowie, six children. Education: Attended Lincoln University and North Texas State College.
Toured with R&B stars Albert King, Little Milton, Ike Turner, Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler, Gladys Knight, and Jackie Wilson, early-1960s; married soul singer Fontella Bass, mid-1960s; moved to Chicago, worked as studio musician for Chess Records and other labels, joined Muhal Richard Abrams Experimental Band, 1965; joined Roscoe Mitchel’s Art Ensemble, 1966; moved to France with Art Ensemble, Bowie composition “Gettin’ To Know Y’All” performed by the Baden-Baden Free Jazz Orchestra, 1969; returned to United States, 1971; moved to Lagos, Nigeria, lived and performed with Fela Kuti, 1977; formed New York Hot Trumpet Quintet, The Root To The Branch, and the Sho Nuff Orchestra, early-1980s; formed Brass Fantasy, 1986; performed regularly with The Leaders, late-1980s; performed last project Out Of The Gray Haze, a tribute to Louis Armstrong, 1999.
teenager, Bowie formed his own group the Continentals, which played doo-wop and popular music which remained a important influence on him throughout his performing life, even after he had established his reputation as the premier avant-garde trumpeter of his time. The ’50s hit “The Great Pretender,” for example, remained part of his repertoire until the end of his life.
In 1959, after graduating from high school, Bowie entered the Air Force. It was in the military in Texas that he decided he was serious about music. “I locked myself away for six months to work on creating my own sound,” he told Mike Joyce of the Washington Post. “I worked on these things for six months, things I knew I invented myself. Then one day a friend talked me into listening to a Blue Mitchell record. It just knocked me out. Blue Mitchell was playing all these things I thought I made up. That’s when I knew you have to be able to absorb all influences to come up with anything original.”
After his discharge, Bowie returned to St. Louis where he hooked up with drummer Philip Wilson and pianist John Chapman. The trio played hard bop, but jazz gigs were few and far between in St. Louis. To support himself, Bowie took to touring with R&B artists such as Albert King, Little Milton, Ike Turner, Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler, Gladys Knight, and Jackie Wilson. In 1961 he met Oliver Sain and soul singer Fontella Bass, and the three went out on the road together. Bowie married Bass a little later, took over as her musical director, and helped produce her big hit, “Rescue Me.” In 1965, Bowie and Bass moved to Chicago. “He used to say ‘All musicians from St. Louis wanted to go to Chicago.’ That’s where new music was happening,” his second wife Deborah told Howard Reich of the Montreal Gazette. In the Windy City, Bowie supported himself with studio work, most notably at Chess, the most important blues label of its day.
But as much as he loved blues and R&B, he yearned for greater musical challenges. In the mid-’60s, on the advice of a friend, he attended a workshop offered by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. Abrams’ home was a focal point for Chicago jazz players in the 1960s. Every week, Abrams held jam sessions there with the Experimental Band, a loose conglomerate of local musicians that included future stars like Jack DeJohnette, Anthony Braxton, and Henry Threadgill, as well as three local students: Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, and Malachi Favors. After a while, the Experimental Band metamorphosed into the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (A.A.C.M.). Later, Mitchell formed the Art Ensemble with Bowie, Favors, and Jarman.
The Art Ensemble quickly established itself as a force to be reckoned with. Favors and Jarman took to performing with painted faces and African costume, while Bowie began wearing the white lab coat that became one of his trademarks. The players explored the expressive limits of their instruments and introduced whistles, sirens, bull horns, noisemakers, and other “little instruments.” Because it was neither free jazz, bop or other traditional forms, the music was met with incomprehension. Bowie once calculated that when the Art Ensemble was getting started, it rehearsed about 300 times a year but had only a few actual performances. In response to the limited opportunities in their native country, the group packed its bags and moved to France in 1969. The curiosity about American jazz, especially new jazz, was intense in France and within days they had gigs. In their two years in Europe, the group—under its new name the Art Ensemble of Chicago (A.E.C.)—made 12 albums, gave hundreds of concerts and played on radio and TV. When they returned to the United States in 1971, their reputation had preceded them and they were signed almost immediately by a major label, Atlantic Records.
Even while with the AEC, Bowie continued to work on projects of his own and with other musicians, like Sunny Murray, Archie Shepp, Jimmy Lyons and Cecil Taylor. His extended piece, “Gettin’To Know Y’All,” was performed in 1969 by the Baden-Baden Free Jazz Orchestra. He maintained his membership in the AACM—he served as the group’s second president, succeeding Abrams—and continued to take part in AACM concerts and other events, even after moving to Brooklyn on 1975. “He never really lost that connection to Chicago,” Bowie’s wife Deborah told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “It was really part of who he was.” Bowie himself had a clear idea of the difference between the two cities. “Chicago is a place where music is created,” he told Phil Johnson of the Independent, “New York is a place where it is sold.”
