The purpose of this page is to gather together any reminiscences of Albert Ayler from the people who knew him, played with him or attended his concerts. If anyone has any memories they would like to share, then just let me know.
If you don’t fall into any of those categories, but would still like to add your thoughts about Ayler to the site then there’s the Appreciations of Ayler page.
He was a fantastic sort of fellow and we had a ton of fun in the service . . . especially when I went to hear him play. He was terrific at such an early age. We lost contact after I left France.
I saw Ayler frequently at the Harbord Barracks EM (enlisted men) club in Orleans, France during the period 1961-1962. He would give these free noon concerts that were frequented by civilians who perhaps lived in Orleans and the surrounding areas. US soldiers that frequently attended were mostly from the large cities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. I would think that it was the Europeans who understood the music better than the GIs.
This is something great you guys are doing to remember a very unique sax player. I remember Ayler always had on a black sort of leather jacket (not the type worn by motorcyclists) men wore in France during that time.
Ayler was not playing hard bop or mainstream music. He was sort of initiating what he later ended up being known for - Avant- Garde. I was very familiar with bop because I was listening to the original Jazz Messengers and Diz and Bird. He was seen as a very pleasant person doing, on his own, public service work for the US by playing his music for free at the EM club while representing the United States as a soldier.
The first time I heard Albert Ayler was when I purchased the 'Spiritual Unity' ESP album that came out in 1964. The music just enthralled me. By the time 'Bells' came out, I was a devoted Ayler fan.
There was very little documentation on the new jazz scene in the French magazines (or elsewhere) around then. In the summer of 1965 I had a three-week holiday from my regular job and decided to head to New York for a look-see at the scene and eventually report all about it in the magazine Jazz Hot where I was publishing some articles.
So in September of that year I was on my way to New York to explore the new music that was being produced there and listen to the musicians who were involved in the so-called October Revolution.
Ayler was a focal point.
A few hours after my arrival, I ran into Sonny Murray who was standing outside Slug's on the Lower East Side. Murray was helping there in the capacity of club bouncer. He had been offered the part-time job through Henry Grimes with whom he was sharing a flat. Grimes was playing at the club that night as part of the Charles Lloyd quartet.
I asked Murray if he knew where I could meet Albert Ayler. Murray said that Ayler had been inside the club that evening but had left shortly before I walked in. Murray added that Ayler would be making a recording session soon and that this would be probably the only opportunity to hear Ayler during my three-week stay.
The session was scheduled for September 23 at Judson Hall on West 57th Street opposite the Carnegie Hall.
When I arrived there, most of the musicians were already there. Gary Peacock who travelled by train from Boston was the last one to arrive. While waiting for him to show up, Albert and Don Ayler and Charles Tyler rehearsed music in unison.
The music they were playing turned out to be the French national anthem 'La Marseillaise'. For an instant, I was presumptuous enough to think it was a musical welcome for me.
Albert Ayler was blowing and marching around the studio. The engineer stopped him to indicate how far he could move around the premises when the recording session would actually take place.
Call Cobbs, a veteran musician who played piano with Johnny Hodges in 1954 when the Hodges band included John Coltrane, was in a corner getting acquainted with an electric harpsichord he would use for the tune 'Angel' which he played with Ayler and the rhythm section.
There had been no previous rehearsal of the all new material. Soon after that, Gary Peacock arrived. The full band assembled for a quick soundcheck and at 4.30 pm the recording proceeding started. Two hours later, all the music for the album had been recorded.
During the session, Albert Ayler gave quick indications to the musicians on the next tune, then the music was taped.
Bernard Stollman who had stepped in before the session began and had asked Ayler and the musicians if everything was all right, went into the recording booth and stayed there throughout the session.
I was also impressed by Sonny Murray's drumming. His set-up was as simple as could be imagined; one bass drum, one snare drum, one hi-hat and a single cymbal. He was using metal drumsticks that looked to be made out of aluminium. In addition to the musicians involved, present at the session were Stollman, the recording engineer, pianist Burton Greene and a photographer who turned out to be W. Eugene Smith, one of the greatest photographers of all time. I was awe-struck by Smith's presence. I was a novice photographer then and my equipment was even more minimal than Murray's drum kit. I had brought a camera to take some photos at the session. I had a simple reflex camera with the basic 50mm lens. Smith was equipped with four Mamiya reflex cameras. I talked to him before the session got underway.
Smith couldn't be nicer after I mentioned how much I admired his photos and did everything to make me feel at ease.
Then, the music came.
