Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Ayler, Albert

Saxophonist Albert Ayler played with a rich attack of high-speed lines and human-like moans. His refusal to play by established rules of harmony and rhythm produced the expressive spark that drove his brief but incandescent career.

Ayler was born on July 13, 1936 in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Ayler was raised in nearby Shaker Heights, an upper middle class suburb along with his brother Donald. Ayler was introduced to music by his father Edward, a violinist and saxophonist.

Edward encouraged his son's early interest in music after seeing him mime to recordings by Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman. He began to teach Albert the alto saxophone at age 7, and also took him to hear live performances by Illinois Jacquet and Red Prysock. Edward also supplied the home with records by Lester Young, Freddie Webster, Wardell Gray, and Charlie Parker, the boy's first model on the saxophone.

Albert Ayler Spiritual Unity

At the age of ten, Ayler began to study with Benny Miller, a former sideman of both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, at the Cleveland Academy of Music. Ayler went to John Adams High School, where he was first alto in the orchestra, and doubled on oboe. Ayler developed professional skills rather quickly, and became known around the Cleveland area as "Little Bird," a reference to the era's acknowledged master of the saxophone, Charlie Parker.

In 1951, Ayler joined his first ensemble, Lloyd Pearson and his Counts of Rhythm. Lloyd Pearson was a tenor saxophonist and soon became a friend of Albert’s. The two often hung out and partook in jam sessions at Gleason's Musical Bar. At one of these jam sessions, Pearson and Ayler met Little Walter Jacobs, a blues singer and harmonica player who had become known accompanying guitarist Muddy Waters. He invited them to join his touring group, and both accepted his invitation. Albert spent his next two summer vacations on the road, sharpening his skills and gaining experience on the road.

In 1954, Ayler graduated high school, and began attending a local college. However, he left after one year due to financial problems and joined the army. Ayler was first stationed at Fort Knox in Kentucky, where he would jam with tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, drummers Chuck Lampkin and Beaver Harris, and bassist Lewis Worrell. Ayler also had the opportunity to play with bassist Edmund Coombe, who claimed that Ayler would warm up before rehearsals by playing Charlie Parker's solos backwards.

In 1959, Ayler was stationed in France, and it is during this time he switched to the tenor saxophone. According to Ayler, “It seemed to me that on the tenor you could get out all the feelings of the ghetto. On that horn you can shout and tell the truth.”

Ayler’s stint in the army ended in 1961, and he chose not to reenlist. Discharged in California, he went to Los Angeles, where he found his unconventional style was generally unwelcome. Discouraged, he returned to Cleveland, where he hoped to have more chances to perform. After a year, Ayler left the Cleveland music scene as well.

Ayler relocated to Sweden in early 1962, and was able to support himself by playing commercial music during the day and his own experimental compositions in sessions at night. Ayler began fronting ensembles on radio sessions, though he was not satisfied artistically in these groups. He also played with Cecil Taylor's band that winter, and traveled with them to Denmark.

It was in Denmark that Ayler recorded My Name Is Albert Ayler, his debut as a leader. Using local musicians, including a then sixteen-year old bassist named Niels-Henning Oersted Pedersen, this recording captures the framework of the saxophonist's later accomplishments by expressing his voice in either passionate playing at high velocities, or in a dramatic, ballad-suggestive tone.

Ayler returned to the United States in 1964, and settled in New York City. He assembled a trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray. The group recorded the album Spiritual Unity, the first jazz album to be released by Bernard Stollman's ESP label. This recording proved to be a watershed in a number of ways. On "Ghosts: First Variation,” he asserts his mission statement by employing his arsenal of squeaks, honks and wails. There is a yearning for transcendence in his playing on these recordings, as if he is trying to reach a higher power. Ayler listens closely to Peacock and Murray, and this results in a cohesive, if surprising, sound of collective improvisation.

Shortly after this recording, Ayler's trio toured Europe, with the with the addition of trumpeter Don Cherry. The addition of Cherry added a greater sense of textural variety in the group. Albert realized how important having an additional horn was to his music. When Cherry was unavailable to stay with the group, Ayler contacted his brother Don in Cleveland and asked him to travel to New York to join his group.

The first record they recorded together was Bells, recorded at New York's Town Hall on May 1, 1965. The recording was a set they played for an ESP Records showcase. On the title track, the saxophonist continues to walk the fine line between composition and improvisation. He avoids the idea of phrasing on his solos and instead tries to communicate absolute freedom. The ensemble plays with a march-like feel that is evocative of an approaching revolution.

In 1966, Ayler was signed to Impulse Records, at the recommendation of John Coltrane, an early advocate of his playing. Ayler's influence over Coltrane can be heard on recordings such as 1965's "The Father The Son And The Holy Ghost."

Ayler's first release for Impulse was a live recording, In Greenwich Village. On “For John Coltrane,” Albert begins the song with sweet, almost sentimental embellishments before the introduction of violinist Michel Sampson’s informal shrieks. Ayler bows out in the middle section to let Sampson and bassist William Folwell freely experiment.

On June 30, 1967, Ayler made his only U.S. festival appearance, at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. Just as he appeared poised to break through to a broader audience, things began to fall apart. First, Michel Sampson left the group to return to his career as a classical musician. Then on July 17, 1967, Ayler's friend and mentor John Coltrane died. As he requested, Ayler and Ornette Coleman performed at his funeral. In August 1968, Albert fired Donald from the group. His brother's drinking and his increasing mental problems proved to be too much to handle.

Facing commercial pressures, Ayler recorded the album New Grass on September 5, 1968. Possibly his most controversial and misunderstood record, the record contains vocals by Ayler, backup singers, and electric bass. Many felt that this was an obvious case of Ayler “selling out” to the masses. Ayler attempts to explain himself on the opening track "Message from Albert Ayler," which reveals his impending dread over controversy concerning the material.

Ayler’s last gig was on July 25, 1970 in St. Paul de Vence, France, as part of the Nuits de la Fondation Maeght festival. Impulse Records then dropped him from their roster due to poor sales. On November 5, 1970, he disappeared, and on November 25th his body was found floating in the East River. The saxophonist was laid to rest in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.

Rumors swirled around the circumstances of Ayler's death until 1983, when his former girlfriend, Mary Maria Parks, confirmed that he leapt overboard from the Staten Island Ferry, overwhelmed by depression due to his floundering career and feelings of guilt over his brother's mental deterioration.

Since his death, Ayler's influence as a free improviser has grown, and can be heard in the playing of musicians such as saxophonist Ken Vandermark and guitarist Marc Ribot, who recorded his own version of Spiritual Unity in 2005. Also in 2005, filmmaker Kasper Collin released a documentary, My Name Is Albert Ayler, which contains the only known live concert footage of his playing. Ayler was survived by his former wife, Arlene Benten, and a daughter, Desiree.

Select Discography

My Name Is Albert Ayler (1963)

Spirits (1964)

Swing Low Sweet Spiritual (1964)

Spiritual Unity (1964)

The Hilversum Session (1964)

Bells (1965)

Spirits Rejoice (1965)

In Greenwich Village (1966)

The Village Concerts (1966)

Love Cry (1967)

New Grass (1968)

Music Is The Healing Force of the Universe (1969)

The Last Album (1969)

Contributor: Eric Wendell