Albert Ayler

Posted on January 2, 2011


Get back to the melody 

Albert Ayler (r) with his brother Don

“My music is the thing that keeps me alive now. I must play music that is beyond this world. If I can just hum my tunes and live like, say, Monk does, live a complete life like that, just humming tunes, writing tunes and being away from everything-if I could do this, it would just carry me back to where I came from. That’s all I’m asking for in life and I don’t think you can ask for more than just to be alone and create from what God gives you. Because, you know, I’m getting my lessons from God. I’ve been through all the other things and so I’m trying to find more and more peace all the time.” Albert Ayler

August 2002 was the first time we heard Albert Ayler, at the Antwerp Stereophonics record-store (later Freaks end Future, now dead and buried). When the lifeless body of Albert Ayler was found, except two men and a dog, possibly nobody looked up that November 25th 1970. We neither, as we weren’t born yet. Ayler’s genuine fingerprint can be located in the world of free music. He wasn’t always looked at as a genius.

Family live

Born July 13th 1936, Ayler was the eldest son of Edward and Myrthle Ayler. His younger brother Donald would play an important role in Albert’s musical evolution. He also had a younger sister that died two minutes after she saw birth and wasn’t named. The Ayler Family lived in Shaker Heights (Cleveland, Ohio), a quiescent upper middle class residential district with a racially mixed population, that bathed in an atmosphere of religion and middle-class black values.

Ayler was once married to Arlene Benton In that area he also felt the urge to colour outside the lines. His concubine, Mary Parks became his fulltime lover afterwards. More about her influence later.

First steps into turbulence

Father dear’s musical career was restricted to the local pub and the religious community. The tenor sax and violin poorly smoothed his way. As it fits for every miscarried parent, he dwelled in frustration. It’s an iron rule that junior is the ideal medium to fulfil a father’s dream: “projection” as you wish!! Little Albert got dished up a musical diet with three components.

First of all, gigs: Illinois Jacquet and Red Prysock among others. Secondly, listening to and overhearing records: Lester Young, Wardell Gray, Freddy Webster and Charlie Parker. Thirdly: duetting his dad in the nearest church.

Another, more Spartan, diet was the regular smack in the face when Albert didn’t practice enough. He was taught sax by his old man till the age of ten. During his teens Albert studied at the Academy of Music, a place where he cumulated technique. This resulted in playing first fiddle in high school.

Wild horses couldn’t drag Ayler away from gigs during those years. He would’ve died to play with an orchestra. Awaiting coming events, he doubled his instrumentation with the oboe. It wasn’t Albert’s first distinction. He became a the local hero due to his exuberant and stylish play as a golfer.

Ayler’s first band had one of the coolest names one can think of: Lloyd Pearson and his Counts of Rhythm. Completely in their salad days, Ayler (then age of 15) and older friend Pearson played at Gleacon’s Music Bar. The biggest name they horsed around with, was undoubtly Little Walter Jacobs – unlike his name, a true monument and Ayler’s Sam Phillips. The following tour with Jacobs, meant an experience with gastric problems for our little provincials. The customs where fairly different from the common: fiercely playing and drinking could be bracketed together. It wasn’t really his cup of tea, but the tour was of interest for his development, It was important to my musical career to have been out there among those deep-rooted people.

Bicycle Horn – a brief history of influences

Edward Ayler must have had ascendancy over Albert. But what else influenced the guy in green leather and with the partially non-pigmented beard. A limitative history of the most primary influences is hard to complete, it’ll always be a bit arbitrary.

Ayler took aim at Charlie Parker’s Bebop. Initially he adhered it, some later he disposed its style and form. During his time in the army, stationed Fort Knox, Ayler held several jam-sessions. “He played Parker’s solos backwards as a warm-up”, a colleague witnessed.

The third influence was a stranger in the midst: Redd Foxx was a comedian tilting at thick windmills. During a fortuitous encounter, he spoke to Ayler the rousing words, “play what you believe in”. That was necessary as Albert’s start was characterised by a chronic rejection by the vulgus and the distilled group of musicians. Within this small-minded period it were scornful, vulgar peals of laughter that fell to the genius. There hardly was a soul that wanted to play with him, in those early sixties. Ornette Coleman, another giant in Free Jazz, was subjected to the same. Ayler earned his not so flattering nickname: Bicycle Horn!! Ayler kept clasping the thing he ascertains as the real music and religion. The sacral was expressed by fiddling of high and low notes. This free form musicianship he recognised in the reprimands his father used to give: “Get back to the melody, stop playing that nonsense”.

An immeasurable affection on both his social and musical life is the peerless John Coltrane – maecenas, occasional manager and partner in musicological discussion. Infinite phone-conversations on divergent musical topics were normal practice. Trane -also the successful rainmaker for Albert’s Impulse contract- and Ayler surprisingly played just one single public show (1966).

