Saxophonist Albert Ayler was a big part of the free-jazz movement in New York City during the 1960s. Once considered heir apparent to John Coltrane, his life was hopeful, strange, sad and dramatic—a tale of two brothers, groundbreaking sounds imbued with religious fervor, familial madness and a mysterious demise. Presented here, Ayler’s story serves as an avant-garde primer, with exclusive commentary from peers and jazz luminaries of the era.
This piece, by Mitch Myers, originally appeared in MAGNET’s October/November 2004 issue, then in Myers’ The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables And Sonic Storytelling (HarperCollins, 2007)
On July 21, 1967, Albert Ayler was dressed in white and blowing his saxophone up toward the heavens. He often reared back and played with his tenor pointed high, but this time the gesture had a particular spiritual significance; he was performing at John Coltrane’s funeral services. At Coltrane’s request, only Ornette Coleman’s ensemble and Ayler’s group played at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan that day. Because Coleman was considered Coltrane’s equal—one who’d contributed greatly to the birth of a new, original music—it’s easy to imagine Trane’s parting gesture as a passing of the torch to Ayler, the younger saxophone hopeful.
The free-jazz explosion of the ‘60s had been initiated years earlier by a few select visionaries: altoist Coleman, who brought his exceptional quartet from Los Angeles to New York in 1959 and blew everybody’s minds; pianist Cecil Taylor, who combined his classical training with a doggedly improvisational approach; astral bandleader Sun Ra, who claimed to be from outer space and led the most innovative big band since Duke Ellington’s; and Coltrane, the relentlessly inventive saxophone giant.
When Ayler arrived on the scene, Manhattan was already teeming with young musicians caught up in the new sound and the changing times. The music they made had many different names: the New Thing, free jazz, energy music, avant garde. It was also referred to as Black Classical Music and Great Black Music, although some practitioners were white. Race could be an issue, but it was the confluence of black and white bohemia—often occurring in the East Village—that allowed for much of the new music to develop. Free jazz didn’t really fit in with the popular jazz clubs, so the music created its own scene.
The culture wars had begun, and the new music coincided with the civil-rights movement, the Vietnam War, political assassinations, psychedelic consciousness, white and black radicalism and the exploration of Eastern philosophies. Old Beats like Allen Ginsberg and young folkies like Bob Dylan were still cavorting in West Village cafés near the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, and rock ’n’ roll was rearing its head for the second or third time.
“We were all in New York during the revolution,” remembers saxophonist Sonny Simmons. “And all them bad motherfuckers were rebelling against all that old, tired shit. We had Duke Ellington and Count Basie and all them swinging, jamming and jumping off of the rafters. Here comes the Beatles, and here comes James Brown talking about ‘Give it up.’ Here comes Marvin Gaye, all these people—Smokey Robinson, Janis Joplin and Big Brother And The Holding Company. The brothers changed things, but Albert Ayler was the only brother I know, other than (alto saxophonist) Eric Dolphy, who shook Coltrane up. I was there. I witnessed it.”
With its deep black cultural roots, the New Thing was performed in Village coffeehouses like the Take Three, performance spaces including the Astor Place Playhouse and the Dom (which also hosted Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvet Underground), outdoor parks, community centers, loft apartments and the sawdust-and-spit confines of Slugs’ Saloon on the Lower East Side.
The voices of free jazz converged in Manhattan and shot out across the world. “We were all in the same place at the same time,” says drummer Rashied Ali. “It was so strange how we all were thinking about playing something different as far as the music was concerned. Everybody was so compatible. We were into the same kind of a groove, and it was great.”
In the fall of 1964, the New York scene coalesced into a series of free-jazz concerts—wryly dubbed the October Revolution—at the Cellar Café. Some musicians also formed the short-lived Jazz Composers Guild, but Ayler remained a perennial outsider, performing with his peers but never joining the organization. He was deep and soft-spoken, an articulate and enthusiastic man. Most important, Ayler was following his own vision.
“I walked into the Take Three one night in 1963,” recalls trombonist Roswell Rudd. “I heard something the likes of which I never heard before. It was Albert Ayler—in a green leather suit with a white patch on his beard—and Cecil Taylor and (drummer) Sunny Murray and (bassist) Lewis Worrell playing on the far side of the room. I was just shattered by what they played, so when Albert came to the front to go outside, I introduced myself. I said, ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m nobody.’ I said, ‘Well, it didn’t sound that way.’”
