TWO PART FEATURE on Art Ensemble of Chicago (2): INTERVIEW with Lester Bowie from 1995

Lester Bowie in the 1990s
Photo credit: Barbara Mürdter/ Creative Commons
"We knew we had this unique thing happening." For the second part (*) of this feature about the Art Ensemble of Chicago, here is  a previously unpublished interview which LESTER BOWIE gave Chris Parker on 16 November 1995, when the Art Ensemble played at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The performance was broadcast by the Radio 3 programme “In Concert”, introduced by Chris Parker:

Chris Parker: How important was the city of Chicago to the process of forming your music? Could it have happened anywhere else?

Lester Bowie: Probably not: it would have to have happened in the Midwest. The Midwest is the real America – it’s where people really believe, where the musicians really believe in the music. New York is a marketplace, where you go to sell it, once you get it together. But in the Midwest you have musicians who came up loving this music and have a really strong belief in it, and in Chicago there had always been a centre of music anyway – always a centre of black acitivities.

CP: It was actually founded by a black man, wasn’t it – Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable?

LB: Du Sable, yes.

CP: And how influential was the AACM on all this – presumably you couldn’t have done it without Muhal Richard Abrams?

LB: The AACM began as a rehearsal band in 1961. It was officially chartered as a state organisation in 1965. It was very important. For me, when I ran into the AACM, I’d never seen anything like this in my life. Organised weirdos – really eccentric-type musicians, not the normal studio guys. I’d never seen that many before in one room in my life. Here were thirty or forty people: Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, all these people like that – it was something else.

CP: You met them all at once.

LB: Yes, I went to a rehearsal. I’d been living in Chicago – I moved there in late 1964 – and I’d been playing as a studio musician. I’d done a lot of rock and roll sessions – my wife was a recording artist, Fontella Bass – and a lot of commercials, a lot of studio stuff. I was bored.

CP: You played on a lot of Chess sessions?

LB: Yes, and Brunswick. But I was just completely bored; it wasn’t so exciting. I’d always wanted to be a jazz musician, I’d never wanted to be a classical musician or a studio musician – I just did those things to make a living – so when I went to this rehearsal, of the Richard Abrams Experimental Band, I took a solo, everybody got my number, and the next thing I knew Roscoe was calling, my phone was ringing before I got home. We started rehearsing the next day – and now it’s been thirty years!

CP: And you actually sold up everything you had to go to Paris?

LB: Yes. I put an ad in the paper: ‘Jazz musician sells out’. Up and sold everything, just like that, man.

CP: You were quite well off at the time, weren’t you? I read somewhere you had a Bentley?

LB: Yes, I had a Bentley, motorcycles and stuff. I sold everything except the motorcycle – we took the motorcycle with us. I left the Bentley, everything else, sold it.

CP: And you lived outside Paris, all together?

LB: Yes, place called Saint-Leu-La-Forêt.

CP: What attracted you to Paris?

LB: They’d let us in. We couldn’t get in to England – we would have come here.

CP: Would you?

LB: Sure. You speak English, right? But you can’t get in England with a horn unless you’ve got all kinds of paperwork. And we had this whole trunkful of instruments. They never would have let us in, so we went to Paris instead.

CP: And how influential was the Paris scene on your music?

LB: Paris really gave us the opportunity to develop the music in front of live audiences, whereas in the States we were working four times a year, but rehearsing maybe three hundred days out of that – like really rehearsing a lot, but only working four or five times a year. But after we went to Paris, we were working six nights a week, and we continued to work like that the whole time we were there, we did seventy concerts right in Paris. We were based in a small theatre. It really gave us time to develop all these techniques we’d been working on, really try them out, see how they worked on people on an ongoing basis, not just doing a concert one month, then another two months later. It was like every night, really gave us time to develop.

CP: And you made an enormous number of records.

LB: Yes, about a dozen. A great experience.

CP: And when you came back, were you better received in America for having made your names in Paris?

LB: Yes, we were better received, of course; people knew more about us. We weren’t drawing money like pop groups or anything, but we were better received – I don’t know how well received, but better…

CP: In the 1970s you all started doing separate things. You went off and played with Fela Kuti.

LB: Yes, we always did a lot of things. Part of the philosophy of the group was, in order for us to maintain unity together over a long period of time, we had to allow each member to grow inside of the group – and at the same time, this makes the group grow. So what we’d do, each member went outside the group and developed another entity. He took what he’d learned from this group to that group and in turn, after doing it, brought back what he’d learned from that group into this group, so it keeps everything growing.

CP: Do you regard the Art Ensemble as your home base?

LB: This is the most difficult, artistically, intellectually, it’s the most difficult music. The most difficult physically for me is the Brass Fantasy, because of all the brass.

CP: What do you think about the jazz climate these days? It’s supposed to embrace music from all sorts of sources – do you think it’s better in the 1990s than when you started in the 1970s? More hospitable to your sort of music?

