All That Jazz and Then Some: An Interview with Defunkt’s Joseph Bowie

Defunkt’s music is constructed with the intricacies of jazz, charged with the muscular pump of rock, and executed with punk’s ferocity. Frontman Joseph Bowie talks about the band’s long, colourful, and arduous journey.

Tell us about the very first time you picked up a trombone. What are your memories of first learning to play the instrument?

I began my love affair with the trombone at ten years old. I remember being in the first “school bussing program” in St. Louis, Missouri, which was implemented in 1964 after the Civil Rights Act was passed. I was a student at Ashland School in North St. Louis. At this time, they started to give IQ tests to students to determine the student’s potential to become assets to the society (ruling class).

My Father, W. Lester Bowie, Sr., was a music teacher in the St. Louis School system. He was one of many Black teachers in St. Louis who taught in the Black schools until the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which banned segregation in schools. I now appreciate this great generation of Black Americans (Negroes) as powerful antidotes to racial injustice. They cultivated a high level of respect and ideals in their children to do their best to achieve. My oldest brother, William Lester Bowie, Jr. (Lester Bowie), who was 12 years my senior, played trumpet, and my middle brother Byron played all the woodwinds, the clarinet, and saxophone. He was a great music arranger working with Sammy Davis Jr. and many R&B acts such as the Dells, Gladys Knight, and Aretha Franklin.

At ten years old, I was enrolled in a new elementary school, Walnut Park. I would go to my Black school in the morning and be bussed to my new school Walnut Park, which was in an unfriendly white neighborhood. We underwent lots of racial abuse and turmoil. My music teacher there was Black and a friend of my father…Mr. Morgan. The Black teachers in St. Louis were a close group of educators because of segregation. It was a relatively small community, and colleagues maintained close relations. When I had my first music lesson with Mr. Morgan, he asked me what instrument do you want to play…I thought to myself, my brothers play trumpet and Saxophones…he gave me a trombone. I remember that trombone. It was a student model “Besson” with a grayish case (raggedy), but the trombone was fine. I was so proud to now be an active musician. I thought to myself…now we have the complete horn section in the family. Later we would record together on many Defunkt recordings.

When did you start playing in bands?

At 15 years old and a sophomore in high school, we started a neighborhood band with my best friend Petey (Alonzo Peters), who played alto saxophone. The name of the band was the Paramounts. What a life-changing experience! St. Louis was riddled with gangs, drugs, and many opportunities to destroy your life. This band gave me insight and a vision of the future…where I wanted to go in my life. This band was me, Petey on alto sax, Milton Harper (New Yorker) on guitar, Marvin Horn on bass, Rocky Washington on drums, and a male vocal group as well as a female vocal group named the Paramettes.

We also had a comedian/actor, William “Stan” Davis performing “Here Comes the Judge” skit. We played all the popular top 40 songs (Black radio). At this time, there was White radio and Black radio. The manager of our band was Robert Trice, a barber by profession who loved working with young people. We performed at high school dances, and eventually, we played nightclubs in St. Louis and after-hours clubs in E. St. Louis.

My parents allowed the band to rehearse in the basement of our house almost every evening after school. I realized how lucky I was that my father was a music teacher and my mother supported the music. They had no problem letting us rehearse as much as we liked. It also kept us off the dangerous streets of St. Louis. This is where it all began for me…the Paramounts.

You were a member of James White and the Blacks, which you set up. Tell us about your time with this band.

I came to New York City as a creative jazz player (free jazz). I previously spent two years in Europe, living in Paris with Oliver Lake and the Black Artists Group of St. Louis. Charles Bobo Shaw on drums (with whom I later traveled to NYC in 1973), Baikida Carroll on drums, and Floyd Leflore on trumpet…two trumpets, saxophone, and trombone…four horns, drums, and no bass. I also played the conga drum. We toured Europe for two years.

In 1973 Bobo and I traveled to New York to continue our musical journey. In New York, we performed as the Human Arts Ensemble. Also, we played with jazz notables such as Stanley Cowell (Jazz Composers Orchestra Association / JCOA ), Leroy Jenkins, Rashid Ali, Sam Rivers, Cecil Taylor, etc.

In 1976, my wife was pregnant with my only daughter, and we moved to escape the consequences of my drug addiction. In Chicago, I performed with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. My brother Byron, who was highly involved in the R&B scene, got me a job with the Tyrone Davis band. In six months, I graduated to become Tyrone’s band director. This was a life-changing experience. I learned and mastered the R&B “show concept” with Tyrone. This was important to organize the fusion of music in my mind.

In 1978 I returned to New York. This was the period of new wave/no wave. This period was beginning to thrive in New York. James White, a.k.a. James Chance, asked me to join his horn section. Of course, I said yes! This was great and a real lift in my career. A new dimension was opening up to me. This was a big musical movement.

