Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Holy Ghost: The Life and Death of Free Jazz Pioneer Albert Ayler - by Richard Koloda

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved


“The opening moments of Ayler's Spiritual Unity (1964) are still shocking and extraordinary (the recording engineer reputedly fled the studio as the music continued), and it is a measure of Ayler's continuing mystique that in 2004 the appearance of Holy Ghost, an extravagant archive of largely unheard material, was greeted with worldwide fascination on its first release. Born in Cleveland, he began working in blues bands on alto sax, touring with Little Walter at 16, before going into the army. On his discharge (he had been stationed in France until 1961), by now playing tenor, he was luckless in finding gigs, and went to Scandinavia, recording for the first time in Stockholm: the contrast between a boppish rhythm section and his braying, tempestuous saxophone is already bizarre. He carried on playing in Stockholm and Copenhagen (where he played with Don Cherry and Cecil Taylor) and went to New York in 1963. His 1964 group with Cherry, Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray was seminal, and it was this band (minus Cherry) that recorded Spiritual Unity. 


His themes were utterly simple, sometimes no more than a bugle-call motif, something which he might have remembered from the army: yet that contrasted with collective improvisations (there were few 'solos' in Ayler's music) which were furious, seemingly inchoate, yet played with shredding virtuosity by all hands - Peacock and Murray seem lit up by Ayler's playing. His brawling tenor sound, full of overtones, multiphonics, a juddering vibrato and passages which appear as close to screaming as any saxophonist has come, can seem like mere madness at first, yet the music coheres soon enough into a thrilling exposition. But it was never popular in Ayler's lifetime: 


Ayler made four albums for ESP-Disk, and a further four for Impulse! were issued in his lifetime, but in 1968, perhaps demoralized by years of poverty and inattention, Ayler went from excoriating free playing to a kind of hippified R&B, with the disastrous New Grass, a decline which included mundane singing and material of - in comparison with what came before - unfathomable banality.


All the so-called energy players who came after him are in Ayler's lineage, but few indeed approach the kind of intensity which this sharp-dressed, soft-spoken man left as his gift to jazz expression.”

- Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopedia


“Ayler was never to find a steady audience for his radical music-his group appeared perhaps only three times in 1965 - and, although his albums were well received by the critics, he remained poor. He made no effort to clarify his music for his listeners, actively discouraging musical interpretations of his recordings and instead stressing their social and spiritual issues; the inconsistent and confusing titles to his pieces further obscured his work …. 

Ayler's extraordinary music of the mid-1960s was difficult and controversial. Without losing its identity as jazz, it rejected most ol the conventions of the prevailing bop and free styles. According to Jost (who alone has surveyed his career analytically), Ayler often replaced tempered melody with sweeping flourishes; he combined these "sound-spans" (...) with sudden low-pitched honks and a wide, sentimental vibrato ….


[His] recordings (...) juxtapose difficult collective improvisation and Ayler's simple, rhythmically square, frequently tonal themes. Sometimes these two factors are interrelated, …. More often, however, the brief themes serve as foils for lengthy, exciting improvisations in which the group, avoiding predictable sounds, achieves remarkably varied textures and rhythms ….”

- Barry Kernfeld, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz


“Albert Ayler wore his spiritual roots on his sleeve. Like Coltrane, he had once donned a military uniform and marched, then later developed a musical vocabulary intertwined with a philosophy of universal understanding and supreme love. Ayler's song titles and gospel-intoned phrasing on alto and tenor saxophone testified as much. Like Coltrane, he had recorded for various small labels (in Ayler's case, very small, and often foreign) before coming to Impulse.


Unlike the music of Impulse's original star [John Coltrane], Ayler's had bypassed bebop and other modern jazz styles, skipping over foreign scales and Eastern sounds to create a wild, emotionally expressive style from more down-home sources: spirituals, blues, even military marches.”

