An interview with Joseph Bowie: Still funking after Defunkt

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Joseph Bowie comes from a St. Louis family that can be described as jazz and R&B royalty. His brother Lester Bowie founded the Art Ensemble of Chicago, his other brother Byron Bowie was an important R&B arranger and Joseph himself founded the legendary free funk group Defunkt. Interview and photos: Saskia Rietmeijer & Bart Drolenga

Joseph Bowie feels that he has come full circle. Defunkt is famous for its mixture of experimental lyrics and free funk music. Now the trombone player is recording an album that combines the anarchistic texts of writer Hilarius Hofstede and crazy jazzy funky music played by the best Dutch jazz musicians and some of the finest American funkateers. The working title: Sax Pistols Allergy for the US.

Who inspired you to pick up the trombone?

“My oldest brother Lester Bowie played the trumpet and my next older brother Byron played the saxophone, so when the music teacher in the fifth grade offered me a music instrument I picked the trombone, just to play something different. My father William was a music teacher and he played the cornet.”

How was it to be raised in such a musical family?

“Oh, it was great. Lester and Byron were a lot older so I was introduced to music at a very young age. At seven years old I started playing the piano and I started playing horn when I was long enough to stretch my arms, about 10, 11 years old. There was always music in the house. I would listen to Lester's group the Art Ensemble rehearsing in the house. I can remember as a kid that Roscoe Mitchell’s Art Quartet, this was before the Art Ensemble, rehearsed in the living room and I was just listening.”

Lester rehearsed in your house?

“Yeah, back in those days you rehearsed in your house. I can't remember rehearsal studios in the sixties. My first pop band, when I was 15, we always rehearsed at my parents house and later we got a manager and we practiced at some office space but I never played in a rehearsal studio till I got to New York.”

Did your brothers influence you?

“Of course, my brothers were the biggest influence musically because they taught me the first songs and through them I started to like avant-garde. I got involved in the Black Artist Group in St. Louis, with Oliver Lake and Bobo Shaw, at a very early age. I was fifteen. I was also doing pop music on my own because I had this Rhythm and Blues influence. Byron arranged R&B and Lester was a great R&B player too. He was married to Fontella Bass and led her band in the sixties and that was also a great influence. They would let me play a gig when I could play a few notes. So it was a cross between this R&B and the great history of jazz. St. Louis is the birth home of Miles Davis and Clark Terry so there was a great jazz energy in St. Louis.”

What inspired you to start Defunkt?

“I loved R&B and rock. I grew up in the sixties, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown all that was in my blood. I became Tyrone Davis band director in the mid seventies and I toured around the country with him in a bus for about a year and a half and that probably taught me the greatest R&B lessons of my life and how to run a band. After that I went to New York. It was the late seventies and the new wave period was going on, Blondie, The Ramones, James Chance. I got a job playing with James Chance, playing a mixture of punk and funk. After a while I said I might as well form my own band. So I formed Defunkt and we were opening shows for James and that is how Defunkt began. The Hungarian exile poet Janos Gat wrote a lot of the lyrics in the early Defunkt period. We blended the funk and the free jazz. That was the whole idea with Defunkt. We had a pop feel and it was danceable. Every time you played it was different and that was the jazz influence. A blend that was danceable, even for a pop audience but still creative, open, open-ended.”

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