Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Thirty-Nine
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed July 31, 1998

More than a quarter of a century after his death, the free jazz music of Cleveland native Albert Ayler continues to receive attention around the world -- and the circumstances surrounding his death at the age of 34 continue to both fascinate and confuse jazz fans around the world.

Born in Cleveland in 1936, Ayler was introduced to jazz by his father, Edward Ayler, a lathe operator at the TRW plant in Euclid. Young Albert studied at Benny Millerís Music School at East 105th and St. Clair and played ball with a childhood friend named Bobby Few.

Few told me, "Albert and I used to play baseball together along with his brother, Don Ayler."

Few, who later became a world-famous jazz pianist with the Steve Lacy group in Paris, said they were playing jazz gigs together when Albert was going to John Adams High School. "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."

He was also a very good golfer when he was in high school.

After serving in the army and being exposed to some American jazz expatiates in Europe, including free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor, Ayler returned to New York in 1963. He came home to Cleveland the following year and married Arlene Benton. They had a daughter, Desiree.

Ayler tried playing his free-form jazz in several clubs around East 105th and Euclid, but hardly set the world on fire. Albert and his brother Donald, a trumpet player, went to New York later in 1964.

In New York, according to Jeff Schwartz, in his book Albert Ayler: His Life and Music, Albert met a woman named Mary Parks who became his lover, constant companion, sometimes collaborator and manager of his business affairs. Schwartz quoted Parks saying later, "I would like to think that I was a force who continually inspired him at times when he only wanted to meditate."

By August of 1968, Albert Ayler had made several records and was playing in New York City with his regular group which included pianist Call Cobbs, bassist Bill Fowell and drummer Beaver Harris. Ayler had fired his brother, Don, from the group.

Donald Ayler later said he left the group because of the increasing influence of Mary Parks on Albertís music and his life.

On November 25, 1970, Albert Aylerís body was pulled from the East River in New York City.

Over the years there have been a variety of theories about how Ayler died. Some said he was shot by the police. Others said he was killed by the FBI in a plot to suppress black culture. Still others said he had been killed by the Mafia with his body tied to a jukebox. In an article in the November 23, 1997 Cleveland Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine, writer Michael Drexler wrote, "Most people who knew him say he was murdered over mounting drug debts."

But, Aylerís father, Edward Ayler, told Drexler that he could not accept the theory that his son was killed over drugs. According to the elder Ayler, "He may have smoked a little reefer, but nothing hard."

Aylerís brother, Don, has said that some of Albert sidemen told him marijuana was smoked during some of their shows, however, he said, "Albertís substance intake almost certainly never included addictive drugs such as heroin or cocaine."

Albert, before his death, said, "Since we are the music we play, our way of life has to be clean or else the music canít be kept pure." Ayler added, "I couldnít use a man hung up with drugs. Fortunately, Iíve never had that problem."

Mary Parks told her version of the death of Albert Ayler to English discographer Mike Hames in 1983. She said, "The strains of surviving as a musician in New York seriously affected the mind of Albertís brother, Donald. Their mother (Myrtle Ayler) blamed Albert for introducing Donald to the musicianís life and continually pressed Albert to look after Donald."

"Albert helped in several ways," added Parks, "but he did not want Donald to live with him or play with him. After two years of aggravation from his brother and demands and threats from his mother, Albert, she said, could no longer cope."

According to the English discographer, Mary Parks said Albert told her "his blood had to be shed to save his mother and brother." Thinking very seriously about death at the age of 34, Ayler even outlined how he wanted the rights to his music divided after he was gone.

The night he disappeared, Ayler again told his lover, "My blood has got to be shed to save my mother and my brother." He smashed one of his saxophones over their television set and stormed out of the house. Mary called the police to report Albert missing.

According to Hames, she said Albert took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and jumped off as the boat neared Liberty Island -- committing suicide.

Ten days after his lifeless body was found in the river, there was a burial service at the chapel of Clevelandís Highland Park Cemetery. Fifty-five people attended, mostly family members.

Donald Ayler, who had suffered a breakdown earlier, was deeply shaken by his brotherís death.

For years, Aylerís father, Edward, frequently played golf at Highland Park Golf Course near his Warrensville Heights home. On the 11th hole of the Red Course, near the cemetery, where there is a simple headstone that says, "Albert Ayler, 1936-1970, the elder Ayler usually pauses to shake his head and remember the tragedy of his older son, the jazz musician many around the world still call "a genius." Edward Ayler tries to make some sense of what happened to his son.

CLICK HERE for the last installment of "Jazzed in Cleveland"

Copyright 1998 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).