Ayler playing at Coltrane’s funeral, 1967.
Albert Ayler (b. July 13, 1936, d. Nov. 1970) was (and is) one of the most important jazz musicians of the 2oth century and perhaps along with John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman the greatest of the “free jazz” players who came to prominence in the 1960’s. From his debut recording, a version of Gershwin’s Summertime recorded in Sweden with a clueless Swedish bebop rhythm section attempting to follow him, in which he turns the tune inside out, braying and screeching out his inner turmoil, it drags the listener to the edge of pathos and leaves you drained. For what it’s worth (in monetary value, exactly nothing) I consider Ayler’s Summertime a high point of free jazz equal to Coltrane’s Alabama and Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Lady, through his landmark ESP Disk recordings of the mid-60’s– Spiritual Unity, The Bells, Ghosts, Spirits, New York Eye & Ear Control, et al, recorded with one of the greatest free groups ever assembled– Don Cherry (who had played in Ornette’s original quartet) on trumpet, Gary Peacock (who left perhaps the best payday available at the time in Miles Davis’ band to play with Ayler) and drummer Sonny Murray (whose name New York Eye and Ear Control was released under), Ayler made music, that to John Coltrane– “seemed to have reached a place we have not been able to get to yet”. Ayler’s mission was to update the free spirited playing of the early New Orleans jazz groups (Sydney Bechet was one of his greatest influences) to reflect the world he lived in (his fiery sound mirroring the turmoil created by the Viet Nam war, the Black Panthers facing down the police dressed in black leather and armed with shotguns, children burned to death in church in Alabama, political leaders gunned down in public, etc.) One critic wrote– “Never before has their been such naked aggression in jazz”, and he was right. Ayler’s music was full of rage, pathos, and a search for “spiritual unity” that he would reach often through sheer force of lung power. He played with a raw, full bodied sound, with a gutsy vibrato and blistering tone. Ayler and Cherry in fact seemed to have an almost telepathic way of playing together that is often baffling. Jazz, however is not our subject for today. I believe jazz writing is best left to those who can explain things like exactly what “modular” playing is, and I’m really not that guy. Today’s subject are the discs Ayler cut near the end of his short life, records that are more R&B than jazz, yet they really defy categorization, as they are so unique there are few comparisons to be found in music. The only one I can make is the guitar dominated rock’n’roll/funk fusion of Miles Davis’ records like Jack Johnson, Live-Evil, Agartha, Pangaea, parts of Get Up With It (Rated X for example) and On The Corner (and the many outtakes the have recently emerged on the Jack Johnson and On The Corner sessions box sets). I once heard that Iggy when auditioning guitar players would make them listen to Jack Johnson, a great rock’n’roll record, jazz fans disdained it when it came out.
I guess some background is in order. Albert Ayler was born and raised in Cleveland. His father played jazz in the style of Dexter Gordon and raised his sons, Albert and brother Donald (who’d join Albert’s band in the late 60’s on trumpet) to play jazz. A fast study, by his teens he had mastered the style of Charlie Parker, no mean feat, and was known around Cleveland as Little Bird.
As a teenager he toured with blues great Little Walter, although Walter’s simple music quickly bored him and he was quickly fired for experimenting on the bandstand (Ornette Coleman had a similar experience in Pee Wee Crayton’s band, they left him stranded at the side of a road). In High School he was a champion golfer, but since most country clubs banned Afro-Americans there was no future in golf for young Albert and after graduating High School he joined the Army where he was stationed mostly in France. When he joined an Army jazz band, the officer who led the band told the other musicians to “Stay away from him— he’s insane”, according to Ayler. After his discharge in 1959 he moved first to L.A. and then, in 1962, to Sweden where he briefly played in one of Cecil Taylor’s groundbreaking free jazz groups (the only recording with Taylor that has surfaced can be found on Revenant’s incredible nine CD box set Holy Ghost). He made his first recordings in Sweden, and it was a Swedish radio broadcast that the aforementioned version of Summertime was recorded, and later released as the LP My Name Is Albert Ayler on the Debut label out of Denmark in 1963.
Ayler relocated to New York City in 1964 where he put together the classic line up and was soon recording for the tiny ESP-Disk label (which sometimes printed its liner notes in Esperanto as well as English), making a name for himself and becoming one of the most controversial and polarizing figures in jazz history. One of his earliest supporters was John Coltrane, both players seemed to have influenced each other to various extents and Trane became an important patron, even lending him money to get by. Trane’s Ascension was especially influenced by Ayler’s Spiritual Unity and Ghosts which Ayler had sent to Coltrane a year earlier.
In one of the few interviews he ever gave, Ayler told Downbeat’s Nat Hentoff– “We’re in the same position as some old blues guy playing his harmonica on the corner. Where a record company guy comes up and says, here play into this microphone and I’ll give you a drink of wine”. Basically, even low paying gigs were hard to come by, and he made almost no money from his recordings for the tiny ESP-Disk label which recorded him on a shoe string budget. “We’re hungry” he told Hentoff, and he meant it literally, it’s hard enough to play jazz, try it when you haven’t eaten in a few days.