“Albert was not only original, he was incredibly accessible,” says pianist/composer Carla Bley. “People who didn’t even understand music could get into what he was playing because it was that joyful kind of playing, upbeat but with some very maudlin elements. It was beautiful, and we all just loved it—everyone I knew at that time, which was a bunch of freaks.”
Ayler’s musical journey paralleled the emergence of free jazz. Although many of the original players have enjoyed long careers and are still making music, Ayler’s time on Earth was cut short. On Nov. 25, 1970, his body was found floating in the East River. His death at the age of 34 was an unexpected tragedy, mysterious at the time and still shrouded in did-he-jump-or-was-he-pushed speculation.
Ayler died the same year Jimi Hendrix did. Both men were black angels, cosmic prophets who spread their universal message before leaving this planet for places unknown to you and me. Ayler and Hendrix enlisted in the armed services as young men and later interpreted “The Star Spangled Banner” (Ayler three years before Hendrix). They were psychedelic musicians who spoke in ecstatic terms. They mastered their respective instruments and used their musical expertise to create groundbreaking sounds. They experienced serious pressure from the record business toward the end of their lives, and the mystique surrounding their premature deaths and their cults of personality endure.
But Ayler’s existence has an even greater context that must be considered. “The story really begins in 1899,” says Simmons. “That’s the year Duke Ellington was born.” So with the entire history of jazz as our guiding light, let’s examine the life and times of Albert Ayler, lest his spiritualized music and buoyant message be passed over once again.
On July 13, 1936, Albert Ayler was born into the middle-class and deeply religious household of Edward and Myrtle Ayler in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. Edward played the saxophone and gave lessons to his sons, Albert and the younger Donald. Both performed duets with their father at church, but it was Albert who displayed the prodigious talent. At age 10, he began studying at the Academy of Music under the supervision of jazz enthusiast Benny Miller. Albert played alto saxophone and oboe, and he occupied first chair in his high-school band. As captain of the golf team, Albert brought home several trophies, an unlikely feat for a diminutive black kid growing up in segregated Cleveland during the early ’50s.
Indulging a voracious musical appetite, the underage Ayler began to sneak into jazz nightclubs with friend Lloyd Pearson. Ayler was moved by the big-sounding tenor players of the time. He was still an idealistic kid playing in church and school when he joined his friend’s new band, Lloyd Pearson And The Counts Of Rhythm. At a local jam session, Ayler came to the attention of “Little” Walter Jacobs, the harmonica legend who’d been a mainstay in Muddy Waters’ band. Ayler played some Cleveland gigs with Jacobs, then joined the hard-living bluesman for two summers on the road.
Working the bruising bar circuit was tough for Ayler. He wasn’t used to the traveling and rowdy audiences. The other musicians drank heavily, and Jacobs chastised the teen for not knowing how to hold long notes on his saxophone. But Ayler mastered the crowd-pleas-ing technique and embarked on an uncensored education in Great Black Music. He started dressing the part of a hip, downtown slickster and wasn’t having any trouble meeting women, either.
Graduating from John Adams High School in 1954, Ayler thought about college, but like many young men of his generation, he joined the army to improve his lot. A fledgling bebopper with alto sax in hand, Ayler arrived at Fort Knox, Ky., in 1956. Just as he’d navigated from gospel to blues and R&B and finally to jazz, Ayler traveled from Cleveland to Kentucky to Europe, where he was mostly stationed in Orleans, France.
As part of the 113th Army Band and, later, the 76th Adjutant General’s Army Band, Ayler spent countless hours practicing martial music and consuming the proximal sounds of French military bands. As a member of the 76th, he rehearsed constantly, honing his ability to read music. The band traveled across France and Germany as Ayler played pop, jazz, local hits and military themes.
Ayler was still devotedly listening to the latest records by Coltrane, Coleman and Sonny Rollins, but he was also digesting the European folk forms of France and Sweden (where he vacationed in 1960). Later in his career, Ayler incorporated circular renderings of “La Marseillaise” (the French national anthem), years before the Beatles used the same theme in the opening moments of “All You Need Is Love.” Even more significant was Ayler’s sage appropriation of a quaint melody from 1961 Swedish radio hit “Torparvisan” (“Little Farmer’s Song”). Ayler’s composition, titled “Ghosts,” only tangentially resembles the original ditty, and its joyful, singsong melody would become the unofficial anthem of the ’60s free-jazz movement.