Reporting a one-sided stream of influence would be sheer claptrap. A great example of that is Coltrane’s accomplishment of his long-time desire to add a second percussionist to his group. It was Little Bird (Ayler) who roused this, although Ornette Coleman had shown the trick before (f.e. Free Jazz). Later Coltrane made a clean break with his constructed body of work and put out Ascension (1965). A token of this influence is a conversation between the great wheels about this album. ”I recorded an album and found I was just playing like you”: Coltrane stated. Ayler’s clue, “no man, don’t you see, you were playing yourself. You were just feeling what I feel and were just crying out for spiritual unity”.

Another important influence and multiple orgiastic source of inspiration is the French National Anthem, La Marseileise, which Ayler nicknamed as La Mayonnaise. He constructed a variety of songs around this theme: Infinite Spirit, Spirits Rejoice and Light in Darkness. At performances between 1965 and 1967 it appeared at least once a gig.

Please, let him play

During military service, Ayler focused his attention and energy to tenor sax, because “it seemed that on the tenor you could get out all the feelings of the ghetto. On that horns you can shout and tell the truth.” This concept of “truth” he coupled to the aspects of Spiritual Powers. More than racial consciousness, this is what constituted the hectic musical world of Ayler. For him the music in its selfless performance and the widespread acknowledgement of its glorious and revelation purposes, was absolutely primary. It was not about the egocentric artist, possession, employment nor about self-promotion. Ayler’s most favourite question concerning other musicians was: “Is it about him?”

During the months after Ayler’s military service, he and his peers moved to Europe and introduced a new musical concept, in which Coltrane’s harmonics and rhythmic complexity is coupled to the vocalised effects of rhythm and blues, and gospel. Listen and you’ll hear what we mean.

In 1962 Ayler completely disbanded the aesthetics of Bebop – a loss of medium tempo and form, and denying harmony in a way that improvisations bring him to where they lead. However the theme was always present, he never played the song straight. He tried to find the hook, the melodic phrase, the most catchy or most intriguing in each song, and elaborate on it by free association. That was the Holy Ghost’s true strategy. It was a striving to find the stream of consciousness, comparable to that other pioneer of Free Jazz, Ornette Coleman. Initially this playing was extremely in contrast to the conventionality of his less talented sidemen. The lack of tension is in a later phase dissolved by the input of sparkling masters like Sunny Murray, Sonny Rollins, Henry Grimes, Pharaoh Sanders (The Spirit) and his little brother Donald. At the end of ’62, Ayler met avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor. Ayler rather depressed at the time being, bellowed: “I finally found someone I could play with! Please, let me play”. He was adapted to Taylor’s band and did a European tour.

1963 was the year of four important changes. Firstly, he introduced the piano to his music, which tried to prevent him from breaking free. Strangely enough he followed its form. Secondly, he incidentally used soprano sax. Thirdly, he found musicians with who he could communicate. The fourth -maybe most important change- was the development of his consistent, unique musical style: hysteria. To Ayler’s passionate empire that meant: frenzied blowing at the highest velocity possible to melodramatic balladry. If someone heard Ayler, this is what they might always remember.

At his recurrence to his home-country in 1964 the Taylor connection yielded even more. Trane, the father, adored Taylor and saw his band often at stage. It is also about the time that Bernard Stollman, a white ass jazz lover, saw Ayler play a twenty minute solo. Elmo Hope and Richard Davis, Ayler’s companions that night, tossed in their instruments and never came back. Stollman was determined, stepped down to Ayler and said, “I start a label, do you want to be my first artist”. The legendary ESP was born.

Call Cobs, Ayler’s most loyal lieutenant joined Ayler’s group at the dawn of 1964. It’s the usher of an era in which Ayler begins to write his own hums. His elixir called music, is then based upon melodies of and are variations on spirituals, themes of classical music, folk songs and other music that Ayler knows from his childhood. It were simple melodies, nursery rhymes that Ayler and his band played in the most violent, unsettling ways. Jeff Swartz, one of Ayler’s most important biographers, thinks that his music is then Organically connected to the diatonic major and minor scales that anyone who had heard a scale will intuitively understand these songs. It is possible to see the mundane tonality of the themes in opposition to the free space of the improvisations as representing European and African musical aesthetics, respectively. However, Ayler does not simply juxtapose these elements but fuses them, improvising diatonically often, and incorporating noise into his themes, such as “Prophet,” “Holy Ghost,” and “Holy Spirit.”

New York Eye and Ear Control

The Jazz Composers’ Guild was struggling for better working conditions and opportunities to present new abstract music without compromise. For Ayler it was his place of harvest for a brief period.

Later that year a bunch of great musicians ventured a soundtrack. Filmmaker, visionary and supporter of the new Jazz, Michael Snow, launched an incredible idea. Roswell Rudd, one of them back then, remembers the sessions: “Most people film first and then have someone put the soundtrack on there. … With little instructions – I think he told us at one time, ‘I’d like a quiet section’ and ‘Don (Cherry), why don’t you and Roswell play rhapsodically for a little while’. The result of this improvised jam was the perfect symbiosis of music and image, New York Eye and Ear Control.

