Lester Bowie

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Lester Bowie
Bowie performing in the mid-1990s
Bowie performing in the mid-1990s
Background information
Born(1941-10-11)October 11, 1941
Frederick, Maryland, U.S.
OriginChicago, Illinois
DiedNovember 8, 1999(1999-11-08) (aged 58)
Brooklyn, New York
  • Musician
  • composer
  • Trumpet
  • flugelhorn
  • percussion
Years active1965–1999

Lester Bowie (October 11, 1941 – November 8, 1999)[1] was an American jazz trumpet player and composer. He was a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and co-founded the Art Ensemble of Chicago.[2]


Born in the historic village of Bartonsville in Frederick County, Maryland, United States, Bowie grew up in St Louis, Missouri.[2] At the age of five he started studying the trumpet with his father, a professional musician. He played with blues musicians such as Little Milton and Albert King, and rhythm and blues stars such as Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, and Rufus Thomas. In 1965, he became Fontella Bass's musical director and husband.[3] He was a co-founder of Black Artists Group (BAG) in St Louis.

In 1966, he moved to Chicago, where he worked as a studio musician, and met Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell and became a member of the AACM.[4] In 1968, he founded the Art Ensemble of Chicago[2] with Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, and Malachi Favors. He remained a member of this group for the rest of his life, and was also a member of Jack DeJohnette's New Directions quartet. He lived and worked in Jamaica and Nigeria, and played and recorded with Fela Kuti.[1] Bowie's onstage appearance, in a white lab coat, with his goatee waxed into two points, was an important part of the Art Ensemble's stage show.

In 1984, he formed Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy, a brass nonet in which Bowie demonstrated jazz's links to other forms of popular music, a decidedly more populist approach than that of the Art Ensemble. With this group he recorded songs previously associated with Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Marilyn Manson, along with other material. His New York Organ Ensemble featured James Carter and Amina Claudine Myers. In the mid 1980s he was also part of the jazz supergroup The Leaders. Featuring tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman, alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, drummer Famoudou Don Moye, pianist Kirk Lightsey, and bassist Cecil McBee. At this time, he was also playing the opening theme music for The Cosby Show.

Although seen as part of the avant-garde, Bowie embraced techniques from the whole history of jazz trumpet, filling his music with humorous smears, blats, growls, half-valve effects, and so on. His affinity for reggae and ska is exemplified by his composition "Ska Reggae Hi-Bop", which he performed with the Skatalites on their 1994 Hi-Bop Ska, and also with James Carter on Conversin' with the Elders. He also appeared on the 1994 Red Hot Organization's compilation album, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool. The album to raise awareness and funds in support of the AIDS epidemic in relation to the African-American community, was heralded as "Album of the Year" by Time.

In 1993, he played on the David Bowie album Black Tie White Noise, including the song "Looking for Lester", which was named after him. (Lester and David Bowie are also unrelated - David Bowie's birth name was David Jones.)

Bowie took an adventurous and humorous approach to music and criticized Wynton Marsalis for his conservative approach to jazz tradition.[citation needed]

Bowie died of liver cancer in 1999 at his Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York house he shared with second wife Deborah for 20 years.[1] The following year he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.[5] In 2001, the Art Ensemble of Chicago recorded Tribute to Lester. In 2020, Bowie was featured in a mural painted by Rafael Blanco in his hometown of Frederick, Maryland.


Lester Bowie, New Jazz Festival Moers (Moers Festival), 1978
Lester Bowie, with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Jazz Festival Zeltweg (Spielberg), 1983

As leader[edit]

Title Year Label
Numbers 1 & 2 1967 Nessa
Gittin' to Know Y'All (features Bowie conducting the Baden-Baden Free Jazz Orchestra) 1970 MPS
Fast Last! 1974 Muse
Rope-A-Dope 1976 Muse
African Children 1978 Horo
Duet (with Phillip Wilson) 1978 Improvising Artists
The 5th Power 1978 Black Saint
The Great Pretender 1981 ECM
All the Magic 1983 ECM
Bugle Boy Bop (with Charles "Bobo" Shaw) 1983 Muse
Duet (with Nobuyoshi Ino) 1985 Paddle Wheel

Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy[edit]

Title Year Label
I Only Have Eyes for You 1985 ECM
Avant Pop 1986 ECM
Twilight Dreams 1987 Venture
Serious Fun 1989 DIW
My Way 1990 DIW
Live at the 6th Tokyo Music Joy (with the Art Ensemble Of Chicago) 1990 DIW
The Fire This Time 1992 In & Out
The Odyssey Of Funk & Popular Music 1999 Atlantic
When the Spirit Returns 2003 (recorded Oct. 1997) Dreyfus Jazz

Lester Bowie's New York Organ Ensemble[edit]

Title Year Label
The Organizer 1991 DIW
Funky T. Cool T. 1992 DIW

With the Art Ensemble of Chicago[edit]

Title Year Label
Old/Quartet - Roscoe Mitchell 1967 Nessa
Numbers 1 & 2 - Lester Bowie 1967 Nessa
Early Combinations - Art Ensemble 1967 Nessa
Congliptious - Roscoe Mitchell 1967 Nessa
A Jackson in Your House 1969 Actuel
Tutankhamun 1969 Freedom
the Spiritual 1969 Freedom
People in Sorrow 1969 Pathe Marconi
Message to Our Folks 1969 Actuel
Reese and the Smooth Ones 1969 Actuel
Eda Wobu 1969 JMY
Certain Blacks 1970 America
Go Home 1970 Galloway
Chi-Congo 1970 Paula
Les Stances a Sophie 1970 America
Live in Paris 1970 Freedom
Art Ensemble of Chicago with Fontella Bass 1970 America
Phase One 1971 America
Live at Mandell Hall 1972 Delmark
Bap-Tizum 1972 Atlantic
Fanfare for the Warriors 1973 Atlantic
Kabalaba 1974 AECO
Nice Guys 1978 ECM
Live in Berlin 1979 West Wind
Full Force 1980 ECM
Urban Bushmen 1980 ECM
Among the People 1980 Praxis
The Complete Live in Japan 1984 DIW
The Third Decade 1984 ECM
Naked 1986 DIW
Ancient to the Future 1987 DIW
The Alternate Express 1989 DIW
Art Ensemble of Soweto 1990 DIW
America - South Africa 1990 DIW
Thelonious Sphere Monk with Cecil Taylor 1990 DIW
Dreaming of the Masters Suite 1990 DIW
Live at the 6th Tokyo Music Joy with Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy 1991 DIW
Fundamental Destiny with Don Pullen 1991 AECO
Salutes the Chicago Blues Tradition 1993 AECO
Coming Home Jamaica 1996 Atlantic
Urban Magic 1997 Musica Jazz

With the Leaders[edit]

As sideman[edit]

With David Bowie

With James Carter

With Jack DeJohnette

With Brigitte Fontaine

  • Comme à la Radio (Saravah, 1971)

With Melvin Jackson

  • Funky Skull (Limelight, 1969)

With Fela Kuti

With Frank Lowe

  • Fresh (Freedom, 1975)

With Jimmy Lyons

With Roscoe Mitchell

With David Murray

With Sunny Murray

With Charles Bobo Shaw

  • Under the Sun (Freedom, 1973)
  • Streets of St. Louis (Moers Music, 1974)

With Archie Shepp

With Alan Silva

With Wadada Leo Smith

With others


  1. ^ a b c Ratliff, Ben (November 11, 1999). "Lester Bowie Is Dead at 58; Innovative Jazz Trumpeter". The New York Times.
  2. ^ a b c "Lester Bowie | Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved August 16, 2021.
  3. ^ Voce, Steve (November 12, 1999). "Obituary: Lester Bowie". The Independent. Archived from the original on June 14, 2022.
  4. ^ Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 305. ISBN 0-85112-939-0.
  5. ^ "2000 Down Beat Critics Poll". Down Beat. Archived from the original on February 22, 2012. Retrieved October 19, 2015.


External links[edit]