LB: It’s more hospitable to us, but you have to understand, after thirty years, we hope someone has gotten used to us. You know we have full houses everywhere we play, so it’s much better now, but you understand we’ve been doing this a long time. The climate for the music is much better in Europe than it is in the States, because of all this fake jazz, the States is really behind the times as far as music goes.

CP: When you say fake jazz, you mean retro-jazz?

LB: Yes, this retro-jazz, imitation jazz.

CP: Yes, I remember once you saying – to me, actually – about the tradition: the big thing in the 1980s here was the tradition. Everyone had to be very respectful to the tradition. I remember you saying that the only tradition you were really interested in within jazz was the tradition of being free and innovative. Do you still feel that?

LB: Of course: these are the traditions we can’t forget. I never could understand how people could be speaking so much about the tradition of jazz and then negate creativity. That doesn’t make any sense. I mean, innovation is all part of it. What we’ve taken tradition to be is that we go back and play some of the songs they played forty years ago. That’s not the tradition; that’s merely repeating something that’s happened before. Actually, the tradition of the music is growth and development, and if you’re following the tradition of the music, the tradition of Miles and Bird and Ellington, you have to go forward, not backward – none of those guys went backward.

CP: You’ve actually done a lot of collaborating with people from outside jazz, and I see that tonight you’ve got Senegalese drummers. What do you feel they bring to your music?

LB: Different notes, different rhythms. Anytime you incorporate – our music has always been about incorporating – jazz has always been about incorporating all sorts of developments. It’s for our development, but also for the development of the people listening to us, to be able to hear different combinations, to hear how they sound together, so they can hear how these different forms relate to each other. And it’s also good for us, because it gives us a chance to really develop. For example, I’ve never had the opportunity to play with a Senegalese drummer for seven weeks, every night. I’ve done here-there, here-there, but never seven weeks straight. So in doing that, I’ve learned a bunch of new rhythms, a way to relate to the trumpet and play in different ways, so it’s been good for us and – hopefully – for the people who listen to us. World music – jazz is the first world’s music, because it encompasses the ideas of every group of people in the world – the first music people can respond to all over – I mean intellectually, emotionally – and it will be the world music, all over, one day, when we join the United Federation of Planets – by then, we’ll be into the world music of jazz.

CP: And Anthony Braxton will be the President. So, what does the future hold for the Art Ensemble?

LB: Hopefully a pension. It’s about that time. Almost retirement time here. No, we’re going to continue. We’re doing quite a few projects, new recordings next month, then going to Jamaica.

CP: For DIW?

LB: For our own label. We’ve got a corporate sponsor, a juice company, and we’re going to be doing tent shows.

CP: Tent shows?

LB: We’ve been trying to do these kinds of shows for years. It just took us thirty years to be able to do it – really big shows.

CP: And you still maintain yourselves playing in America, just as in Europe, these days?

LB: Yes, we work all over now: Japan, the States, Australia. We’re doing a tour of the States next March: Brass Fantasy, the drummers, singers, Fontella Bass. Really nice shows.

CP: How have you managed to keep the band together all these years? It’s an extraordinary thing to have done, certainly in the jazz world.

LB: It was intended, planned, it didn’t happen by chance. We worked on it – it’s like a long marriage: you have ups and downs. We started with the intention of – not quite – a lifelong project. We’ll retire soon, see what that feels like. When we started playing together, we knew we had something different. We don’t know what it is, but we know it’s creative, it’s different, and we know we can do it, because over a long period of time there was enough substance in what we were doing so that we could be developing, to this day. Thirty years later we’re still getting new ideas, new things are happening. It goes back to what I was saying about allowing each member of the group to develop themselves. We used to call the Art Ensemble the Officers’ Training Corps. Because each person is trained as a leader himself. Each one of us has several groups. That was the idea: to do that, keep everything going, so no one can do it like us – we knew we had this unique thing happening. Collective things like this are really fun.

CP: You spend a lot of time together socially?

LB: Not as much as we used to. We live all over the States. I live in New York, Roscoe lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and Malachi and Moye are in Chicago. So we’re not together socially – we’re pretty busy when we’re not doing this, but when we’re together we’re together most of the time. I think we’re more anti-social. I’m not much of a social person – all my best friends are people I play with; other than that, I don’t even go out, I stay with my family at home.

CP: When Joseph Jarman left, did you think of replacing him?

LB: This is the kind of group where it’d be hard to replace someone. We’ve done things like temporarily having someone in as a guest, but we haven’t thought about replacing him. Actually, this is the original group: in the beginning it was me and Roscoe and Malachi. It’s more difficult to get into things with three horns, so we miss him; he may be back – I’m sure he may, whenever he gets tired of playing with the Buddha.

(*) PART ONE: Book Review: Message to Our Folks

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