Born July 13, 1936, in Cleveland, OH; died November 25, 1970, in New York, NY; son of Mr. and Mrs. Edward (a musician) Ayler; married Eileen Benton; child: Desiree.

Although his professional career lasted only about a decade, Albert Ayler was one of the most influential saxophonists and composers on the cutting edge of jazz in the 1960s. Ayler's unwillingness to play by the accepted rules of harmony and rhythm created the special emotional spark that propelled his music. At the same time, it guaranteed that he would never be heard by the great majority of conservative-eared listeners, to whom Ayler's brand of free jazz was nothing more than irritating clatter. In the years since his death, a generation of jazz innovators has recognized the brilliance of Ayler's work, and has carried the freedom principle that he helped pioneer to ever greater heights of sonic ecstasy. In 1983, 13 years after his mysterious death, Ayler became the 57th member elected into DownBeat magazine's Hall of Fame.

The iconoclastic Ayler was born on July 13, 1936 in Cleveland, Ohio. At the age of seven, he began taking alto sax lessons from his father, Edward, who played both saxophone and violin. At ten, he began to study with Benny Miller, a former Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie sideman, at Cleveland's Academy of Music. Ayler developed professional-caliber skills very quickly, and he was performing regularly in rhythm-and-blues bands at Cleveland clubs while still in his teens. At the age of 16 he toured with bluesman Little Walter (Jacobs). Ayler was known around Cleveland as "Little Bird" (a reference to Parker). Other early influences on his playing included sax greats Lester Young and Sidney Bechet.

Ayler served in the Army from 1959 through 1961, and while there he switched from alto to tenor sax. Stationed in France, he was able to come into contact with some of the great expatriate musicians based in Paris, such as Dexter Gordon and Don Byas. After his discharge, he decided to stay in Europe, where the climate for his increasingly experimental musical ideas was more hospitable. In 1962 Ayler moved to Sweden, where he made his first recordings. The following year, he went to Copenhagen, Denmark to record the album My Name is Albert Ayler, which has become something of an underground classic. During his stay in Scandinavia, Ayler made the acquaintance of pianist Cecil Taylor, who became a frequent collaborator over the next few years.

Ayler returned to the U.S. later that year, settling in New York. In 1964 he formed a quartet with trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Sunny Murray. With this group, Ayler began to create the body of work that established him as a giant of modern jazz. His compositions combined elements of New Orleans-style group improvisation with melodies from black spirituals and other folk music forms, all infused with an avant-garde no-holds-barred sensibility, in which no sound that you can figure out how to make is off limits. Of course, Ayler's own playing was not confined to random blurts. His upper register featured a soulful, shimmering vibrato, while his low range retained traces of the gruff r&b honking of his youth. As with most visionary artists, critics in New York had trouble deciding whether Ayler was a genius or a fraud. His seamless shifts between a huge, wavering, sentimental vibrato and piercing bleats tended to confound even seasoned listeners.

In 1965 Ayler formed a new group that included his brother Don on trumpet, Charles Tyler on saxophone, Lewis Worrell on bass, and again Murray on drums. This group recorded "Bells," one of Ayler's most influential albums, live at a concert in New York's Town Hall. Over the next few years, Ayler's supporting cast included at various times bassist Alan Silva, drummers Milford Graves and Beaver Harris, and many others on such unlikely instruments as harpsichord and cello. During the mid-1960s Ayler recorded many of his most important works, including "Ghosts" and "Spirits" mostly on the Impulse! label, which was putting out much of the era's best avant-garde jazz. Although Ayler's music still failed to capture a wide audience, his saxophone peers and a host of younger players began to take notice. John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, and Archie Shepp were among the well-known reedmen whose styles were noticeable influenced by Ayler, particularly his floating sense of rhythm.

Towards the end of the 1960s, Ayler began to veer away from total abstraction in order to focus more on his musical roots. It is not entirely clear whether this new direction was a heartfelt shift on Ayler's part, or a response to suggestions from Impulse! that he try to sell more albums. Either way, Ayler's r&b recordings of the late 1960s did not sell particularly well, and succeeded in alienating some of his hardcore free-jazz fans. The release of New Grass, which was more or less a rock and roll album, was especially annoying to Ayler's more noise-oriented listeners.

Meanwhile, as he sought to simplify his music--to make it music "for the people"--Ayler's own internal life was becoming increasingly more complex. He spoke, according to his New York Times obituary, of having "violent, apocalyptic visions: flying disks shooting colors, and the devil's mark branded on foreheads." Shortly after his return from a 1970 European tour, Ayler was reported missing, and his body was found a few weeks later floating in New York's East River. Ayler's death was declared a suicide, although the circumstances remain somewhat murky.

In the years since his death, Ayler, who was barely able to eke out a living playing music, has become widely recognized as one of the preeminent figures in the development of free jazz. The list of important saxophonists and composers who cite him as a major influence is huge, and includes such luminaries as Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, and Joseph Jarman. Music as strange and haunting as the kind conceived and played by Albert Ayler during his peak years may never catch on with the mainstream American CD-buying public; but if it ever does, Ayler will certainly be regarded as one of the genres most important progenitors.

by Robert R. Jacobson

Albert Ayler's Career

Member, U.S. Army bands, 1959-61; first major recording project, My Name is Albert Ayler, Copenhagen, 1963; formed quartet with trumpet player Don Cherry, 1964; formed group with brother Don Ayler, 1965; recorded several avant-garde classics on Impulse! label, 1965-69; toured throughout U.S. and Europe, 1963-1970.

Albert Ayler's Awards

Elected to DownBeat magazine Hall of Fame, 1983.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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