Lester Bowie was born in the historic village of Bartonsville in Frederick, Maryland, Bowie grew up in St Louis, Missouri. At the age of five he started studying the trumpet with his father, a professional musician. He played with blues musicians such as Little Milton and Albert King, and rhythm and blues stars such as Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, and Rufus Thomas. In 1965, he became Fontella Bass's musical director and husband. He was a co-founder ofBlack Artists Group (BAG) in St Louis.
In 1966, he moved to Chicago, where he worked as a studio musician, and met Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell and became a member of the AACM. In 1968, he founded the Art Ensemble of Chicago with Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, and Malachi Favors. He remained a member of this group for the rest of his life, and was also a member of Jack DeJohnette's New Directions quartet. He lived and worked in Jamaica and Africa, and played and recorded with Fela Kuti. Bowie's onstage appearance, in a white lab coat, with his goatee waxed into two points, was an important part of the Art Ensemble's stage show.
In 1984, he formed Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy, a brass nonet in which Bowie demonstrated jazz's links to other forms of popular music, a decidedly more populist approach than that of the Art Ensemble. With this group he recorded songs made popular by Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Manson, and the Spice Girls, along with more "serious" material. His New York Organ Ensemble featured James Carter and Amina Claudine Myers. In the mid 1980s he was also part of the jazz supergroup The Leaders. Featuring tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman, alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, drummer Famoudou Don Moye, pianist Kirk Lightsey, and bassist Cecil McBee.
Although seen as part of the avant-garde, Bowie embraced techniques from the whole history of jazz trumpet, filling his music with humorous smears, blats, growls, half-valve effects, and so on. His affinity for reggae and ska is exemplified by his composition "Ska Reggae Hi-Bop", which he performed with the Skatalites on their 1994 "Hi-Bop Ska", and also with James Carter on "Conversin' With The Elders".
Also 1994, Bowie appeared on the Red Hot Organization's compilation album, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool. The album, meant to raise awareness and funds in support of the AIDS epidemic in relation to the African-American community, was heralded as "Album of the Year" by Time.
Bowie took an adventurous and humorous approach to music and criticized Wynton Marsalis for his conservative approach to jazz tradition.
Bowie died of liver cancer in 1999 at his Brooklyn, NY house he shared with second wife Deborah for 20 years. The following year he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. In 2001, the Art Ensemble of Chicago recorded Tribute to Lester.