Bowie Is Dead at 58; Innovative Jazz Trumpeter
By BEN RATLIFF
The trumpeter, band leader and composer Lester Bowie, an icon of
the experimental movement in jazz from the mid-1960's on who
was also known for his comic shows and jazz-based treatments of pop
music, died on Monday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 58.
The cause was liver cancer, said his brother Byron.
Best known as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Bowie
performed and recorded for more than 30 years. In that group he
developed the two things that would brand him: his knowing, Groucho
Marx-like sense of humor, expressed musically and otherwise, and his
appearance. In most performances he wore a long white lab coat and his
narrow face was bracketed by a flat-top haircut and a sharp goatee. In
publicity photos he was rarely seen without a cigar.
His early working experiences were in rhythm-and-blues bands, and a
slow, expressive blues was his specialty.
But the most famous part of Bowie's trumpet language was timbral
effects -- glissandos, smears, growls, flutters, half-valved winces and
other vocalizations that worked their way into the style of almost every
self-consciously experimental jazz trumpeter who came after him,
including Butch Morris, Dave Douglas, Herb Robertson and Roy
His recordings often seemed like prankish arguments 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 in Frederick, Md. His father was a trumpeter who
turned to high-school teaching after striving for a performance career
At age 5 Bowie was playing trumpet in daily practice with his father, and
he played in dance bands as a teenager.
He joined the Army at the age of 17 and was stationed in Texas, where
he served as a military policeman.
Bowie credited his career longevity to the four years he spent in the
service. After his discharge he played in bands led by blues and
rhythm-and-blues performers including Albert King, Jackie Wilson,
Rufus Thomas and Joe Tex, and was privately rehearsing more
experimental music with St. Louis musicians like Julius Hemphill and
He married a rhythm-and-blues singer, Fontella Bass, and moved to
Chicago in 1965 to become her musical director; during that period Ms.
Bass recorded "Rescue Me," which became a major hit on radio. The
marriage ended in divorce.
In Chicago Bowie worked with a big band led by George Hunter and
played in rhythm-and-blues studio sessions, including many for Chess
Tiring of the grind, he followed the advice of a saxophonist colleague
named Delbert Hill and attended a composers' workshop led by the
pianist Muhal Richard Abrams.
Many of those in the workshop, including Roscoe Mitchell, Henry
Threadgill, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton and Jack DeJohnette,
would in the next decade become major figures in the new jazz.
Abrams's workshop bands formed the nucleus of the Association for the
Advancement of Creative Musicians, the nonprofit cooperative first
organized in 1965.
Mitchell created a band with three other A.A.C.M. members: Bowie, the
bassist Malachi Favors and the drummer Phillip Wilson. When Wilson
left, the band had trouble finding a replacement. Out of desperation its
members incorporated small percussion instruments -- gongs, bells,
shakers -- into their group improvisations. This sound would be one of
the staple gestures of the music played by the Art Ensemble of Chicago,
which the Mitchell group became in 1969.
By Bowie's reckoning, the Art Ensemble of Chicago rehearsed about
300 times a year in Chicago and gave only a handful of performances
because there was almost nowhere to present their music.
So they traveled to France, where there was curiosity about American
experimental jazz. They made six albums in two months and performed
hundreds of times in their two years there. The band played blues and
Bach fugues and percussion interludes and hooting free-improvisation
pieces and wore tribalist face-paint.
The Art Ensemble's notoriety followed it back to the United States, and
the group was soon recording for Atlantic Records.
By the mid-70's the Art Ensemble had an easier time reaching large
audiences. The band soon came to define an esthetic involving ethnic
music, humor, eclecticism and physical intensity that had a considerable
In addition to his brother Byron, of Frederick, Bowie is survived by his
current wife, Deborah; his father, W. Lester Bowie Sr., and another
brother, Joseph, both of Frederick; six children, Larry Stevenson of
Sardinia, Italy; Ju'lene Coney and Nueka Mitchell of St. Louis; Sukari
Ivester of Chicago; Bahnamous Bowie of Queens, and Zola Bowie of
Brooklyn, and 10 grandchildren.
During the 1970's Bowie spent two years in Jamaica playing and teaching
trumpet and took a brief trip to Nigeria, where he became a sideman on
three records with the popular bandleader Fela
Bowie started one new band after another, always surrounding himself
with work and often undertaking his own business affairs without a
manager. He led a quintet and a gospel group, From the Root to the
Source. In the early 80's, he formed the New York Hot Trumpet
Quintet, which briefly included Wynton Marsalis. Later Bowie and
Marsalis would often be cited in contrast in debates on the issue of
futurism versus traditionalism in jazz.
He assembled a 59-piece band called the Sho Nuff Orchestra for a
concert at Symphony Space in Manhattan. His octet Brass Fantasy,
formed in the mid-80's, performed versions of pop and funk tunes by
artists like the Platters, Michael Jackson and James Brown, and
recorded for the ECM, DIW and Atlantic record labels. The group's last
album was the 1998 "Odyssey of Funk and Popular Music, Vol. 1."
In recent years Bowie set up the Hip-Hop Feel-Harmonic, an
unrecorded project with rappers and musicians in his Brooklyn
neighborhood of Fort Greene.
His sly sensibility won an appreciative following. An enduring example
was his track "Jazz Death?" from a 1968 album by Roscoe Mitchell's
band, "Congliptious." It begins with Bowie's dramatically clearing his
throat and asking, "Is jazz, as we know it, dead yet?"
The reply is a long trumpet solo punctuated with silences, muted
wah-wah passages, Bowie's own off-horn shrieks and murmured
comments, and finally, six minutes later, a sentence: "Well, I guess that
depends on, ah, what you know."