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Lester Bowie: ‘Jazz Is Great Black Music’


Lester-BowieYOU can’t take it away from Lester Bowie. No, you simply cannot: the fact that he is arguably the greatest and most influential jazz trumpeter and musician since Miles Davis. All through the nineties, Bowie was the pivot and inspirer of the new ‘Black Music,’ realising a revolutionary dream he began in the 60s. His death may have slowed down the pace of development; but the beat goes on! His memory lingers!

“What we are trying to do today by the term ‘Great Black Music’ is to put emphasis on the quality of music that black people have created in this world,” explained Lester Bowie in an interview with Glendora Review. “I mean this music is so great that each one of its sub divisions has influenced the whole world … rock’n roll, blues, jazz, gospel, each one is a division of this music but actually all coming from the same thing,” Explaining the role and essence of jazz in this whole experiment, he said, “the thing about jazz is that it fuses all these different elements together. In fact, jazz, is becoming the first world music. It is the contemporary music of this planet at this time. Therefore, it is very important for our people to know that out of everything happening to us on the planet, we have still maintained the pinnacle of culture. We still have that, this civilising force, this music. Our art has survived because there was a time when we were running this planet, another time when yellow people were running it, everyone has had their time, but our culture has survived and is still influencing the culture of today.”

Bowie had strong views about African music, especially in terms of the way it is tied up with the totality of African culture. And the ‘Great Black Music’ which he preached and propagated was out to reveal the power of this cultural affinity. Said he: “Just like in Zaire, they go in there and take everything out of Zaire, not leaving nothing which is exactly what is happening to music, they take from the music and we ourselves do not realise the power that we have. So what we try to do with our music is to make people aware of the power of the music and the power it represents as far as how we can influence our thinking because in Africa, art was not separated from life, it was a part of it. You learn from the culture. This is how you learned how to think, the ceremonies, the rituals, the whole sequence of growth to maturity but you see, we have gotten away from that.”

Bowie’s attitude to jazz stems from the relevance of African culture and condemns the perception of the Western world that sees culture from the ephemeral perspective, as an element of decoration. His words: “The Western world says that art is something you put on the wall… art for art’s sake! Art has got to have meaning, there must be a connection, it has to be part of our everyday lives. We are supposed to learn from our culture. It is not something we see and just go dancing. Why are we dancing? What is the history of dance? What does it mean? We have to see how it connects to our lives, and then we can apply it to our lives.
“Consequently, we will think much better and more clearly and hopefully we can get something done. So, ‘Great Black Music’ is the total embodiment of our music and what we in jazz have done is to try to bring all these different elements together because they were all separated.”

My first impression of Bowie was formed in 1977 when I met him at Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s place in Lagos. Then, Fela’s house had just been burnt down and the Afrobeat legend was temporarily occupying a specious suite at Cross Road Hotels, Jibowu, Yaba, Lagos where he had relocated. Bowie had come all the way from America without adequate preparation for the journey. By the time he came to Fela’s place, he had no money. He had no luggage. And I’m sure he had no plans as to how to survive. But from his demeanor and the ideas he generated from conversation as he held tenaciously to his trumpet case, I had no doubt in my mind that he was a musician’s musician. And indeed, he was!

This assessment of Bowie was confirmed when he stayed with Fela for six months and recorded three albums with the Afro beat legend on Afrodisia label – prominent among them, Dog Eat Dog, a free flowing rhythm over which horns made statements in the form of riffs.

The other side is No Agreement but it is on Dog Eat Dog that Bowie is heard in his elements, exhibiting a bag of trumpet and flugel horn tricks including half valve effects, growls, slurs, smears, bent notes and a wide vibrato, punctuating one of the most humorous, yet striking solo styles among brass players. What with the blowing of frenetic upper registers in the course of his dialogue with trumpeter Tunde Williams!

Tenor player Fela Anikulapo Kuti, trumpeter Tunde Williams and flugel horn player Lester Bowie himself all shared solo concessions but apart from helping to lift the quality of the music in solo context, his presence inspired Fela and Tunde who had never had it so good solo-wise in terms of the spirit feel that was generated.

Bowie became the president of Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) in 1968. Their music had African heritage as focus, playing concerts every night and rehearsing all day with all kinds of different groups and combinations. The music was popular in Chicago, from where it was taken to Europe in 1969. Based in Paris, Bowie’s Art Ensemble of Chicago played at the theatre six nights a week.

Bowie’s ‘great black music’ has since received some measure of acceptance on the jazz scene. And like a teacher and crusader of a new revolution, he was always critical of ‘repertoires’ and ‘establishment music’. He never had kind words for the likes of trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis who is Down beat’s number one. “Wynton is the key,” he informed. “He is the one they use to stop the music. He has helped to destroy the music.

“Now what’s happening is that all his younger contemporaries are not making any money or making a living or being accepted throughout the world because they are not doing anything. The only one making any money is Wynton,” said Bowie.
Notwithstanding, jazz is not all about making money. It’s like the Biblical “seek ye first the kingdom of God and every other thing will be added unto you”. Bowie and the black music revolution ensured the creatively high musical abilities of its members as a first step. And through recognition for their artistic accomplishments, their concerts were packed. Their records sold.They enjoyed individual acclaim.

However, what this whole contention is all about is that the time has come for jazz music to be elevated beyond its current perception. It is long overdue for it to assume its cultural significance of ‘great black music’ – on the same parallel with European classical music. The point is we do have black art music – music people should listen to and not dance to. And the foundation for this revolution has already been established by the likes of Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Lester Bowie, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, Stanley Jordan and their various disciples. So, what next?

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