In response to The Wire's two previous Albert Ayler pieces (in The Wire 3), Mike Hames reveals the true circumstances of the saxophonist's death, and reassesses his controversial experiments with soul, R&B, and gospel music. This article originally appeared in The Wire 6 (March 1984).
Issue three of The Wire raised some points that need answering. Firstly, Bill Smith asserted that Albert Ayler was murdered. Many have assumed this to be the case, because there was no inquest and nothing was said by his family. It was therefore assumed that his family did not know the cause of his death. Shortly before that third Wire was printed I published the following as an addendum to my book of discographies:
Mary Parks, second wife of Albert Ayler who performed with him under the name Mary Maria, wrote to me about the circumstances of his death. She did not reveal these at the time, because she did not want to embarrass his family, but now feels that the rumours that have circulated should end. The circumstances of Albert Ayler's death were extremely harrowing for everyone concerned. Only after much meditation and prayer has Mary been able to write to me about these matters. The following account is based on what she wrote.
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. Although Donald was finally receiving hospital treatment after a nervous breakdown, Albert could not be convinced by Mary that the situation would end.
Albert told Mary that his blood had to be shed to save his mother and his brother. He even told her how he wanted the rights to his music to be divided after his death. She rang his father but he didn't seem to believe it. Mary's sister then tried to dissuade Albert from taking his life and he promised to think it over.
One evening he said again to Mary, "My blood has got to be shed to save my mother and my brother." Later that night he smashed a horn across the TV set and left the house. Mary called the police in desperation but they were unable to find him.
Albert Ayler's body was found floating near the pier in the East River. The police told Mary that they checked with the coastguard who said they believe Albert took a ferry boat and jumped overboard near the Statue of Liberty – if it had been elsewhere the tides would have taken his body out to sea.
1. True Companions
In the same issue of The Wire Brian Case raised some points which I wish to put in another light. Something I find psychologically interesting is the fury of some critics and fans that Albert Ayler didn't play in 1966–8 or 1968–70 as he did in 1964 or 1965. It is true that his 1964 recordings had the most dramatic impact on the world of music, and rightly so, but Brian is so blinded by their brilliance that he is unable to write rationally about his other work.
Brian even seeks to blame Albert's truest companions. I would like to point out that from all accounts Call Cobbs was a nice human being, not "corny Call Cobbs". Together with the (elsewhere) maligned Bill Folwell he was an honorary member of Albert's family and a real support to him. Musically he was no Earl Hines, but then Albert didn't require that. He played what Albert asked him to and was his longest associate. Both Call and Bill were humble enough willingly to step aside if Albert required and could get better players.
Brian asks what Albert thought he was doing on the 1964 spirituals session with Cobbs. I don't know, but I understood that he didn't want it issued at the time. Brian calls the collaboration between Albert Ayler and Mary Maria (Mary Parks) a "disaster". In human terms the collaboration offered Albert a haven of peace from his troubles. Mary also helped Albert's career by staging concerts, including one of those subsequently released by Impulse. Musically she contributed to compositions on the New Grass LP, but only three titles with her singing were released during Albert's lifetime and two posthumously. If Brian had read Val Wilmer's As Serious As Your Life he would have realised that Mary was only occasionally added to gigs.
Besides that, Albert made all his own decisions. Mary told me that she was not even introduced to the musicians she was playing with. For this reason she is not certain but she doesn't believe that Bobby Few, Stafford James and Muhammad Ali had played with Albert before the sessions which produced the LP Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe.
However, it should be noted that at the Fondation Maeght in 1970 Mary sang and played soprano sax on over half the pieces on the first day, none of which have been released. Harald Schonstein, reviewing the concert in Jazz Podium (October 1970), praised the intensity of her soprano work and then said "as a singer Mary Maria is no less exciting. She commands an expressive voice and knows how to use it". Eugene Chadbourne in Coda (July 1974), reviewing the issued material from the following concert, says that the title "Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe" – with a lovely vocal from Mary Maria – is really where Ayler gets everything possible together and heals you."
