Albert Ayler - Biography

Bernard Stollman was a New York lawyer who didn’t even own a hi-fi system when his childhood friend Granville Lee urged him to the Baby Grand club in Harlem to hear the tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler. As Stollman later recalled the Christmas 1963 scene, “Near the end of the concert this little guy with what seemed like a huge horn jumped on the stage and started blowing. He had a black and grey beard and a leather suit, and he just, torrents of sound.” Stollman was so excited by the performance that when he introduced himself to Ayler, he surprised the them both by saying "I'm starting a record company - will you be my first artist?" And so it came to pass, that in July 1964 Ayler’s Spiritual Unity album became the second release on the new ESP-Disk label. With his immense sound, ultra-broad wide vibrato and his reliance on plaintive, churchy melodies, Albert Ayler created more controversy than any other figure on the scene at the time. Jazz would never be the same.

Albert Ayler was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 13, 1936, and raised in the racially-mixed community of Shaker Heights. Religion and music were important in the household, and would remain the two dominant forces throughout Ayler’s life. He started playing as a child when his father Edward put a saxophone in his hands after noticing his son’s miming to recordings. Taught by his father until the age of 10, Ayler continued his studies at a local music school for the next 8 years, and also played lead alto in his high school band. He joined his first group at 15 and played with local rhythm and blues outfits, spending his summer vacations in 1952 and 1953 on the road with harmonica master Little Walter. By the time he went off to college in 1954, he was working hard at mastering bebop, still on alto saxophone and playing well enough to be known around Cleveland as “Little Bird.” In 1956, possibly due to financial pressures, Ayler decided to leave school, and join the Army.

Stationed at Fort Knox in Kentucky and playing in the Army band, he jammed with tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and two future associates, bassist Lewis Worrell and drummer Beaver Harris. The drummer later noted that “He always had super chops...He had that big sound even then.” It was during his Army service that Ayler made the switch to tenor, later saying that on the bigger horn “you could get out all the feelings of the ghetto. On that horn you can shout and tell the truth.” Ayler felt that bop “was like humming along with Mitch Miller. It was too simple.” Harris recalled that “ the time he said there was something missing in music and he wanted to find whatever that was. I'm sure it was the spiritual thing he was talking about...” As part of his military service, Ayler spent two years in France, starting in 1959.  He sat in at clubs in Paris while continuing to develop his own style, and he also absorbed “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, which became an unlikely source for several of his compositions.

Back in the United States after his discharge from the Army in 1961, he tried living in Los Angeles. But since his music was often met with derision and protests from musicians and audience alike, gigs were scarce. Believing that there would more opportunities to play in Cleveland, he returned to Ohio, where his parents supported him, as they did for much of his life. As it turned out, work was no more plentiful there, and in early 1962, he took off for Sweden. Playing commercial dance music in the afternoons, and working on his own music at night, Ayler slowly began to find like-minded musicians to play with, making his first recordings that October. Originally intended to be distributed privately, Ayler later consented to the release of four selections on The First Recordings (1969 GNP). With just saxophone, bass, and drums, the music is simultaneously spare and fierce. He’s still working with standards and blues, but Ayler is clearly impatient with the conventions of bebop, and bursts expectations at every turn. His explosive side-long reworking of “I’ll Remember April” is a harbinger of things to come.

Ayler had made important contacts while in Europe. Trumpeter Don Cherry was on tour with tenor giant Sonny Rollins in the fall of 1962 when Ayler introduced himself and jammed with the group in private sessions in Stockholm. Cherry, along with drummer Billy Higgins, had just left Ornette Coleman’s quartet, and a friendship with the Coleman-influenced Ayler was a natural. Ayler also received some encouragement from mainstream jazzmen like pianist Erroll Garner and saxophonist Don Byas, each of whom urged him to keep doing what he was doing.

Late in 1962, Ayler hooked up with another American touring act, the Cecil Taylor trio with the iconoclastic pianist joined by Jimmy Lyons on alto saxophone and drummer Sunny Murray. A scheduled recording date was aborted, but Ayler did appear with the Taylor group for a club date and a television show in Denmark. Taylor asked him to join the band, and after making the album My Name Is Albert Ayler (1963 Debut) with Danish musicians in January 1963, Ayler moved back to the states. At first he lived in New York, where he played with the Taylor group at the Take Three club, and sitting in wherever he could. Steady work was equally scarce for the volcanic pianist’s style of free jazz, however, and in mid-1963, Ayler went back to Cleveland for a time. But New York kept calling, and by December he was back there again.

