Flowers for Albert

Flowers for Albert

On the morning of November 25, 1970, the body of a young African-American male was recovered from the foot of the Congress Street Pier in Brooklyn.


On the morning of November 25, 1970, the body of a young African-American male was recovered from the foot of the Congress Street Pier in Brooklyn. He was subsequently identified by his father and a fellow musician as the 34-year-old saxophonist Albert Ayler. The name was quickly entered–alongside those of Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Booker Little, Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane–in modern jazz’s Book of Martyrs. A career that had been forged in fire was quenched in water.

No matter how earthly the music Ayler had forged in his short career, his reputation quickly took off into the ether, and because martyrdom demands a cause and a culprit, rumors spread as to the circumstances of his death, an apparent suicide. Ayler had not been seen for nearly three weeks before he was found. There were stories of police visits to his house. His last companion, singer Mary Maria, who had accompanied him on some of his controversial final recordings, apparently called them in because she was worried about his safety. Some versions hinted that the mob was involved, or drug dealers. There was talk of a bullet wound in the back of Albert’s head, though not a whisper of this until he had been buried–sans post-mortem–for the better part of six months. The paranoia became more elaborate with the passage of time, and a recent Internet story repeated the suggestion that Albert’s remains were just the human husk of a superior alien being who had been reclaimed by his own.

Instant mythologies usually bespeak an extraordinary and problematic nature, and Albert Ayler had both. There are few more stridently powerful voices in the whole saxophone literature, though few of the greats of modern jazz–perhaps only Ornette Coleman–have attracted more accusations of fakery. Even after a lapse of half a biblical lifetime, and at a moment when a senior and yet more grizzled Ayler might still be playing, his recorded output is still scarifyingly intense. The poet Ted Joans likened an Ayler performance to screaming “FUCK” in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

At least the setting makes sense. Reference books often characterize Ayler’s music as ultra-modern, unprecedented, sui generis. In reality, it was deeply conservative, steeped in the blues, field hollers and, above all, in church music. His song titles–“Ghosts,” “Bells,” “Zion Hill,” “Omega,” “Spirits”–point to a strongly religious sensibility. For all its seeming radicalism, there is little in Ayler’s music that cannot be found in roots r&b. The difference lies in the intensity with which he played it.

Using a Fibercane #4, the hardest plastic reed available, and screaming or growling through his mouthpiece, Ayler played tenor (and sometimes alto) saxophone with a fury that beggars the imagination and makes his forerunner John Coltrane sound tame by comparison. His preferred method was to stitch large-scale musical canvases out of two, three or more of his own starkly beautiful melodies. It was a technique that developed through a long apprenticeship. A child prodigy in Cleveland and winner of talent contests, Albert became known as the “Little Bird” of his native Cleveland, just one of a host of apostolic successors touted after Charlie Parker’s death. Ayler began his professional career in Little Walter’s Blues Band, but like many musicians of his generation, he refined his technique as a star soloist with a US Army band, where virtuosity was less important than clear, direct statement. When you listen to Coltrane, lost in some harmonic labyrinth, you wonder whether he’s ever going to reach the anticipated climax. By contrast, Ayler seems to take the moment of transcendence as a starting point, a given.

Until recently, finding an Albert Ayler record presented something of a challenge. There weren’t many to begin with, the early ones clouded in obscurity, the late ones mostly deleted or compromised in many fans’ eyes by Ayler’s late turn to an aggressive form of r&b. Where most big record stores stock whole wildernesses of Coltrane–special editions of A Love Supreme, boxed sets of “greatest works,” absurd collections like Coltrane Plays for Lovers–you’d be hard-pressed to find many that could fish you out a copy even of Ayler’s 1964 masterpiece Spiritual Unity, a trio recording with the bassist Gary Peacock and the drummer Sunny Murray, or an edition of other work that identifies the tunes accurately.

That has changed with the release of Holy Ghost, a nine-CD set of previously unreleased Ayler material. These live discs, lo-fi but issued in a beautifully molded “Spirit Box” by Revenant Records (, almost double the amount of Ayler’s music currently available. (As an equivalent, try to imagine someone turning up another four albums’ worth of unreleased Charlie Parker studio material or another twenty hours of live Coltrane.) A bonus tenth disc offers a rare glimpse of Ayler the Army musician, but the first real dates are caught during his exile in Scandinavia, where he scuffled a living with local musicians, much as Eric Dolphy did on his fateful trip to Europe in 1964. Back then, Ayler was still playing standard and repertory tunes like “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Summertime” and “Sonnymoon for Two.” The harmonics are still familiar, even if the articulation is distinctive.