“Most folk music is very simple and not burdened by fancy harmonies,” explains Copenhagen-born altoist John Tchicai. “It’s down to earth and original, and in most cases, it’s public property, free for all to use and interpret. Albert was looking for simplicity. His approach was to go deep into the music, to look for the roots in the material and to express himself with that through his spirituality.”
Although Ayler was absorbing contrasting disciplines, the quest for his own sound was an ongoing struggle. He was already hip to bebop icon Charlie “Bird” Parker—Ayler was sometimes called “Little Bird” back in Cleveland—but at the USO clubs and Paris cabarets, Ayler made a hard left turn. While playing well-known tunes, his savage solo voice and fractured sense of time became increasingly aberrant. French audiences howled, and many of his fellow musicians were quick to leave the stage when he heedlessly disrupted the familiar structures of bop melodies.
Dressed in tailored leather suits and multicolored hats, the outgoing and sociable Ayler cut a sharp figure in Europe. Still, his new sound was too freakishly emotional for conventional jazz fans. He was ridiculed to his face, behind his back and on the bandstand. Some musicians maliciously called Ayler “The Dwarf” (pianist Burton Greene estimates Ayler’s height at five-foot-six), and after making him wait all night to sit in on a couple of tunes, they would desert the stage or simply refuse to play with him. But he kept searching for allies.
By 1960, Ayler had switched from alto to tenor saxophone, which gave him a more emotive, fundamental sound. His raw playing traced a lineage from the Baptist church and gospel hymns to blues shouts and moaning, jumping R&B. It also connected Ayler to previous generations of saxophonists like Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet and Earl Bostic, as well as progressives Coltrane and Rollins. His was the lost history of jubilant 1920s Dixieland, not to mention the boss tenor players and crowd-pleasing honkers that performed lying on their backs or bar-walking at crowded speakeasies.
In early 1961, Ayler was transferred to Fort Ord, Calif., near Monterey, to await his discharge. He was only in California for a short time, but the musical community there still managed to reject him, just as they’d rejected Coleman years before. Back home in Cleveland, Ayler was a changed man. His saxophone style was barely recognizable, and he was already planning a return to Sweden, where the women were blonde and the jazz fans were more receptive to new ideas.
Bye Bye, Blackbird
Northern Europe was a haven for American jazz musicians, providing them with open-minded audiences and paying gigs, as well as some blessed relief from America’s racism. Life in Sweden wasn’t everything Ayler had expected, however, and he ended up playing on conventional music tours with dance bands. He tried to sit in with musicians whenever he could, but he mostly alienated the Scandinavian players, the cash-conscious club owners and their unsuspecting patrons. His tenor attack was growing stronger and his use of vibrato more strident, and he was promptly banned from several jam sessions in Stockholm.
Ayler met some notable jazz artists while in Sweden, including Rollins, trumpeter Don Cherry and, most importantly, Cecil Taylor. Ayler was ecstatic upon hearing Taylor’s group in Stockholm; he’d finally found musicians he could relate to. He pushed himself onto Taylor’s band, played a few gigs with them in Copenhagen and extracted a promise of additional work in Manhattan. With his own voice emerging, Ayler had heard the call of freedom.
“Albert was one of the free medicine men bestowed on us by the creator—Coltrane, Taylor, Ornette,” explains Sunny Murray, who played drums with Taylor at the time. “Albert and I were part of the 1936 baby boom, and we’re all medicine men.”
Before leaving Europe, Ayler made two recordings as a bandleader. His first album, Something Different!!!!!!, was cut at the Stockholm Academy of Music with an audience of 25 people and featured Ayler accompanied by an unremarkable rhythm section from Sweden. Three months later, just days before returning to the United States, he taped a radio program in Copenhagen with a competent Danish pianist, a phenomenal 16-year-old bassist and an expatriate American drummer. The memo- rable session was subsequently released as My Name Is Albert Ayler. After a shy, spoken-word intro- duction, Ayler abandons his mild manners and embraces a decidedly emphatic sound. He per- formed four jazz standards and one original tune, and you can hear the struggle between the group’s bop conservatism and Ayler’s visceral new expres- siveness. He plays soprano sax on “Bye Bye, Blackbird” and another old chestnut, “Summertime.” In his hands, “Summertime” is transformed into a psycho-musical drama: His vibrato-laden tones sweep and search, wringing every bit of emotion from the familiar melody.
