Obituary: Lester Bowie

A CONTRADICTION amongst trumpet players, Lester Bowie was the most successful trumpeter of the avant-garde and at the same time the contemporary player who was most happy when digging about in the roots of jazz from the earlier parts of the century.

Because he used mutes in the "wah-wah" style that was a Duke Ellington speciality of the Twenties and Thirties, Bowie was sometimes known as "the new Cootie Williams" after one of Ellington's more spectacular trumpeters. Bowie was happy to lift the growls and half-valved sounds of the earlier players and drag them into his experimental playing. Gospel music also figured in his plans and there was a vocal quality to his trumpet that was unfashionable but very effective. When he played, he swept from slashing, violent improvisations to themes of haunting beauty, often stepping off in between to incorporate banal quotes from pop songs.

He also delved sideways into contemporary black pop music, and one of his most famous recordings was a vivid 16-minute version of the Platters' hit "The Great Pretender", recorded with his first wife, the singer Fontella Bass, in 1981. Was it sly humour or the wish to provide an easy access to his music that led him to follow up with long reworkings of "I Only Have Eyes For You" (1985) and Louis Armstrong's "Blueberry Hill" (1986) and "Hello, Dolly" (1987)?

His music covered the widest and most unpredictable spectrum, so that one had to absorb, next to "Blueberry Hill" on the ascetic and dignified ECM label, his composition "No Shit" - words and arrangement by Lester Bowie. The lyrics consisted of two words repeated. Bowie's music was unfailingly exuberant and everybody went along with his wry humour and volcanic trumpet playing. Except, that is, for some of the eminent younger musicians who followed and, as is the habit of the young, regarded him as either a traitor or a musical irrelevance.

Neither was the case, for Bowie was one of a group of intelligent and committed musicians who combined their music with their fight for racial freedom. Considering the emerging trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis, Bowie said, "With his chops and my brains I could have been one of the greatest." Bowie was by no means in the Marsalis league as a technician. He and his fellows in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and the subsequent Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC), a band that they formed in 1968, brought pantomime to jazz, using face make-up and creating a travelling theatre from their bands. The only programme for their concerts was that there wasn't one and they happily mixed theatrical jokes with serious creative avant-garde music.

Born in Maryland in 1941, Bowie grew up in St Louis at a time when musicians were still coming up from New Orleans. He played first in local rhythm- and-blues bands led by Little Milton and Albert King, both soon to become famous. He also worked with some of the young musicians in the city who, like him, were destined for fame. They included the saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and the drummer Jack DeJohnette. Bowie moved to Chicago in 1965, where he met Fontella Bass and became her musical director.

The same year, the pianist Muhal Richard Abrams formed the AACM as a jazz workshop and Bowie joined him. Their first recordings in 1967 show a group of unknown but very advanced musicians in completely spontaneous but expert and intoxicating improvisations. From this point on Bowie and his friends were no strangers to odd instrumentation. He played trumpet and flugelhorn but also anything exotic that seized his fancy, like bass drum or the mysterious cowhorn. Logs, bells, sirens, gongs, whistles and a zither also found their way into the armoury.

The band, finding no outlet at home, moved to France in 1968 and the following year recorded the LP A Jackson in Your House. Typically, the piece begins with a dignified and pompous overture which is punctured by the laughter of the band before it rocks into a Dixieland ensemble complete with clarinet and then into an approximation of the swing style. Although the music is unusually and intentionally funny, the direct social criticism of A Message to Our Folks done a couple of months later is much more serious. The two albums perhaps typified Bowie's weakness for slapstick and the way it occasionally diluted his more serious messages.

In 1969 ACM was founded with a completely new vision of jazz. On stage, the band imitated the street bands of South America, recited poetry and used a variety of unlikely sound effects as they played both avant-garde and more conventional jazz.

Bowie moved all over Europe and recorded in 1969 as soloist and composer of the suite Gettin' to Know Y'All with the Baden-Baden Free Jazz Orchestra, a 50-piece group that included some of the top stars of European jazz. More recently, in 1994, he recorded with the Polish avant-garde band Milosc, and had been in London this autumn with his group Brass Fantasy.

He didn't confine himself to Europe and performed with local drummers in Senegal during an African visit in 1974. In 1983 he was a member of the New York Hot Trumpet Repertory with Wynton Marsalis and played with the all-star avant-garde group the Leaders in the middle Eighties.

In 1990 he recorded the theme music for the television series The Bill Cosby Show and worked on film soundtracks with the composer Philippe Sard in the early Nineties. He taught at many trumpet clinics and was at one time artist in residence in colleges at Yale, Dartmouth and Harvard.

He has left a multitude of recordings, one of the most fascinating a double LP from 1982 called All the Magic. It features on the first LP his group with Fontella Bass and David Peaston in gospel-inspired vocals and includes his suite For Louie. The second has Bowie in a series of often hilarious trumpet solos, including amongst them "Miles Davis Meets Donald Duck".

In 1985 he first formed Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy, the group that he recently brought to Britain. It consisted of four trumpets, two trombones, French horn, tuba and drums. Later the line-up rose to 10 pieces. The band was quite dazzling, using imaginative tone colours and subtle scoring that was perhaps obscured by the reinterpretation of pop songs that his audiences had come to love and expect. His programmes for Brass Fantasy included Whitney Houston's "Saving All My Love For You" and Patsy Cline's "Crazy". The 1990 album by the band, My Way, included the Sinatra hit along with "Honky Tonk" and James Brown's "I Got You".

He remained a sight to make the eyes sore and in later years added sequins to his trademark white medical coat.

William Lester Bowie, trumpet and flugelhorn player, composer and bandleader: born Frederick, Maryland 11 October 1941; twice married (six children); died New York 8 November 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower