Albert Ayler

‘I must play music that is beyond this world’
– Albert Ayler

THE PRIMAL roar of Albert Ayler’s tenor saxophone reaching for the heavens on full-pelt overdrive is one of the mightiest sounds in music; as time-stoppingly distinctive as Hendrix’s pyrotechnics or Miles’ glacial declarations. Like these two innovators, Ayler was fearless, trailblazing and on a personal spiritual mission, his sounds erupting from the depths of a soul populated by demons which could only be speculated over after his body was found in New York’s East River in 1970.

Like so many, Ayler was often greeted with indifference or abject hostility during his short career, met a tragically-early death then became increasingly more acclaimed as the years went by. At this point, it should be mentioned that this writer is no jazz expert, just a lifelong devotee of any music which is ripped from the heart and goes against the grain. Captain Beefheart’s saxophonic sandblasting on Troutmask 40 years ago prompted investigation of names like Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders before Miles turned everything upside down with Bitches’ Brew, but it was actually pursuing the Fugs and Pearls Before Swine as part of a gathering fascination with New York’s mysterious ESP-Disk label which led to a copy of Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity in a second hand record shop around 1970 (along with Sun Ra’s equally mindblowing Heliocentric Worlds Volume Two).

Sitting pinned against the wall by the sonic maelstrom blasting out of the speakers, it soon became apparent that there was a similar rampant, restless spirit running rampant here to Jimi Hendrix who, for the previous three years, had been an all-consuming obsession, more for the seismic emotions his playing stirred than anything else. When it came to stretching out, Ayler and Hendrix were on similar trajectories, unleashing mercurial brilliance by instinct as the chops were well-ingrained. They were always reaching for that same illusive spirit which, while jaws dropped around them, they would usually end up feeling they’d glimpsed but never grasped. At the same time, they were complimented and spurred to greater flights by the interplay between the musicians in their respective groups.

Later I would realise further similarities between Ayler and 70s musical groundbreakers like Suicide and the Sex Pistols in the way he regularly cleared rooms or invoked hostility from crowds dumbfounded and provoked by the sheer alien newness and brutality of his sound. Reviews would lament his, ‘violent provocation and senseless aggression,’ while the catcalls came from the same foetid well which splattered the newly-electric Dylan.

For those who saw no musical boundaries between improvisational rock, the avant garde and free jazz – the MC5, Patti Smith Group and Suicide spring to mind – Ayler was a dam-busting revelation. For this writer it was another ongoing personal obsession – with inestimably-influential American guitar titan John Fahey – which led me back to Ayler’s music. Investigating the late maverick genius’ own waywardly unpredictable career for a feature showed that, although radically diverse in style, here was another kindred spirit blessed with an emotionally-charged creative volcano, purity of vision and tragically-curtailed life. In 1996, Fahey set up Revenant Records to release ‘raw music’ by great, uncompromising artists, ‘undiluted by commercial meddling’. In 2004, with a catalogue including Fahey, Beefheart, Dock Boggs and their incredible Charlie Patton boxed set, they released the mind-bogglingly beautiful Holy Ghost: Rare & Unissued Recordings (1962-70) as a ‘monument’ to Ayler and his ‘symphonies to God’. Over nine CDs (two of illuminating interview material plus a bonus disc of an Army Band rehearsal), the lovely onyx box replica presents a career-spanning overview with previously-unreleased material, pivotal live shows and curios, bolstered by an arsenal of memorabilia including exhaustively-detailed hardbound book, flyer, photo, even a pressed flower. Not for nothing has it been called ‘The Everest of all jazz boxed sets’.

In over 40 years of acquiring music, it is one of the most fascinating, evocative and compelling artefacts I’ve encountered. Just looking at it sitting on the shelf brings an immense feeling of happiness. It’s also prompted a rummage for the old Ayler albums and now a personal tribute-history to one of the true greats of modern music.

ALBERT AYLER was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 13th, 1936, growing up in the middle-class area of Shaker Heights amongst a musically-inclined, church-going family who encouraged his early musical leanings. His father, Edward, taught him to play alto sax which he studied further at high school and the local academy, while getting deeply into the music of giants like Lester Young and Charlie Parker. In 1951, Ayler joined his first group, Lloyd Pearson and his Counts Of Rhythm at the age of 15. While playing local hotspot Gleason’s Bar, he was spotted by blues harmonica legend Little Walter, joining his band for two years, plus a stint with Lloyd ‘Stagger Lee’ Price. In 1958, after a spell in college, Ayler was forced to join the army due to lack of funds, where he joined the 113th Military Band basic training unit (alongside future Sonny Rollins-Archie Shepp drummer Beaver Harris). After being transferred to Orleans in France for two years he joined the 76th Army US Band, playing at military and civilian functions in France and Germany, at the same time immersing himself in milestones like Ornette Coleman’s Something Else!!!! And Coltrane’s Giant Steps, increasingly determined to hone his own inimitable style, both alone and while jamming with the other musicians.

On leaving the Army in 1961, Ayler eventually went home to Cleveland, his groundbreaking free jazz style burgeoning during a difficult ‘sitting in’ period. It was hardly fulfilling or lucrative so, in early 1962, he returned to Europe, settling in Sweden. By now he had switched to tenor, later telling Nat Hentoff, ‘It seemed that with the tenor you could get all the feelings of the ghetto. With that horn you can really shout and tell the truth.’ He used the hardest reed available – a plastic Fibrecane number four, working up a sound based on harmonic ‘overtones’, while using the R&B technique of growling from the back of the throat as favoured by such riproaring horn hooligans as Earl Bostic, Illinois Jacquet, Gator Tail Jackson and the mighty Big Joe Houston

Ayler’s started sitting in again – to varied response. The first tracks on the boxed set feature him playing with the Herbert Katz Quintet at a Helsinki club. Guitarist Katz owned a record shop which Ayler simply strolled into asking about potential blowing opportunities. The set was entirely improvised with Ayler playing sublime versions of his eternal favourites ‘Summertime’ and ‘On Green Dolphin Street’. That October he entered a studio for the first time (at Stockholm’s Academy Of Arts), recording an album which would eventually released as Something Different!!! for Bengt Nordstrom’s Bird Notes using pickup musicians.

When Cecil Taylor hit Stockholm Ayler asked to sit in. Taylor declined but he got up anyway, stunning the pianist to the extent he just sat back and let Ayler continue blasting. Captured at that time in Copenhagen, the transformation from restlessly inventive but respectful re-interpreter to hurricane-force roller-coaster flight commander is startling. The 23 minute recording in the box is described as one of the earliest free jazz live recordings, a ‘missing link’ for both the music and Albert Ayler.

Ayler got the chance to release his first album for a Danish label called Debut in early 1963, using local musicians to back him up on My Name Is Albert Ayler on sessions recorded for Danish radio. Although still flying within recognised modern jazz territorial boundaries on standards like ‘Summertime’ and ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, the unnerving skronk edges in on tracks like ‘On Green Dolphin Street’.

Money again became a problem after Ayler returned to New York with Taylor, so he returned to his parents in Cleveland but, by December he was back in New York, living at an aunt-owned house in Harlem, jamming with local musicians like alto player Charles Tyler and bassist Earle Henderson and at Ornette Coleman’s basement apartment off Washington Square while playing with the Cecil Taylor Unit.

Suicide’s Marty Rev saw the fabled New Year’s Eve 1963 gig at Lincoln Centre, widely considered a turning point in Ayler’s career, clearing the room between sets by Coltrane-Dolphy and Art Blakey with his virulent staccato howls (while Sunny Murray played his drums with large knitting needles). ‘I was about 15 or 16 and fortunate to know people who were exposed to the underground,’ recalls Rev. ‘You could call them heads, with a heavy Bohemian influence. First of all there was John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. Then it was the Cecil Taylor Unit with Albert Ayler. He had just come into New York and there was a lot of excitement around him, but nine tenths of the place still walked out. He was incredible; I was very moved. He was so striking. After that Art Blakey was coming on (and the crowd returned). They talk about it now as a classic gig but we didn’t know who was going to be on. That was the kind of stuff you used to see in New York a lot.’ (Rev and Alan Vega would be no strangers to clearing rooms themselves a few years later when Suicide started terrorising New York’s clubs, then the world, with music directly descended from the freeform confrontations of the early 60s free jazz warriors).

In early 1964 Debut’s Ole Verstegaard Jensen fixed a recording session at Atlantic Studios, where Ayler recorded the Witches And Devils (aka Spirits) album for Debut with Murray, Henderson, trumpeter Norman Harvard and bassist Henry Grimes. There was another session at that time with Ayler’s long-time associate Call Cobbs, who’d been involved with music since the 30s big bands (also sessions arranging Billie Holiday). Here they vamped around spirituals like ‘Old Man River’, Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ and ‘Deep River’. Considered too audacious at the time, it would eventually be released as Swing Low Sweet Spiritual on Osmosis, later as Goin’ Home on Black Lion.

In June 1964, Ayler formed his renowned Trio with drummer Sunny Murray and bassist Gary Peacock. The Trio’s first live recording of a gig at New York’s Cellar Cafe is astounding as the musicians feel each other out with musical dogfights, obvious chemistry sparking as Ayler veers between East River tugboat squalls and wailing flights while the rhythm section stoke a tight-rope tension. The set includes ‘Spirits’, ‘Saints’, ‘Ghosts’, ‘The Wizard’ and ‘Children’, Ayler in turn jagged, wounded, rampant, desolate but always unstoppable. That month they also recorded two versions of ‘Ghosts’, ‘The Wizard’ and ‘Spritis’ for the classic Spiritual Unity album at the cramped Variety Arts studio near Times Square.

The album appeared on the newly-formed ESP label which, in a short time, started carrying a mystique of its own. Ayler was just the tip of a free jazz iceberg also including Sun Ra, Gato Barbieri, Bob James, Burton Greene, Sonny Simmons and Frank Wright but the label also fearlessly released the first two albums by New York agit-poets The Fugs, nihilist proto-punk shambles the Godz and Tom Rapp’s hallucino-folk project Pearls Before Swine. This was in the days when import albums were shrink-wrapped nuggets, out of reach to many with an intangible magic of their own. To lovingly place an Ayler, Sun Ra (or Fugs!) album on the turntable was hardly a babe-magnet but a surefire way to local oneupmanship among fellow music buffs.

After Don Cherry joined up, the group recorded a soundtrack album for Michael Snow’s New York Eye And Ear Control movie (released on ESP) while tiny Dutch label Osmosis released a set recorded for Dutch radio as the acclaimed Live At Hilversum, later released on ESP (containing ‘Angels’, ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Spirits’). Ignored in the US, Ayler returned to Europe, where he was acknowledged as the most revolutionary of the ‘second wave’ of new jazz musicians alongside Coleman, Coltrane and Rollins.

Ayler didn’t necessarily use the traditional opening theme as a springboard for improvisation, more a launch-pad into the unknown, occasionally brushing the original motif on the ground below. There was rarely a steady beat, more a pulse amidst the torrent of sound which rose and fell like a river bursting its banks before encountering various exotic terrains. Ayler didn’t see what he was doing as mere entertainment but his own spiritual quest with peace and unity the end result (even it included gaining a reputation for, literally, cracking ceilings in people’s houses with his power).

Don Cherry was a permanent member by the time Ayler was asked to perform at Copenhagen’s Cafe Montmartre that September, when this lineup also recorded the mesmerising Ghosts. Blasting off spectacularly with ‘Spirits’, the tension between Ayler and Cherry is tangible as it drives the music on to greater heights, although ‘Children’ is an anguished howl. After Cherry elected to remain in Europe when Ayler returned to New York, in came Albert’s little brother Donald, who had crash-taught himself to play trumpet in just a few months knowing his sibling wanted him in the band. The music changed again, displaying new elements favoured by Donald which harked back to Louis Armstrong and the New Orleans jazz principle of all-out simultaneous soloing. This elevated Albert into further unchartered realms as New Orleans marching band music jostled with freeform skronk. If Ayler had experienced critical flak for his free jazz, the marching band and Dixieland elements caused his seriousness to be questioned by chin-strokers. Although the Aylers loved these old tunes, they were setting them up to be deconstructed and subjected to a torrent of pillaging and abuse, often violent and aggressive with every drop of melody wrung from the themes leaving just charred skeletons afterwards amidst the emotional catharsis.