- Ashley Kahn, The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records



Author Richard Koloda closes the preface to Holy Ghost: The Life and Death of Free Jazz Pioneer Albert Ayler [London: Jawbone Press, 2022] with the following statement: 


“In adding to the wealth of material already out there, the true goal of Holy Ghost is to draw attention away from the circumstances surrounding Ayler's death and bring it sharply back to the legacy he left behind. Doing so demands confronting those who have marginalized, maligned, and spread misinformation about Ayler in order to further their own agendas. He was a character as interesting as any that could have been created by a Hollywood screenwriter. It is hoped the reader will enjoy finding out why, just as much as I enjoyed researching Ayler's life.”


Not being one of those Jazz fans who “... marginalized, maligned, and spread misinformation about Ayler in order to further their own agendas,”

I was also unfortunately one of the many Jazz fans who knew very little about Ayler and his music.


This from someone who, thanks to a friendship with drummer Billy Higgins, was actually in attendance at the Hillcrest Club on Ardmore Avenue in Hollywood, CA during one of the evenings when free jazz maven Ornette Coleman played there in the fall of 1958 in a maiden voyage appearance along with Billy, Don Cherry on trumpet, Paul Bley on piano, and bassist Charlie Haden.


Throughout the 1960s, I kept tabs on Ornette’s developments along with those of Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Richard Abrams, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Andrew Cyrille, Archie Shepp and the Art Ensemble of Chicago [Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors, Famoudou Don Moye] and other free jazz luminaries, but somewhere along the way, Albert Ayler and his music eluded me.


So I approached the preview copy of Mr. Koloda’s Holy Ghost: The Life and Death of Free Jazz Pioneer Albert Ayler with curious delight and excitement as it is always fun to go back and explore the music of a major artist whose music I missed on my journey through the wonderland that was modern Jazz during its halcyon days in the second half of the 20th century.


Twenty years in the making, Mr. Koloda’s research does not disappoint as it brings to light the major facets of Albert Ayler’s short lived career, all of which are well-documented in a detailed bibliography - 19 pages in length! - and copious endnotes. A similar effort with a discography would have also been welcomed, but all of Albert Ayler’s major recordings are listed and annotated in the text.


John Litweiler - who has a penchant for bringing information about relatively obscure tenor saxophonists to light [see his efforts regarding Hank Mobley] - and who has written extensively about the free jazz movement in three books about Ornette Coleman and one about the movement in general [The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958] helps place “The Legacy of Albert Ayler” in context with these opening paragraphs from his April 1, 1971 Downbeat article:


“To begin at the beginning. It was Ornette Coleman who revolutionized jazz at the start of the 1960s. It was Coleman with his contemporaries Dolphy, Rollins, Coltrane and Taylor - who determined that the New Music would be a revolution of sensibility; they did not just introduce new techniques into jazz, they opened up the art to a wholly new realm of emotions, discoveries, human statements. 


Albert Ayler was part of the new music’s second wave, as [tenor saxophonist] Joseph Jarman would say. After Coleman and his fellows, an entire generation of slightly younger men whose art was formed under their influence was sure to follow. Among these players, Albert Ayler was the very finest, the truest revolutionary, the one heroically original mind.


At his best Ayler was fully as great as Coltrane, and perhaps even Coleman. All these are familiar statements; his admirers have repeated them for several years now.”


This last statement from the Litweiler Downbeat piece become the point of departure for Mr. Koloda Ayler bio as he makes it his business to use his extensive research to dispel the critics and substantiate not only Ayler’s greatness, but one which, while originally derived from Coleman, Dolphy and Coltrane, ultimate rose to such a state of originality that it influenced all three in return.


In his efforts to establish Albert Ayler’s artistic greatness, Mr. Koloda takes great pains to contend with the following reactions associated with Ayler’s advent on the 1960s Jazz scene:


“Albert Ayler exploded on the scene with a musical style so extreme that observers competed to find suitable metaphors. The poet Ted Joans likened Ayler's tenor saxophone sound to "screaming the word 'FUCK' in Saint Patrick's cathedral on a crowded Easter Sunday." Amiri Baraka described his disarmingly na├»ve melodies as "coonish churchified chuckle tunes," and critic Dan Morgenstern compared his ensemble to "a Salvation Army band on LSD." 


