Albert Ayler

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler.jpg
Background information
Birth name Albert Ayler
Born (1936-07-13)July 13, 1936
Cleveland Heights, Ohio, United States
Died November 25, 1970(1970-11-25) (aged 34)
East River, New York, United States
Genres Jazz, free jazz, avant-garde jazz
Occupations Saxophonist, bandleader, composer
Instruments Tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone
Years active 1952–1970
Labels Bird Notes, ESP-Disk, Impulse!, Ayler Records
Associated acts Gary Peacock, Don Cherry, Sunny Murray, Roswell Rudd, Alan Silva, Donald Ayler, Henry Vestine

Albert Ayler (July 13, 1936 – November 25, 1970) was an American avant-garde jazz saxophonist, singer and composer.

Ayler was among the most primal of the free jazz musicians of the 1960s; critic John Litweiler wrote that "never before or since has there been such naked aggression in jazz".[1] He possessed a deep blistering tone—achieved by using the stiff plastic Fibrecane no. 4 reeds[2] on his tenor saxophone—and used a broad, pathos-filled vibrato.

His trio and quartet records of 1964, such as Spiritual Unity and The Hilversum Session, show him advancing the improvisational notions of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman into abstract realms where whole timbre, and not just mainly harmony with melody, is the music's backbone. His ecstatic music of 1965 and 1966, such as "Spirits Rejoice" and "Truth Is Marching In", has been compared by critics to the sound of a brass band, and involved simple, march-like themes which alternated with wild group improvisations and were regarded as retrieving jazz's pre-Louis Armstrong roots.[3]


Early life and career[edit]

Born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Ayler was first taught alto saxophone by his father Edward, with whom he played duets in church. He attended John Adams High School on Cleveland's East Side, and graduated in 1954 at the age of 18. He later studied at the Academy of Music in Cleveland with jazz saxophonist Benny Miller. Ayler also played the oboe in high school. As a teenager Ayler played with such skill that he was known around Cleveland as "Little Bird",[4] after saxophonist Charlie Parker, who was nicknamed "Bird".

In 1952, at the age of 16, Ayler began playing bar-walking, honking, R&B-style tenor with blues singer and harmonica player Little Walter, spending two summer vacations with Walter's band. After graduating from high school, Ayler joined the United States Army, where he jammed with other enlisted musicians, including tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. Ayler also played in the regiment band. In 1959 he was stationed in France, where he was further exposed to the martial music that would be a core influence on his later work. After his discharge from the army, Ayler tried to find work in Los Angeles and Cleveland, but his increasingly iconoclastic playing, which had moved away from traditional harmony, was not welcomed by traditionalists.

Ayler relocated to Sweden in 1962, where his recording career began, leading Swedish and Danish groups on radio sessions, and jamming as an unpaid member of Cecil Taylor's band in the winter of 1962-1963. (Long-rumored tapes of Ayler performing with Taylor's group were released by Revenant Records in 2004, as part of a ten-CD set.[5]) The album My Name Is Albert Ayler is a session of standards recorded for a Copenhagen radio station with local musicians including Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and drummer Ronnie Gardiner, with Ayler playing tenor and soprano on tracks like "Summertime".

Energy music[edit]

Ayler returned to the US and settled in New York. He assembled an influential trio with double bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray, which recorded his breakthrough album, Spiritual Unity, for ESP-Disk Records, which was 30 minutes of intense free improvisation. Embraced by New York jazz leaders such as Eric Dolphy, who reportedly called him the best player he had ever seen, Ayler found respect and an audience. He influenced the gestating new generation of jazz players, as well as veterans like John Coltrane. In 1964 he toured Europe, with the trio augmented by trumpeter Don Cherry; music from this tour was recorded and released as The Hilversum Session.

Ayler's trio created a definitive free jazz sound.[citation needed] Murray rarely if ever laid down a steady, rhythmic pulse, and Ayler's solos were Pentecostal,[citation needed] but the trio was still recognizably in the jazz tradition. Ayler's next series of groups, with trumpeter brother Donald, were a radical departure. Beginning with the album Bells, a concert recording at New York Town Hall with Donald Ayler, Charles Tyler, Lewis Worrell and Sunny Murray, Ayler turned to performances that were chains of marching band- or mariachi-style themes alternating with overblowing and multiphonic freely improvised group solos, a wild and unique sound that took jazz back to its pre-Louis Armstrong roots of collective improvisation.[citation needed] The new sound was consolidated in the studio album Spirits Rejoice, recorded by the same group at Judson Hall in New York. Ayler, in a 1970 interview, called his later styles "energy music", contrasting with the "space bebop" played by Coltrane and initially by Ayler himself.[citation needed] This approach continued with The Village Concerts and, with Ayler on the books, ESP had established itself as a leading label for free jazz.

