By Danny R. Johnson
“Abbey Lincoln stands out as the one artist who taught me the artistry of jazz music. Abbey taught me to put my emotions out there through the instrument you are playing whether it’s your voice or a musical instrument.” Michael Bowie (September 2011)
WASHINGTON–Washington, DC jazz bassist, Michael Bowie, recently celebrated his 50th birthday, and has evolved into one of the strongest jazz bass players since Charles Mingus dominated the scene back in the 1950s and 1960s. Mingus reigned supreme as the leading bass player of the bop and post bop period—and the jazz world can place Bowie right in the same class with Mingus, Keter Betts and Ron Carter.
The Maryland native, who plays the electric and contrabass, has performed professionally in the DC area and internationally for well over 30 years; however, Bowie would be the first to tell you how humbling it is to reach 50.
“It’s a blessing to reach 50 and be able to reflect on the many gifted and talented artists I’ve had the opportunity to work with over the past 30 years, “he commented.
Bowie indeed has a lot to reflect on because he had the opportunity to work with some of the giants in jazz and R&B. The list of artists includes Patti Labelle, James Ingram, Jeff Majors, Abbey Lincoln, Angie Stone, and Isaac Hayes. He has shared his talents in the recording studio and on the stage with Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Abbey Lincoln, Manhattan Transfer, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Opera House Orchestra, Della Reece, Michel Camilo and Ricky Skaggs.
He has appeared on countless television shows such as Black Entertainment Television, Austin City Limits, Charlie Rose, Radio One, as well as major venues and festivals such as Carnegie Hall, the Newport Jazz Festival, Playboy Jazz Festival, DC Jazz Festival, Montreux Jazz Festival, and most other major festivals worldwide.
Music is in the home and the community
In order to understand why Michael Bowie has this love affair with the bass, you need to understand something about his background.
Michael was born in 1961 to Roscoe and Gerri Bowie, who just so happened to have been very active in the vibrant DC music scene back in the 60s and 70s, and both are still living. Roscoe was an accomplished woodwind player of his day, while his mother Gerri played the piano.
“I can recall the mornings when my sister and I would be awaken to classical duets,” said Bowie. “Music was all in the house and I was very much part of it.”
During the 70s, Roscoe Bowie produced a local group of young DC and Maryland musicians called Roscoe Bowie’s Message Band and Show. Even though he attempted to play woodwind, Michael could never master the instrument to really embrace it.
“My first introduction to singing came when I was placed before a live audience at eight or nine, and literally froze in motion. I was absolutely petrified at the prospect of singing which is why nothing came out of my mouth,” Michael recalled.
It became obvious to Roscoe and Gerri that Michael was not destined to sing.
It was not long after this incident that Michael approached a member of his father’s group and began to inquire about the contrabass. “I fell in love with the sound and the effects it produces when you played it,” Bowie remembered.
Keter Betts paves the way
It is important to Michael when reflecting on how he got the big breaks in the music world to pay homage to his parents, and a select few artists who were paramount and influential in launching his professional career.
“I’ve told many people a thousand times over that the leading and undisputed leader of DC’s bass tradition is none other than Keter Betts,” says Bowie.
For those of you who do not know who Keter Betts is – here is a brief history. Betts, a world-renowned double bassist performer, resided in the Washington, DC area for more than a half century when he died in 2005 at age of 77.
Many better-known musicians (Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Nat Adderley, Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd and others), recognizing Keter’s talent, invited him to perform with them professionally. Early in Keter’s career, he had played with Earl Bostic‘s R&B band. In 1962, together with Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, he was instrumental in introducing the bossa nova style to American audiences via their Jazz Samba recording. In the mid-1960s, Keter began a nearly quarter-century relationship as a bassist with the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald.
Bowie spoke respectfully and proudly of his relationship with Betts. “Keter was the one who helped me get a National Endowment of the Arts Award in Jazz Studies, which enabled me to be trained under his tutorship,” Bowie stated.
“Keter taught me the psychological side of playing the bass. He was a powerful and most endeared mentor whom I spent a great deal of time with in and out of the classroom,” explained Bowie.
In the winter of 1985, Bowie got a big break when he joined up with legendary composer and singer, Betty Carter. Bowie was to spend two productive and challenging years with Carter’s band on the road.