Ayler's huge sound evoked lusty hysteria. His room-filling timbre, ripe with opulent overtones, sounds as if he is playing two or three notes at a time (multiphonics). His rejection of musical gestures that might link him to conventional jazz offended some and influenced others, ….” [Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux Jazz 2009]


As a counterargument to these criticisms and critical remarks, Mr. Koloda offers this description of the evolution of Ayler style:


“In moving toward an increased simplicity, Ayler's music emerged as a combination of naivety and grandiosity. Though the solos strayed from a common theme, they were now subtler and mixed into the flow of the melody. Often criticized for this development, Ayler merely compressed into four years what jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Lester Young did over the course of their entire careers ….


And yet his radical evolution was in keeping with similar developments elsewhere in music: Bob Dylan had gone electric; The Beatles had become

sonic pioneers. Just as Ayler changed personnel to accommodate a new style of playing, so did Miles Davis — who would continue to do so for his entire career, keeping up with changing trends regardless of critical concerns. In the lineage of jazz, pop, and rock music, Ayler's choices were nothing out of the ordinary, even if his music was.”


These declarations are not apologias, but rather, Mr. Koloda’s researched arguments which are intended to “set the record straight” or “get in right” in terms of Albert Ayler’s rightful place among the principal figures of the Free Jazz Pantheon and  as such set the tone and tenor of his biography as a whole.


According to Messrs. Giddins and DeVeaux - “The subject of these strong pro and con remarks was born in Cleveland, where he studied alto saxophone for over a decade, beginning at age seven. In his teens, he worked with rhythm and blues bands, then joined the army, at which time he switched to tenor saxophone (he later added soprano as well). 


While stationed in France, Ayler experimented with the tenor's so-called hidden register—the highest pitches, verging on caterwauling tempests that few saxophonists knew how to control. Although he continued to perform awkwardly in the bop idiom for a few years, he felt stifled by the harmonies and rhythms. Sitting in with Cecil Taylor in Copenhagen in 1962 helped to liberate his instincts.


In a span of barely eight years, 1962 to 1970, Ayler went through several stylistic changes, at one point focusing on composition almost to the exclusion of improvisation; one of his groups included a front line of saxophone, violin, and trumpet (his brother Donald), and played waltzes and other works that suggested a fusion of jazz and classical music. In the end, he reluctantly tried to reach the rock audience with a far less imposing flower-power brand of fusion. Its failure exacerbated an already present despondency, and he died, a suicide, at thirty-four.”


Mr. Koloda’s research helps explain the causes behind the “changes” that occurred in Albert Ayler’s progression as a player and composer.


For example [the year is 1966]:


“Seeking more popular appeal, Ayler took on an even simpler style than before, his melodies becoming more composition-oriented, with preplanned themes, harmonies, and tempos. And New York, a city that had long resisted him, offered opportunities for him to try this development out on live audiences.”


So as it progress through Albert Ayler's all-too-brief career, the Koloda’s bio becomes less of a defense and more of an elucidation replete with annotated examples whose aim is to resolve what I think of as the Gary Giddins - Dan Morgenstern Dichotomy as summed up in the following excerpts are contained in an essay entitled Titans of the Tenor in Sean Manning, ed., The Show I’ll Never Forget: 50 Writers Relive Their Most Memorable Concert Going Experience, 2007].


“Ayler's next live appearance was as part of the 'Titans Of The Tenor’ show at Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall, February 19, 1966, sharing the bill with an array of saxophonists, among them the veteran Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims of the West Coast 'cool school,' his hero Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane. Despite his best efforts, Coltrane had failed to convince the show's promoters to include the Ayler brothers, so he paid them out of his own funds. 


