Charles Gayle

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Charles Gayle
Photo by Andy Newcombe
Photo by Andy Newcombe
Background information
Born (1939-02-28) February 28, 1939 (age 81)
Buffalo, New York, US
OriginNew York City, New York
Occupation(s)Musician, educator
InstrumentsTenor saxophone, piano, bass clarinet, acoustic bass
Years active1960s–present
LabelsSilkheart, Black Saint, Knitting Factory, FMP, Clean Feed, Tompkins Square

Charles Gayle (born February 28, 1939)[1] is an American free jazz musician. Initially known as a saxophonist who came to prominence in the 1990s after decades of obscurity, Gayle also performs as pianist, bass clarinetist, bassist, and percussionist.[2]


Charles Gayle was born in Buffalo, New York.[2] Some of his history has been unclear due to his reluctance to talk about his life in interviews.[3][4] He briefly taught music at the University at Buffalo before relocating to New York City during the early 1970s.[4]

Gayle was homeless for approximately twenty years, playing saxophone on street corners and subway platforms around New York City.[2][3][4][5][6] He has described making a conscious decision to become homeless: "I had to shed my history, my life, everything had to stop right there, and if you live through this, good, and if you don't, you don't. I can't do the rent, the odd jobs, the little rooms, scratchin', and all that, no!"[4] At the same time, this allowed Gayle to devote most of his time to playing music, although he often earned less than US$3 a day from busking:

First of all, I played to play because I need to play. Second of all, the money, a dollar meant a lot to me at that time. Playing out there is obviously different than playing on a stage but that is so rich out there. It's such a whole 'nother world of playin'. I mean I used to walk from Times Square, for instance, all the way to Wall Street playin'. I could walk back and never stop playing. I didn't think about it as anything other than what it was. These were people and I wasn't overly concerned with what they thought. I was playing, I had to play. Also I had to eat some way and I'm not the type to put my hand out. I'd stand there playing with a coffee cup sometime and people would put money in my coffee [Laughs] and you don't get that on the stage. That's beautiful.[4]

When Gayle first set out on the streets, he did not imagine he would remain homeless as long as he did, although he estimates that this period lasted closer to fifteen years than twenty.[4]

In 1988, he gained fame through a trio of albums recorded in one week and released by Swedish label, Silkheart Records.[4] Since then he has become a major figure in free jazz, recording for labels including Black Saint, Knitting Factory Records, FMP, and Clean Feed. He has also taught music at Bennington College.

Gayle's music is spiritual,[6] and heavily inspired by the Old and New Testaments. Gayle explains, "I want the people to enjoy the music and if it, in anyway can suggest something about the Lord, for their benefit, that would be first in my mind."[4] He has explicitly dedicated several albums to God. His childhood was influenced by religion, and his musical roots trace to black gospel music. He has performed and recorded with Cecil Taylor, William Parker, and Rashied Ali. Gayle's most celebrated work to date is the album Touchin' on Trane (FMP) with Parker and Ali, which received the "Crown" accolade from the Penguin Guide to Jazz.

Though he established his reputation primarily as a tenor saxophonist, he has increasingly turned to other instruments, notably the piano (which was, in fact, his original instrument) and alto saxophone. More controversially, he has sometimes included lengthy spoken-word addresses to the audience in his concerts touching on his political and religious beliefs: "I understand that when you start speaking about faith or religion, they want you to keep it in a box, but I'm not going to do that. Not because I'm taking advantage of being a musician, I'm the same everywhere, and people have to understand that."[4] Gayle sometimes performs as a mime, "Streets the Clown." "Streets means to me, first, a freedom from Charles. I'm not good at being the center of attention…. It's a liberation from Charles, even though it's me on the stage, it's a different person."[4]

In 2001, Gayle recorded an album entitled Jazz Solo Piano. It consisted mostly of straightforward jazz standards, and is a response to critics who charge that free jazz musicians cannot play bebop. In 2006, Gayle followed up with a second album of solo piano, this time featuring original material, entitled Time Zones.


