July 13, 1936 in Cleveland, Ohio
November 25, 1970
“Trane was the father, Pharaoh was the son, I am the holy ghost.” – Albert Ayler
After training, Ayler was stationed in Europe in 1959. After he was discharged, he spent time in Stockholm, Sweden, where many of his mature ideas of his own music began to take shape. Ayler soon dedicated himself to music that even he considered ahead of its time, saying famously that “if they don’t understand it now, they will.” During his time in Stockholm, Ayler came to hear pianists Cecil Taylor, who was even then one of the giants of the avant-garde, and, with his usual confidence, asked if he could sit in. The bass player on this gig gives a fascinating telling of this story in Kaspar Collin’s documentary on Ayler called My Name Is Albert Ayler.
Ayler moved to New York in 1962, where he gradually found some success for his music. The avant-garde scene that had developed at that time, which included players like Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and others, was ready to accept Ayler’s music. In 1967, Coltrane’s influence secured Ayler a recording contract with Impulse Records, the foremost record label for creative jazz at the time. The first of these albums, Albert Ayler in Greenwich Village shows Ayler in one of his most influential and recognizable periods. Building on the spiritual ethos of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, the record features Ayler’s brother Donald on trumpet, and the band plays staid, hymn-like melodies with wild yet passionate improvisations. The Ayler composition “Our Prayer” is a particularly touching example of this period, with its haunting combination of aggressive improvisation and stark, painful beauty.
Ayler ran into serious personal problems towards the end of his life, though the reasons for this are not completely clear. Different sources cite everything from drugs, mental illness, and his self-assigned guilt over his brother Donald’s struggles with mental illness. At the end, Ayler was found drowned in the East River in New York City in 1970. His legacy, of which this essay only begins to scratch the surface, was one of passionate brilliance that left a significant impression on the jazz world long after his death.