Graham Reid | | 4 min read
Humour hasn’t had much place in jazz. Certainly Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong entertained by mugging things up. But mostly jazz is poker-faced music played to furrowed brow audiences which think it’s somehow more morally uplifting than other music.
A couple of years ago Denis Dutton, the philosopher/academic from Canterbury University, wrote of an anti-capitalist friend in New York who discarded the consumer society – yet had acquired an extensive and expensive jazz collection. But, the New Yorker reasoned, jazz is an important modern art-form.
It is. But as Dutton noted his friend could simply have said, “Yeah, but I like this stuff”.
Dutton's friend sounded an arrogant prick.
Well, jazz does have moments of humour, few more frivolous than a track on Lester Bowie’s 1992 album All the Magic!, entitled Miles Davis Meets Donald Duck.
The multi-instrumentalist horn player blew a straw under water and made it sound like Miles Davis meeting ...
Critics were baffled and some even angry (squandering his talent if not a few minutes of vinyl), but that was just Bowie having what he called, “serious fun”.
He did it throughout the 70s and 80s on tunes with titles like Rope-a-Dope (from Muhammad Ali’s famous phrase) and It’s Howdy Doody Time. In the late 80s, with his Brass Fantasy band – which often included his wife, the great soul singer Fontella Bass – he covered Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the old Lloyd Price hit Personality, Willie Nelson’s Crazy and Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love For You.
Bowie’s superb band (which included tuba player Bob Stewart and trombonists Steve Turre and Frank Lacy) pushed the boundaries of jazz, and Bowie himself wouldn’t allow them to be pigeon-holed: “Don’t call it jazz, no way!” he said in 1986, “That word has lost any real meaning. Most real jazz musicians died penniless, right? So the term jazz to me symbolises poverty.”
Bowie wasn’t poor when he died in 1999 at 58 from liver cancer. He was well known across the music world – he played on David (no relation) Bowie’s 1993 album Black Tie White Noise – and if anyone could claim to have changed jazz it was this good humoured, bespectacled member of the innovative Art Ensemble of Chicago from the mid-60s through to the early 80s.
The AEC – whose members initially wore African tribal costumes and face paint in performance – were a musical and philosophical attempt to bridge the divide between ancient black Africa and modernist free jazz. They were the most visible and influential off-shoot of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians which formed in Chicago in the early 60s and whose members included Joseph Jarman, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors and Andrew Hill.
They were inspired by the music of Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey.
Bowie arrived in 1966 and famously remarked: “I never in my life met so many insane people in one room.”
The flexible and political philosophical group became known as the Art Ensemble and in 1989 the quartet of Mitchell, Bowie, Jarman and Favors had their hometown name appended for a European show. Percussionist Famoudou Don Moye joined and for two decades the AEC’s percussive exploratory music – much of it recorded by ECM whose founder/producer, Manfred Eicher, brought a sonic clarity to their project – was the benchmark in free jazz.
Their albums Fanfare for the Warriors (Atlantic 1974), Urban Bushmen (ECM, 1982) and The Alternative Express (DIW, 1989), should be in any serious music collection.
They slew from primal percussion through sophisticated swing with nods to Mingus and Ellington, and ride the boundaries of free jazz.
Even before the band split, Bowie had his own swaggering and good nartured projects playing a melange of funk, r’n’b, jazz and blues which reflected his early years in Texas clubs and as a session player at Chess studios.
He called his music avant pop (“Even the term avant garde is old now, avant pop is where it’s at”) and said to those who accused him of being a musical gadfly: “All’s fair in love and war – and music is both. So use anything as long as it works.”
His albums The Great Pretender (ECM 1981), Serious Fun (DIW 1989) and the hard to find The Fire This Time (In-Out, 1992), are his best, although ECM’s readily available 1988 collection, Lester Bowie: Works is a good starting point.
Deservedly, former members of the AEC – reed-player Mitchell, bassist Favors and drummer Moye – came together again to pay homage to Bowie, their fallen comrade.
Their Tribute to Lester of 2003 wasn’t sentimental, nostalgic or soft-centred. It was as challenging as the AEC ever were.
Driven from the bottom by an array of percussion which was their hallmark, this hour-long disc muscles along as Mitchell’s tough tenor scours through passages or swings over Favours’ dexterous playing. And everywhere Moye brings tonal colour and angularity from his array of congas, bongos, bells, whistles and gongs. The 12-minute As Clear As the Sun is demanding listening, especially when Mitchell turns his sax into a police siren.
Tribute to Lester isn’t a classic AEC album – how could it be with two men down? -- but is better than we had any right to expect, and reminds of how this music once was and – in the world of manicured and generic jazz – what it could be again.
The romantic, slightly baroque Suite for Lester floats on Mitchell’s sopranino sax and flute then takes off on walking-pace tenor. At five and half minutes it seems undernourished, but also gets out before any hint of sentiment invades.
And Bowie was never much for hanging on to the past. He railed against Wynton Marsalis talking about the tradition: “What tradition? The great jazz tradition was never copying, right?”
No, it wasn’t and isn’t. It’s about learning, extending and enjoying it. Like Bowie did.
It’s wrong to speak for the dead but you might guess if he heard this he’d smile.
The man who knew the meaning of serious fun often did.