In one way it could be seen as Albert and Donald taking their joint mischief from the childhood backyard onto the stage then recording them for posterity, like an aural family album, as he explained to Downbeat‘s Nat Hentoff in 1966: ‘I want to play the songs like I used to sing when I was really small. Folk melodies that all the people would understand. I’d use these melodies as a start. Have different simple melodies going in and out of a piece. From simple melody to complicated textures to simplicity again and then back to the more dense, more complex sounds.’

Rather than listen to his contemporaries, Ayler absorbed folk music (which would now also be called world music), Charles Ives, Sibelius and Aretha Franklin. 1965’s Bells consisted of three incendiary numbers (‘Spiritual Unity’, ‘Holy Ghost’, ‘No Name’) recorded that May at New York Town Hall (line-up now Donald and Sunny, plus Charles Tyler on alto and bassist Lewis Worrell). The ferocious exorcisms increasingly based on spiritual marching band music and bugle calls were given another other-worldly dimension by Murray’s disembodied wailing.

By now ESP were pioneering DIY record packaging, pressing the one-sided Bells in coloured wax including orange, yellow and transparent with silkscreened covers. First pressings would also throw in press clippings and memorabilia (and fetch four figures on e-Bay). There were always vivid sleevenotes, like Dan Morgenstein’s spot-on observation here that, ‘…there seems to be a lot of wild humour in Ayler’s music. Though often vehement, it is celebration rather than protest. Much of it has the sheer “bad boy” joy of making music.’

Later that year ESP released another live album (recorded at N.Y.’s Judson Hall) called Spirits Rejoice, with Henry Grimes now on bass. Apart from the title track it featured ‘Holy Family’, ‘D.C.’, ‘Angels’ and ‘Prophet’. There was also an album released under Sunny Murray’s name called Sunny’s Time Now, featuring on activist Amiri Baraka’s Jihad label, also featuring Cherry, Grimes and Worrell.

Free jazz was experiencing a creative peak but could never be commercial. Consequently, Ayler was still struggling financially, still relying on his parents and even John Coltrane to keep him afloat, the latter often handing over whatever dollars were in his pockets. He had got married in 1964 but left his wife in early 1966 after meeting a singer-writer called Mary Parks, who sang as Mary Maria and would become a great influence on Ayler’s muse while conducting his business.

There was change in the air during the early months of 1966 as the new counter-culture and hippie movement gripped downtown New York. Ayler’s revolutionary sounds and the ESP connection magnetising beats and hippies. Murray and Tyler left around this time, leaving Ayler with an ever-changing coterie of musicians for the rest of his career.

In mid-April Cleveland promoter Peter Bergman presented Ayler at his club, La Cave, which normally featured poetry and folk artists like Tom Paxton. It was a big deal for Albert: his first shows in his hometown as a professional bandleader. He appeared with a new quintet featuring brother Donald, bassist Mutawef Shaheed and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. Dutch violinist Michel Samson, in town to play classical music at Bergman’s father’s clothing store, asked if he could sit in and ended up playing with Ayler for two years, adding an other-worldy new dimension with his ethereal counter-points and screeching flights. The final Cleveland set also features acolyte Frank Wright, who was getting known already in New York but asked to sit in.