As leader[edit]

  • Always Born (Silkheart, 1988)
  • Homeless (Silkheart, 1988)
  • Spirits Before (Silkheart, 1988)
  • Touchin' on Trane (FMP, 1991)
  • Repent (Knitting Factory, 1992)
  • Translations (Silkheart, 1993)
  • Raining Fire (Silkheart, 1993)
  • More Live at the Knitting Factory (Knitting Factory, 1993)
  • Consecration (Black Saint, 1993)
  • Berlin Movement from Future Years (FMP, 1993)
  • Abiding Variations (FMP, 1993)
  • Live at Disobey (Blast First, 1994)
  • Kingdom Come (Knitting Factory, 1994)
  • Unto I AM (Victo, 1994)
  • Testaments (Knitting Factory, 1995)
  • Daily Bread (Black Saint, 1995)
  • Delivered (2.13.61, 1997)
  • Solo in Japan (PSF, 1997)
  • Precious Soul (FMP, 1997)
  • Ancient of Days (Knitting Factory, 1999)
  • Jazz Solo Piano (Knitting Factory, 2000)
  • Shout! (Clean Feed, 2003)
  • No Bills! (Long Arm Records 5057, 2005)
  • Time Zones (Tompkins Square, 2006)
  • Consider The Lilies (Clean Feed, 2006)
  • Live At The Glenn Miller Cafe (Ayler Records, 2006)
  • Blue Shadows (Silkheart, 2007)
  • By Any Means - Live at Crescendo (Ayler 2007)
  • Forgiveness (Not Two Records, 2008)
  • Our Souls (No Business Records, 2010) - Limited edition 500 numbered copies - vinyl only
  • Streets (Northern Spy, 2012)
  • Look Up (ESP-Disk, 2012, rec. 1994)
  • Christ Everlasting (For Tune, 2015)
  • Live at Jazzwerkstatt Peitz (Jazzwerkstatt, 2015) [Recorded Live May 23, 2014]
  • Live in Belgium (el Negocito, 2017) [Live at Recyclart, Brussels en De Werf Bruge, Jan. 2015]
  • Solar System (For Tune, 2017)
  • The Alto Sessions (el Negocito, eNR092, 2019) Charles Gayle:Alto, Giovanni Barcella:Drums, Manolo Cabras:Bass
  • Seasons Changing (Otoroku, ROKU020, 2CD, 2019) Charles Gayle, John Edwards, Mark Sanders

As sideman[edit]

  • Buell Neidlinger: Gayle Force (K2B2, 2015) [First recording by Neidlinger in 1965]
  • Cecil Taylor: Always a Pleasure (FMP, 1993)
  • The Blue Humans: Live in London 1994 (Blast First, 1996) [Charles Gayle plays Drums]
  • Sunny Murray Duo: Illuminators (Audible Hiss, 1996)
  • Sirone Bang Ensemble: Configuration (Silkheart, 2004)
  • Rollins Band: Weighting (2.13.61, recorded 1994 and released 2004)
  • William Parker Bass Quartet featuring Charles Gayle: Requiem (Splasc(H), 2006)
  • William Parker: For Those Who Are, Still (AUM Fidelity/Centering, 2015) CD 3 Ceremonies for Those Who Are Still
  • William Parker: Centering. Unreleased Early Recordings 1976-1987 (NoBusiness Records 2012) Six CD set. Gayle on five tracks of CD3


  1. ^ Adams, Simon (2002). "Gayle, Charles". In Barry Kernfeld (ed.). The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Vol. 2 (2nd ed.). New York: Grove's Dictionaries Inc. pp. 22–23. ISBN 1-56159-284-6.
  2. ^ a b c Charles Gayle at AllMusic
  3. ^ a b Baxter, Nicky (February 22, 1996). "Gayle Force". Metro. Retrieved December 9, 2010.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Weiss, Ken (Jan–Mar 2013). "Interview: Charles Gayle". Cadence Magazine. Portland, OR: Cadence Media LLC. 39 (1 (403)): 87–105. ISSN 0162-6973.
  5. ^ Lindbloom, James (March 2000). "Charles Gayle". Perfect Sound Forever. Retrieved December 9, 2010.
  6. ^ a b Wynn, Ron (1994), Ron Wynn (ed.), All Music Guide to Jazz, M. Erlewine, V. Bogdanov, San Francisco: Miller Freeman, pp. 268–269, ISBN 0-87930-308-5

External links[edit]