Albert Ayler, the native Cleveland jazz saxophonist who marched a distinctively different drummer, once said bebop was too simple. He said it was like humming along with Mitch Miller. He sought to create jazz that had more to say.
A world leader in the free jazz movement of the 1960s, Ayler’s early influences offered little or no indication of his eventual experiments in unstructured music. Born in Cleveland July 13th of 1936, Ayler was raised by Edward and Myrtle Ayler in Shaker Heights. As is the case with most excellent musicians, he grew up in a very musical atmosphere. His father played violin and tenor sax, in the style of Dexter Gordon, according to Ayler. "When I was two," recalled Ayler, "I used to blow footstool. My mother told me I’d hold it up to my mouth and blow, as if it were a horn."
When Ed Ayler played Lionel Hampton records, Albert would mime the musicians. His father decided to begin to teach him to play alto sax. Albert recalled, "I’d play duets with him at church." According to Jeff Schwartz’ book Albert Ayler: His Life and Music, Edward Ayler insisted that his son practice, even beating him at times to practice when he wanted to be out on the street with the other kids. One of those kids was named Bobby Few, later a top-flight jazz pianist with Steve Lacey’s group in Paris. Few told me,"Albert and I used to play baseball together along with his brother, Don Ayler." Donald was six years younger than Albert.
The boys also listened to records by such artists as Lester Young, Wardell Gray, Charlie Parker and Cleveland trumpeter Freddie Webster.
Ayler was taught music by his father until he was ten years old, then he went to Benny Miller’s Academy of Music at East 105th and Superior. At John Adams High School, he played first alto in the school orchestra, doubled on the oboe, and demonstrated a photographic memory for sheet music. He was also a champion high school golfer in Cleveland.
While still in high school, Ayler and Few were playing gigs together. "We would play cabaret parties and strip-tease shows." said Few. "And I remember very well playing the blues with Albert. He was a very good blues artist at that time."
One night, at Gleason’s at East 55th and Woodland, Albert and his friend Lloyd Pearson met blues singer and harmonica player Little Walter Jacobs who had played with Chicago blues legend Muddy Waters. Little Walter asked Ayler, while he was still in high school, to join his touring blues group. His father remembered, "When he got the job, he was so excited he could hardly believe it. He came running home shouting, `They’re gonna take with ‘em...They’re taking me!'
But, Ayler was not happy touring all the time during his summer vacations in 1952 and ‘53..
When he came home, he played with Lloyd Price, and became familiar with the seedier side of Cleveland life. He spent a lot of time at a barbershop where the local pimps congregated. He acquired a reputation that would continue for the rest of his life as a wild dresser and womanizer. He began wearing brightly colored leather suits that became his trademark.
When Ayler graduated from John Hay High School in 1954 at the age of 18, he began attending college, but was really more interested in trying to master the bebop jazz style of Charlie Parker. He got to meet Bird in Cleveland in 1955 and said, "I saw the spiritual quality in the man." Albert said, "He looked at me, smiled, and shook my hand. I was impressed by the way he played the changes." Others said Ayler was soon playing like Parker and some local musicians began calling him "Little Bird." By the time Ayler left college to join the army in 1956, fellow musicians said he would warm up by playing Parker solos backward.
But, after playing with artists including Stanley Turrentine in the army, Ayler decided to switch from alto to tenor sax. In a 1966 interview in Downbeat Magazine, he said, "It seemed to me that on the tenor you could get out all the feelings of the ghetto. On that horn, you can shout and tell the truth." That was perhaps a strange statement from a young man who had grown up in upper middle class and racially integrated Shaker Heights. While in the army, he also got bored with the bebop of Parker.
While serving with the army in France, Ayler frequently sat in at Paris clubs and began to absorb the then-new jazz of John Coltrane. "To listen to him," said Ayler, "was just like he was talking to me, saying, `Brother, get yourself together spiritually." Beaver Lewis, who served in the Army with Ayler, said, "Albert felt there was something missing in his music and he wanted to find whatever that was."
One time in Stockholm, Ayler recalled, "I started to play what was in my soul and the promoter pulled me off the stage." After his discharge from the Army, Ayler made his first record in 1962. Among his recording collaborators was his old childhood friend pianist Bobby Few. "I recorded four or five albums with him on Impulse," said Few, "and they were very successful albums."
But, Ayler’s recorded work was not received well by some critics. Martin Williams said he was trying to make music from a negative premise. Some musicians he played with in Cleveland, who obviously did not understand what Ayler was trying to do, derisively called him "Bicycle Horn."
But, by the time he died in 1970 at the age of 34, Ayler was considered a leader in the narrow world of the second generation of avant garde or free jazz. It was an ironic twist for the Cleveland musician who had grown up listening to the music of Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Muddy Waters, Freddie Webster, and Charlie Parker.
Was Cleveland’s Albert Ayler far ahead of everybody else, or was he simply trying almost anything just to be different? It’s a question that a quarter of a century after his death still has not been answered.
Ayler caricature by Joe Mosbrook
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Copyright 1996 Joe Mosbrook
You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-397-9900).