Despite his growing reputation as a trumpeter and demand as a sideman in other jazz projects, his musical wanderlust often led him to travel to new places, confident that as long as he had his horn he would survive. He lived in Jamaica for a year, where the natives would inquire about his health if a period passed when they didn’t hear him practicing. In 1977, he moved to Lagos, Nigeria where things didn’t go as well as Bowie had hoped. He was on the verge of leaving for home when someone recommended he call on the great Nigerian star, Fela Kuti. “I took a cab to Fela’s place,” Bowie told John Fordham of London’s The Guardian, “and a little African guy comes out and says: ‘You play jazz? You from Chicago? Well, you’ve come to the right place, ‘cause we’re the baddest band in Africa.’ Then Fela tells me to play [the] blues, my speciality. I played a couple of bars and he says: ‘Go get his bags, he’s moving in.’ I stayed with him about a year, and it was fantastic’ Bowie ended up playing on three of Fela’s records.
The 1980s were a fertile period for Bowie. Besides his ongoing involvement in the Art Ensemble, he put together a number of solo projects—and usually ran both the artistic and musical sides himself, without the help of a manager. Early in the decade he formed the New York Hot Trumpet Quintet, a group which included Wynton Marsalis for a short time. The Root To The Branch was Bowie’s gospel-tinged group. He mounted a legendary performance at New York’s Symphony Space by the 59-piece Sho Nuff Orchestra—a virtually unheard of size for a jazz group. He performed regularly with his old friend, drummer Philip Wilson. Later in the 1980s, he played in an all-star band called The Leaders.
His primary musical vehicle outside the AEC was Brass Fantasy. He got the idea for the group in the early 1980s, but was not able to actually bring it off until 1986. “I’d been working on that concept for years,” he told Amy Duncan of the Christian Science Monitor, “but it wasn’t until then that I was able to do it on the level that I wanted to do it, because I wanted to have the best brass players in the city, and that costs a lot of money.” Brass Fantasy took the brass bands of New Orleans as its model; its line-up included trumpets, trombones, tubas, a French Horn and percussion, and was occasionally augmented with steel drums and the like. Bowie created Brass Fantasy to create opportunities to play and improvise using standards and the pop hits of the ’50s and ’60s. The group drew on an incredibly broad range of material from sources most jazz purists looked down on. Among the music covered by Brass Fantasy was “The Great Pretender,” “2 Becomes 1” by the Spice Girls, “Thriller” by Michael Jackson, James Brown’s “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” “Beautiful People” by Marilyn Manson and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The group displayed its range on the latter, wrote John L. Walters in the Independent. [The song] is “a brilliant arrangement that proceeds from abstract gongs and cymbals, through a delicate Gil Evans-ish brass filigree, to tango to rip-roaring stomping funk.”
While recognized as one of the finest trumpeters of his generation, Bowie frequently drew critical flak for the humor he injected into his work. Besides the squeaks, squawks, grunts and moans he was able to coax from his horn, he sported a flat-top haircut and Fu-Manchu goatee that tailed off into two points, and gave his compositions irreverent titles like “Miles Davis Meets Donald Duck.” He completely rejected the idea that jazz had to be solemn and unsmiling. “Sometime in the ’60s,” Bowie explained to Paul A. Harris of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “the humor got away from jazz. It got intellectual, and nobody could smile. And it wasn’t just the humor that got away—the life was taken out. The whole life was taken out of the music. I think, because of that, we’ve lost a lot in the music. The music doesn’t reach a lot of people for that reason. They think jazz is this very intellectual stuff, and you’ve got to know all about it to appreciate it.” Bowie possessed a deep respect for jazz and its tradition which was revealed in projects like his last, Out Of The Gray Haze, an orchestral homage to his boyhood hero, Louis Armstrong. At the same time he never lost his adventurousness. At the time of his death, he was involved in Hip-Hop Feel-Harmonic, a group made up of rappers and musicians from his neighborhood in Brooklyn.
In the summer of 1999, Lester Bowie was diagnosed with cancer of the liver. He continued touring, despite bad health. While touring Europe with Brass Fantasy in October 1999, he suddenly fell ill. His wife Deborah flew to London and returned with him to the United States. Back in New York, they went directly from the airport to the hospital. “Lester knew this would be his last tour,” Deborah Bowie told Howard Reich of the Montreal Gazette. “He knew there was a chance he might not complete it, but he had the spirit to try.” Two weeks later, on November 8, 1999, Lester Bowie died.
Numbers 1 & 2, Nessa, 1967.
Rope-A-Dope, Muse, 1975.
Esoteric, Hat Hut, 1980.
The Great Pretender, ECM, 1981.
