Born on February 28, 1939, in Buffalo, NY. Addresses: Record company--Knitting Factory Works, 74 Leonard St., New York, NY 10013, phone: (212) 219-3006, website:

After living and performing on the streets of New York for nearly two decades, tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle, also a gifted baritone player, pianist, bass clarinetist, and viola player, emerged from the underground to claim increasing recognition. His music is a document of his allegiance to a totally free, high-energy, and deeply spiritual form of improvisation. Gayle, a native of the steel-working city of Buffalo, continued to concentrate on free jazz in the wake of his success, and his recordings and performances retain an industrial edge. "Why do I play the way I do? I just feel driven," said Gayle, as quoted by Down Beat contributor Kevin Whitehead. "I feel like I haven't even started to play--that I'm just getting into it. Sometimes I think I could switch styles tomorrow and go onto some other kind of music. But first I'll have to burn this out."

Observers most often compare Gayle's kinetic expressionism and huge tone to that of free jazz icon Albert Ayler. "His improvisations feature long, vibrating, free-gospel melodies, full of huge intervallic leaps, screaming multiphonics, and a density of line that evidences a remarkable dexterity in all registers of his horn (especially the altissimo)," wrote All Music Guide contributor Chris Kelsey. "Gayle is also capable of great lyricism, imbued with the same bracing intensity present in his high-energy work." Besides favorable reviews garnered from jazz critics, Gayle also won admirers from the fringes of the rock world, among them Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Henry Rollins, who has released Gayle's material on his 2.13.61 label. Gayle also guested on Rollins's 1996 album, Everything. Other appearances include work with the Blue Humans, Howard Mandel, and Cecil Taylor.

Born on February 28, 1939, in Buffalo, New York, Gayle began playing music around age nine. The piano was his first instrument; he took lessons for a couple of years as a child, but he was largely self-taught. As Gayle progressed, he landed gigs in piano bars and often sang and played piano in church. To this day, Gayle, a devout Christian, remains a deeply spiritual, honest, and sincere man. Through his music, as well as in his conversations with others, he speaks about his faith--which he names as his primary source for musical inspiration--and respect for life. He does so despite popular perceptions and regardless of whether or not his views are in fashion. "I grew up with religion," Gayle told Nicky Baxter for the Metro weekly newspaper. "I'm a believer. My hope is to be as open and honest as I can. I'm not saying my music is about God, but I dedicate my music to Him."

Blues music also affected Gayle in his youth. Living in the projects a block from the neighborhood's main strip, he heard the blues, among various other styles like jazz and boogie-woogie, on a daily basis. To Gayle, listening to music seemed as natural as breathing. During his teenage years in the early 1950s, Gayle derived inspiration from pianists such as Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum and played piano in various jazz and blues units. Then, in the latter half of the 1950s, he found it necessary, in order to continue working, to focus on another instrument. At the time, the Hammond B-3 organ began to overshadow the piano with the popular ascent of the funk-jazz trio. Gayle, not a big fan of the Hammond B-3, opted for the saxophone, which he mastered within six months. Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, and Dexter Gordon served as his models for learning. Eventually, the tenor saxophone became his instrument of choice.

In the 1960s, Gayle's pursuits gravitated more toward the avant-garde, and he relocated to New York City to join the free jazz movement. However, Gayle offers few details about what transpired in his life during this decade and in the 1970s. Sources state he taught a jazz course in 1969 at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where saxophonist Jay Beckenstein was one of his students. He also surfaced in 1973 playing with drummer Rashied Ali's group, but for the most part, Gayle played his saxophone in the subways and on the streets of New York, relying on donations from passers-by for income.

For the next 20 years, Gayle remained poor and often homeless, sacrificing everything in order to play his music. "I was going to do this or freeze to death out there," Gayle said to Fred Jung in Jazz Weekly. Bassist Hilliard Greene, who went on to work with Gayle, recalled the first time he heard the saxophonist play in an interview with Boston Globe correspondent Bob Blumenthal: "I heard the sound of this saxophone in Grand Central Station one day and ran all around until I found this guy in an overcoat who was playing for change. It was Charles, who is an amazing musician."

Others likewise began to take notice of Gayle's talent. Around 1987, Michael Dorf of New York's underground club the Knitting Factory heard the buzz surrounding the street player and took Gayle under his wing. Subsequent gigs and tours coordinated by the Knitting Factory permitted Gayle to earn a modest, yet steady, income, and he rented a small apartment on New York's Lower East Side. The club, in addition to affording Gayle the opportunity to perform and later record, allowed him to maintain his individuality. "There really is no way to express my gratitude for that, for them being there," he told Jung. "I think at one point I did ask Michael if there would be a problem if I am a Christian. He didn't blink so I didn't blink either."

Also in the late 1980s, Gayle recorded a series of albums for the Swedish-based Silkheart label, including Always Born, which paired him with John Tchicai, and Homeless, both released in 1988. Afterwards, Gayle received worldwide attention, and recording offers came steadily. In 1991, Gayle, along with bassist William Parker and drummer Rashied Ali, returned on the classic album Touchin' on Trane, a living tribute to the legacy of John Coltrane.

Returning to much more furious material, Gayle next recorded such acclaimed sets as Repent in 1992, More Live in 1993, and Testaments in 1996, all released on Knitting Factory Works. His majestic albums Delivered, released in 1997, and Ancient of Days, released in 2000, feature hard-won lyricism. The 1990s also saw the saxophonist playing the viola and bass clarinet on some albums, though his chief double remained his piano. In fact, in 2001, he released a piano set filled with standards entitled Jazz Solo Piano.

However, as critics have stated, the saxophone remains Gayle's strongest instrument, and his preferred ensemble consists of himself on tenor, a bassist, and a drummer. In concert, Gayle relies almost solely upon improvising: a single improvisation can last the entire set. He is also known for dressing up in a stage persona named "Streets the Clown," a character that provides a visual sense of what the music is saying. In his costume and face paint, Gayle plays and preaches religious and political messages to the audience, taking care that his acting doesn't overshadow the music.

"I just felt a lot of times that playing wasn't enough for me, especially since I've been in the street," Gayle explained to James Lindbloom for the online magazine Perfect Sound Forever. "If it's a very major part of your life--not just playing, but eating out there, and hanging out, and sleeping out there, sometimes--it's not all about performing, and playing, or something very formal.... It wasn't a show to try to entertain anybody; it's just something I had to do for myself. It wasn't to try to bring some different art or anything to anybody; it's for me."

by Laura Hightower

Charles Gayle's Career

Began playing the piano around age nine; switched to saxophone as primary instrument, age 19; street player in New York City, 1970s-80s; "discovered" by the Knitting Factory club's Michael Dorf, c. 1987; released Homeless and Always Born for Silkheart, 1988; with bassist William Parker and drummer Rashied Ali, appeared on the classic album Touchin' on Trane, 1991; released Testaments, 1996; released Ancient of Days, 2000; released standards set Jazz Solo Piano, 2001.

Famous Works

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about 15 years ago

I also was one of Charles Gayle's students in 1969 (may have been 1970) at SUNY Buffalo. I took two courses with Mr. Gayle; Jazz History and Jazz Ensemble (it may have been called Jazz Improvisation). Mr. Gayle insisted we play what we hear. This was a major contribution to my playing. I am glad he is alive and well. One day he brought in Charles Mingus to the jazz history class. I also met Jay Beckenstein in Mr. Gayle's classes. Jay told me about a band he was forming, and maybe he asked me to join, but I passed it up.