So began Ayler’s ascension into the new-jazz ranks. Things moved slowly upon his return to Cleveland. In spite of an opportune jam with Coltrane’s quartet, Ayler and his music were still treated with confusion and rebuffs. He was even seen hawking Something Different!!!!!! on the streets of Cleveland, to no great success. Finally, thanks to the availability of an apartment in a house his Aunt Beatrice owned on St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem, Ayler moved to New York and began his sonic revo- lution in earnest.
Word spread fast about the forceful young saxophonist in town, and when Ayler joined Taylor’s group onstage at Philharmonic Hall on New Year’s Eve, 1963, the anticipation was high. “We were all waiting for Albert to come onstage, and all of a sudden we hear this towering tenor sound from the dressing room,” remembers Burton Greene. “He just came straight out of the dressing room with this towering sound and walked onstage. It’s kind of an earth-shattering experience to hear that. The power coming out of this little guy—it was just a constant stream of energy.”
Although he was gaining a reputation, Ayler was hard up for paying work. Rather than take a straight job, he frequented clubs like the Half Note and Cellar Café, where he was able to sit in with Coltrane and others. Bassist Gary Peacock recalls his first encounter with Ayler in 1963 at the Take Three: “(Sun Ra’s) John Gilmore wasn’t available for that night’s gig, but he said, ‘Do you know who Albert Ayler is? You might want to check him out.’ Albert came down, and that was the first time I heard him play. I had never heard anybody play like that before. One time, he stopped by my place in Chelsea and said, ‘I have a surprise for you. Around three o’clock this afternoon, listen for me.’ He had gotten on a ferry to go to Staten Island, and from where I lived in Chelsea, you could hear the ferry when they blew their horn. I’ll be damned if at three o’clock in the afternoon I couldn’t hear him on the ferry. He was exceptional that way.”
By early 1964, Ayler had stopped gigging with Cecil Taylor and turned his attention to his own bands and recordings. Spiritual Unity, created with Peacock and Murray, is considered to be Ayler’s landmark session. The album was the first release on ESP-Disk, an obscure label founded by Bernard Stollman, a young entertainment lawyer who’d worked on the estates of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. Stollman had become enamored with the cultural avant garde, and his label reflected the outer limits of underground taste: no producers, one-shot sessions and psychedelic packaging. ESP—so named because Stollman was a fanatical supporter of the contrived universal language Esperanto—put out dozens of recordings by fringe artists like Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, as well as beat, rock and folk misfits like the Fugs and Pearls Before Swine.
Recorded July 10, 1964, Spiritual Unity is arguably the first free-jazz recording. While Coleman, Taylor and a few others had been making records that pioneered the jazz avant garde, Spiritual Unity completely eliminated the concept of time. That is, the trio’s performances weren’t at all dependent on rhythm. The tunes have a certain velocity—a sometimes-wavering momentum that’s either fast or slow—but the conversations between Ayler, Peacock and Murray resulted from listening and spontaneity. Even Coltrane and Coleman relied on sanctioned rhythm sections. On Spiritual Unity, the bassist and drummer didn’t play in lockstep repartee but provided blatantly individualistic responses to Ayler’s virtuosi improvisations. Thanks to this dissolution of time, the album became a pure exhibition of improvisational freedom.
“It wasn’t just that he could play free or that he invented playing free,” says Carla Bley. “He played beautiful melodies, and that’s just something people respond to.”
Spiritual Unity includes two versions of Ayler’s classic “Ghosts” and another tune called “Spirits.” A glance at the titles of his other compositions—“Witches & Devils,” “Saints,” “Prophecy” and “Spirits Rejoice”—gives a good indication of his reverent religious perspective. The otherworldly titles mirror Ayler’s faith and messianic bent. In a 1969 essay penned for jazz journal The Cricket: Black Music In Evolution!!!!, Ayler claimed to have had a spiritual encounter: “It was at night when I had this vision. In this vision there was a large object flying around with bright colors in a disc form. Immediately I thought of the flying scorpion that I had read about in the chapter of Revelation from the Holy Bible, but when the object started turning I saw that first it was flat then it turned sideways and started to shoot radiant colors at first then it would turn back to the same position. I was running with my brother when it aimed at us but it didn’t touch us at all. I guess this is what they are calling the flying saucers. Anyway, it was revealed to me that we had the right seal of God almighty in our forehead.”