I Only Have Eyes For You, ECM, 1985.
Avant Pop, ECM, 1986.
Serious Fun, DIW, 1989.
The Organizer, DIW, 1991.
The Fire This Time, In & Out, 1992.
Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music, Vol. 1, Atlantic, 1999.
With Art Ensemble of Chicago
Stance a Sophie, Nessa, 1970.
With Fontella Bass, America, 1970.
Bap-Tizum, Atlantic, 1972 (reissued by Koch 1999).
Live at Mandel Hall, Delmark, 1972.
Nice Guys, ECM, 1978.
Full Force, ECM, 1980.
Urban Bushmen, ECM, 1984.
With Roscoe Mitchell
Sound, Delmark, 1966.
Congliptious, Nessa, 1968.
With Fela Kuti
No Agreement, Celluloid, 1977.
With The Leaders
Mudfoot, Black Hawk, 1986.
Out Here Like This, Black Hawk, 1986.
Unforseen Blessings, Black Hawk, 1988.
Avoid The Funk, Hannibal, 1988.
Cum Funky, Enemy, 1994.
Chicago Sun-Times, November 10, 1999; January 22, 2000.
Christian Science Monitor, January 19, 1990.
Gazette (Montreal), November 11, 1999.
Guardian (London), November 11, 1999.
Independent (London), November 10, 1995; May 15, 1998.
New York Times, November 11, 1999.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 30, 1989; March 14, 1993; November 10, 1999.
Times (London), November 11, 1999.
—Gerald E. Brennan
Singer, songwriter, keyboardist
Fontella Bass may be best known for her recording, "Rescue Me," which became a number one rhythm- and-blues hit and reached both the British and American top 20 on the pop charts in 1965, securing her a place in the pantheon of classic pop female singers of the 1960s. She also recorded the classic "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing" as a duet with Bobby McClure in 1965. Following her flirtation with success she relocated to Paris with her husband, avant-garde trumpet player Lester Bowie, who was a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. She retired from the music business to raise a family in the 1970s, but reappeared as a gospel singer in the 1980s. In 2002 she re-emerged as a singer on several songs for the trip-hop group Cinematic Orchestra, with whom she also toured.
Bass was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother, Martha Bass, was a professional singer with the Clara Ward Singers, a gospel group that toured with the Reverend C. L. Franklin, the father of Aretha Franklin. She was raised by her grandmother, Nevada Carter, when her mother toured. Musically precocious, Bass was five years old when she began accompanying her grandmother on piano when the older woman sang at funeral services. Before she turned ten, Bass was traveling with her mother on tours with the Clara Ward Singers throughout the South and Southwestern regions of the United States. As a teenager she was introduced to secular music by her musician uncles, who would sneak the young piano player and singer into blues clubs in St. Louis. Before long, Bass succumbed to the lure of the stage. She began performing professionally at various clubs along the Mississippi River when she was 17. Her mother would not allow Bass to tour with a carnival, however, so she stayed in St. Louis where she accepted work as a piano player for bluesman Little Milton Campbell.
After Little Milton was offered a recording contract with Chicago's preeminent blues label, Chess Records, Bass was given the opportunity to sing with the band as well as play piano. When Little Milton and his bandleader, saxophonist and arranger Oliver Sain, parted ways, Bass followed Sain. The Oliver Sain Soul Revue featured Bass, singer Bobby McClure, and trumpet player Lester Bowie. Bass, however, also wanted to perform and record with other bands in the St. Louis area, most notably with Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm and with Tina Turner. Sain was not amenable to allowing Bass such liberties, prompting Bass and her new husband, Bowie, to move to Chicago in 1965. She had met brothers Phil and Leonard Chess of Chess Records when she performed with Little Milton, and they signed her to Checker, their R&B subsidiary label.
Bass attained success immediately with "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing," a classic duet performed with McClure. The song features both man and woman presenting a laundry list of each others' perceived slights and misbehaviors. Each singer admonishes the other, warning that if such behavior persists, he or she will "mess up a good thing." Written by Oliver Sain, the song's balance of male and female wrongdoings and indiscretions is reminiscent of the country music single "Wild Side of Life" by Hank Snow, and the female response "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" by Kitty Wells. It also recalls the classic song of a co-dependent couple, "Fairy Tale of New York," by the Pogues, with Kirsty MacColl. "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing" became a moderate rhythm and blues hit in 1965, and was re-recorded in 1979 by Ry Cooder and Chaka Khan on the former's Bop Till You Drop.
