On the streets and in the subways of New York, the spirit of black free jazz lives on in the music of a few true believers – musicians like Charles Gayle; homeless, neglected but still burning with the passion to be free. By Howard Mandel. This article originally appeared in The Wire 121 (March 1994).
“Let’s do the interview at your place,” suggests Charles Gayle, reigning king of New York City’s black free jazz players. “Because the heat at my place is not really happening.” The January weather has been severe in NYC and Gayle, aged 54 but still tall, lean and muscular, lives as he has for four years in an unrenovated East Village squat.
It seems that free jazz in New York is nearly homeless, certainly at the culture’s farthest fringe. Though physically vigorous, the nominally non-commercial, sometimes politically engaged, sometimes rhetorically self-righteous, sometimes fatally self-absorbed music that erupted from Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and their many associates three decades ago has just a few devotees who earn about as much money and respect as street people. Nonetheless, tenor saxophonists such as Gayle, David S Ware and Zane Massey, pianist Matt Shipp, bassist William Parker, drummer William Hooker, and a score or two of others persevere.
Free jazz is shunned and/or scorned by music mags, record labels, the latest wave of so-called mainstream players, influential critics, academics and presenting institutions. It is characteristically loud, dissonant, anarchic and confrontational, though free jazz players claim, as they always have, spiritual catharsis if not transcendence as their aim. The style’s superficial chaos, its apparent lack of differentiation, resembles, more than anything, the helter-skelter interactions of urban life. Well, what grows in the City takes on protective colouration. Most New Yorkers probably see and hear no more in free jazz than they do in weeds.
Drummer Rashied Ali (who appeared on Gayle’s 1993 FMP release Touchin On Trane) recently hosted the saxophonist at his Monday night series of concerts at The Cooler – a large, dim room in the remote meat-packing/transvestite-hooker district of New York. Other than such performer-produced occasions and infrequent events like radio station WKCR’s ‘Loft Jazz’ festival at Columbia University, you only find free jazz in New York’s midtown streets and subway tunnels – and at the Knitting Factory. There, Michael Dorf has promoted Gayle and others through regular bookings, inexpensive recordings, and tours of America and Europe.
Dorf knows that free jazz as practiced by blacks and whites and anyone else (Tuvan singer Sainkho Namchylak could certainly hang) refuses to disappear, be co-opted or die. In fact, he sees new fans arriving at the juncture out of rock and Improv (which is exactly the kind of connection being made in the music of guitarists like Rudolph Grey or Raoul Björkenheim, or such initiatives as Thurston Moore’s free jazz releases on his Ecstatic Peace label). “There’s a segue between Charles Gayle and Sonic Youth or even Nirvana,” says Dorf. “It’s like The Violent Femmes being interested in Cecil Taylor because of his cascade-of-notes concept. Charles just recorded with Henry Rollins, who wants him to open for his band whey they play New York this spring. Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth wants to do something with Charles. These popular white rockers appreciate the noise content of free jazz.”
In a warm office, Gayle unwraps wool scarves from his face, blows urgently on his hands, declines coffee, accepts peppermint tea in a mug bearing a picture of Malcolm X, then leans back and speaks candidly. “I’m thankful for the Knitting Factory,” he says, “because if it wasn’t there, it would be a little bit harder.”
Through his Factory appearances he’s gained a new audience
who’ll brave a sub-freezing winter or a sweatbox summer to hear the
piercing cries, gut-centred bellows, and melody-shredding
phraseology that mark his take on free jazz.
On the street he plays solo; otherwise Gayle plays in trio, sometimes adding a second bassist. His combos are dense and unremittingly active, though he says he prefers not to work with pianists because they get too busy and in his way (but he has performed with Cecil Taylor and enthuses, “If you’re going to play with somebody, play with Cecil Taylor. He’ll see what you’re made of. He’s constantly thinking and turning ideas over at a rate nobody else does”).
Most of Gayle’s accompanists (usually little known bassists and drummers he finds through word of mouth) strain to pump as much air as he does over a set (in terms of his approach to performance, Gayle has spoken of wanting to “go through the wall when I play. . . if the building is still standing when we’ve finished then we’ve failed”). Gayle often seems like a man possessed of a message. A self-professed Christian, he is not evangelical. So one is moved to ask: how did he come to play free jazz?
“I always had a big sound,” Gayle says, as if that was easy. “Big as all Buffalo [his New York hometown situated on an industrial snow belt]. I grew up in the projects, nice normal family, had a sister. When I was nine or ten I had a couple years piano lessons. The rest is self-taught.
“I wouldn’t say I always heard the way I’m playing since I was young, but I sort of knew I was leaning in a different direction. Because when I practised piano as a kid, I’d just go off into something else,” and he mimes hitting clusters with his elbows on the keys. “I don’t know kids do this, but somehow I never stopped doing it. I’m still like a child that way. I don’t mess with what you might call practising. I push for certain things for a while, but I don’t go nuts trying to get a certain sound out of a horn or pushing in one direction. I let it happen. I let the intensity, the drive, take me wherever. And I like to play all the time.
“I also remember from early on religious music in the tent-churches, super Baptist gospel where people would be rolling in the saw dust on the floor and the musicians would play not regular but nice little songs but another thing totally. I never forget those experiences. So jazz was not my first exposure to this music. And when I started playing saxophone in the late 50s I started to go this way, even though playing piano I was more straightlaced.
“I had straight-out gigs as a pianist, playing show tunes, bop, Charlie Parker, most of what everybody else played. I wasn’t great at it, but I did it at parties, lounges, piano bars; I’ll use the expression ‘jazz’ gigs. I knew the changes, I studied the music. When I got a saxophone, exposing myself to people through playing was already ingrained in me. I didn’t think, ‘Playing like this is for myself, personal.’ I went out for gigs as soon as I learned a scale up and down. I never thought I was ever not going to do this, and the way I played it just seemed natural to me. I felt easier than on piano, much more myself. Even to this day, I know I could go the other way, but this way I feel more myself.