By 1964, Ayler had assembled his most musically sophisticated, proficient band: Murray, Peacock and trumpeter Don Cherry, who’d played with Coleman, Coltrane and Rollins. But after a successful European tour, it was clear Cherry wasn’t interested in staying with Ayler. Before Cherry left the group that winter, Ayler had already contacted his brother in Cleveland, encouraging Donald to start preparing to join his band.
Donald had only recently switched from alto sax to trumpet when he got the call from Albert. Less mature and accomplished than his brother, Donald showed signs of erratic behavior. During a visit to Sweden in 1963, he claimed to have hitchhiked to the North Pole. Albert enlisted Cleveland altoist Charles Tyler to get Donald up to speed, but no amount of practice could turn Donald into a virtuoso like his brother. Albert’s bandmates questioned the logic of bringing Donald into the group. His playing was strangely infantile compared to the impassioned spitfire of Cherry. What could he contribute?
But when Albert and Donald played together, something occurred that went beyond conventional musical wisdom. Donald’s ecstatic squawks, guttural honks, rapid-fire delivery, dazzling multiphonics and wrenching vibrato resonated with Albert’s extraordinary style. Albert was now playing his high evangelical sound with his sibling beside him, echoing the church duets of their youth and evoking the joyous spirits of ragtime. When the Aylers embraced the simple melodies of European folk songs and the vintage Americana of Stephen Foster, the marching music of military bands and the familiar old bugle call, it was a form of musical communion.
“Albert and his brother sounded like they were from New Orleans or someplace down South,” says bassist Henry Grimes, who met Albert in the early ‘60s while playing with Cecil Taylor. “That’s where I thought they came from. Their music was so strong that it went back to roots that nobody ever pronounced.”
Like Jack Kerouac, who repeatedly returned to his mother to take financial refuge and regroup artistically, Albert and Donald repaired to their parents’ home in Cleveland. Although gigging in Manhattan and Europe, the brothers were poor and required frequent relief. Aside from Edward and Myrtle, the only person who acted as their benefactor was Coltrane.
When it came to Albert, Coltrane was a true believer. The two often spoke on the phone and corresponded via telegrams. Before succumbing to liver cancer at age 40, Coltrane was inspired by Albert’s towering sound and intense spirituality; late-era Coltrane recordings Ascension and Meditations reflect this influence. Not only did Coltrane mention Albert in interviews, he also brought him and Donald along for a 1966 encounter at Lincoln Center called “Titans Of The Tenor.” Albert again strode onstage blowing in cacophonous form, and while some were enraptured by the screaming revelations of Coltrane and the Aylers, half the audience walked out.
“Trane brought Albert because he thought Albert should be mentioned,” says Rashied Ali, who played drums with Coltrane that night. “He didn’t have to bring Albert. He could’ve brought Archie Shepp, he could’ve brought a lot of different people. He brought Albert because he respected what he was doing.”
“Albert’s music challenged all that had come before him,” says ESP’s Stollman. “From the first moment Coltrane heard Albert play, he acknowledged that Albert was the new force, that Albert had succeeded him in terms of generations of music.”
At Coltrane’s urging, leading jazz label Impulse! signed Ayler to a contract, resulting in 1966’s Albert Ayler Live In Greenwich Village. The album cover looks like a psychedelic poster from the Fillmore East, and his group features the unusual addition of violin and cello; on another Greenwich Village recording session, the string section evolves into a quartet with two bassists. The new lineup created more textured variations of the stream-of-consciousness meditations and the recurring themes that flowed between Albert and Donald.
“All of Albert’s music is pretty traditional Americana in one sense,” says bassist Alan Silva, who played on the Village sessions. “It was coming out of a real spiritual development, and that rooted the music in the ’60s. He had a personalized way of playing, and he set up a whole way of thinking about that particular music, especially on a spiritual plane.”