If "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing" put Bass on music lovers' radar, her follow-up Checker single, "Rescue Me," planted her solidly on AM radios and jukeboxes and on film and television soundtracks. A song in the classic Stax/Volt mode, with a driving bass line and crackling horn section, the song also features spinetingling gospel call-and-response vocals. The song shot to number one, on the combined strength of Bass's vocal performance and rhythm piano, the instrumental support of horn man Gene Barge and drummer Maurice White, and backup singing from Minnie Riperton. It reached number one on the R&B charts, and crossed over to the pop charts in England and the United States. The song's writing credits went to Carl William Smith and Raynard Miner, although Bass claimed to have created the song's melody over that pair's lyrics and rhythm. "I was part of the writing team at Chess Records in Chicago," Bass told People magazine writer Steve Dougherty. "One day I stopped by the studio and Raynard was in the rehearsal room. We made up the whole thing, lyrics and everything on the spot. I played rhythm piano and sang the melody lines."
According to Bass, the song was recorded in three takes. She told Dougherty, "I was so excited about that song. I told all my friends, 'I think this is the one.' The record came out, and my name was not on the sleeve [as co-writer]. And when I asked about it, [the people at the record company] told me, 'Don't worry, we're gonna change that.' But they never did." As a result, the only songwriting royalty Bass received for the song was $11,000. In 1991, however, she won a lawsuit to reclaim performance royalties when credit card company American Express and their advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather failed to obtain Bass's approval to use "Rescue Me" in a commercial. At that point, according to Newsweek's Karen Schomer, "She was broke, tired and cold; the only heat in her house came from the gas stove in the kitchen." Schomer quoted Bass: "I said, 'I need to see a sign to continue on.' And all of a sudden on the TV I heard … 'Rescue Me.'" Bass reportedly received a settlement in excess of $50,000, as well as punitive damages.
Bass recorded one more moderate hit for Checker titled "Recovery," but felt that the label was simply trying to create a formula out of "Rescue Me." She recorded advertising jingles for Sears, Nehi soft drinks, Lincoln-Mercury, and AC Delco Spark Plugs. By this time, Lester Bowie was ensconced in the jazz avantgarde of Chicago with his band the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Bass traveled with the band to Paris for a three-year stint. She returned to the United States to raise her children in the 1970s, and divorced Bowie in 1978. She recorded sporadically throughout the 1980s and even re-teamed with Oliver Sains for a spell, but with little success. In 1994 she recorded Breath of Life with the World Saxophone Quartet. She signed with Nonesuch Records in 1995 and recorded No Ways Tired, a gospel album with jazz and blues overtones. Dougherty described Bass's performance on the album: "Just because she's gone upper case and holy doesn't mean she has lowered the flame. This collection rocks. Singing her perfect-pitch praises of the Lord as fervently and enticingly as she ever called a lover, Bass gives traditional sounding gospel numbers like 'You Don't Know What the Lord Told Me,' 'All My Burdens,' and 'Everlasting Arms' an irresistible, head-over-heels swing." The album featured musicians Harvey Brooks on bass guitar, saxophonist David Sanborn, and organist Donald Smith. After several more gospel releases, Bass performed guest vocal duties on the Cinematic Orchestra's 2002 album and tour. In 2003 the Westside label released Free, a collection of recordings Bass made on the Paula label in the 1970s.
"Rescue Me," Checker/Chess, 1965.
"Don't Mess Up a Good Thing" (with Bobby McClure), Checker/Chess, 1966.
The New Look, Checker/Chess, 1966.
Les Stances a Sophie (soundtrack), Nessa, 1970.
Free, Paula/Mojo, 1972.
From the Root to the Source, Soul Note, 1980.
Rescued: The Best of Fontella Bass, Chess, 1992.
No Ways Tired, Nonesuch, 1995.
Now That I Found a Good Thing, Jewel, 1996.
Travellin', Justin-Time, 2001.
For the Record …
Born on July 3, 1940, in St. Louis, MO; daughter of Martha Bass (a gospel singer); married Lester Bowie (a trumpet player); divorced, 1978.
Toured as keyboard player and vocalist with Little Milton, early 1960s; recorded hit duet "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing" with Bobby McClure, 1965; recorded top 20 solo hit "Rescue Me," 1965; moved to Paris with husband, Lester Bowie, late 1960s; recorded gospel album, From the Root to the Source, 1980; released No Ways Tired on Nonesuch label, 1995; recorded and toured with Cinematic Orchestra, 2002.
Addresses: Record company—Justin Time Records Inc., 5455 Paré, Ste. 101, Montréal, Quebec H4P 1P7, Canada, phone: (514) 738-9533.
Free (The Paula Tracks), Westside, 2003.
Larkin, Colin, editor, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, MUZE, 1998.
Newsweek, April 24, 1995.
People, June 19, 1995.
"The Backpages Interview: Fontella Bass," Rock's Back-pages, http://www.rocksbackpages.com/print.html?ArticleID=2973 (April 16, 2004).
"Fontella Bass," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 16, 2004).