January 18, 2017
Charles “Bobo” Shaw
I first saw Bobo play in 1973 at Studio Rivbea, Sam Rivers’s loft in SoHo, with the Black Artists Group, featuring Joe Bowie, brother of Lester Bowie and future leader of Defunkt. I saw him gig around town a few more times in that jazz era of huge ambition and microscopic budgets, but didn’t get to know him until late in the decade. Following the coterie success of the Lounge Lizards, many avant-garde jazz players started playing funk, like for dancing: Defunkt, Luther Thomas’s Dazz, Oliver Lake’s Jump Up, and a bunch more that either went unrecorded or were not recorded to their best advantage. I truly thought at the time that this music would take the world by storm. Bobo was all over that scene.
The main venue for these outfits was the Squat Theater on 23rd Street, run by Hungarian expats including the parents of Eszter Balint (of Stranger Than Paradise fame, among other things). That’s probably where I got to know Bobo, who not only played music there but also acted in at least one Squat production. (Somewhere there’s a tape of Bobo and Eszter singing a duet.) He and I hung out for two or three years. He was my teacher when I briefly tried to be a drummer. I found out a lot about him and his life, although I remember only disconnected bits by now. Basically, we got high together a lot. In our small way we were enacting the death of the old Lower East Side at the hands of those twin devils: heroin and real estate. I don’t know anybody from that era who was unaffected. But whereas most people I knew — most white people — went through detox and rehab and twelve-step and proceeded unscathed into adult responsibilities (and I managed to get away clean), Bobo ended up in Rikers. I feared for him there. He was tough but also extremely vulnerable, truly one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known. But I fell into a bad marriage and a career that took me over, and I lost track of a great many people, Bobo included. Later I remember nervously searching his name on pre-google, not knowing whether he was still alive, and being none the wiser. Eventually, actual google finally told me he’d gone back to St. Louis. I always meant to get in touch, but I didn’t. I truly wish I believed in an afterlife where he could be forever tearing up time signatures.
Here is the most comprehensive summation of Bobo’s career you’re likely to see.
Here’s an excellent 1978 recording by the only outfit he himself led, the Human Arts Ensemble:
And a 1977 record he made with Lester Bowie:
And a glimpse of him playing with a bunch of other drummers just a few years ago.