Of the records Brian reviewed (the 1964 spirituals and live sessions from 1966), he expects "near pentecostal freak-outs", "hysterical howling", "wildly contemporary improvisations", and "intensity", but complains when he gets "famous breaks", "end of tether solos", and "brutally high ululations that register little beyond a one-dimensionsal fury". One might be forgiven for asking if Brian prefers his fury two dimensional or three?
The remainder of these notes will look at what Albert said about his work up to 1966 and information and thoughts about his later career. Albert's work and recordings did continually change, and it is worth remembering WA Baldwin's description of him as a "conservative revolutionary" when looking at what he said in mid-1966 to Val Wilmer (Melody Maker 15 October 1966 and Jazz Monthly, Christmas 1966) and to Nat Hentoff (Downbeat 17 November 1966). Brian romantically suggests that Ayler "was possibly so driven by the knowledge that he had found a route to the spirit that nobody wanted that he dissipated his power looking for popular formats". I think the following extracts conclusively demonstrate otherwise.
"You have to make changes in your life, just like dying and being born again, artistically speaking. You become young again through this process... " (Jazz Monthly)
Around 1960 "it seemed to me that on the tenor you could get out all the feelings of the ghetto. On that horn you can shout and really tell the truth. After all, this music comes from the heart of America, the soul of the ghetto."(Downbeat)
"The scream (elsewhere 'vibration' – MH) that I was feeling then (c.1964-5) was peace to me at the time. That was the way I had to go then. Whatever was inside of me, something was happening and I did not know exactly what it was. America was going through such a big change and I'd been travelling all over, seen it all, and had to play it out of me. But now it's peaceful. It's more like a silent scream." (Melody Maker)
"Everyone is screaming 'freedom' but mentally everyone is under a great strain. But now the truth is marching in, as it once marched in New Orleans. And that truth is there must be peace and joy on earth. Music really is the universal language, and that's why it can be such a force." (Downbeat)
"For me, he [Bechet] represented the true spirit, the full force of life, that many of the older musicians had-like in New Orleans jazz-which many musicians today don't have." (Downbeat)
"We're trying to do for people now what people like Louis Armstrong did at the beginning. Their music was a rejoicing." (Downbeat)
Although Albert was talking of the changes in his music up to
mid-1966, 'old timers' like Albert Nicholas, Don Byas and Call
Cobbs had heard the message by 1964 or earlier. Louis Armstrong
himself invited Don Ayler to play at a later date. (Cadence,
Now let's turn to the recordings: I assume that what Brian and others complain about is that Albert's solos are too short on his 1966-7 recordings and they are more limited.
They are right – Albert did decide to restrict his solos. "Before we were just playing and at that time there weren't too many people that could do that... " (Jazz Monthly) Having played the 'vibrations' of his early years, Albert left others to do that and turned "to rejuvenate that old New Orleans feeling that music can be played collectively and with free form." (Downbeat) Don said the listener should watch the colours (pitches) move. To me that means that the solos themselves should be seen as colours – an integral part of the composition in that they are contrasting colours to the themes. Therefore the solos do not fill the role of a 'conventional' free jazz solo and they are restricted. This artistic decision created some excellent music. The drama and explosiveness of "Bells" and "Truth Is Marching In" led people to expect the walls of all sorts of Jerichos to fall. I can't think of a more ludicrously inappropriate description than the Gary Giddins quote that Brian seemingly approves that his music "blanched in a flower power compromise".
1967 saw a further change in Albert's music. The proportion of march themes was reduced on the Impulse LP Love Cry in favour of some engaging ballads on which Call Cobbs – who was then playing regularly with Albert – plays electric harpsichord. Enough of Albert's traditional themes remains for the LP to be considered by some critics to be acceptable within the canon of Albert's work! This is a fine LP, though it's a shame that more longer pieces were not recorded.
In April 1968 Albert performed "Songs Of Zion – New Opera: Universal Message: Songs Of David" with five singers. The music press appears to have ignored it. In August he performed at the Cafe Au Go Go with Call Cobbs (piano and organ), Bill Folwell (bass) and Beaver Harris (drums). He also sacked his brother permanently. I've found no subsequent reports of performances in America, though Mary Parks and Leroy Jenkins tell me they performed with him in August 1970. I've found no American broadcasts or private recordings that have circulated from after July 1967. Work was extremely hard to obtain there in the late 60s.