“Working with Betty provided me the opportunity to hone in my bass playing techniques, as well as learn the business side of the music industry. The bass is the anchor of the group because it is the only instrument with a dual role—playing the root of the chord, and freeing everybody else up so they can be free to improvise,” explained Bowie.
Bowie went on to state that Keter was influential in bringing his talents to the attention of Sarah Vaughan.
“Sarah Vaughan was looking for a stand-in bass player and Keter suggested that I would be the perfect replacement,” says Bowie. “This gig helped me to learn first-hand how to anchor members of the group.”
Jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut once stated that Bowie is like “driving the bus’ when playing bass – meaning that he provides the drummer, pianist, and singer the ability to remain in harmony with each other.
Abbey Lincoln: A priceless gift beyond comprehension
Michael was asked about his relationship with Abbey Lincoln. He became silent for a few seconds, and eventually answered in a solemn and commanding tone, which was his gesture of the respect he had for his most important mentor of all.
Anna Marie Wooldridge (August 6, 1930 – August 14, 2010), better known by her stage name, Abbey Lincoln, was a jazz vocalist, songwriter, and actress. Lincoln was unusual in that she wrote and performed her own compositions, expanding the expectations of jazz audiences around the world – and Michael Bowie had the pleasure and privilege of performing with her.
“Abbey’s influence in my life is beyond comprehension and words cannot adequately express how much she meant to me,” Bowie stated. “Abbey taught me to put my emotions out there for the world to see, and bring people into your life’s experiences.”
Bowie was accurate in his personal expressions of Lincoln because anybody who has followed Abbey Lincoln’s career — knows that she was probably one of the most organic and purest singers of all times.
Bowie further explained that over the 13 years of performing professionally with Abbey, she taught him that performing is “like undressing down to the bone until you are completely naked before the audience.” Bowie stated that Abbey told him that she learned this from her husband, jazz drummer and composer, Max Roach. By this admission, Bowie has been able to capture and tap the emotional psyche of his bass playing, which is obvious to the delight of audiences around the world.
Every jazz artist or seasoned stage performer knows that it is very important to connect with your audience. No one mastered this better or more perfectly than Abbey Lincoln. She had the ability to convey without pretenses, the emotional effects she wanted to achieve – and all of it was unrehearsed.
Bowie stated that when Abbey sang, she would “live each and every phrase and words” to the point, you have to “cry because she was able to enter your personal space in a special way.” Lincoln’s sound is way beyond special: Like Billie Holiday, Abbey has a dark, hypnotic timbre, and while her range may be limited, her intonation is more than sufficiently accurate within it.
Throughout the 1990s and the new millennium, Abbey Lincoln reigned as one of the most imposing presences on the jazz scene, both for how she sang and what she sang. The magnificence of her musical style was enhanced by the consistently high quality of the songs she wrote. No major vocalist has written more excellent songs in her sixties and seventies, and in the recent history of this music, than Abbey Lincoln.
Life gets better at 50
On October 3, Bowie’s family, friends, and fellow artists and musicians, all got together for a down-home back-to-the funk 50th birthday celebration at DC’s preeminent jazz club, Blues Alley.
What is next for the bass man? Bowie shot off a list of projects he would like to pursue, one, which is of utmost importance, is the completion of his first comprehensive CD.
“I feel that I have now come to age. Now is the time to put together the compilation of music I’ve arranged over the years into a CD, which I hope to complete in 2012,” he said.
In addition to his personal musical career, Michael is deeply involved in developing children’s music enrichment. He is a certified teacher in Washington DC’s Public School system where he directs the Fillmore Elementary Arts School’s music department. As a lecturer and associate professor, he has taught at Shenandoah Conservatory, Michigan University, University of Missouri, and Bowie State amongst others. In addition, Michael is involved with the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz in Washington DC.
In honor of Keter Betts, Abbey Lincoln and Michael Bowie’s 50th birthday, here is an emotional and moving YOU-TUBE video of Bowie performing with Abbey Lincoln, singing “Down Here Below” and “Bird Lone.” HAPPY BIRTHDAY MIKE!
Abbey Lincoln, Michael Bowie, bass, Rodney Kendrick, piano, and Alvester Garnett, drums: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6veCqQiUuI
Danny R. Johnson is San Diego County News’ Washington, DC based Entertainment & Travel News Editor.