Joe Cowles first met Sijo Lee in 1960 and continued to train with him until Lee departed for Oakland. He worked for the post office all his life and recently retired to Oregon with his new wife.
A former member of the JKD Society, Cowles has always been a well respected student of Bruce Lee who created his own version of Jun Fan Gung Fu called Wu Wei. Cowles sole inheritor to his art is Eyal Koren of Israel who trains different sectors of the military in his art. Cowles has trained such notable JKD men as Lamar Davis II, Gary Dill, Joe Purcell, Mike Henry and many more.
The Joe Cowles Interview: Part I
Conducted By Paul Bax
Joe Cowles first started training with Bruce Lee in early 1960. He never imagined that Lee would someday be the most famous martial artist who ever lived. Be that as it may, Cowles was not at all suprised when Bruce became as famous as he did. A retired postal worker, Cowles has stayed true to Bruce's wishes not to commercialize his art of gung fu. Besides practicing Lee's art as it was originally taught to him, he has also added techniques from Jujitsu to form an art he calls "Wu Wei Gung Fu." This martial art has been praised as an effective system of self defense by many martial artists. In his first interview ever, Cowles recalls the early years with his Sifu, Bruce Lee,and his training experiences with him.
HOW DID YOU FIRST MEET BRUCE LEE, AND WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST IMPRESSION OF HIM?
JOE COWLES: To the best of my remembrance I met him in early 1960 when I was working at the Seattle post office. I was a beginning student in Judo at the YMCA under a second degree black belt. There was a black belt I used to talk to, and one day he came across an announcement about a demonstration that Bruce was giving at a housing project in Seattle. We both went to watch it. We had never heard of Bruce Lee, and we had hardly heard of gung fu in those days. We had heard of karate a little bit, and I had bought a book on karate, but we hadn't heard of gung fu. Anyway we went to the demonstration that Bruce was giving and he had a small group with him. As we were preparing to go into the locker room to congratulate Bruce and his students on what we had seen, a man who claimed to be a fifth degree black belt walked up to me and started to tell me he had challenged Bruce to fight him, but Bruce wouldn't fight . I don't know why this man was even approaching me since I neither knew him or Bruce. After he finished his story we went into the locker room to talk to Bruce and his students. That week I called Bruce and asked him if I could join his class. At the time I was really interested in Karate, but there weren't any schools around like you see today. Bruce told me to meet him in Chinatown, so I went down there I stood where I was supposed to meet him, and I saw this young Chinese man walking around like he was looking for somebody, and I was looking for Bruce, but I had only met him once and I wasn't real sure if this was the same guy. Finally he walked up to me and said, "ARE YOU JOE COWLES?" I said "yes" and we went to Mercer Island across the lake from Seattle and trained in one of his students yards'. It was during that time that I started this Sum Sing exercise with a older student who's arms weren't really tempered to withstand hard blows. My arms were fairly tough from being a mail handler, so he quit before I did. Bruce didn't like the fact that this older student quit before I did. I wasn't trying to put anyone down, it just worked out that way. Like all beginning martial arts students I was ignorant of the way things were supposed to go, and the proper way to act, but I wasn't trying to be a smart aleck, or anything. Anyway, Bruce walked up to me and said, "Let's see how long you can go with me". We started banging our forearms together, and pretty soon I noticed he started going harder, and harder but it wasn't bothering me. All at once his hand flew up and struck me in the temple very hard. He really walloped me pretty good. Bruce said I didn't get my hand up in time, but I know today he was just teaching me a lesson. I realized I'd better stop, after a few more minutes. Bruce looked at me, and said, "Don't be a hero. If it hurts - stop, or I'll break your arm!" He then just stared at me kind of coldly. Later on after class he took me to the TAI TUNG cafe in Seattle's Chinatown. He took my spiral notebook and drew some gung fu pictures for me...stances, and things like that. He explained gung fu to me to a certain extent. Then he stuck his hand across the table to arm wrestle me, and I took his hand. We did this without our elbows touching the table. He put me down so fast it was amazing. I felt like my arm would break if I didn't go with his strength. It all happened so fast. Later on I told a friend of mine named Lee Norman that I bet he couldn't beat Bruce Lee in arm wrestling, so he tried it and came back and told me Bruce let him get his hand way over to give him the benefit of the doubt, but Bruce still put him down easily. Norman exclaimed, "That cat is dangerous!" On the way back from Mercer island I asked Bruce how long did it take to learn gung fu, which is obviously a beginners question, and he said, "You never quit learning until they close the lid on your coffin." Some years later they closed the lid on his own coffin. It was kind of a self fulfilling prophecy, because he himself never quit learning until his death. I'll always honor him as my teacher, as I'm sure all of his students do too. I appreciate everything he did for me.
BACK IN THE SEATTLE YEARS HOW MUCH PHILOSOPHY DID BRUCE INCLUDE IN HIS CLASSES?
