My Name is Albert Ayler- prophet of a new era

Last night I saw a great documentary about the great Avant-Garde tenor player Albert Ayler called My Name is Albert Ayler. The movie featured radio interviews of Albert talking about the evolution of his music, as well as recent interviews with Albert's family and friends. There is even some rare footage of Albert performing for Trane's memorial service.

Albert had a rough time in his early career because no one understood what he was doing. He didn't even fully understand exactly what he was trying to do at first. He had absolute faith, against all odds, that people would appreciate his music in years to come. Albert even referred to himself as a prophet. It was inspirational to hear about how much negative criticism Ayler withstood without changing the musical direction he was taking. One of his ex-girlfriends said that Albert was the most stubborn person that she had ever met in her entire life. Once he had his opinion about something nothing anyone else said to the contrary mattered to him.

Albert probably would have languished in obscurity had it not been for Trane telling Bob Thiele at Impulse that Ayler was a very important tenor player, and requesting for Ayler to play at his memorial service. A few months after Trane's passing Impulse signed Ayler. After all, they had just lost the artist that had practically built their company. It was a logical choice for Impulse.

I was really struck by the power that Ayler played with, his sound was enormous and he bared his soul freely. Monk's Dream, who saw the flick with me, said that he thought that Ayler was the most bombastic player he had ever heard. I guess I didn't hear that part of Ayler's playing as much. I heard the beautiful sound and the intense emotion and commitment to the music. There was a beauty and spirituality present in Ayler's music, even when it seemed like only a true honkaphile (the sound, not the race) would be able to appreciate it.

When Albert signed to Impulse the label didn't want his brother Donald, who Albert had convinced to come to NYC and learn the trumpet, along as an equal partner. This sent Donald into to a full mental breakdown and psychotic episode, from which he never fully recovered from. Albert tried to send his sick brother back to live with his mother in Cleveland, but his mother just sent him back to Albert. She insisted it was Albert's fault that his brother lost his marbles, and Albert should take care of him because of that.

Around this time Albert decided that he finally wanted a wider audience and made a rock album. I was surprised that Albert would make such a seemingly drastic compromise after being such a purist for so many years before that point. Maybe the financial pressure of supporting his brother was the reason he did it, or maybe he knew that his contract with Impulse was not going to last if he didn't sell more records. Maybe it was the influence of his new girlfriend Mary Parks, who managed all his affairs and happened to be a Rock and Roll singer. Then is also the possibility that Ayler just wanted to go in that direction purely for artistic reasons. This last explanation is pretty hard for me to swallow, considering his attitude about being the prophet Avant-Garde Jazz.

Albert explored spirituality more rigorously and joined an esoteric order that practiced an ancient Egyptian form of mysticism called Khemit. Mary Parks was once quoted as saying," I would like to think that I was a force who continually inspired him at times when he only wanted to meditate." The Ausar Auset Society is based in Brooklyn and was founded three years after Ayler died. From their own website:

The Ausar Auset Society is a Pan-African religious organization that has been providing Afrocentric based spiritual training to the African-American community and to African descendants in the Diaspora, as well as a social vehicle that allows for the expression of the spiritual values learned, for over 30 years. Based on the indigenous traditional African cultures dating from the earliest documentable periods (Kamit [ancient Egypt], Indus Kush [pre-Aryan Vedantic India], Canaan [Palestine], and Kush [Ethiopia]), the classes taught revolve around the oldest religion known to mankind – the Ausarian religion of ancient Kamit. The Kamitic Tree of Life (Paut Neteru) forms the basis of the cosmogony (philosophy) of this ancient system. It reunites the traditions of the great Black founders of civilization, allowing us to weave their knowledge into a spiritually empowering way of life which aims at the awakening of the Ausar principle (the Divine Self) within each being. The classes taught are merely a means toward the end of organizing the society’s members into a community in which the ageless wisdom of ancient African cultures can be lived on an on-going daily basis. For a people to grow spiritually, and hence, come harmoniously and productively together, they must encounter the spiritualizing forces, not in the halls of education or between the pages of books, but at every turn of their day to day interaction with life and with each other.

The Ausar Auset Society functions as an international body that teaches Kamitic philosophy (cosmology), meditation and ritual, oracle consultation, yoga, nutrition, herbalism, homeopathy, astrology, African history/culture, and other disciplines to students/initiates around the world for the purpose of developing a more complete, well-rounded spiritual individual.

The Ausar Auset Society has based its government on the traditional African Kingship structure which has been officially recognized by the Asantehene (King of the Ashantis) of Ghana. This system is built around a hierarchally organized group of officials whose titles include King, Queen Mother, Priest(ess), Chief(tess) and Elder. One of the main differences between the traditional African Kingship and its European counterpart is that the King had to also qualify as the Chief Priest. This ensured that the leader of the people was a highly spiritually trained person of impeccable character. It is principally this criteria that enabled traditional African nations to maintain greater social stability than their western counterparts over a long period of time.