Veteran jazz scribe Nat Hentoff had another approach to hearing Ayler’s sound. “The most significant thing I learned from talking to Albert,” says Hentoff, “is that the ideal listener is the one who doesn’t listen clinically or critically but one who opens himself up to the whole of the music, not just part. This helped me later in listening to Coltrane.”
Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe
After John Coltrane died, the jazz world was confronted with the void he’d left. Impulse! Records was desperate to find its next star, simultaneously promoting three big-sounding, abnormally forceful tenor men: Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. The New Thing had arrived, but Ayler began to drift away from his brother and the music they created together.
According to Sonny Simmons, Donald complained of suspicious characters around Albert, shadowy figures and record-industry people telling his brother what to do and turning Albert against him. “Donnie was kind of losing it during that period, which was real sad,” says Simmons. “The white boys would come over in their suits and ties like Madison Avenue lawyers and tell Donald, ‘Get out. We want to talk to your brother.’ I thought it was strange. I wouldn’t let those cats talk to my little brother like that. Donald was very upset, and it fucked him up mentally. Here was the big brother Donnie grew up with, and Albert discarded him once they got to New York and he gets a big contract.”
Ayler became romantically involved with vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Mary Parks, known professionally as Mary Maria. As his wife, manager and artistic collaborator, Parks formed a powerful bond with Ayler that gradually superseded his relationship with Donald. The brothers stopped doing interviews together, and Donald’s heavy drinking complicated their relationship and his emotional problems. Donald was headed for a nervous breakdown. The breach in the siblings’ relationship had ominous implications. “Albert needed Donald, and Donald needed Albert,” says bassist Juini Booth. “When they split, that was the beginning of the end of both of them.”
Did Albert betray his brother? This is open to interpretation. Bandleaders often feel compelled to change lineups, but Albert’s sense of guilt was very real. Donald relied on his brother for work, and Albert was being told by their parents to look out for Donald. Albert never really told his brother he was permanently out of the group, but by the middle of 1968, the younger Ayler was absent from the lineup. Although Albert played at a couple of Donald’s subsequent gigs, the two would never again perform together under Albert’s direction.
Ayler’s final recordings for Impulse! are strangely commercial endeavors. 1967’s Love Cry showcases the patented Ayler sound, but the album was made when his brother still played with the band. Producer Bob Thiele had been pressuring Ayler to change musicians and to use rock players in the studio. While Ayler’s basic tenor sound remained intact, both he and Parks were now singing on record. Over Ayler’s objections, Thiele made wholesale changes to the arrangements on 1968’s New Grass, adding a horn section, replacing his backup singers and swapping some of Parks’ vocals with those of R&B songwriter Rose Marie McCoy. On another Impulse! session for 1969’s Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe, Canned Heat guitarist Henry Vestine contributed Hendrix-styled psychedelic blues. Ayler also began playing the bagpipes, using his skills to create a keening, spiritual drone.
Most of this made sense in the context of the late ’60s, but Ayler’s crossover experiments—incorporating modal rock, hard blues, psychedelic soul, modish poetry and gutbucket R&B—muddled his image as an innovative jazz prophet. Occurring at the same time as Miles Davis’ groundbreaking electric period, Ayler’s collaborations with Parks are somewhat unrealized, containing peace-and-love sentiments and softening Ayler’s fervent religiosity. His music no longer seemed quite as daring, and his playing felt less free.
By 1969, Ayler had stopped performing in public. He hadn’t been to Europe for a few years but still had a solid reputation overseas. So when he was invited to perform at a festival in the south of France sponsored by the Maeght Foundation (a contemporary art museum and gallery), there was little reason to refuse. With virtually no preparation, Ayler and Parks gathered pianist Call Cobbs, drummer Allen Blairman and bassist Steve Tintweiss and headed to Europe.
At 1970’s Maeght Foundation concerts, performed under a geodesic dome in St.-Paul-de-Vence, Ayler chose not to showcase his electric rock/soul/jazz fusion and instead entertained the European crowds with his old spiritualized style. While the pick-up players had never performed together before, they gamely tackled consecrated tunes like “Spirits” and “Holy Family.” It did sound just a bit melancholy when Ayler began to play the off-to-the-races melody of “Spirits Rejoice.” Perhaps it was all the time that had elapsed since his sound first exploded like a solar flare onto the free-jazz scene. Maybe it was the absence of his brother’s ecstatic bugle-boy counterpoint as Ayler toyed with “La Marseillaise” one more time.
