On what turned out to be his final album, The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music (1998), trumpeter Lester Bowie pulled off spirited interpretations of tunes by Puccini, Cole Porter, Harold Melvin, the Spice Girls, the Notorious B.I.G., and Marilyn Manson. It would’ve been audacious, if not downright ridiculous, for almost any other jazz musician to attempt such a mix, but to Bowie, who died of complications from liver cancer in November at age 58, it was as characteristic as the stogie he usually clamped between his middle finger and forefinger. Few musicians had such a predilection for jumbling musical hierarchies, and few explored the omnivorous nature of jazz with more verve or power.
The lineup that’s been assembled to pay tribute to Bowie–a founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago–isn’t quite as diverse, but it fittingly brings together musicians from all over the jazz and improvised music scene. This week the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble with Fareed Haque, north-side improvisers the Vandermark 5, groove experimentalists Isotope 217, and New Yorkers James Carter and Hamiett Bluiett will all perform in a concert whose proceeds will help send Bowie’s youngest daughter, Zola, to college. “No matter what our differences are, we’re all collectively committed to the desire to create,” says Ethnic Heritage Ensemble percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, who organized the event with Alana Rocklin, the jazz publicist at Delmark Records. “I don’t think there is a better model of a person who was open about community than him. It’s really the strength of Lester that’s inspired something that doesn’t happen enough.”
Many of the musicians worked directly with Bowie over the years. Bluiett met him in numerous settings, and Carter played in his short-lived New York Organ Ensemble. Mitchell was his longtime bandmate in the Art Ensemble; the Ethnics feature his trombone-playing brother Joseph; and he played on early recordings by El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio. But everyone participating has felt his influence in some way. Bowie, who’d been playing R & B with folks like Albert King, Jackie Wilson, and Rufus Thomas, came to Chicago in 1965 with his first wife, singer Fontella Bass. In the early days he and his talented cohorts in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians–the community-based south-side organization for which the Art Ensemble served as a flagship–synthesized worlds of musical experience and interests in precedent-setting hybrids. The Art Ensemble departed for France in 1969 as an assortment of fearless experimenters, and when they returned in 1971 they had coalesced into a peerless group of visionaries. Bowie moved to New York not long after that, and in the subsequent decades he explored R & B and other nonjazz interests more explicitly, both with the Art Ensemble and in a wide array of solo projects. He played in Jamaica for two years, lived and recorded with Afro-funk pioneer Fela Kuti in Nigeria, and did unironic versions of songs like “The Great Pretender” and “Hello, Dolly,” the latter a wonderful homage to his hero Louis Armstrong.
Bowie was also a profoundly influential stylist, combining the bravado and melodic brilliance of Armstrong and the guttural, humanistic sounds of Duke Ellington’s trumpeters. As my colleague Neil Tesser has written, his “extravagant, hyperexpressive technique” served as “a bridge from the rule-breaking imagery of Miles Davis and Don Cherry to the free-ranging virtuosity of such modern explorers as Paul Smoker and Dave Douglas,” and he cataloged a veritable encyclopedia of haunting, freaky, and hilarious timbral effects, from nearly imperceptible melodic contours to fat blues tones to ungodly squawks. As good-humored as some of his twists could be, Bowie never approached them anything less than seriously: his music was fun, but it was no joke.
The concert is at 7:30 PM on Thursday, January 20, at Hyde Park Union Church, 5600 S. Woodlawn. Tickets are $25 at the door, but can be purchased for $20 in advance at Jazz Record Mart, all Reckless Records locations,
and Dr. Wax in Hyde Park. Call Delmark at 773-539-5001 for further info.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lauren Deutsch.