Trumpeter Lester Bowie, a preeminent member of the avant-garde expressionist movement in jazz, has died of liver cancer at the age of 58. Bowie died Monday night at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
One of the few trumpeters of his generation to adapt to the techniques of free jazz, Bowie was an integral force in mid-1960s Chicago for the expression of the adventurous new ideas sweeping through the music.
Along with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, Bowie played a new kind of music variously labeled "avant-garde jazz," "new thing," etc., which expressed a turbulent array of ideas, emotions and ambitions emerging in the inner city.
For Bowie and the other members of the Assn. for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, in their quest to speak to the rapidly shifting events of the decade, everything was grist for the musical mill. Free jazz improvising, offbeat instrumentation and dramatic visual presentations were employed with complete unpredictability. Nor did Bowie, who clearly understood the value of musical absurdity, hesitate to confound his critics by suddenly shifting gears and casually tossing tunes such as "Hello Dolly" into his musical mix.
At the heart of his music, however, Bowie was a solid musician and an innovative trumpeter. Using brass techniques from the past, he employed mutes, half-valve playing, slides and growls in the service of a completely contemporary style. Although some of his later recordings suggest that his fascination with musical absurdity had lost some of its ironic edge, his work was never less than compelling. At his best, he was one of the very few post-Miles Davis trumpeters with a sound and style of his own.
But that style was not readily accessible to the public. It was challenging music and the audience for it was most often found in Europe rather than the United States.
Born in Frederick, Md., Bowie grew up in and around St. Louis, where he took up the trumpet at the age of 5. He began playing in school and religious music activities from the age of 10 and was leading a group at the age of 16. After a stint in the military, he moved to Chicago and began working in R & B bands, including one with the singer Fontella Bass, and recorded with Chess records.
Bowie had been on tour in London with his most recent group, Brass Fantasy, and went to the hospital feeling ill. He came off the tour and went back briefly into a hospital in New York and was sent home, where he died. He is survived by his wife, Deborah Bowie; six children, and two grandchildren.
Bowie was forever optimistic that his music would find a wider audience in America.
"I've never been able to understand the way record companies underestimate the intelligence of listeners," he told the International Herald Tribune recently. "People are catching up. They've got videos, they've read books, they operate computers. The wheels in their heads are working. They've learned how to enjoy more than one thing."
Heckman is the Times' jazz writer and Thurber is a Times staff writer. Associated Press contributed to this story.