All of the clubs had live music. It was a “cultural movement of protest” against all that was before…this was punk, no wave, and new wave. James was one of the kingpins in the genre, along with Blondie, the Ramones, DNA, John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards, and many more. James was great. He possessed a special personality, and his music was unique and passionate to frenzy! He played a blend of free-jazz saxophone in the Ornette Coleman style. James had crazy melodies and a polyrhythmic mind. The music danced and jumped! This music was funky yet intellectual, forcing close listening! For me, it blended Ornette with James Brown as the foundation. I was a member of the horn section, and James’ compositions were wonderful, full of surprising interludes and sound excursions. He had a unique vocal concept, utilizing screams and harsh remarks. His body was always pulsating and gyrating with energy and unpredictable movement.

After working in James’ band for a while, he eventually said, “Joe, maybe you can help me find some great black musicians to be in this band”; musicians who wanted to be a part of this new wave of musical activity in New York. I brought him horns, drummers, guitarists, bassists…John Mulkerin, Luther Thomas, Ritchie Harrison, and others. After a while, I realized that I could form my band to open for James. I had the chance to bring my band to this emerging scene.

At the time, there were lots of dance clubs in New York City – Max’s Kansas City, Hurrah’s, Trax, Danceteria, Irving Plaza, Mikells’s and more. I formed Defunkt with the valuable assistance of Janos Gat, a member of the Squat Theater (Political Exiles from Hungary). The Squat Theater was a very important haven for developing new music at this time… from Sun Ra to Defunkt and beyond. Defunkt could rehearse there whenever was necessary. We performed there weekly. This is where Defunkt was born! The name “Defunkt” was coined by Alan Platt (in 1980, the year of Defunkt’s conception), a writer at the Soho Weekly News. For me, the name meant the “end of what was and the beginning of what’s to come”.

Soon James Chance asked us to be the opening act for his show. This was a great window of opportunity when Defunkt entered the scene. James is one of my closest friends and has my deepest respect as a musician, innovator, and powerful personality. In 2014, I brought James to Holland to record Allergy for the U.S. with Defunkt members Kim Clarke, Tobias Ralph, and six of Holland’s most prestigious saxophone players, joined by my cousin and occasional Defunkt member Charles “Chazzy” Green.

I owe a lot to James. He further convinced me that diversity in music was vital. Genre fusion was necessary to move the chains of culture…I thought maybe I’m on the right track after all. I was also influenced by James’ high-energy stage persona, which motivated extreme concentration on the part of the musicians and audience.

You were an extremely influential figure in New York’s punk scene during the late ’70s and early ’80s, which we now know as “No-Wave”. Please tell us what your life was like during this scene.

This new no-wave/punk scene was ideal for me coming from a creative (free) jazz background. My involvement with R&B and love for rock ‘n’ roll were the perfect credentials. My dream was to fuse these genres into a new genre, later dubbed “Punk Funk” by Squats’ Janos Gat. I wanted the improvisational freedom over a grooving funk/rock template to insure infectious dancing! Defunkt’s music differs from standard funk or rock because it’s organic in nature. It changes the performance of each song. This is the jazz element that is so important. A song is never played the same way twice. I conduct the entire show to insure spontaneity and surprise.

I remember great shows we did along with Kid Creole, Coconuts, Blondie, etc. All of the no-wave bands were a rebellious family for change. I remember playing at the Peppermint Lounge, then on 45th Street in Manhattan. After the show, I went to the office to get paid, and two young guys were sitting there begging for a gig. It was Anthony Kiedis and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. We were mostly stoned in those days, and often drugs were used as partial payment for the shows.

Later, I saw the young Chili Peppers at Defunkt shows at the Knitting Factory, located on Houston St. in New York. They loved Defunkt and were in the front row dancing the entire night. Kid Creole and the Coconuts was a magical experience for me. The costuming and fusion with multicultural musical forms was fabulous! This was my dream! The best of pop music merged with funk and jazz. (I didn’t realize the music industry had other ideas).

I wanted Defunkt to be educational yet emotional and powerful. I saw myself as a musical newsman delivering the message of truth and reality, which was seemingly ignored or forbidden in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. I was naïve and thought freedom of speech applied to all.

Consciousness was a vital part of this period…it was important to expose the lies and tell the hardcore truth. This period was also tainted with drugs, and many musicians and artists were affected and devastated. Me included. New York was a drug haven, and it was fashionable to use and abuse substances. I understand now this was most devastating to the movement and to my personal development.

I met Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Squat Theater. He would do paintings and drawings during the concerts there. He was also creating graffiti all over New York City. I respected his discipline and dedication to his art. Cool guy… In the film Downtown 81, which stars Basquiat, there’s a scene of me performing with James White and the Blacks. My Brother Byron was also in the band at that time. This was a fascinating period, to say the least.