Courtesy of Malachi Favors




I cannot fathom that the Art Ensemble would be the powerhouse it is in my home without Malachi Favors. Avant-garde has been around for the last forty years and if the music is to progress to yet another level, Favors and the Art Ensemble will certainly be there. I miss Lester Bowie very much, but my respect must pale in comparison to Favors' loss. We owe these gentlemen of the AACM and the Art Ensemble, in particular, a great deal and my one Christmas wish would be to see them get their just due. I bring a candid conversation with Malachi Favors, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

MALACHI FAVORS: I was singing in what they call a street quartet during those days, back in the late Fifties. It broke up and we had a theater here called the Regal Theater and I used to go there quite often and dig the big bands, Duke Ellington and Count Basie and all of that. I sung bass in the quartet so I was attracted to bass and I started hearing these bass players. I love music, but I never thought that I would go in for the bass. Anyway, my friend, another friend that was in another quartet, he started playing guitar and he said to me, "You ought to do something. We have a job and I know you don't like to work on these jobs, so you better do something." So I just went down and bought a bass one day. My first inspiration was Oscar Pettiford with Duke Ellington's band. He became my main focus on the bass and after, on down through time, I got to hear local bass players like Wilbur Ware and Richard Davis. That is how I got started.

FJ: What was it about Oscar Pettiford?

MALACHI FAVORS: Well, the way he could follow a tune and his solo work. I didn't hear Oscar Pettiford at first. The first bass player I heard was Junior Raglin and that was with Duke Ellington and I was impressed by him. During that time, when these bands came to the Regal, they would list their personnel. This one time when I went to the Regal, I saw Oscar Pettiford and I was totally discouraged. At the time, I wasn't even playing. I started not to go. I said, "Man, Junior Raglin is not playing," but I went on in and Duke Ellington was playing and Oscar Pettiford came to the mic and took a solo and that was it. I couldn't get over that.

FJ: When did you pick up the bass?

MALACHI FAVORS: I picked it up, I guess, about '50, somewhat like that. The only thing was, I didn't know anything about the music. I didn't know doe from ray. I barely know that now (laughing). It was almost a grind for me to become a musician. However, I have people in my family that are not musicians. They have this talent. They pick up with no lessons and play piano. But it wasn't like that with me.

FJ: So it must have been really a challenge for you to simply learn the fundamentals of the instrument?

MALACHI FAVORS: It was really difficult. Jodie Christian, the piano player, stayed across the street from myself and he was playing piano on his own. He didn't take any lessons, but I thought that he could help me. I went over to his house and he said, "Man, I can't help you." I was just trying to learn how to tune the bass. That sort of a thing went on and on. I never feel like even now that I know the bass.

FJ: Let's touch on your time with Andrew Hill.

MALACHI FAVORS: I met up with Andrew in the early Sixties. I know he formed a group and I knew that musicianship-wise that he was above me, but he asked me to be in his band. It was a trio with James Slaughter and myself, drummer James Slaughter. And I guess we went about three years as a group. All I knew is that he just played and he played good. I was listening to Bird and those kind of people and he was in that bag, so that is what impressed me, mainly. It did help my development, but still, that isn't where I wanted to be in the music still. As a musician, it is just a learning process all the way.

FJ: And your involvement in the Art Ensemble of Chicago?

MALACHI FAVORS: I had about a couple of semesters at Wilson Junior College. I wasn't with the AACM at the time, but I knew Muhal from growing up in my neighborhood and I went to a wedding and Roscoe Mitchell was there. He played at this wedding and so I went over to Muhal and asked, "Who is that playing the alto?" He said, "Roscoe Mitchell," and he introduced us. To make a long story short, Roscoe Mitchell was a student at Wilson Junior College and he heard me play a little and he asked me one day if I would like to be a part of his group and I said that I didn't know. I wasn't too interested at the time. I was married and stuff. Eventually, we got together, but it wasn't right away. It was a long process. The Art Ensemble started from the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet. We became a collective after Roscoe decided that he didn't want to be a leader. That is the way it went down. We, at that time, considered him the leader. He mainly picked all of the personnel and then we became a collective.

FJ: What is one of the most unique aspects of the Art Ensemble?