The third and fourth CDs of the box capture two nights at La Cave, showing the drastic sea-change in Ayler’s music as a pool of tunes including ‘Spirits Rejoice’, Don Cherry’s riotous ‘D.C.’, Donald Ayler’s beautiful march ‘Our Prayer’, ‘Ghosts’ and ‘F# Tune’ spontaneously combust while recalling anything from New Orleans funeral music and the earliest roots of jazz to the outer limits, Ayler a honking behemoth speaking in tongues through his instrument. His remarkable onslaught during ‘Zion Hill’ ranks among his best (in my non-jazz buff opinion) but my personal favourite is ‘Truth Is Marching In’, where an arcane New Orleans funeral dirge gives way to elephant charge rampage described by Ayler as, ‘rejoicing collectively in the spirits’. There’s another stretch in ‘F# Tune’ where, amidst the tumult raging around him, Ayler stands firm and lets fly with a stream of vein-busting foghorn blasts which continue for over a minute yet still manage to rise in gut-clenching intensity before the simple theme wafts back in. That’s the incredible thing about this particular group: one moment they can be wailing like a cellar-full of tortured souls enduring the suffering of the world, the next off on yet another flight of screaming intensity where the music isn’t so much heard but felt deep in the chest. How such joyful noise can turn into nightmare cacophony like turning on a light is one of the remarkable things about Ayler. What was going on in his head when he initiated those primal surges whose cataclysmic impact goes beyond most punk rock? What were the other musicians thinking as they dived from old time march into a burning building inferno where all musical conventions ended up laying in a smouldering heap? It really was spiritual unity.

New musicians like Coleman and Ayler were the first punks in terms of blasting away musical cobwebs and encountering opposition and hostility at their alien innovations, except there was never any doubt that the squall was backed up by musicianship, in Ayler’s case of virtuoso standard. But there was never any nihilistic aggression. When asked by a radio interviewer what he was going to play, Ayler replied, ‘Free spiritual music,’ while he told Nat Hentoff, ‘In a way I’m trying to do for now what people like Louis Armstrong did at the beginning. Their music was a rejoicing. It was a rejoicing about beauty that was going to happen.’

And, like Hendrix, he would explain, ‘The music we’re playing is just the blues…a different kind of blues. This is the blues. The real blues. The new blues. The people must listen to this music because they’ll be hearing it all the time because if it’s not me it’ll be someone else who’s playing it. It’s the only thing that’s left for musicians to play. All other ways have been explored.’

Ayler toured Europe again in November 1966, playing the London School Of Economics on the 15th. The show was recorded for BBC2’s Jazz Goes To College series but never broadcast before the tape was destroyed. Popular myth has it as a Sex Pistols-style order from shocked bosses but, although jazz ‘experts’ hated Ayler, the incineration was part of a massive Beeb space-saving purge of both music and classic comedy programmes.

A recording from the Berlin Pharmonic show survived. Along with old Army buddy Beaver Harris, bassist Bill Folwell, Donald and Samson, Ayler played to his largest crowd yet, rising to the occasion with a stunning performance. Shifting from club to concert stage, the group displayed new subtleties, notably the sax-violin counter-melodies on a transcendental ‘Truth Is…’, the cascading melodies on ‘Omega’ and a moving ‘Our Prayer’, now becoming an emotional tour-de-force. Five days later in Rotterdam they’re still on form, basking in the kind of crowd response they never got at home. That stonking, spirit-hoisting magic was still flowing the nights in February 1967 when they played New York’s Village Theatre and Village Vanguard, captured on the In Greenwich Village album, boasting a little-heard tune called ‘For John Coltrane’. The psychedelic swirls and lettering on the sleeve were an example of how cutting edge jazz were adopted by the hippy movement (including marketing departments).

The Newport Jazz Festival over June 30-July 1 1967 was something of a breakthrough. The exotic Eastern melodies of ‘Japan’, also recorded by Pharoah Sanders for Tauhid, was reputedly inspired by Nicolas Slovinsky’s Thesaurus Of Scales & Melodic Patterns, a collection of global folk scales which had become Coltrane’s personal bible which he shared with Ayler (who can also be heard singing on the track).

As mentioned, Coltrane was Ayler’s biggest fan, apart from regular financial assistance, encouraging and persuading Impulse!’s Bob Thiele to sign him for his first high profile record deal. The pair had become close friends, with Ayler a major influence on Coltrane’s Ascension and last album Interstellar Space, where he stripped down the sound with just drummer Rashied Ali for company to concentrate on his tone. Coltrane’s late 1965 Meditations album is considered by many to be the best of his post-A Love Supreme ‘free’ period, when he seemed to be on a parallel mission to Ayler in search of pure feeling and ecstasy. The album also featured Pharoah Sanders, prompting Ayler to remark about opening track ‘The Father And the Son And The Holy Ghost’, ‘What Coltrane was talking about there – maybe it was a biblical term: he was the Father, Pharoah was the Son and I was the Holy Ghost. And only he could tell me things like that.’

