Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


AYLER, Albert

(b 13 July 1936, Cleveland OH; d November 1970, NYC) Tenor sax, composer. He played with Cecil Taylor in NYC; toured Europe with brother Donald (trumpet; b Cleveland 5 October 1942; d 27 October 2007); began recording in NYC often with Sunny Murray, also collaborating with Don Cherry. He burst upon the 'new thing' or free-jazz scene, with the honks, yelps and screeches of early '50s JATP or R&B, and with much more than that, using starting points from Mexican or folk music rather than post-bop, which confused critics and fans who need pre-printed stick-on labels. The power and originality of his best recorded solos are fresh at each hearing, ferocious and abstract at the same time. In an era of 'black power' and racial pride he frightened people, trying to forge a new thing all by himself: in retrospect his music is gentler than it seemed at first, but with a unique reedy tone and unfashionably wide vibrato it was the opposite of 'cool' jazz. As Max Harrison has written (unpublished ms): 'He was possibly the last major figure in [jazz] the best of whose output conveys a real sense of danger, a seemingly authentic whiff of hemlock', it is 'courageous, bewitched, desperate music'. It knocked most listeners sideways in its day, though Jack Cooke wrote of the music's 'remarkable purity of style and intention': in retrospect it was his personal inspiration, the fruit of promptings less manic than shamanic. He was looking for magic on earth, and his career was far too short.

His father was a musician, and perhaps drove the boys too hard; one theory was that Albert may have retaliated by inventing a style that sounded as if it was untrained. In Cleveland he was known as 'Little Bird'; in the army he would warm up by playing Charlie Parker solos backwards. He later said that bop 'was like humming along with Mitch Miller ... too simple. I'm an artist.' He may have been mentally ill, exhibiting some delusional behaviour; he never made any money, his brother had emotional problems and their mother allegedly blamed everything on Albert. His friend Mary Parks said years later that Albert had said that his blood needed to be shed to save his brother and his mother. Val Wilmer concluded that he had jumped off the Staten Island ferry; his body was found in the East River 20 days after he disappeared.

His albums included First Recordings on GNP, made in Stockholm '62; My Name Is Albert Ayler '63 originally on a Danish Debut label, later on Black Lion CD, made in Copenhagen; Swing Low, Sweet Spiritual, Goin' Home and Spirits were apparently made the same day '64 in an Atlantic studio in NYC, on Debut or Osmosis: Spirits, a quintet with Henry Grimes and Murray, was called Witches And Devils on Freedom and Arista; on Black Lion it was Mothers And Children; later on a Freedom CD it was Witches And Devils again; Goin' Home became a Black Lion CD. Prophecy and Spiritual Unity were made by a trio with Murray and Gary Peacock, New York Eye And Ear Control added Cherry, Roswell Rudd and John Tchicai to make a sextet, Rudd was absent from Vibrations, all in '64; Bells, Spirits Rejoice and At Slug's Saloon Vols 1 And 2 were made live '65 with Donald and their cousin Charles Tyler on alto sax, Murray and others; all of these on ESP (except Vibrations, on Debut, then Arista, later on Freedom CD). Prophecy '64 had been made live at the Cellar Cafe; there was also a two-CD Complete Cellar Concert from 16 June '64 on InRespect (a poor transfer, a better one due '97 on another label), and The Hilversum Session '64 originally on Osmosis (with Cherry, Peacock, Murray) became a two-CD set on Coppens. Lörrach/Paris '65 on hat Hut was live from festivals in Germany and France with Donald and three others. Recordings on Impulse began with a track 'Holy Ghost' '65 on album The New Wave In Jazz, then For John Coltrane '66, The Village Concerts, Albert Ayler and Love Cry '67, the latter a respite and a reworking of favourite themes ('Bells', 'Ghosts'; altogether there were ten versions of 'Ghosts' on these albums) with Don Ayler and a harpsichord. New Grass '68 used rock material with Bernard 'Pretty' Purdie on drums and Call Cobb playing harpsichord again; personnel added on some tracks included Joe Newman on trumpet and a female vocal duo the Soul Singers, Ayler playing soprano sax and singing as well; Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe and The Last Album '69 included Ayler double-tracked on bagpipes. Two volumess of Nuits de la Fondation Maeght mid-'70 live in France were reissued on InRespect CDs.

The best albums were probably from the second half of '64 with Don Cherry; Ayler seemed to benefit from the participation of other strong personalities on horns, and Donald Ayler was not thought to be in the same league, yet the concerts on the '65-6 European tours were a never-to-be-forgotten tapestry of musics. The personnel changed and the search became more furious; there were collective improvisations with Michael Sampson's double-stops on violin and Mary Maria (from the Soul Singers) singing on some tracks, her lyrics foreshadowing new age love-child sentiment, Ayler himself singing 'in tongues' and without pitch. Towards the end, having tried to destroy and reinvent the jazz tradition, in his passionate quest he seemed to try to destroy and reinvent his own music; his search, like John Coltrane's, may have been primarily a religious one, and towards the end he may have fallen victim to the flower-power banality of the era. Nevertheless he was a visionary and still influential in the 21st century. Revenant Records of Austin, Texas, released Holy Ghost 2004, a 7-CD set of rare live recordings and interviews, the set also including a hardback book.

Donald Ayler had started on saxophones, but switched to trumpet at his brother's request at age 20 and practised nine hours a day for months. After Albert's death he didn't play for three years, but picked up the horn again and played a concert in Italy in 1981, issued on a 3-LP set called In Florence. He was a happy, gentle man who joked that 'he wanted Wesley Snipes to play him in the movie'. He was destitute and needed managed care for much of his life, described as 'out of it in a friendly way', but he inspired a number of local musicians; his full, piercing tone and his original, spiritual solos were described as 'a violent cleansing of his soul'. Others called his music chaotic and unsettling. He was overshadowed by his brother to the end: when the documentary film My Name Is Albert Ayler was screened locally in November 2007, a short notice of it ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on the same day that Donald's obituary ran in The Guardian in Britain, the only major newspaper to carry it.