After the fateful meeting with Stollman at Christmas 1963, things started to come together for Ayler. He did another session for the Danish Debut label in February, and this time, the resulting album, Spirits (a.k.a. Witches & Devils) (1964 Debut) included only original compositions. Sunny Murray, the drummer on the Spirits date, became part of Ayler’s first working band, a trio with bassist Gary Peacock that recorded his first ESP release Spiritual Unity (1965 ESP-Disk). This intense half-hour, full of melodic power and collective ferocity, introduced his signature tune “Ghosts,” in two versions, along with “Spirits” and “The Wizard.” Just a week later, Ayler participated in septet sessions recording soundtrack music for Michael Snow’s experimental film, New York Eye & Ear Control (1966 ESP-Disk). By the end of the summer, the trio was off to Europe for an extended engagement at Copenhagen’s Montmartre club. There they were joined by Don Cherry, whose pungent tone and years of experience with innovative saxophonists were invaluable to the development of Ayler’s music. This period is well-documented by a pair of studio recordings, Vibrations (1965 Debut) and The Hilversum Session, recorded in November but not released until years later (1980 Osmosis), as well as a number of live dates and broadcasts.

While he understood the value of another horn in the band to help realize his musical concepts, Ayler also knew that Cherry was unavailable for the long term. He formed a new quintet with his brother, Donald, on trumpet, Charles Tyler on alto, former Army buddy Lewis Worrell on bass, and Sunny Murray on drums. The single-side recording Bells (1965 ESP-Disk), from a New York concert in May 1965, is this quintet’s only recording.

Ayler had been listening intently to the music of John Coltrane while in Paris and met him in New York early in 1963 when Trane and Eric Dolphy would stop in to hear Cecil Taylor’s group. Coltrane was very taken with Ayler’s approach to music, telling interviewer Frank Kofsky that “I've listened very closely to him. He's something else...seems to be moving music into even higher frequencies.” Ayler had sent a number of his records to Coltrane, including Ghosts and Spiritual Unity, “to help give him the direction...After I sent him those records, the next thing I heard was Ascension, (1965 Impulse) and it was so beautiful, everything was building, everyone was screaming.” Trane remarked to Ayler that “I recorded an album and found I was playing just like you.” Coltrane offered financial support to the struggling musician, and in February 1966 added the Ayler brothers to his band for a single performance at New York’s Philharmonic Hall. At Coltrane’s urging, his label, Impulse Records, offered Ayler a contract. Aside from a single piece released on a compilation album, the Ayler group began its Impulse period with the live album Albert Ayler In Greenwich Village (1967 Impulse). 

The band continued to evolve, with Ayler adding violinist Michel Sampson in the spring of 1966. The Ayler brothers were extremely busy in 1966 and 1967, playing in New York and Cleveland, touring Europe for a month in late 1966, and performing at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1967. But the death of Coltrane that same July changed the scene in unmeasurable ways. Ayler began to record his next album that summer, Love Cry (1967 Impulse), trying to capitalize on his Newport appearance, with a series of short tunes on the first side as the shadow of commercial pressures begins to be a factor in Ayler’s appearances on record. Nothing really helped Ayler sell any records. Unsure of his direction, and feeling guilty over having to fire his mentally unstable brother from the band in August 1968, he was increasingly influenced by new girlfriend, Mary Parks (who recorded as Mary Maria). Ayler taught her to play the saxophone. Fascinated by her poetry, he set them as lyrics for, initially, himself, and later Mary to sing.  New Grass (1968 Impulse), Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe (1969 Impulse), and The Last Album (1969 Impulse), show the saxophonist moving into idiosyncratic R&B, with electric bass by Bill Folwell, and electric guitar by Henry Vestine from blues-rock band Canned Heat. However, in an example of what writer Kevin Whitehead calls "negative crossover," not only did this music fail to find new fans among adventurous rock audiences, it alienated the hardcore fans that he’d managed to acquire over the years. Ayler’s final recordings, Nuits de la Foundation Maeght Volumes 1 and 2 (both 1970 Shandar), recorded at a July concert in France, show his powers undiminished. Later that year, on November 25, 1970, Ayler’s body was found floating off the Brooklyn shore. His death went uninvestigated at the time, and has never been adequately explained. 

Ayler has long been a cult figure for forward-thinking musicians around the globe, with reedmen Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark, and Joe McPhee, and guitarist Eugene Chadbourne among his prominent interpreters. Ayler’s full career was the subject of Holy Ghost, an elaborate 10-CD boxed set from John Fahey’s Revenant Records (2004 Revenant). Collecting heretofore unissued recordings, beginning with two big band tracks, recorded at an Army band rehearsal, and including such delicacies as 20 minutes with Cecil Taylor in 1962, concerts with Don Cherry in Copenhagen in 1964 and pianist Burton Greene in 1966 and much more, the package is a real tribute to an innovator. Even his often-dismissed later material has received a fresh look with the release of Healing Force - The Songs of Albert Ayler (2006 Cuneiform) by the collective sextet of Vinny Golia, Mike Keneally, Henry Kaiser, Joe Morris, Damon Smith, Weasel Walter and Aurora Josephson. In Ayler’s brief time on the planet, he certainly uncovered enough musical realms to keep generations of explorers busy.

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