43,000 years and counting

The Art Ensemble hated the sharp suits, cool attitude of bebop. They preferred lab coats and face paint. They still do. By Phil Johnson
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The Independent Online
The dark FBI suits that count as the uniform of the modern American jazz musician were never a serious consideration for the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Even on their founding 30 years ago, the lure of a three-button mohair jacket with 7in side-vents was forsaken in favour of theatrical robes and outlandish costumes including, in trumpeter Lester Bowie's case, a white lab technician's coat that has become his trademark ever since. Masks, tribal war-paint and ritual headgear further set off the Ensemble's ensemble. "We thought that, as people can see us," Bowie says, "why not give them something to see? After all, it's not as if we were playing on the radio."

Apart from the costumes, there's the rich visual display of their many instruments, which will take the best part of a day to carry to the stage and set up before their 30th anniversary concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall next Thursday. As well as the expected saxophones, bass, drums and Bowie's various trumpets, there's an armoury of what they call "the little instruments": flutes, balofons, bells and shakers, almost anything, really that can be blown, shaken, rattled or rolled. The music, too, is part of a larger presentation, with declamatory poems, chants, old-style tent- show business and plain fooling around incorporated into the programme of compositions and spontaneous improvisation.They actually started this way, in the emergent arts-lab scene of black Chicago in the mid-Sixties, while also scuffling gigs as sidemen in R&B bands (Bowie was briefly musical director to Little Milton and to Fontella Bass, whom he also married).

"It was intellectual music, music for the brain rather than for the feet," says Bowie, "and the whole idea was to stimulate thought. Just because you're doing something difficult doesn't mean you don't try to reach out to people." The musicians who became the group - Bowie, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, bassist Malachi Favors, and multi-instrumentalist Joseph Jarman - first came together in the new Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an initiative begun by composer Muhal Richard Abrams to help fill the void in Chicago's musical culture caused by bandleader Sun Ra's departure to New York in 1961.

The traditions of the Windy City, strong in blues and gospel, and the almost total absence of venues for non-beboppers to play, determined the character of the new jazz that emerged. Thus, the Art Ensemble, despite their name, can be one of the funkiest groups of all time, in tune with African beats and downhome rhythms as much as the modern classical music they spent their beatnik days listening to. The cultural context came from Chicago, too. "At that time there was a lot happening," says Bowie, who moved to Chicago from St Louis. "Elijah Mohammed had his headquarters there, and Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson, too. Chicago is a place where music is created; New York is a place where it's sold."

However, they picked up their drummer, Don Moye, in Paris and recorded 12 albums in two years. The personnel has remained exactly the same ever since, although they recently lost Jarman when he decided to go full-time as a Buddhist monk, probably something of an occupational hazard given the nature of the group (Favors, the bassist, likes to claim that he's 43,000 years old).

Although members have always had their own projects, Bowie most famously with the thrilling Brass Fantasy big band, the Ensemble was built to last. "We planned it this way," Bowie says, "the same way I've planned to retire on October 11 2001." Though in the past he's upped sticks and gone, without any money, to live in Jamaica and Nigeria (where he joined the encampment of Fela Kuti), Bowie is now ready to pack it all in when he's 60. "When Miles Davis was 31 he got famous and was able to make a living. I'm 54 and I still don't have much popular acclaim, so I'm going to retire and maybe get myself a little club in the Caribbean." If only, like Wynton Marsalis, whom he wittily disparages, he'd gone for that nice little mohair number rather than the lab coat and face-paints all those years ago.

n The Art Ensemble of Chicago plays the QEH, London, SE1 16 Nov (0171- 960 4206)