I can't recall any equivalent to the impact of hearing Albert Ayler's music live. The full blast of his (and his players') sound just about shattered one's ears and had your mouth wide open in amazement. The impact was overwhelming. You loved it or you hated it. I loved it. The first tune which became the album title turned out to be a variation on 'La Marseillaise'. I couldn't believe what Ayler and his musicians played and was totally enthralled by its energy. No need to elaborate further on the music at that point, the ESP album speaks for itself.
There were no second takes. 'It's always like that with Albert', Murray told me. When the tunes were done, the musicians went to the control booth to listen to the tapes. They seemed happy with the music.
I talked at length with Albert Ayler at a party which was held at the Lafayette Street apartment of Dutch jazz fan Elisabeth Van Der Mei a few days after the session. Elisabeth had moved in from Holland in 1964 and was very much into the new music and had made friends with all the musicians. She was hired as assistant by Bernard Stollman shortly after the 'Spirits Rejoice' session. Ayler had a lot of memories of his stay - when he was in the Army - in Orleans, France in 1960 and had sojourned there for nearly two years. He also mentioned travelling to Paris to jam at clubs whenever he could. I was pretty familiar with that scene but I had missed his appearances since I was a conscript in the French Army in Algeria at that time. We had fun when we found out we had marched at the same Bastille Day parade in 1960. I did not remember there was a US Army unit at that parade but Ayler confirmed he was in that one and had marched down the Champs-Elysées. I had marched the same avenue during that parade with my French Army infantry regiment.
Ayler was at the party with his brother Donald, Charles Tyler and the Cleveland trumpet player Norman Howard. Ayler told me he never rehearsed with his musicians. He said that he and the musicians around him felt the same things and that was enough.
Albert Ayler was opening later in the week at Slug's and he invited me to the club but it turned out the opening night was to be held on the day I was to return to Paris.
When the Ayler band played at the Paris Jazz Festival in 1966, I went to the hotel he and his band were staying to pick him up and head to the Salle Pleyel for the concert, which is out now on the HatArt release. There was a small problem before the musicians left the hotel because some of their luggage had not arrived in time. Albert Ayler was desperately looking for proper shoes to appear at the concert. He even asked me if I could loan him my shoes. It turned out they were too big for him. He however managed to get a decent pair. The Paris audience reaction to Ayler's music was interesting. The whole audience was stunned. A number of people could not stand the intensity of the music and booed but most of the audience just enjoyed it and Ayler and his musicians got a lot of applause.
There were two concerts that evening. The first one is the one that is on records. The second which was held very late in the evening was sparsely attended.
Cecil Taylor was at the concerts. He congratulated Ayler at length when they met after Ayler's appearance.
Actress Catherine Deneuve also attended the concert. She was with her then companion British photographer David Bailey.
When Ayler appeared at the 'Nuits de la Fondation Maeght' concerts in Saint-Paul de Vence, on the French Riviera, in late July 1970 I tried to go there but could not leave Paris because of work commitments. And when a few days after those concerts, Alain Corneau, a friend who turned later into one of the best-known French film directors, called me at work from Nice airport after the concerts to ask if I could rush to Orly airport to meet Ayler and his musicians to help them through the airport to catch their plane home, I had to tell him I just could not since I was in the middle of a very busy assignment. I felt terrible.
Four months later, Ayler would be gone.
(Guy Kopelowicz’s photos of the ‘Spirits Rejoice’ session are available here.)
Charles W. Taylor
My memories of Albert Ayler are from 1959-60 when we were members of the 76th Army Band stationed in Orleans, France. (I was a trumpet player.)
I agree with Jerry Webb that Albert was a very nice man who was always friendly and pleasant to be around. I do remember though, on one occasion that he was not entirely in agreement with a statement I made to him. He had just returned from the field and told me that it was so cold that they had to burn a Frenchman's wooden fence in order to keep warm. I said that they shouldn't have done that, and he replied that if I were there I would have done the same thing. (I didn't have to be there because I had been injured in a basketball game.)
As to his "new thing" music, I remember him always practicing during band rehearsal breaks. He was a very hard worker along with another saxophone player named Lucius C. White. They practiced often and played anywhere they could. Lucius had ambitions to be another Charlie Parker and didn't really care what Albert was doing.
Thank you for the opportunity to relive some pleasant memories.
(Mr. Taylor kindly sent me two photographs of Albert Ayler from his time in France which are available here.)
(I’d like to thank Paul Jimenes, who first told me about a French rock band taking their name from Albert Ayler, then followed up the story and received the following letter from Denis Benoliel of ‘Albert et sa Fanfare Poliorcétique’ concerning the band’s connection with Albert Ayler. Paul translated the letter and added a few explanatory notes in [ ].)