It was Coltrane’s wish that Ayler and Ornette Coleman would play at his funeral. After he died on July 17 1967, the funeral took place at New York’s St Peter’s Lutheran Church four days later, when a quartet featuring the Ayler brothers, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Milford Graves played a six-minute medley of ‘Love Cry’, ‘Truth Comes Marching In’ and ‘Our Prayer’, which is included in the box. The sax and trumpet soar and sob, creating a mood of unbearable poignancy and mourning, further heightened by Ayler’s wails near the end.

1968’s Love Cry was recorded sporadically at New York’s Capitol Studio between August 1967 and February 1968. Then Donald left, replaced by Call Cobbs. In coming years he would face mental problems but was reunited with his brother for a colossal blowout in January 1969, while fronting Noah Howard’s sextet at Slug’s Saloon. That session provides two of the most jawdropping offerings in the boxed set: ‘Prophet John’ sets up an Eastern-flavoured wall of sound with truly apocalyptic ensemble playing. While Sam Rivers handles tenor, there’s no mistaking the alto keening and swallow-diving in and over the heart of the melee. In contrast, ‘Judge Ye Not’ is a beautiful dirge, which gradually building an overwhelming whirlpool monolith.

Ayler seemed intent on bowing to the commercial mainstream with the R&B-flavoured New Grass. Although started with Ayler at full screech, it’s basically a funky R&B album with roaring sax solos which packs a punch underpinned by renowned session drummer Bernard Purdie, although spiritual questing now seems a thing of the past. The Holy Ghost notes reveal that the album’s creation was far from sell-out, more a genuine collaboration between Ayler and Mary which they recorded as an unabandoned blend of lyrics and Ayler, but Impulse!’s Bob Thiele insisted on re-recording it, overdubbing singers and brass section while chopping around Mary’s lyrics (considering some of the content too volatile).

The real clinker in the catalogue is 1969’s astonishingly bland Music Is the Healing Force Of The Universe. Recorded at New York’s Plaza Sound that August, it’s a bewildering contrast to the early stuff with its bland Kenny G-style elevator music. At the same sessions Ayler recorded what would later be released as The Last Album. It’s immediately bolder, opening with Ayler dueting on bagpipes with Canned Heat guitarist Henry Vestine, before accompanying Mary’s spoken word piece on sax. Ayler sings on ‘Desert Blood’ and joins Vestine in a rollicking guitar-driven blues called ‘Toiling’.

Up until now, Ayler had been totally uncompromising. Now it seemed like he was pandering for acceptance, or maybe just fed up with being skint. The albums didn’t sell, only tarnished his standing with long-time admirers. After being dropped by Impulse, he was thrown into personal turmoil, suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalised. He played his last concerts in France in July 1970.

On November 25, 1970, Albert Ayler’s body was found floating in New York’s East River, at the foot of the Congress Street Pier in Brooklyn. He was 34. The New York Medical Examiner declared death by drowning, although there was no post mortem.

Ayler’s death wasn’t mentioned in the New York Times but has been surrounded by the inevitable rumours and conspiracy theories over the years: that he’d been shot in the head, some say by the police or was folund with a jukebox chained around his neck. What is clear is that Ayler disappeared for several days before Mary called police and the body was found. The body was identified by Call Cobbs and Ayler Senior, who remembered no bullet wound. Biographer Val Wilmer said Albert had told Mary he felt guilty for the hardship his family faced through his lack of money and that he had to die.

Maybe that plunge into the icy East River was the ultimate move in Albert Ayler’s spiritual quest. His death is usually regarded as suicide but, while his fate will forever remain one of music’s great mysteries, the stream of posthumous releases, ESP reactivating its catalogue and the Holy Ghost set will ensure that the shockwaves of Albert Ayler’s brief supernova and that amazing, ceiling-cracking tone will reverberate forever.

© Kris Needs, May 2009

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