In 1966 Coltrane helped Ayler get a deal with Impulse Records, the most important and open minded jazz label of its day, they were not only releasing Coltrane’s most experimental records (A Love Supreme, Ascension,Meditations, Interstellar Space) but also issued discs by Archie Shepp (Fire Music), Sun Ra (not a free jazz player, but surely one prone to experiment), and Pharaoh Sanders (Tauhid, whose centerpiece Upper and Lower Egypt would provide the Stooges with the classic bass line for Little Doll, to get off the track yet again). But Impulse could not find a larger audience for Ayler’s music and records like Live In Greenwich Village and Love Cry with their superior recording and better distribution failed to sell any more than his low budget ESP Disk sides. When Coltrane died in ’67 (Ayler played at his funeral, the recording, found on the Holy Ghost box is one of the most distraught and beautiful waxings ever made) Ayler’s mind seemed to come slightly unhinged. Which is a very roundabout way to bring us to today’s subject– Albert Ayler’s attempt to get his music across to a larger audience, to make enough money to eat regularly, or in the colloquialism of the time, his strange and desperate attempt at “selling out”.
The LP New Grass, released in 1968 saw a radical difference in Ayler’s music. New Grass finds him backed by an R&B band, playing in a style that Bob Quine, who turned me on to Ayler’s music dubbed –“psychedelic boogaloo”. Ayler began singing (badly) and his new girlfriend and manager (and later lead vocalist) Mary Maria Parks contributed by writing lyrics aimed at hippies, acid heads and people that said “groovy” a lot. Tunes likeNew Generation, Heart Of Love, Everbody Movin’, Oh! Love Of Life, and Free At Last, are positively perverse. I’m not sure what is says about me, and my “taste” (or lack there of) but I find these sides fascinating. For, although the backing is fairly commercial sounding funky boogaloo, when Albert solos, he’s playing in much the same style he played on his earlier groundbreaking free jazz sides. Listen to that solo in New Generation–it’s insane! The first time I heard it I almost wet myself. Playing on these tracks are such stellar R&B sideman as Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums, Buddy Lucas on baritone sax, and Joe Newman on trumpet. Of course, Mary Maria Parks is singing back up, that’s her delivering lines like “sock it to ’em, sock it to ’em/let ’em have it let ’em have it” on New Generation.
Ayler was savaged by the critics, and New Grass never found an audience with the hippies or R&B fans, so Ayler’s next record was something of a cross between his free jazz style and his new, R&B direction. Bringing in Canned Heat guitarist Henry Vestine (who also played on the Gamblers surf classic- LSD-25 b/w Moondog, he was riding high on the Heat’s success) and piano player Bobby Few, Albert recorded Music Is The Healing Force of The Universe (1969) the highlight of which is by a disturbingly grim blues dirge called Drudgery, which I think is one of the greatest and most successful attempts to fuse rock’n’roll and jazz ever waxed (there’s an outtake of the same tune called Toiling, the titles seem to hint at Ayler’s disillusionment with music and the music biz in general, another tune was called The Birth Of Mirth).
Again, this disc sold naught. As a sell out, Ayler was as much a commercial failure as he was as a visionary genius. Although he was often seen sporting a snazzy, leather suit, he was still often hungry. He even took up playing bagpipes which didn’t help matters in the least.
His last year and a half, much of which was spent touring in Europe, especially France, where he had a good following, he returned to playing in his ground breaking free style, at least to the European audiences which understood his music more. On some of his last recordings Mary Marie would become lead singer (and blow a bit of soprano sax), and also write many of the tunes. The sides recorded in 1969-70 (excepting those cut in France) were probably the least inspired of his career. In 1970 his brother Donald who had been playing trumpet in his band, entered a mental hospital from which he would periodically emerge– bitter, in fact, enraged. In Kasper Collins 2005 documentary My Name Is Albert Ayler, Donald, when interviewed, spends most of his time bitching about the fact that someone is making a film about his brother’s life and not his own. On Nov. 5 1970, Albert Ayler vanished and twenty days (Nov. 25, 1970 for the mathematically challenged) later his body was pulled out of the East River (not chained to a jukebox as one urban legend has the story). The police assumed it was a suicide, but Mary Marie Parks, the last person to see him alive, saw no sign of depression or possibly suicidal thoughts. Of course there were and still are all kinds of conspiracy theories and rumours, most say that he was murdered, but no one has ever come forth with a reasonable motive or a suspect. His death remains as much a mystery today as it was forty years ago. Albert Ayler’s life, and musical legacy, has left more questions than it answered. It’s safe to say, he is a lot more appreciated now than when he walked this planet. Google gives 174,000 results for a search of his name, it’s unlikely that all his records combined sold that many copies when he was alive.
For essential reading on Albert Ayler’s music and life may I suggest Val Wilmer’s As Serious As Your Life: The Story Of The New Jazz (Serpent’s Tail, reprinted in 1992), Albert Ayler: Holy Ghost a hard bound book that comes with the Revenant box set, and The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 by John Litweiler (DeCao, 1984). Also, there’s always some interesting things up at this blog dedicated to Albert Ayler’s music.