In 1966 Ayler was signed to Impulse Records at the urging of Coltrane, the label's star attraction at that time. But even on Impulse, Ayler's radically different music never found a sizable audience. Coltrane died in 1967 and Ayler was one of several musicians to perform at his funeral. Later in 1967, Donald Ayler had what he termed a nervous breakdown. In a letter to The Cricket, a Newark, New Jersey music magazine edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, Albert reported that he had seen a strange object in the sky and come to believe that he and his brother "had the right seal of God almighty in our forehead."[6]

Final years[edit]

For the next two and half years Ayler turned to recording music not far removed from rock and roll, often with utopian, hippie lyrics provided by his live-in girlfriend, Mary Maria Parks. Ayler drew on his very early career, incorporating elements of R&B, with funky, electric rhythm sections and extra horns (including Scottish highland bagpipes) on some songs. 1967's Love Cry was a step in this direction: studio recordings of Ayler concert staples such as "Ghosts" and "Bells" with less free-improvisation and more time spent on the themes.[citation needed]

Next came the R&B album New Grass, which was generally reviled by his fans, who considered it to be the worst of his work.[7][8] Following its commercial failure, Ayler attempted to bridge his earlier "space bebop" recordings and the sound of New Grass on his last studio album, Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe, which featured rock musicians such as Henry Vestine of Canned Heat alongside jazz musicians like pianist Bobby Few.

In July 1970 Ayler returned to the free jazz idiom for a group of shows in France (including at the Fondation Maeght), but the band he was able to assemble (Call Cobb, bassist Steve Tintweiss and drummer Allen Blairman) was not regarded as being of the caliber of his earlier groups.[9]

Ayler disappeared on November 5, 1970, and he was found dead in New York City's East River on November 25, a presumed suicide.[10] For some time afterwards, rumors circulated that Ayler had been murdered. Later, however, Parks would say that Ayler had been depressed and feeling guilty, blaming himself for his brother's problems. She stated that, just before his death, he had several times threatened to kill himself, smashed one of his saxophones over their television set after she tried to dissuade him, then took the Statue of Liberty ferry and jumped off as it neared Liberty Island.[11] He is buried in Cleveland, Ohio.

Influence and legacy[edit]

On his 1969 album Folkjokeopus, English guitarist/singer-songwriter Roy Harper, dedicated the song "One for All" ("One for Al") to Albert Ayler, "who I knew and loved during my time in Copenhagen".[12][13] Harper considered Ayler to be "one of the leading jazzmen of the age".[14] In the Folkejokeopus liner notes, Harper states, "In many ways he [Ayler] was the king".

Ayler's unconventional approach to musical composition, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, have transformed him into a cult artist.[citation needed] "Ghosts"—with its bouncy, sing-song melody (rather reminiscent of a nursery rhyme)—is probably his best known tune, and is something of a free jazz standard, having been covered by Lester Bowie on All the Magic (1982), Gary Windo, Eugene Chadbourne, Crazy Backwards Alphabet, Joe McPhee, John Tchicai and Ken Vandermark, among others.[citation needed] The saxophonist Mars Williams led a group called Witches and Devils, named after the Ayler composition, and recorded several of his works. Peter Brötzmann's Die Like A Dog Quartet is a group loosely dedicated to Ayler. A record called Little Birds Have Fast Hearts references Ayler's youthful nickname. The Art Ensemble of Chicago recorded "Lebert Aaly .. dedicated to Albert Ayler" on Phase One (1971). David Murray's dedication "Flowers for Albert" appears on several Murray albums, and has been recorded by Tiziana Simona and The Skatalites. The bassist Jair-Rohm Parker Wells produced Meditations on Albert Ayler, with Tony Bianco on drums and Luther Thomas on alto sax. This live trio improvisation was produced for and released by Ayler Records on what would have been Ayler's 71st birthday.

On September 20, 1996, the first Albert Ayler Festival was held at the Washington Square Church in Greenwich Village, New York. Performing that day were Gary Lucas, Amiri Baraka, Joe McPhee Quartet, Peter Brotzman-Thomas Borgmann Quartet, Joe Giardullo Quartet, Sunny Murray, Joseph Jarman, and Thurston Moore.[citation needed]

Marc Ribot cites Ayler as an influence and has often performed his compositions.[15] He recorded "Bells" on Shrek (1994), "Ghosts" on Don't Blame Me (1995), "Saints" and "Witches & Devils" on Saints (2001) and in 2005 released an album consisting entirely of Ayler compositions, and dedicated to the ethic of collective improvisation, entitled Spiritual Unity.