Critics talk of a decline and a dissipation of expression and energy in this period. To argue against this view other than on the issued evidence and the unissued material from the Fondation Maeght is impossible, but may be misleading, because there is so little of it.
Certainly Albert's music changed dramatically in format, and more than once. With himself as the only horn Albert needed a keyboard player. Call Cobbs' experience with Billie Holiday and Johnny Hodges and his church organ playing enabled Albert to play lyrically, return on occasion to his own Rhythm and Blues background and express his spiritual concerns through more conventional forms. But also (as Ronald Atkins noted in Jazz & Blues June 1973) he was "able, in a sense, to feed off the piano chords" and yet make his 1970 "Spirits" solo ...seem as abstract as his 1964 version".
Shortly after the Cafe Au Go Go gig, Albert recorded New Grass on which Bernard Purdie replaced Beaver Harris. This is a straight soul record with instrumentals, songs and even a brass section. Albert plays well on it and it is an enjoyable record. He told Val Wilmer in 1966 that he found more spirit in soul, blues, etc than in modern jazz, but despite its merits this record shows that the conventions of both are limited.
Those who heard 'the great revolutionary' turning 'populist' and playing soul were equally disturbed by the 1969 LP Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe on which Albert jams unsuccessfully with blues guitarist Henry Vestine, accompanies and sings on spiritual songs and plays the bagpipes. (Further material was issued posthumously as The Last Album.)
Had Albert sold out? If so, not enough for Impulse. In fact his contract terminated well before those of Archie Shepp or Pharoah Sanders. The company didn't even have the courtesy to confirm the termination in writing. I understand that Impulse say it had expired naturally, but Albert believed it had two years to run.
Albert's soul record presumably grew out of his Cafe Au Go Go gig, which I hear was enjoyable, yet I doubt if it was more than a temporary move. The music from the Healing Force sessions deserves to be taken more seriously. If Impulse had forgotten the blues jams, which were an afterthought and detract from the other music, it would have clarified things for the lazy –myself included.
Bobby Few, the pianist on these sessions, may have known Albert from Cleveland but the group may not have been a working group, though it does work on the record. The rhythm section sounds more like Coltrane's 1966 group than any group that Albert formed. (Rashied Ali's brother Muhammad is on drums). On "Masonic Inborn" where Albert plays bagpipes – an instrument Coltrane also played – one expects Coltrane and Pharoah to burst in at any moment. "All Love" also has moments that are reminiscent of Coltrane and, since Albert appears to play with a softer reed, on "The Birth Of Mirth" for example, he has to work up to his harmonics a la Coltrane rather than leaping to them directly as in earlier days. Nevertheless the music remains 'pure Ayler' and three tenor instrumentals in particular (all on The Last Album) are an important addition to Albert's work.
As we have seen, Albert, like many others in the late 60s, felt the need to use the human voice and express his spiritual concerns. Any in-depth look at Albert's life and views would have to consider these beliefs that lay behind and were partly expressed in his and Mary's songs, and of course the community from which they came. Unfortunately I am not in a position to do this. We don't know what his 'opera' was like or whether he performed additional works of a similar nature. The music he wrote to his wife's words on New Crass was soul. The music he wrote to her words on Healing Force is different again.
There are two versions of these songs. I prefer the unissued versions from the Fondation Maeght, which are more relaxed and joyful and Albert and Mary are both in good voice. The 1969 versions are given more tension by the rhythm section and could be considered complementary. Albert's daring vocal conception is evident on both.
Whatever the critics thought of his recordings from 1968 and 1969 most reviewers were happy with the final recordings from the Fondation Maeght. On some of the unissued material Albert plays a fair bit of soprano sax. Both days produced great music, the whole suffused with a joyful warmth. Eugene Chadbourne was moved to write "Albert plays better than he ever did before on record". Personally I'd hate to have to select his finest recording for he gave us so many and in such varied settings. Albert's music changed, but his powers never diminished. The truth was still marching in and the audience knew it and – as Harald Schonstein said – "swamped him with ovations". Let it come in.