JC: Not much. It was mostly working out. He was the kind of guy that made you want to give one hundred and ten percent. At least he did me. He did mention the ying and yang in his teachings, and that the Chinese had made a religion out of it, but all he cared about is that it worked in gung fu. Of course he was talking about the negative and positive movements that exist in martial arts. At that time he was pretty wrapped up in Wing Chun. He was an innovator even then, but not as much as in JKD. Very little actual philosophy was used other than a few things he would mention from time to time. He was pretty much a realist.
WHEN THE SEATTLE SCHOOL DISBANDED WHAT DID YOU THINK WOULD BECOME OF BRUCE?
JC: The Seattle school was still in operation when Bruce went to California to visit James Lee. When he came back he was pretty happy. I remember him hitting his fist in his other hand like he was excited and saying he was convinced. Of course he and James became good friends, and James published Bruce's first book, "CHINESE GUNG FU - THE PHILOSOPHICAL ART OF SELF DEFENSE". Bruce autographed my book at the Chinatown school which was located in a dingy basement. You wouldn't have known there was a school there unless you were a student. The Seattle school didn't actually disband till sometime after Bruce moved to California. At that time, I was living across the bay from Seattle and I would catch the ferry and go back to that Chinatown school to train. Taky Kimura was handling the class then, because Bruce was busy in California, but he would still come up in visit every once in awhile. It was very seldom that we saw him at that time. Taky saw him more than anybody else.
WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST THOUGHTS WHEN YOU SAW "THE GREEN HORNET", AND HIS FIRST FEATURE FILMS?
JC: Of course I was pretty thrilled about seeing Bruce on TV. I was disappointed that Van Williams was always upstaging Bruce. It seemed you had to look around him to see what Bruce was doing when I just wanted to see Bruce. Of course I was most interested in his actions, and how he would fight. We were all glad to see him make it in films. Before Bruce was famous, one of his students noted that if Bruce could ever be discovered he would really go places.
YOU TEACH A FEW STUDENTS IN YOUR HOME ON A NON-COMMERCIALBASIS. DO YOU THINK IT'S IMPORTANT FOR STUDENTS OF BRUCE LEE NOT TO COMMERCIALIZE HIS ART, AND DO YOU SEE A LOT OF THAT GOING ON NOW?
JC: I do charge for my lessons, because I feel that I'm sharing something worthwhile, but as far are as advertising or doing things on a big scale, I don't do that. I also think if you teach westerners without charging that they think what your teaching is not very good. I've had that experience in teaching some people and giving them a break, but it seems they don't appreciate that anymore than if they were paying. If someone is having a hard time paying I always tell them I'm interested in good students, not good customers. I'll let them slide, and pay when they're able to. They can even train when they're not paying. That's the way I work it. It's kind of a honor system.
DO YOU THINK IT IS IMPORTANT FOR BRUCE'S STUDENTS NOT TO COMMERCIALIZE HIS ART, AND DO YOU SEE A LOT OF THAT GOING ON NOW?
JC: I don't know what the other students are doing, except I know Dan Inosanto, and Richard Bustillo and a lot of these guys are charging for their teaching, and I don't see anything wrong with that. If you have a good product then what's wrong with charging as long as its not exorbatant! If the teacher was exorbatant and I've seen some of that too, (none of Lee's actual students but others), I think it's a bit sickening. They go way too far in their commercialism by making claims of high rank, and everything. That has a bad effect on true martial arts. There are guys who really want to learn instead of just talk and tell fight stories.
YOU HAVE MENTIONED FALSE STORIES ABOUT BRUCE SUPPOSEDLY BEING DEFEATED. CAN YOU RECALL SOME OF THESE FOR ME, AND THE REAL STORIES BEHIND THEM?
JC: One of the stories was that Bruce had been choked out by a judo guy in a park in Seattle. I think it was Charlie Woo who walked up to this particular Judo man and said, "I heard Bruce Lee was choked out in the park." This guy said he hadn't heard about it. Charlie responded, "Well you ought to know, because your the one who supposedly did it." The Judo man said he didn't do anything like that! After we deciphered the facts we realized people were just trying to stir up trouble between Bruce and someone else. There were always rumor mongers. You always run into stuff like that.
OVER THE YEARS YOU HAVE PROBABLY SEEN THE INNOVATIONS BRUCE MADE IN HIS FIGHTING STYLE THAT EVENTUALLY LED TO THE FORMATION OF JKD. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MAJOR DIFFERENCES IN THE OAKLAND AND LOS ANGELES PERIOD COMPARED TO THE SEATTLE ERA?
