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.