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, stormed out of the apartment, and his body was later found floating in the East River in New York. He was 34.
Ayler mad records titled “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," and what you see above all watching “My Name is Albert Ayler," a Swedish documentary film by Kasper Collin, which will be screened from November 8th – 14th at 7 PM and 9 PM at the Anthology Film Archives at 32 Second Avenue (2nd Street) in New York City, and later in other American cities, is that he was a prophet. Or considered himself as lne. His faith in the power of music was limitless.
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. The police called it suicide. People said that he was shot by the police…by the FBI in a plot to suppress black culture…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 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 the music of Albert Ayler. Ever. If you get my meaning. The music may be important, even overwhelming, but it is not music that “people" are going to “like."
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 string 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’s just different from you and me. It’s the way things are. He may have been born in America, but he’s obviously not American. He’s not even Terrean. It is rare and shaking to witness such extreme and up-front alienation.
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 either.
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, however, he sent him $50 from time to time, and Trane had told Bob Thiele of Impulse Records that Ayler was a very important force in music, so Ayler had a recording contract with Impulse. 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.
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. He said that people are on the moon now, music can no longer go on being the same. Ayler’s 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 Albert 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 distributed in the US 37 years after his death is a small miracle.