“Of course, when you’re younger you think people should
listen to you because you’re playing something that’s worth
listening to. Now I don’t have any attitude that anybody’s supposed
to listen to me, that I deserve being heard. I’m always amazed
people will listen. It’s just a surprise, like a miracle! To me,
playing is like writing a letter to somebody. People want to pay to
hear me do that! I feel very privileged when people listen.”
During his Buffalo days, it was hard enough for Gayle to attract fellow players, let alone listeners. Encouraged, at least validated in his activity by the rise of Ayler, Coltrane et al in the early 60s, he started visiting New York and jammed with or met Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, “all the guys who came through that music.”
“I knew the cats, but I’m not one of those musicians who would hang,” Gayle confesses. “I was a loner – still am. I’d rather play my piece and go home. Maybe that hurt me, but it’s not something I could change. I was supposed to record for ESP [the ultimate 60s guerrilla free jazz label, which put out records by Ayler and Sun Ra as well as such exemplars of the NYC rock undergrounds as The Fugs, The Godz and Cromagnon], but something happened and the man [ESP founder Bernard Stollman] changed his mind. I don’t think it was the music.”
Gayle moved to New York to stay in 1972, and took up the life he still leads. “I’ve played in the subways and streets all the time I’ve been here, to earn a living. It was either that or be a messenger, walking all the time, which I’ve done, too. I took a couple of weeks off from playing the subway this year, because I’ve been able to make a little money. But I have it in my head all the time, because when I got up every day for years that’s where I’d be, in the streets or subways.
“It’s not fun, it’s not a happy-go-lucky thing. In fact, it can get depressing. It’s just that I like to play. I don’t make any money to even discuss, believe me. I’m playing a wind instrument, wearing it out all day, giving up my breath like I was playing football or something strenuous. I go four or five hours and get three dollars. Three dollars”!
“And nobody listens. Once in a while somebody will come through and request a song. But nobody stands there and checks me out. They hear me in passing, but I don’t gather crowds. They’d stop to hear a song, but I’m not playing songs. What I hear is the traffic. Everybody in New York hears it, but it’s really vivid in my head. Horns and children and birds, too – I hear them so clearly, they hit me so hard. The subway roar, the jackhammers. Not that they’re so loud but they stay there. The trucks and the sirens and the screeching and the hollering and the brakes, all that jagged movement, the Arggghhhh! Without thinking about it, I relate to that. Invariably, no matter where I am, if I hear a siren and I’m in the middle of playing something, I start to try to do the same thing. It just always happens.
“Don’t take me wrong – playing in the street can be beautiful.
The idea of it is beautiful. But you can’t talk about the
monetary rewards. It’s kept me going, but the motivation is
internal. I don’t know clearly what my motivation is, but it feels
more from in here than from out there. No doubt of that.”
What is Gayle motivated to do? “Improve, whatever that would mean. Change. Maybe that’s not the only way to do it, but I don’t want to get bagged out, tired and restless. I don’t want to get to the point of saying, ‘That’s it, I’m going to cool it, just go on automatic.’ I think when I stop pushing, when I get satisfied with myself, I’ve got a problem.
“I mean, there’s so much I want to get to, that if I pick up something from two, three years ago, and I’m still in the same bag now, I’ve got to think about that. It’s not right. It’s sort of like getting addicted to a style, a way of playing. And I’d rather be surprised. Maybe I could do it forever – playing hard, loud, strong, pushing, all these kinds of things people have been saying about me – and I hope to stay strong, play hard into my seventies, if I can. But people write about you and all of a sudden you’ve got a style, and you sort of believe it. You get caught up in, ‘This is the way I’ve got to play,’ and every time you come out, it’s the same. I don’t want to do that. That’s not a truth.
“I don’t know what I want to do. I’m going through a what-is-the-next-thing process now, and it’s hurting my head but I like it. Maybe there’s some technique, or different way to approach playing myself.”
Rather than call his music ‘free’, Gayle talks of “the self-expressive, sort of out , make-up-your-own-rules kind of thing. I take a chance by trying to stop being musical, and trying to stop getting caught up in my own stuff or style all the time. I’ve got to have an edge – I now that, if I don’t know anything else. I was born to it. As far as rewards, I either get what I deserve or I don’t. I can’t think about it. There’s not a hundred million dollars behind me to make people hear me, so I’ve got to work harder to reach them. I’m not going to play another kind of music to do that. It’s a little late for me; it would disturb my mind and soul to try.
“I remember when no one would listen at all. When I had absolutely no work. I know what it is to have nothing on the record market after 30 of playing, and what it is to hope to get two or three jobs a year. So I don’t feel too bad, now. I’ve done a little travelling, I’ve been to some nice places in the world,” Gayle’s face actually lights up, “and seen some things that brings tears to my eyes, they’re so beautiful. Like the mountains, man, I’d never seen anything in my life like the Alps. I’d never travelled but 300, 400 miles from my home, never been on an airplane, until the last ten years. The mountains just stopped me.
“And the beauty of people, how they relate and be so nice to you, and you’re nice to them – that’s the most beautiful thing. But I’ve seen so many beautiful things, had so many nice experiences. . . I’d like to keep them coming if I can. I couldn’t have done them without playing the saxophone and the music. So it pays off, no matter what.” He considers for a moment. “And even without that, I’m still going to play.”
That determination, in itself, does not make what Charles Gayle plays “free jazz”. But it helps one understand something of how unruly, confrontational, uncompromising free jazz survives.