While the Maeght gigs reaffirmed Ayler’s saxophone prowess, the stresses at home were mounting. Donald continued to deteriorate and had to be institutionalized, and the pressure from their mother to be responsible for Donald’s well-being was a constant harangue. Impulse! became less supportive and ultimately released Ayler from his recording contract. The times were catching up with him, and though he was profoundly religious throughout his life, Ayler could also be extremely depressed. He walked the streets wearing a heavy winter coat and gloves in hot weather. He covered his face in Vaseline, claiming he had to protect himself. Still, Ayler had plenty to look forward to: An upcoming tour of Japan was slated to make him a great deal of money.
Although there’s nothing conclusive about the circumstances surrounding his death, some say Ayler jumped off the Staten Island Ferry. Parks told the police he had smashed things in their Brooklyn apartment, then rushed out of the building claiming blood had to be spilled to make it right between he and his family regarding the problems with Donald. Parks reported him missing, but weeks passed before his body was discovered in the East River. According to the New York Medical Examiner’s office, it was a death by drowning. With little evidence of foul play, authorities found no reason to perform an autopsy.
Sunny Murray maintains “hoodlums and drugs” were to blame and that Ayler was in the “wrong place at the wrong time,” though Ayler wasn’t known to be a heavy drug user. Other people who knew him say he wasn’t likely to take his own life. Shortly after Ayler’s death, rumors swirled: that he was found at the bottom of the river tied to a jukebox or that he’d been shot in the back of the head. Donald, who’s been in and out of group homes for the past four decades and is unable to live independently, has expressed sentiments that Parks probably knows more about his brother’s death than she’s revealed. Parks still lives in New York, where she writes songs and gives private music lessons. Myrtle Ayler died more than 20 years ago; Edward remains in the Cleveland area and attends church services several times a week.
While the details of Ayler’s death may never be known, his musical legacy has finally been given careful, obsessive attention. Revenant Records recently released Holy Ghost, a nine-CD Ayler boxed set containing rare and unreleased recordings from 1962-1970. The title refers to Ayler’s comment “Trane was the father. Pharoah was the son. I was the holy ghost.” Over the long course of Holy Ghost, you can hear recordings of Ayler’s European dates with Cecil Taylor and Don Cherry, his concerts in the Village featuring “Spirits” and “Ghosts” and his groups with his brother, wife and other free-jazz pioneers. More than just a musical document, Holy Ghost completes the portrait with two CDs’ worth of interviews with Ayler and Cherry, as well as a 208-page book with essays, commentary and photos. There’s even a full reprint of the 1969 issue of Cricket, a reproduction of a handwritten note from Ayler and other artifacts that bring the man’s life and work into focus.
ESP has plans for its own Ayler boxed set, which should be out by the end of the year. Though many details are still unconfirmed, the release will compile Ayler’s ESP catalog and material from his first two tours of Europe. As if to underscore the resurgence of the man’s music, a documentary called Spirits Rejoice: The Life And Legacy Of Albert Ayler will be released in 2005. The film not only researches Ayler’s life but also profiles other members of the free-jazz scene, then and now.
The Silent Scream
Albert Ayler once said his playing was a reaction to what was going on in America but that he had found peace and transformed it into a silent scream. Bassist Steve Tintweiss heard Ayler’s cry during one of the Maeght Foundation concerts.
“Albert picked up his bagpipes and went to the front of the stage,” he says. “He started playing very intensely, but there was no sound coming out. There was some sort of problem, and Albert was trying harder and harder, but there was no sound at all. Instead of doing what almost any other musician would have done—stopped, put it down and picked up another horn or had someone else solo while he tried to adjust his instrument—Albert didn’t do that. He just kept playing and imagining the sound of what he was doing. He was getting more intense, and the audience started applauding and yelling and urging him on, and it looked to me that for several seconds, he levitated while he was playing. At that point, he looked like he had transformed into some sort of gremlin or a character like the mythological Pan on steroids. The audience was totally captivated. When Albert stopped, there was this huge applause.”
Albert Ayler is at peace. Let his silent scream prevail.