MALACHI FAVORS: I can remember one of our first concerts was at where the AACM presented concerts and I came with my little instruments that they are called and Roscoe asked me, "What are you going to do with that?" I said, "I'm going to play it." And being in the AACM, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, we had the right to do what we wanted to do and so that was the beginning of the so-called little instruments. Today, Roscoe and Moye and even Joseph, they have taken it to the outer limits. I'm not even in the contest anymore. Roscoe plays several of the basic instruments real good and Joseph and Moye too, who is not only a drummer, but he is a highly recognized African drummer among the Africans. In fact, we just did a concert called the Art Ensemble of Africa, where he was the coordinator and we had about fifteen Africans in the group.

FJ: Has the mission of the Art Ensemble changed through the years?

MALACHI FAVORS: Yes, it has changed somewhat, Fred, yeah, quite a bit because of lack of work and being musicians, we all understood that musicians have to work if we wanted to play music. We weren't getting our share of concerts and festivals and although people wanted us to bring all of our instruments, they did not want us to play. Being that all of them in the group are more accomplished musicians than I am, Roscoe has arranged music for symphony and Lester is a good arranger and so is Joseph. So the guys started making other avenues for themselves to survive. When we first started out, we would be with each other most of the time, practicing and so on.

FJ: And still you remain.

MALACHI FAVORS: The Art Ensemble.

FJ: Making it one of the longest standing groups in the history of the music.

MALACHI FAVORS: Yeah, that's right, only behind maybe the Modern Jazz Quartet.

FJ: And it doesn't skip.

MALACHI FAVORS: I think that happened due to our bringing up in the AACM. I don't know how we came about this in the AACM, but you could give a concert by yourself. As you know, Fred, Roscoe gives, in my opinion, one of the great solo concerts in jazz. If you have never heard him do a solo concert, you've missed something. That started back in the AACM. I remember the time that Chico Freeman and myself, we had a concert at the AACM headquarters. He and I, for about two months, gave a concert. We only had maybe two or three people. We were brought up that way, so when a person steps down or whatever happens, before we went overseas, we had a drummer, if you can remember, Phillip Wilson was the drummer. When he left and vowed that he would come back, there was only three of us, Roscoe, Lester, and myself. It was just the three of us and then when we went overseas, after Joseph had joined, we figured we needed a drummer and so we searched around and we couldn't find a drummer that would fit into our music, but we kept going.

FJ: I know Lester's passing was very difficult for you.

MALACHI FAVORS: Yeah, it did. I saw him before he went overseas. In fact, I played with him. He didn't play too much. He just directed the band here in Chicago and when I saw him, I didn't expect him to look as good as he looked. I was surprised when he went over and it was too much for him. I can remember the first time he mentioned to me that he was sick. I just thought it was an upset stomach or something because we did a gig here with Kahil El'Zabar. Going back too, I had noticed a difference in his playing that I thought I was imagining. I went to a concert in Chicago, which was given by this college downtown and Moye and he played and they had some musicians and friends from Italy that was brought over and they played a concert at this college. I was in the audience and I noticed a weakness in his playing at that time, but I wasn't sure. He was sick. I didn't know that then. So it came on and when it happens, of course, we haven't gotten over it yet. I know none of the other fellas, we don't talk about it, but it is hard. It is just like losing a brother. We've been together thirty-five years.

FJ: What about Lester impressed you most?

MALACHI FAVORS: Well, the thing about Lester, Fred, was that Lester was always positive about our situation. He would say, "We're going to make it, man." "This is it Favors. You've got to stick." He was always positive and if Lester chose to help you out, you could depend on it. For instance, I had some speakers that I bought when this whole speaker thing was going around and you were trying to hook up your house with speakers and stuff and I didn't know how to do it and so Lester just stepped in put them up. "I'll come and put them things up for you Favors." When he was into it, you could depend on it. When we got our old Greyhound bus, which was named after Lester's dog and Roscoe's dog. We named it after the dogs because they protected our instruments (laughing). I am sure Roscoe came up with the name. Roscoe is a master at coming up with names and so when we started working on our bus, Lester came one day with curtains that he had made. He didn't take them to a shop. No, he had made these curtains. I could go on and on about him in that sense.

FJ: Sounds like you miss him.

MALACHI FAVORS: Oh, yeah. I do. I really, really do.

FJ: The Art Ensemble has continued on as a trio.

MALACHI FAVORS: Yeah, right now. According to the people and according to the crowd and that is the only thing I can go by, according to the people, we shocked them out of their shoes. I guess a lot of people came because they were curious as to what was going to happen, but you just have to go on into the music. That is all you can do.

FJ: And I know you have recording plans as a trio.

MALACHI FAVORS: We are in negotiations with different folks to figure the best offer. We are very anxious because we want to dedicate it to our brother.

red Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and proud member of MENSA. Comments?  Email Fred.