An interview with Joseph Bowie: Still funking after Defunkt


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.”

What is funk according to you?

“That is a really good question. Funk is what I call from the ground up. A lot of music is in the head, more like cranial, what I consider brain music, intellectual music, jazz. But funk is rhythm, from Africa. It transcends to your body and your heartbeat. Funk is earth music.“

bowie2What is jazz according to you?

“Jazz is the experiment, the ongoing experiment with music. Engulfing all the elements, engulfing dance. If you go back to the early jazz, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong. This music was pop music. After the civil war, they threw away the weapons, all the instruments that the bands had, the marching bands in the army, in the military, they left all those instruments down South when they said the war is over. And then the ex-slaves picked up these instruments and we had the beginning of Dixieland, experimentation, doing stuff with sound. They took basic melody standards like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and made them jazzy. You know I come from segregated America. I grew up in black neighborhoods much like South Africa was until recently. Jazz was part of the neighborhood culture. And jazz was part of the music in the neighborhood, a combination of gospel, soul and jazz. Jazz to me is expression, developing a concept and giving it a new identity with creative input. Putting my signature on it. Jazz musicians never wanted to sound the same. It was very important that everybody had their own voice. So it is like finding your own voice in music. I'm sixty so I realize I have nothing to proof. Nobody sounds like me, and that is exactly like I want it, I want to sound like Joseph when I play the trombone.”

Joseph Bowie converted to Kosen Rufu, a form of Buddhism that strives for world peace and emphasises the love for mankind. Why did you convert to Buddhism?

“Buddhism was always in me. I grew up as a Christian. My family was African Methodist Episcopal. That is the same as Methodist. Because of segregated America everything had to adjust. So instead of being Methodist, we were African Methodist Episcopal, meaning we were black because everything had to adjust to racism. That was very strange to me. Later I found out, this was after my bout with drugs in New York, that Buddhism is a really logical concept for religion. Not so much a religion but a training and discipline toward finding yourself and respecting all life. Even Buddhism has its organizational structure and hang-ups like any other religion but the concept of Buddhism is universal. Which is respect all life and nourish yourself with information and knowledge. In Christianity and in Islam you have a lot of dictates do this or do that. I believe all religions are created ages ago to occupy the masses. So you have to take out of them what has meaning for you. First of all you have to pick one that gives you the freedom to grow. Then you have to decide where to draw the lines as for organizational involvement.”

Did you have personal problems before you converted?

“Yes, I was involved heavily in drugs back in the New York days and even before that. I had about 10-12 years of strong addiction during the Defunkt period. This was a culture of drugs and rock and roll. A hot period in New York. Everybody, I saw a lot of friends die and a lot of friends in jail.”

bowie3What kind of drugs did you use?

“All the heavies. Heroin, cocaine, I smoked a lot of weed, pills, whatever I could get my hands on but my drugs of choice were heroine and cocaine.“

Did you kick the habit cold turkey?

“No, I went in a few drug rehabs. I spent almost a year in the Phoenix House in New York, in rehab, locked away. That gave me a great start to kick but even as I came out of there I started using again. I went through the revolving door most addicts go through till you come to terms. I came to terms after I came back from the Caribbean. My brother Lester sent me to the Caribbean to kick and I was clean for a couple of years but started using again. My first wife threw me out and I went back to my parents house and I stayed there and went to another program in 87 and that was it. Because I had decided that it was enough. That is what it takes for an addict, you have to really make up your mind this is it. I learned a lot during rehab about willpower and discipline.”

Did you do real destructive things?

“Yes of course, you hurt people. My biggest regret is that I left my daughter when she was eleven. I was separated from the family and that is an effect that is lasting. We're good friends now but it takes time. You don’t think but later what you put the children through with this kind of behavior.”

Joseph Bowie lives in The Netherlands since 2003. Why did you move to The Netherlands?

“My wife is from The Netherlands. It was a great move and it gave me a lot of opportunities to merge with new musicians. New ground. Europe has many countries. America is just one country. I have a reputation all over Europe. I can work everywhere. I play with as many bands as I possibly can. I started workshops for kids to learn integrity, musical skills, rhythm and counting. It is called The Rhythm, Sound & Motion Experience Workshop. I also do workshops for elderly people. I teach them to work with a group, work together, very Buddhist. Living in The Netherlands gives me control over every aspect of my creative life.”

How do you feel about getting older?

“I am happy to be older. I feel better and wiser. I survived some storms but I always had a good balance. Even when I was a junkie I ran three marathons. I always had an obligation to stay fit. I eat really healthy. I am getting smarter about living.”

What have you learned in life so far?

“The main thing is to be honest, especially in the music business. Sonny Rollins said: ‘The only business more corrupt than music is boxing’. That says it all. I am running into cutthroat promoters and agents but I always keep integrity. Be serious, don’t come late and have compassion for all living beings.”

What are your dreams for the future?

“My claim to fame is Defunkt where I worked with writer Janos Gat. Now I am in the same situation with writer Hilarius Hofstede who is writing lyrics for me. We are going to make a record with anarchistic lyrics and crazy jazzy funky music. I feel like I am coming full circle but without the drugs. It is called Sax Pistols Allergy for the US. It is amazing for me do get to do this again after 35 years.”

Written by Saskia Rietmeijer – Photographs by Bart Drolenga from