In 2005, the Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin released a documentary film about Ayler's life, called My Name Is Albert Ayler.[16] The film includes detailed interviews with Ayler's father, Edward, and brother Donald, as well as the only live concert footage of Ayler known to exist (of concerts in Sweden and France).

In 2008, a quartet composed of trumpeter Roy Campbell, multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, bassist William Parker and drummer Warren Smith recorded the album Tribute to Albert Ayler Live at the Dynamo, released in 2009 on French Marge Records label.


Year Album Original Issue
1962 The First Recordings Vols. 1 & 2 Bird Notes Records
1963 My Name is Albert Ayler Black Lion Records
1964 Witches & Devils Freedom Records
1964 Goin' Home Black Lion
1964 Prophecy [Live] ESP
1964 Albert Smiles With Sunny [Live] Inrespect Records
1964 Spiritual Unity ESP
1964 New York Eye And Ear Control ESP
1964 Albert Ayler [Live] Philology Jazz Records
1964 The Copenhagen Tapes Ayler Records
1964 Vibrations Freedom
1964 The Hilversum Session Osmosis Records
1965 Bells [Live] ESP
1965 Spirits Rejoice ESP
1965 Sonny's Time Now Jihad Records
1966 At Slug's Saloon, Vol. 1 & 2 [Live] ESP
1966 Lörrach / Paris 1966 [Live] Hathut Records
1966 In Greenwich Village [Live] Impulse! Records
1967 Love Cry Impulse!
1968 New Grass Impulse!
1969 Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe Impulse!
1969 The Last Album Impulse!
1970 Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Vol. 1 Shandar
1970 Live on the Riviera [Live] ESP
2004 Holy Ghost: Rare & Unissued Recordings (1962–70) Revenant Records
2006 The Complete ESP-Disk Recordings ESP


  1. ^ Litweiler, John (1984). The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958. Da Capo. p. 159. ISBN 0-306-80377-1. 
  2. ^ Wilmer, Val (1977). As Serious as Your Life. Quartet. p. 94. ISBN 0-7043-3164-0. 
  3. ^ Wilmer, Val (1977). As Serious as Your Life. Quartet. pp. 95–96. ISBN 0-7043-3164-0. 
  4. ^ Litweiler, John (1984). The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958. Da Capo. p. 153. ISBN 0-306-80377-1. 
  5. ^ "Revenant Records: Albert Ayler Holy Ghost". 2011-07-16. Archived from the original on 2011-07-16. Retrieved 2012-06-25. 
  6. ^ Ayler, Albert (1969). "To Mr Jones - I Had a Vision". The Cricket: 27. 
  7. ^ Young, Ben (2004). Albert Ayler: Holy Ghost (Tracks). Revenant. p. 160. 
  8. ^ Campbell, Al. "New Grass". Allmusic. Retrieved 2008-09-13. 
  9. ^ Wilmer, Val (2004). Albert Ayler: Holy Ghost (Spiritual Unity). Revenant. p. 27. 
  10. ^ Mandel, Howard (Jun 7, 2008). "Albert Ayler's Fiery Sax, Now on Film". National Public Radio. Retrieved August 30, 2009. 
  11. ^ ""Albert Ayler" by Jeff Schwarz, Chapter 6". Archived from the original on 2009-10-25. 
  12. ^ "Roy Harper dedicates track to Albert Ayler". Rough Trade. 2014-07-03-. Retrieved 2014-03-07. 
  13. ^ "Roy Harper dedicates track to Albert Ayler". Roy Harper. 2014-07-03-. Retrieved 2014-03-07. 
  14. ^ "Roy Harper site". 2009-02-17. Archived from the original on 2009-02-17. Retrieved 2012-06-25. 
  15. ^ Olsen, P. Marc Ribot: That's the Way I View It From New York published March 27, 2006 on
  16. ^ "The jazz documentary". Albert Ayler. Retrieved 2012-06-25. 


  • Merry Fortune, Ghosts by Albert Ayler, Futurepoem, 2004.
  • John Litweiler, The Freedom Principle. Jazz after 1958, Da Capo Press, 1990.
  • Frank Medioni, Albert Ayler - Témoignages sur un holy ghost, Marseille, le Mot et le Reste, 2010.
  • Jedediah Sklower, "Rebel with the wrong cause. Albert Ayler et la signification du free jazz en France", Volume ! La revue des musiques populaires, 6-1&2, Bordeaux, Éd. Mélanie Seteun, 2008. Downloadable here (in French).
  • Valerie Wilmer, As Serious As Your Life. John Coltrane and Beyond, London, Serpent's Tail, 1993.

External links[edit]