Now a bona-fide giant in the jazz field, Coltrane made a point of helping talented young players to gain exposure. Though he had recorded albums such as Ascension and Meditations the previous year, neither had yet been released, so the Lincoln Center audience likely expected him to play standards such as 'Chim Chim Cheree,' from his 1965 album The John Coltrane Quartet Plays, and the landmark A Love Supreme, also released in the previous year — but Coltrane astonished them by playing in the style of the music that would appear on the next year's release, Ascension. They should have known things would be different when they saw two drum kits on stage. Bassist Jimmy Garrison was the only member of the quartet to play that night, alongside drummers Rashied Ali and J.C. Moses; pianist (and John's wife) Alice Coltrane; and—the shock of shocks—horn players Albert Ayler, Donald Ayler, Pharaoh Sanders, and Carlos Ward. A tape of their performance may be in the possession of Coltrane's son Ravi, and many of those present still remember that night like it was yesterday, with Blue Note discographer Michael Cuscuna recalling, 'Standing at the apron of the stage, they erupted into a spiritual, frenetic sound that scared me half to death, yet stimulated every aspect of my being. I don't know whether I loved it or hated it, but I knew that I was not indifferent to it, and I knew that I did not understand it."'


Also looking back with years of hindsight, the Village Voice’s Gary Giddins remembered how he 'left the hall angry' and 'in a state of confused elation,' but feeling that 'a door of perception had swung open':


The joyful, terrifying noise lasted about an hour. Except for a snatch of 'My Favorite Things,' melodies were not apparent, though the Rodgers and Hammerstein echo was itself momentous. Coltrane inserted it amid a squalling solo, played with more than a few deep knee-bends, and the shock of recognition elicited an explosion of approval. ... The rhythm section was not a thing apart, providing a swinging foundation, but a collusive force. The collective assault either focused your attention or dispersed it. In the absence of melody and harmonic progressions, it relied on the fever of the players, and while this shattering din could never be the sole future of jazz or of any other kind of music, it could — and, in fact, already did — represent a new way to play and experience music. The sound spread evenly, like the dribblings on a Jackson Pollock, yet the wall-to-wall harangue allowed for plenty of individual details as each player emerged from the ensemble for an Ascension-like salvo .... 


Yes, the saxophonists squealed and screeched, but they found individual ways to squeal and screech. I recall Sanders playing for a long stretch with his fingers splayed outward, never touching the saxophone keys, rendering an unholy and unbroken wail, and Donald Ayler offering little more than listless tremolos spaced within an octave's range. Albert's solo was something else: a hurricane of raw emotion and radiant luster. I had not paid much attention to Albert Aylmer previously, and immediately resolved to make up for it.”


Less convinced was Dan Morgenstern of DownBeat, who hated the whole affair, reserving his deepest disdain for Albert and Donald:


When it came to screaming, however, Sanders met his match in Albert Ayler, whose noises at least had some movement. Squeaking and squealing at lightning speed, he gave a convincing musical impression of a whirling dervish seized by St Vitus dance. Trumpeter Don Ayler came to bat next. Because he played with his horn's bell pointed at the floor, most of his solo was inaudible. ... What was decipherable seemed to be a series of rapid spurts of disjointed notes played with considerable frenzy but little else. ... The Ayler brothers ... fashioned a weird duet, a bit like the screaming contests little children sometimes indulge in; it was scarcely more pleasing to the ear. ... As for Ayler and Sanders, they made a mockery of the use of the term 'titans in the concert's title ... to ride on the reputation of others is deception."


Within the context of the opposing points of view in the Giddins-Morgenstern duality concerning the worth and value of Albert Ayler’s music, Mr. Koloda concurs with the Giddins opinion and his biography is largely an attempt to underscore the importance of Albert’s work as something deserving of a significant place in the history of the Free Jazz Movement during its formative years in the 1960s. 


Mr. Koloda’s style of writing is clear and concise and his exhaustively researched efforts on Albert Ayler’s behalf to redress his reputation are commendable. Ultimately, arguments notwithstanding, as Louis Armstrong once said: “The music either speaks to you or it don’t.”


But, if you, like me are looking for a guidebook to learn about Albert Ayler and his music, you’ve certainly found it in Richard Koloda, Holy Ghost: The Life and Death of Free Jazz Pioneer Albert Ayler [London: Jawbone Press, 2022]





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