Each Ausar Auset Society Hesp (Nome/Region) is organized under the leadership of either a Paramount King, Paramount Queen Mother, or Chief(tess) that has his/her own hierarchy of officials and complete autonomy over their respective region.

The Ausarian religious system, which is also the oldest (cir. 3000 BC - 300 AD), has at its essence, the establishment of an intimate relationship with God. It's fundamental tenet holds that God and Man (men and women) share the same divine attributes qualitatively (though not quantitatively). Thus unlike the Judeo-Christian system and other such religions in which man is essentially bound to the frailties of the flesh and is incapable of transcending his/her human limitations, the Ausarian religion is fundamentally based upon the individual's effort to use each and every life experience as a means of bringing his/her divine attributes to the forefront of existence as the "normal" way of addressing all issues in life. Hence, there is no "salvation" after a life of debauchery and mistreatment of others simply through forgiveness of one's sins when death approaches. One must live by Maat (Divine Law) while interacting on this physical plane, thus making one's body, and even one's life, a fit vessel through which God's divine attributes can be of service to all creation all over the world. Unlike the Western belief of a world full of chance and coincidence, Africans understand that the Divine intelligence is ever present and actively ordering the events of our lives. This Divine intelligence speaks to us through the pronouncements of the great Oracle of Tehuti (i.e., Metu Neter Oracle, I-Ching), enabling the devotee to ask a question of God and receive a clear answer before embarking on a potentially life altering decision.

In 1970, at the age of 34 Albert Ayler was found floating in the East River. Was the pressure from his mother and brother too much to handle? Did Albert fall prey to the mental illness that ran in his family? Did he see that his career had peaked and was in decline? There are always a lot of these types questions to be answered when an important artist takes their own life at such a young age.

Albert Ayler exerted a strong influence on the musical direction of John Coltrane, this much is certain. We can also thank Coltrane for the fact that Ayler's music lives on, even if his career was tragically cut short . One thing I noticed from some of the films of Ayler playing was that his technique was fantastic. Even when he was wailing like a baby pig in a tree chipper Albert's hands always stayed very close to the keys and looked totally relaxed. I think a lot of free music, even the stuff that sounds like the shrieking of demon babies, is played by musicians who are actually feeling emotionally serene, like Trane and Ayler. There is certainly a lot to be said for being able to let out all of your bottled up feelings through your music, it's cathartic to say the least.

"If people don't like it now, they will." -Albert Ayler

My Name is Albert Ayler web site
Albert Ayler fan site

Albert Ayler: His Life and Music- a biography by Jeff Schwart
Chapter 1: 1936-1963

Chapter 2: 1963-1964

Chapter 3: 1965-1966

Chapter 4: 1966-1967

Chapter 5: 1968-1970

Chapter 6: 1970

Appendix: Critical Responses to Albert Ayler's work in Downbeat Magazine



MonksDream said...

Well, David, I have to admit my ignorance of the definition of the word "bombastic" here. What I meant was a hybrid between the words "the bomb" and "fantastic."

But seriously though, after listening to a lot of Ayler in my late teens and early twenties, I basically meant something like "overtly expressive, to the point of being sometimes unruly," or some such thing. To my dismay, I discovered that it's definition is: ostentatiously lofty in style; "a man given to large talk"; "tumid political prose."

This is certainly not what I meant as I dig Ayler from time to time, although, I wouldn't say that I listen to him while driving around all day.

I did think that the movie could have gone further in explaining Donald Ayler's psychosis. I didn't necessarily think that any real reason was given. I suppose I would have liked it if they'd explored his mental state a little bit more, like in the movie about Robert Crumb entitled "Crumb," which goes more in depth at examining the relationship between madness and creativity.

But that would have been a very different movie, n'est-ce pas?

cheers, Monk's Dream

David Carlos Valdez said...

I do think that Bombastic is the prefect word to describe Ayler's playing. It is explosive, energetic and loud as hell. It would also probably hurt to stand too close to him when he was playing. That said there are positive qualities there too.

I also wish the film got into Albert's mental state more. They hinted around a lot, but there weren't a lot of details about the point leading up to his suicide.

I got the feeling that Donald flipped out on too much blow, or it at least contributed quite a bit.

chicken little said...

You know how much I love Albert's playing and what a huge influence he had on me. I think his music is extremely important and will continue to be listened to long after many of the current flavor of the month crew is long forgotten. Albert was expressing the emotional tumult of his time in a pure and unique way. I wish that somebody could say that about anybody of our generation.

David Carlos Valdez said...

You're right on about that.

I can't really think of many cats of our generation who play with that kind of emotional expression, maybe John Medeski. Yes, that's right the Nu_jazz superstar. John was about the best player on any instrument to come out of NEC or Berklee in the late 80's. He could play about any style and make you cry.

Another guy was John Dirac, a guitarist who studied at both NEC and Berklee. Wait! Of course the FUZE has to be on that short list of mine.