Lecturer and Jazz Ensembles Director Mwata Bowden featured in NYC Jazz Record

Mwata Bowden on stage addressing the audience in front of the jazz x-tet


by Kurt Gottschalk

Published in the October 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record

It’s hard to say which is more noteworthy, that last year Chicago saxophonist Mwata Bowden put out a remarkable record of innovative and eminently listenable jazz compositions that went almost entirely unnoticed or, that at 71, it was his debut as a leader. Whichever focus one picks, the mitigating factors aren’t hard to uncover. For the former, his 1 Foot In 1 Foot Out was released by Asian Improv (a small operation nevertheless instrumental in documenting the work coming out of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians [AACM] for more than 20 years, dating back at least to the 1999 release of Power Trio Live at Unity Temple with Bowden joined by bassist [and label president] Tatsu Aoki and drummer Afifi Phillard) and a tour to support the new album was necessarily curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic.

As for the latter point, it’s perhaps a more delicate subject, but Bowden is forthright when asked why it’s taken so long for him to release a record under his own name. After all, he was a key member of Ed Wilkerson’s famed 8 Bold Souls in the ‘90s, during which time he also served as the AACM’s chairman, overlapping with his beginning as a lecturer in the Music Department at the University of Chicago. And as one of the most lyrical saxophonists in a scene rife with fervent horns, he certainly had opportunity and audience, at least on a local level.

So what took him so long? “That’s a hard one for me to answer,” Bowden said. “I came up as an AACM member. That collective really perpetuated individuality and ownership of your stuff. That’s been my lesson but it’s been one thing I just haven’t done. I’ve always thought, ‘OK, Mwata, that’s good but you’re not ready to put your own stuff out yet.’

Sometimes as an artist you doubt yourself too much.” It took a long time, but it was worth the wait. 1 Foot In 1 Foot Out features three more under-heralded players of what is sometimes called the AACM’s second generation: saxophonist Ari Brown (a fellow Bold Soul and frequent playing partner of Bowden), bassist Harrison Bankhead, perhaps best known for his work with saxophonist Fred Anderson; and drummer Avreeayl Ra, whose credits extend from Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders to Anderson and Kidd Jordan to Joshua Abrams, Nicole Mitchell and Dave Rempis. The band is completed by the younger trumpeter Leon Q. Allen (Common, Drake, Wynton Marsalis, Tito Puente, Jr.) and Bowden’s son Discopoet Khari B providing verses that sometimes call the Last Poets to mind.

Like Bowden’s other two children, Khari, the eldest, attended the AACM School of Music and kept playing saxophone in college until his horn was stolen. Drawing on the influence of his mother, poet Judi Bowden, he turned his performing to poetry and was soon working with another AACM saxophonist, Ernest Dawkins. It was in a Dawkins band that Bowden first heard his son laying down rhymes. “He had incorporated the performance element in his poetry, he was like a soloist,” the elder Bowden recalled. “It was to my surprise that that’s what my son was doing and I didn’t know it until I heard it.” Khari was the last addition to the 1 Foot In 1 Foot Out lineup and provides a crucial through-line to his father’s compositions, notably on the confident New Orleans bounce of opener “Praising Mama Ann”, written for the singer and longtime AACM member Ann Ward, and Windy City jazzology of “Chi-town/47th Street Stroll”, in which he bears witness convincingly to a history that precedes him.

That wisdom, no doubt, came at least in part from his father, who is retiring from teaching jazz performance and history at the University of Chicago in the spring, after 26 years in the classroom. As a lecturer, he strives to “give the students a taste of the Chicago experience,” he said with typical humility. In fact, for the last quarter-century he’s taught jazz history, theory and improvisation, leading one class that focuses on developments from the ‘20s-60s, another that covers the ‘60s-90s and one that introduces newer techniques such as graphic notation and, in a phrase he uses often, moving “beyond the five lines and four spaces” of the traditional score, working to instill a spirit of experimentation and individuality— the driving forces of the AACM.

“Nothing ever comes out of doing nothing,” he said, reciting a phrase that sounds classroom-worn. “You have to experiment for the music to move on.” Discussing his imminent retirement, Bowden dropped another line: “I’ve done what I need to do there and now it’s time to do nothing much,” he said with a laugh, but it’s not likely as cut and dried as that. He’s got a new record and is readying a live date from 2016 for release. “I listened to it a couple years later and I thought, hmmmm, and I listened to it a couple more years later and I thought, hey, this might really work,” he said. “That’s been me being overly critical of my own work.”

With records in line for the first time and a new baritone horn he bought in the fall, Bowden is itching to get both in front of an audience. “I was fired up about my new instrument then I’ve been here,” he said. “March, April... I was excited and then this set in, it took away all of that. I have not made any plans beyond this COVID period. I have not been eager, even with my new CD out.” But as soon as the opportunity arises, Bowden, a new bari and a box of CDs, will be taking to the stage. “Time is the one thing we cannot get back,” he said, “so we have to make the best of it.”

For more information, visit mwatabowden.com

Recommended Listening:

  • Douglas Ewart & Inventions/Clarinet Choir—Red Hills (Arawak, 1983)
  • 8 Bold Souls (feat. Edward Wilkerson, Jr.)—Sideshow (Arabesque, 1991)
  • Power Trio—At Unity Temple (Asian Improv, 1997) • Tatsu Aoki, Mwata Bowden, Paul Kim, Hide Yoshihashi, Patti Adachi, Robbie Hunsinger—The MIYUMI Project (Southport, 1999)
  • Nicole Mitchell & an_ARCHE NewMusic Ensemble—Arc Of O (Rogue Art, 2010) • Mwata Bowden—1 Foot In 1 Foot Out (Asian Improv, 2019)

Read this story at nycjazzrecord.com