‘ “Albert et sa Fanfare Poliorcétique”, our band that made shows in the streets and played theatrical rock was composed of former members of the Brass Band of the Beaux-Arts [the French National art school] and other people such as myself, and also students of the Fine Arts from Marseilles. There was a comic published in the newspaper “Actuel” that told the story of a brass band invading towns, written by my fellow-worker Jo, in 1969.
One summer, during the holidays, there was a concert by Albert Ayler at the Fondation Maeght in St. Paul de Vence. He played free jazz with his band. We were told that the next day he would play in the V.V.F. [“a state-subsidized holiday village”. V.V.F. stands for “Village Vacances Famille”] where he and his band lived during their stay. So we went there and he made the audience dance with music such as “Petite Fleur”, the song by Sidney Bechet. He was really having a good time. Then, when they took a break, we had a chat with him, and when he knew we were a brass band, his face lit up and he told us it was one of his dreams, to play in public with a brass band.
When we were seeking a name for our band, the radio was on, and we learnt of his tragic death in the Hudson. We immediately decided to call the band “Albert et sa fanfare...” [“Albert and his brass band...”] ... and what? We opened a dictionary, and by chance we arrived on the page where we found the word “poliorcétique”, which means “town invaders”. This was (as far as we were concerned), how we lived, because when we arrived in the middle of nowhere, the doors and the windows opened, and people smiled and quickly we were surrounded by a lot of people who invited us to have a drink in bistros or in their homes.’
(In November 1972 Albert et sa Fanfare Poliorcétique were featured in a programme on French Tv, which is now available on the INA site.)
Ronald Shannon Jackson
“It is very difficult for a person who has experienced LSD to communicate that experience to those who have not experienced, smoke. Playing with Albert Ayler was a once in a life time experience and as such an almost impossible experience to convey on paper. It¹s a book in itself, that one day soon I hope to write.
John Coltrane loved Albert¹s playing. I have had the good fortune of riding in the back seat of Trane's station wagon, listening to 2 creative forces discussing the ethereal, philosophical and physical, spiritual demands required and expected to be delivered by them. Listening to the Jim Browne and Michael Jordan of the saxophones discuss the evil forces in play against them is another book.
Hope this gives you some insight into playing with Albert.”
(Albert Ayler’s only appearance in Britain was the infamous BBC sponsored gig at the London School of Economics on 15th. November 1966. The concert was filmed but the programme was never broadcast and the tapes were later wiped.)
“Looking at the site again reminded me of this gig. I was there, and remember the music as being pretty lacklustre until, with Don A. in mid-solo, a technician came on stage and abruptly thrust the microphone stand towards D. Ayler. The band lost their temper(s) and the music suddenly became intense. I remember that the place was fairly crowded - I wish I could remember how I found out about the recording. The story about the tapes which was current in those days was that Billy Cotton Jr had been passing a room at the BBC where someone was playing back the tape, and was so horrified by the sound of it that he ordered its destruction - highly unlikely: if he had that much power, most of the decent music recorded by the BBC would have gone the same way!”
(On the same event.)
“I too was at the LSE concert. Beer drinking students made up most of the audience who casually came and went but what I recall most is Ayler's sound, absolutely spine-tingling stuff. The group played "The Truth Is Marching In" twice, if my memory serves, with an interval in between.
It is among the two or three most memorable concerts I've attended, if only for the staggerring quality of his sound. Incidentally I recall a rumour at the time of a dispute at Heathrow. It's probably apocryphal but the story goes that on being asked by customs if there was anything inside his tenor, he assembled the horn and began to play!”
(On the same event: a near miss.)
“I wish I could add my impressions of Ayler at LSE. I was in Dobell's Jazz Record Shop in the Charing Cross Road one day, playing hookey from my chemical-engineering course as was my wont, when I heard someone say that Ayler was rehearsing at the LSE that very afternoon. I dashed down there, sneaked into the back of the Old Theatre (or whatever it was called), and found – Astrud Gilberto being diva-ish with a Danny Moss quartet. Maybe, as some of your articles state, Ayler never did rehearse.”
“Albert was a prince of a guy.. majestic and humble at the same time.. Like Coltrane, his spiritual magnitude was immediately apparent to any one who came in contact with him. It’s some of the treasured memories of my life, having had some golden opportunities to hang out and play together with him. When I heard about his untimely death it left me bereft for days on end.”
