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.

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 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 (AEC)--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, Bowie died.

by Gerald E. Brennan

Lester Bowie's Career

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.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 15 years ago

Lester Bowie will be missed, especially at the family reunion, it's not the same with Lester & Uncle Lester gone, but we still have Joe and Byron representing The Legacy Lives On!!!