In the middle of 1965 Ayler added a trumpet to his ensemble. Donald Ayler was asked to learn the brass. Under the influence of his chère frère, Ayler more and more was lead by his feelings instead of notes. Albert said, “we can get a divine harmony or a divine rhythm that would go beyond what they used to call harmony”. Bells, recorded that year, underlines the later patterns in his music: the distinction between composition and improvisation is blurred. The players, as they imitate each other’s phrases, seem free to create these improvised motives.

The avant-garde jazz-scene and black writers were racially conscious and tried to link the New Jazz to the Black Power Movement. Certain musicians, like Archie Shepp, supported this. Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ayler en Coleman tried to disban these politics and conservative attitude out of their musical field, which led to ferocious critics when they collaborated with white musicians.

In the two years left for Ayler, Mary Parks aka Maria Mary ongoingly affected his outlook on life. The idea of love forced it way into the message of spiritual unity. Ayler’s music displayed more conservatism. The clearest: shorter pieces and singing. The singing was comparable to his play on sax. It contained long phrases, deep vibrato and sudden register laps.

A year later the eldest Ayler removed the younger from the group. About the rejection of his brother there’s only speculation. Some say it was pressure from his label – they consign to Donald’s futile part on Love Cry. It’s also possible Don’s playing didn’t fit what Albert had in mind for the future. Others say that the youngster was losing his head and that he gave himself to the art of drinking, which prompted Albert to take draconian measures. Donald relocated to Cleveland and sought spiritual and – after Albert’s dead – psychological help.

It’s then Albert get’s into self-declared visionary writings, which hold a strong almost apocalyptic undertone. “His religious upbringing combined with the political and cultural events of the late 1960’s, especially for African-Americans, makes such a belief fully understandable. The deaths of Dr. King, Malcolm X, the Kennedys, the Vietnam war, the repression of the Black Power movement, including the intense persecution of Le Roi Jones, among others, the death of John Coltrane, the widespread violent rejection of the new jazz, increasing police attacks against blacks and members of the counter-culture, all these things and more could easily lead one to expect, and even hope for apocalypse”, says Jeff Schwartz.

What Ayler established with Love Cry was the beginning of a period in which he interlarded his hysteria with blues-tunes, tragic ballads and more conventional jazz. We think, and many with us, that this period is the least interesting. Most critics blame Park. The wittiest have called it a big sell-out. We believe – maybe naïve – that Ayler tried to reach a wider audience to spread his message.


Ayler’s dead in autumn 2005 leaves a big question mark. There are several stories running about it. Fact is that his lifeless body was found in a river, shot in the head. The speculations go from racial murder, killing by drug-mafia, suicide, etc. The most likely is the story of Mary Parks that discographer Mikes Hame tells, “The strains of surviving as a musician in New York seriously affected the mind of Albert’s brother, Donald. Their mother blamed Albert for introducing Donald to the musician’s life. She and Donald continuously pressed Albert to look after Donald. Albert helped in several ways, but he did not want Donald to live with him or play with him. After two years of aggravation from his brother and demands and threats from his mother Albert could no longer cope.” Albert told Mary that his blood had to be shed to save his mother and brother, and explained how he wanted the rights to his music to be divided after his death. And this would be a dramatic reason and death for a dramatic musician.

Article by Peter, august ‘06

Freaks end Future: independed underground record store in the heart of Antwerp, Belgium, that was specialised in the different figures of adventurous music. There were plenty of occupations attached to their organisation: 2 record-labels (respective: Roborecords, ao. Ester Vanrooy, Mauro Antonio Pawlowski, Dirk Veulemans, Formatt. And Audiobot, ao: Avarus, Pengo, Teynols, Richard Ramirez), in-store performances and an online music-store. FEF stopped in 2008.
Free Jazz as stated by The Rough Guide to Jazz: The term “Free Jazz” refers to improvisation not base don a predetermined, underlying harmonic structure, and with no predetermined structural length. There are other variable factors. Firstly it may be tonal (occurring in a particular key), or non-tonal (in no particular key and sometimes simply noise, ie non-musical sound), or polytonal (in several keys simultaneously). Secondly, it may be in a regular time with recurring rhythmic patterns and / or a fixed pulse, or it may be out-of-time, with a “free” and irregular temporal momentum. Thirdly, there may or may not be composed themes and / or predetermined textural and spatial considerations for the improvisation.
After the tight structures and the strongly harmonic base of bebop, a feeling grew during the 1950s that the current jazz language had exhausted itself, and musicians began seeking new approaches to improvisation and music-making. Important musicians: Ornette Coleman (Alt Sax, tenor sax, trumpet, violin, composer), Joe Harriot (founder of European Free Jazz, alt en bariton sax, piano, composer), Cecil Taylor (Pianist, composer), Archie Shepp (tenor, soprano en alt sax, pianist, vocalist), Albert Ayler (tenor, soprano and alt sax, vocalist, bagpiper), Milford Graves (drummer, percussionist), Sunny Murray (drummer), ….
Jazz Composers Guild: an New York organisation, founded by Bill Dixon, as a result of a series of avantgarde concerts in 1964 (called the “October Revolution in Jazz”).
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