You can listen to the track in full with a registered Spotify account, which comes for free.
Get down! Harmonica, drums and handclaps extend an all-embracing invitation; the electric bass comes in to punctuate the groove, then Lester Bowie’s trumpet phrases the Sonny Boy Williams tune: ‘Bye-Bye Bird’. The lights dim, anticipation heightens; it’s forty-five minutes to midnight. Raphaël and Joaquín wheel in a drum kit on a platform, followed by Diego and Gabrielle, each with an amp. While the Art Ensemble of Chicago continues grooving its grits ‘n gravy blues, everyone gathers before the space that evidently will serve as a stage. Defined by the music—gospel, roots and prayer meeting—the mood is one of approaching revelation. Like interior dogs sensing the opening door, bodies begin to move; like waves gathering far off shore, they’re accumulating energy. Raphaël and Joaquín leave and return with mics and microphone stands; Gabrielle brings on a bass amp while Diego sets up the keyboards. And so the to-and-fro continues, while under squealing trumpet and growling sax, the rhythm section keep the groove going. And then, as the heady brew comes to a brim, Joaquín lowers a backcloth while Raphaël, from his console upstairs, turns on the backlight truss. The music fades out, the band steps on stage.
Now that the charges of willful primitivism and novelty-for-novelty’s-sake have abated, and now that the shock waves of its influence have been registered in hemispheres some distance removed from the territorial boundaries of jazz, the Art Ensemble of Chicago is generally conceded to have been the signal jazz band of the ‘70s and to remain one of 1980s vanguard outfits. Seguing from the raucous to the cerebral, from the primal to the post-modern without so much as skipping a beat, the typical Art Ensemble performance is equal parts African fertility ritual, turn-of-the-century minstrel show, dinner theater of the absurd, political filibuster, free-form endurance contest, and cross-cultural bricolage—this is the band that gave eclecticism a good name.
FRED JUNG: Who are some musicians that are moving the music forward?
LESTER BOWIE: The most organized of all these musicians has been the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians], which was an organization that was dedicated to moving the music forward. Muhal Richard Abrams, with his Experimental Orchestra, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Leo Smith (Wadada Leo Smith), Leroy Jenkins, there are countless number of members within that group that are trying to move the music forward.
And then you have—for example, we were inspired by Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, who are also still struggling very hard to survive in this music after all of these years. You’ve got a countless number of other musicians. You have some musicians in Detroit and in St. Louis, Oliver Lake, the World Saxophone Quartet, the late Julius Hemphill, all these are musicians that were writing in an entirely different way, but whose work has almost been buried or stymied.
I mean, we survive because of our belief in the spirit of the music, but it’s been very difficult and I’m afraid that after we’re gone, I don’t know what’s going to happen with this music. Unless there is a group of people—and I don’t see it in the younger musicians, because as you said, Fred, they’ve been, sort of, scared off. I don’t see a movement of twenty, twenty-five-year-old, thirty-year-old musicians towards playing creative music. I just don’t see that.
The musicians that are creative are William Parker—oh, and there’s a drummer named Leon Parker, who is a younger musician. I really like his work. He has a different approach to drums. And there’s Olu Dara, who is a guy my age that’s been out there a long time. There another, Graham Haynes, who is a young trumpet player that’s trying to do things. But these guys are having a very, very hard time. I would imagine, a worse time than we have had.
It’s an effort to kill the music. I hope for the sake of this society that doesn’t happen because jazz is the first music that was representative of the whole planet, of all the people on the planet. It was the first music that could accept influences from anywhere and it’s the only music that is in a growth period. All the other music has been killed off. African music has been that way forever, Chinese music or Indian music, but jazz is growing. It’s going through all these different things. It’s still growing but, like I said, they’re trying to stop the development of it.
FRED JUNG: You mentioned a few names, Oliver Lake, who had to form his own label to put out his music, and Cecil Taylor, his recording output has diminished drastically, what happens when these musicians, these standard bearers fall?
LESTER BOWIE: Well, I would hope that there would be someone, some guy, somewhere that would continue this work. It doesn’t take but a few. Hopefully, there will be a small number of musicians that will continue this work. But the problem is, will they be heard? This number is going to continue to get smaller and smaller, whereas, there may be fifty people now that were involved when I was coming up. It may go down to ten after we’re gone. After that, I just don’t know. I would hope that the music would survive. I believe that it will survive, but will it survive, will the society, of which this art is designed to enhance or to help develop, will it benefit from the music? I have doubts about that. And then what happens is, everyone just goes to sleep. We’re much easier to control if we don’t think. Americans have been known through the world over as a country that doesn’t want the populous to think too much. Don’t think about this. Do what we tell you to do. I think it will just get much worse.