On October 28, 2007, I ate my first pot brownie. A friend and I had huddled around a television set awaiting Game Four of the World Series, which would end up being the final contest of our hometown team’s romp through the playoffs. Having attended a college where fraternities are banned, we touted the evening as a kind of intentionally underwhelming, last-chance frat party. Both of us were heavily into free-jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler at the time; while waiting in suspense for the notoriously gradual effect of the brownies to kick in, we cranked Live in Greenwich Village, Ayler at his imperious best. Anyone who’s sampled a “special brownie” knows the rest of the story. As for the game, I remember almost nothing, except this: I was visited by the ghost of Albert Ayler.
About ten minutes before the first pitch my friend and I were in the clutches of the brownie–digging Ayler’s violent squawks and celebratory cadences, oblivious to Fox’s pregame histrionics on the muted TV screen. As a country singer approached a microphone near home plate to sing the national anthem, our jaws slackened as Ayler’s sax purred the plaintive opening notes of “Spirits Rejoice,” which quickly becomes a tight, triumphant military-style march before disintegrating into crushing trumpet bleats by Albert’s brother Don. On the silent screen gigantic flags were unfurled, pyrotechnics exploded, a military flyover happened and Americans rejoiced while Ayler’s band evoked twin towers of war–pageantry and battle–masterfully, if psychotically. The highly constructed, frankly vulgar pregame spectacle we were seeing was so incommensurable with the disarming, empowering and terrifying music we were hearing that it was as if the late Ayler himself had graced my civilization, determined to show me something.
My interest in Ayler was stoked by listening to an even more obscure group of free-jazz players: the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Contemporaries of Ayler, the Ensemble protested both America’s war in Vietnam and ignorance of a legitimate free-jazz revolution within its borders. (On their great album A Jackson in Your House, they openly mock the American military and white America’s fear of blacks.) In 1969 the group embarked on an extended residency in Paris with a team of players (including Ayler’s frequent drummer, Sunny Murray), who would record a torrent of now-legendary obscurities for the French label Actuel. The European subculture the musicians found themselves in embraced their new brand of music–one made with gongs, toys, noise guitar, non-instruments, silence, grunting, preaching, singing and chanting, as well as the more conventional saxophone, trumpet, bass and drums.
Initially, I assumed Ayler’s enigmatic music, like the firebrand Art Ensemble’s, could be interpreted as political satire. By 1966 Ayler had begun to weave simple melodies through the hard-core modal chaos that had become his trademark. Trying to explain the new direction in his brother’s composition, Don said at the time, “The thing about New Orleans jazz is the feeling it communicated; that something was about to happen, and it was going to be good.” These sing-songy passages echo the celebratory marches of early New Orleans jazz and grandiose patriotic standards. Ayler’s music from this period is a conflation of celebration and punishment. The difference between exultation and torture dissolves. Paranoia is part of the listening experience. Ayler’s celebratory moments–and many of them are achingly beautiful–become a tease, a false respite from an impending onslaught of horn, string and drum wrangling. Despite comments made by Ayler during his lifetime that his music was “not a protest,” I assumed that the stylistic schizophrenia of this period was a powerfully satirical metaphor for America at a loss, a nation enmeshed in a miserable war abroad and failing to deal with different stages of domestic status quo upheaval in regard to race and gender equity, sexuality and drug use.
After seeing the new film My Name Is Albert Ayler, by Swedish director Kasper Collin–which features the only known footage of Ayler–I found myself checking all these assumptions, and I’ve since come to realize it’s impossible to consider Ayler’s music to be even the slightest bit sarcastic or insincere. Audio from interviews with Ayler between 1963 and his death in 1970 is the backbone of the film–and why not, since Ayler is eminently quotable, uttering such pronouncements as “My imagination is beyond the civilization in which we live; I believe that I’m the prophet.” (Murray insists Ayler’s cosmic philosopher-speak accounted for his success with women.) But he also talks easily, freely and without a trace of negativity while the film documents his grinding poverty. Born into a working-class family in Cleveland, Ayler was forced to drop out of college and join the Army because, as he puts it, “funds weren’t strong enough.” Michael Sampson, the violinist in Ayler’s band, describes the conditions in New York as “dire poverty.” Ayler’s friend and staunch champion John Coltrane lent him and his brother cash so they could eat. The majority of the band being black, they were forced to stay in what Sampson called “ratholes” on the road. Don had become mentally unstable by 1966 and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. In other words, while Ayler was revolutionizing music (and his commentary in the film demonstrates that he knew it, or at least felt it to be true), there was plenty to be negative about.
Ayler was prodigiously, if cultishly, spiritual. According to his commentary–and it’s hard to disbelieve it when you hear it–his music had one grand theme: universal harmony. And yet for such a message to be effectual people had to hear it, feel it and–ideally–like it. In the film he says, “The people must listen to this because they will be hearing it all the time.” The people weren’t ready. In 1967 Ayler published a dense, difficult, mystical-religious essay in Amiri Baraka’s magazine The Cricket. Photos of Ayler in 1968 show him pointing his horn skyward in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, gazing at the sun. It was rumored that he had become involved in a mystical Egyptian ritual of staring at the sun; he reportedly told the photographer that he was prepared to go blind. In 1970 Ayler’s body was found floating in the East River. The circumstances of his death remain cloudy. What is clear, though, is that Ayler played music that exuded desire. Exactly what that desire entailed is probably incommunicable through language (and possibly a factor in his early death). It’s obvious in his tone: its glossy raggedness and disarming shifts in timing, volume and intensity. Ayler’s best music takes that iconic phrase of the civil rights movement, “I am a man,” and flips it into “I am human.” For Ayler, spiritual unity meant eschewing ugliness and negativity. Is this what Ayler’s ghost tried to show me on October 28? I’ll never know, but this I’m certain of–it’s plainly obvious what Sunny Murray means in My Name Is Albert Ayler when he cites the difference between Ayler and everyone else: “Albert played it with love.”