“I first met Albert Ayler in Spain in 1961. I was playing in a quintet led by the blind pianist Tete Monteliu. Our group had a steady gig at a place in Barcelona called the Jamboree Club; we were the house band, and one night during the break this guy came over. He had a beard that was part white and he wore a green leather suit - in those days in Spain it was very cheap to get leather clothes made, I did it too, I was really stylish there. The guy said he was on leave from the army band in France, and he asked if he could sit in. We didn’t know who he was because he wasn’t known at the time, but he was very beautiful and gracious. I remember I said to Tete, “He wants to sit in,” and Tete said, “Okay.” Our sax player Viccio lent Albert his horn, we started playing “All the Things You Are,” and this big sound came out. Some people in the audience got up and left because they couldn’t take it. What a sound! We said, “Whoa,” and we freaked. We liked Albert and his music, so he kind of hung out with us the next few days; we got to know him, and I got friendly with him.
Albert made interesting statements; he knew about Ornette because Ornette was the big thing at that moment, but he said, “I have something original to say as well, I have my own thing and I’m going to do something special.” He wasn’t putting down Ornette; he didn’t say it in an ego way, but he was sure of himself. He went back to the base and finished out his duty, then he stayed in Europe and went to Scandanavia where he made his first record.
I saw Albert again in 1962 after the World Youth Festival in Helsinki. At the festival I played in a group with Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, Howard McRae and Don Moore. After the festival was over Archie and some other musicians went to Russia, but the rest of our group went on to Stockholm as a quartet and got some gigs. Albert was in the Old Town in Stockholm, I introduced him to the band and he sat in with us.
Through the years Albert came back to New York, and when I got out of the army in 1965 I ran into him a lot. That’s when I had the Uni Trio and we were all living together; Albert came to our pad a few times and I introduced him to bassist Bill Folwell, who later played with him. Albert was the most beautiful cat, just a wonderful soul.”
(This is an excerpt from the book Perry Robinson: The Traveler by Perry Robinson and Florence Wetzel)
“I was stationed with Albert Ayler at Ft Knox, Ky., and Orleans, France. In France, we were in the 76th army band together and played in a combo ( The New Yorkers ) with Fred Choice on bass and Master Sergeant Sam Brown on piano. I was the drummer and played with the group for about a year and a half. I would like to add that Sam Brown was a terrific jazz pianist and went on to become an army bandmaster. I also became a bandmaster and along with Ayler, learned much from Sam Brown. Because Ayler was a very good rock 'n' roll tenor player, his friends called him "Bop Daddy", or just "BOP". Everyone liked Al and I got to know him very well because we played so many gigs together. After I left Orleans, I received several letters from Al telling me that he was experimenting with a new way of playing. When I heard that he had died, I was heart broken, along with his old army buddys. Al was an immaculate dresser and always had a smile and kind word for everyone. I don't ever remember him saying anything bad about anyone. He was a fine person and I'm glad that he was my friend and that I had the opportunity to know and work with him.”
“I first saw Ayler play at the 67 Newport Festival. That night was structured as a chronological history of jazz. I don't remember too much about the lineup, except that it started with Olatunji (Marshall Allen was in the band), and ended with Ayler. The sets were all pretty short, so the three tracks referred to on the "unreleased recordings" section of your site is probably all that was played. Ayler played both tenor and alto. He didn't have the sax stands most doublers would. He laid the unused horn on a chair. After his last tune, festival impresario George Wein asked him if he would like to play another number. Ayler declined. This is all I remember.
I saw Ayler playing at Slugs about a month later, with Donald Ayler, Alan Silva, and Milford Graves. It was on a Tuesday night, the first day of a six night gig. There wasn't much of a crowd. I talked to Albert during a break. He seemed to be a pretty nice fellow.
Albert Ayler's funeral service was held in the chapel of a cemetery off of Chagrin Boulevard in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. I went, along with a few of my friends. There were about fifty people in attendance, all appearing to be, aside from my party, family and family friends. There was no eulogy to speak of, just a general religious speech by the minister. He did not mention Ayler by name. After the service, one of the family members asked us who we were. We said we were fans. He said he appreciated our attendance.”
“In 2000, when I was writing cd-booklets for the short-lived Dutch Calibre re-issues of the ESP catalogue, Bernard Stollman visited me at my house, and of course, we talked music. He took a long look at my transparent Italian vinyl re- issue of Ayler's Bells album (on GET BACK). Suddenly I realised that a historical figure was standing in my living room, holding one of my favourite albums, which he had produced himself. I asked Mr Stollman to sign the 'empty side B' of the vinyl. There he wrote with a red marker: 'Dear Remco, I am grateful for your contribution to the ESP Story. Bernard Stollman.'”
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