The Revenant set takes its title from Ayler’s claim that “Trane was the father. Pharoah was the son. I was the holy ghost.” The fact that he attributed divine stature to John Coltrane and his close collaborator, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, is somehow less striking than that he should have expressed his own role in the past tense. As a (self-) description, it needs to be looked at very carefully. If it implies that Ayler’s music was mystical, otherworldly and evanescent, then it is a deeply misleading description, and unfortunately the one that has gained strongest currency. If it suggests an ambition to remain rooted in the traditions of black music, undisturbed by fashion, then it makes greater sense. It also squares with the religious reverence surrounding Coltrane and the equally obsessive search for his apostles and disciples.

One of the most important and moving tracks on the album is Ayler’s performance at Coltrane’s funeral in July 1967, a characteristic segue of his compositions “Love Cry” and “Truth Is Marching In.” If that was the event that initiated the posthumous Coltrane cult, it should also have offered a hint that his legacy might head in very different, less convoluted directions. This was not to be, however. Coltrane’s increasingly baleful influence can be heard almost every time a young saxophonist picks up his horn: harmonic complexity in plenitude, but little sense of structure or order, little of the “story” or “song” Lester Young identified as the foundation of an effective solo. By comparison with the acres of newsprint and glossy columns devoted to Coltrane, it’s striking how little space mainstream surveys of modern jazz give to more radical innovators like Ayler and the pianist Cecil Taylor, still a vibrant presence on the scene though he remains entirely outside the mainstream. One of the most precious moments on Holy Ghost finds Ayler with Taylor’s quartet in Copenhagen in November 1962. Where, four years before, Coltrane had struggled to blend his fissile harmonies with Taylor’s supposedly atonal–actually, polytonal–approach, Ayler seems much more at home in this context, stretching his deceptively crude melodic style to fit Taylor’s procrustean meter. Even when he was working as a sideman, and playing someone else’s material–Holy Ghost features Ayler playing under the leadership of, among others, the obscure free-jazz pianist Burton Greene, Pharoah Sanders and the trumpeter Don Ayler, Albert’s brother–the saxophonist’s iron-hard articulation and “unearthly” wail are unmistakable.

Throughout the Ayler literature there is a suggestion that he never felt entirely at home on this planet, let alone in Ohio, where he was born in 1936 and where many of the live sessions on Holy Ghost were taped. He encountered racism in the military and developed a self-protective reticence, even mystery, but nothing that hints at a messiah complex. On the contrary, he was earthly, grounded and hard-working, and he deserves more than an eccentric’s spot in recent musical history. It’s an irony that his subsequent reputation might rest on these shakily recorded sides rather than on a body of professionally produced work. Even fans of Spiritual Unity, Prophecy and Bells (his trinity of great works) have tended to be dismissive of some of the later work, albums like Love Cry (which featured the harpsichordist Call Cobbs, the friend who helped identify his body) and, yet more controversially, Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe, with his partner Mary Maria, which marked a turn toward what can only be described as transcendental r&b. Holy Ghost gives the aural picture more depth and focus by showing the younger Albert very much locked into the continuity of black music and the older man still very much an explorer, certainly not a glib entertainer.

Friends remember him as quiet and intense, often somber and troubled, but with a strong sense of vocation. It’s an impression reinforced by the interview discs included on Holy Ghost. At least some of Albert’s mystique derived from his appearance, one-half of his goatee beard black, the other prematurely white. (He also took to wearing a specially tailored green leather suit that made him doubly conspicuous on the New York scene.) That made it somehow easier to hear a divided nature in his music. Stories about his death have proliferated over the years. He was known to be in low spirits. Both he and brother Donald were prone to bipolar episodes. Mary Maria called the police because she was worried by his absence, not because she thought malevolent forces were in pursuit of him. Unfortunately, she later changed aspects of her story, which increased the sense of mystery.

Jimi Hendrix died on September 18, 1970, in London, Albert two months later, to significantly fewer headlines. The flurry of conspiracy theories in both cases–why did no one seek assistance for Hendrix; was he in fact alone at the time of death; did a hasty examination miss a bullet wound in Albert’s skull?–overshadowed more important conclusions. No serious doubt remains about the cause of Jimi’s death (substance abuse) or of Albert’s (a depressive’s suicide); speculation has only served to dull the recognition that within weeks in 1970 not one but two of the most innovative figures in black American music, both former soldiers who had to make their careers elsewhere, had departed the planet.

Hendrix’s music has entered the polite mainstream, name-checked by serious composers, arranged for the Kronos Quartet, performed at classical as well as rock festivals. Ayler’s seems unlikely to find a comfortable place in such company, for the time being at least. There are, though, unexpected connections between “avant-garde” jazz and pop. The MC5 took their inspiration from the John Coltrane Quartet. Ian Dury pinched the lick for “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” from an Ornette Coleman record. And Albert? Albert is everywhere, though rarely acknowledged. There is as much Ayler as Hendrix in the hard black rock of groups like Living Colour and Fishbone. His deceptively simple, even crude approach is an acknowledged influence on such current cult favorites as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sunburned Hand of the Man. He may have cast himself as a ghostly presence, but he still intervenes in human affairs whenever music aspires to conjure spirits.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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