JC: All I can say is I wasn't acquainted with any of the people in California. I was of course in Washington, and we continued to practice the same things that Bruce had always taught us, and tried to get better at them. I couldn't make a comparison between the California people. I do know that Jesse Glover said in a letter to me that some of the students he had seen could imitate Bruce, but they didn't have the background to make those moves work. He was referring to Bruce's resistant training, and things like that. Bruce was very strong. These people lacked the foundation to make certain moves work. For example, concerning the lap sao [grabbing hand] when Bruce did it to you it almost snapped your head back it was so sharp and fast. As for as comparing the major differences I couldn't do that. I did see a Jun Fan /JKD seminar and it was a little bit different than what we did in Seattle, but I felt what we were taught in Seattle is just as valid as when Bruce taught it, and I still feel that way. The thing is to get better at what Bruce taught and not just be different. I do believe if a person has trained in a certain way and he keeps working on it he's bound to get better. Of course Bruce wasn't stiff or regimented in Seattle either. He was very smooth and fluid. He told us to move like water. When I trained it wasn't called Jeet Kune Do. It was a nice gesture by Taky Kimura and the JKD people in California to put me on the JKD board, but I can't say I'm a JKD man except in the overall sense. I do what Bruce taught me, and of course the things that grow naturally out of the things he taught.
OVER THE YEARS MANY ARTS HAVE BEEN ADDED TO THE OVER ALL CURRICULUM OF JKD. IF BRUCE HAD LIVED DO YOU THINK HE WOULD HAVE EVENTUALLY DONE THIS HIMSELF?
JC: Yes, I really do because in "THE TAO OF JEET KUNE DO" it shows him using jujitsu and different things like that. His martial arts library was probably the largest anyone has ever seen. That alone shows he was constantly searching for better ways to do things. He was exploring himself physically and mentally all the time. I try to do the same thing. I think it's valuable to toss things out that don't work and improve on the things that do. However, I believe any "arts" or techniques Bruce added would simply be an expression of proper "response" to "stimulous" or "spontaneous action" and not to conform to a traditional art.
AS YOU KNOW BRANDON LEE DIED ON THE SET OF A MOVIE ON MARCH 31. HOW HAS HIS DEATH AFFECTED YOU, AND DO YOU THINK THERE'S JUSTIFICATION FOR CONSPIRACY THEORIES?
JC: I don't think there is any justification for conspiracy theories. I think it was a negligent homicide. Someone was sloppy and negligent in that situation. I didn't know Brandon, nor do I know his sister Shannon. I wasn't around Bruce when his children were born. Of course I'm sorry he was killed, but I do not believe in conspiracy theories at all.
HAVE YOU STAYED CLOSE TO LINDA LEE (CADWELL) OVER THE YEARS? BEFORE BRANDONS DEATH IT SEEMED SHE WAS FINALLY ENJOYING LIFE AGAIN WITH HER HUSBAND. (INSIGHT INTO THIS MATTER)
JC: I can't say I've stayed close to Linda over the years. I highly respect her. I worked out with her one time in the Seattle Chinatown basement school. She probably doesn't know what I look like anymore. I was happy when she moved to Idaho, and occasionally over the years I have written to her and she has sent me Christmas cards, things like that. Periodically she has kept me updated which is nice of her. I appreciate that. She hasn't forgotten the old students of Bruce. As for as being close to Linda I can't say that I am. I'm not trying to say I'm a close friend of the family, but I do respect Linda and her whole family. I wish the best for her. I hope she's happy in Idaho. It's a great place to be.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE MOVIE "DRAGON" AND DO YOU THINK IT DOES JUSTICE TO THE LIFE OF BRUCE LEE?
JC: The main thing I noticed about "DRAGON" was that it showed Linda as being a tremendous help, and wife to Bruce Lee. That's what touched me. A few things in the movie like the dark vest they wore was of course what the Seattle students wore. I used to see people just leave their vest hanging in the school. I wouldn't do that, I would always take mine with me. I highly valued the vest along with a copy of Bruce's first book which he autographed for me. It was what I call a "heart school." Some guys just came to work out, while others are what I later learned were called "toe die" students which means they have a special rapport with their instructor. I had that feeling about Bruce. I think other students felt the same way. Even though we weren't called "toe die" we still were that way in our hearts, because that's how we felt towards Bruce. I'm sure he must have known it. As for as the movie doing justice to Bruce's life, I don't believe that it does. It did show Linda's devotion to Bruce which I think is tremendously important. Someone once said that without her behind Bruce he might not have had such a success in life,or in the movie industry. He had the technical expertise, but I believe she was a real strength behind his life. As far as it depicting Bruce's life, I don't believe it did that at all. That's my firm opinion.
WITH THE VARIOUS PEOPLE TEACHING JKD AND CLAIMING KNOWLEDGE IN LEE'S ART WHAT DO YOU RECOMMEND TO A INDIVIDUAL LOOKING FOR AN INSTRUCTOR IN LEE'S ART OF JKD?
There is also a part II to this interview in Disciples of the Dragon
Bruce Lee, Jeet Kune Do, james demile, jeet kune do, jkd, doug palmer, jim demile, bruce lee
skip ellsworth, bob bremer, howard williams, taky kimura, jesse glover, leo fong, james lee jun fan gung fu, richard bustillo, jerry poteet, joe cowles, dan inosanto