[JPL] Ayler, Master of Jazz Sax, Is Feted in U.S. Film: Mike Zwerin

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Tue Oct 30 09:21:16 EDT 2007


Ayler, Master of Jazz Sax, Is Feted in U.S. Film: Mike Zwerin
By Mike Zwerin

Oct. 29 (Bloomberg) -- One day in November 1970, after he told a friend,
``my blood has got to be shed to save my mother and my brother,'' Albert
Ayler smashed his saxophone on his television set and stormed out of the
apartment. His body was later found floating in the East River in New York.
He was 34.

Ayler's recordings have titles like ``Music Is the Healing Force of the
Universe,'' ``Spirits Rejoice,'' ``Love Cry,'' ``Jesus,'' ``Swing Low Sweet
Spiritual,'' ``Spiritual Unity,'' ``Truth Is Marching In,'' and ``Ghosts.''

Ayler was a prophet. That is what you see above all watching ``My Name Is
Albert Ayler,'' a Swedish documentary film by Kasper Collin about to be
shown in New York. His faith in the power of music was limitless.

The police called it a suicide. There have been a variety of theories about
his death, which was comparable to the mysterious death of tenorman Wardell
Gray, who played with Benny Goodman and Count Basie, and whose body was
discovered in the Nevada desert.

It was also variously said that he was shot by the police or the FBI in a
plot to suppress black culture, or that the Mafia tied his body to a juke
box and threw him in the river because of mounting drug debts.

None of these scenarios were deemed likely, but he frightened people. It was
like he was out of control. There was obviously something dangerous -- he
was not like you and me -- about somebody who could say, ``One day,
everything will be as it should be.'' And: ``If people don't like my music
now, they will.''

He was wrong, of course. I mean, I like it, and maybe you will, but ``they''
aren't going to like Ayler's music. Ever. If you get my meaning. The music
may be important, even overwhelming, but it is not music that ``people'' are
going to ``like.''

American Chance

He moved to Stockholm from Cleveland because Americans didn't like his
music. He shows no anger about that. ``I think I'll give them another
chance,'' he says. ``Americans deserve another chance with my music.''

A disarming number of Swedish women speak out in praise of Ayler. There are
interviews with friends, family and colleagues, and the film includes a long
and moving audio interview with Ayler himself at the Fondation Maeght, in
Vence, the south of France, where he recorded and concertized. Rarely do you
hear musicians talk so lucidly about themselves.

There's no question about it, nothing to do about it. He was just different
from you and me. Just the way things are. He was born in America, but he's
obviously not American. He's not even Terranean. It is rare and shaking to
witness such extreme and up- front alienation.

No Love Lost

The alienation is particularly evident during a sequence when Ayler and his
brother, the trumpeter Donald, played during John Coltrane's funeral
service. You can see that most of the other musicians in the gallery are not
being touched by Ayler's music. They keep their distance. They don't hiss or
boo or throw things or anything, but there is not a whole lot of love

African-American musicians did not really relate to Ayler's music, which was
sort of inflicted on them by white liberals.

Coltrane was his patron, sent him $50 or so from time to time, and he had
told Bob Thiele of Impulse Records that Ayler was a very important force in
music, hence Ayler's recording contract with that company. Thiele had passed
on the word to festival producer George Wein, and so Ayler worked the major
festivals. This made some African-American musicians jealous.

Jazz Preacher

Ayler was like some sort of fire-and-brimstone preacher who was going to
burn you alive if you did not accept his message. Maybe be didn't mean it to
be that way, but that's the way it came off. Free jazz is not an accurate
description of his music, although that's the way it was described. It is
not free at all. It is biblical in intensity and structure. Ayler said that
people are on the moon now, music can no longer go on being the same. His
spirituality could be intimidating.

He was obviously a preacher first, a musician second. His music was totally
about feeling, rather than notes or tempos. There is no structure to it
other than human emotion. ``We must be as pure as our music,'' he said. It
is surprising that Ayler was ever a part of the show-business structure in
the first place. How did he ever get booked? Recorded? The fact that this
movie was made and is being shown in the U.S. 37 years after his death is a
small miracle.

``My Name Is Albert Ayler'' will be screened from Nov. 8-14 at 7 p.m. and 9
p.m. at the Anthology Film Archives at 32 Second Avenue (2nd Street) in New
York City. For information: +1-212- 505-5181, or click
http://www.mynameisalbertayler.com and http://www.anthologyfilmarchives.org
. The film will later be shown in other U.S. cities with details to be

(Mike Zwerin is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his

To contact the writer of this interview: Mike Zwerin at mikezwerin at gmail.com

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