Saxophonist Noah Howard reported seeing Albert Ayler for the last time in the summer of 1970, wearing a fur coat, gloves, and Vaseline on his face. Ignoring the heat, Ayler insisted that he had to "protect himself."
Mustafa Abdul Rahim saw Albert after the July 1970 shows in France. Albert was in Times Square with two women who were working with his band. He seemed happy about the French shows, some upcoming recording, and a Japanese tour that was being planned (Wilmer 1980: 110).
On November 25, 1970, Albert Ayler's body was found floating in the East River, at the foot of Congress Street Pier, in Brooklyn. He was 34 years old, the same age Charlie Parker had been at his death. Call Cobbs identified the body with Edward Ayler (Wilmer 1997). The medical examiner declared that Ayler had drowned and there was no autopsy (Wilmer 1980: 238)
Beaver Harris: I don't know anything about his death, because I'm not a death master. But I have an idea, I feel it wasn't as mysterious as maybe people thought. I don't think anyone did anything to Albert Ayler. 'Cause he was really beautiful ...I don't think Albert would ever do anything to cause that. I think that maybe by some freak accident Albert just drowned. Maybe he was on the bridge and, you know, I don't think anyone did anything to him (Rusch 1983: 19).
Charles Tyler: Al was really a sad person despite of his charisma and everything. That "old-time religion" was what caused his sadness; it was in his music. Al was a heavy guy, and there won't be nobody like him. And it seems that in his death he's going to be more so. When he was living everybody thought he was a faker, but now there's a lot of interest in him. Didn't nobody know that he had studied being a musician all his life, that he knew the basics as well as he did. When Al and I played together, we could suppress the natural shit we had learned and make ourselves sound like two crazy people who didn't know nothing about music! But still, someone said Al got depressed and jumped off the bridge. I wouldn't be surprised his religious background followed him through to the end (Wilmer 1980: 111).
Bob Rusch (interviewer): Do you know any of the circumstances surrounding your brother's death?
Donald Ayler: Naw...I couldn't really tell you. See, like I said, it was only between Mary and him. I guess they know what happened to him.
B.R.: No explanation was ever given?
D.A.: There have been several situations that possibly came up but nothin' really clear. As far as I'm concerned, I don't know. If it wouldn't be for that situation, I'd be up in New York City right now playing.
But the strange situation around my brother's death has always left me kind of leery of the whole situation there.
B.R.: Do you fear for your life?
D.A.: No I don't really think that 'cause I haven't did anything wrong or like that, against anything that would possibly bring that on myself ...I just don't...it's like a bad vibe, you know.
B.R.: Do you feel it was something your brother brought on?
D.A.: It's a possibility that he could have brought it on himself, but what can I say. I know that if we had both just been playin' together that the situation between him and that girl there...we'd probably went to the top of the mountains.
B.R.: Do you feel she was connected with his death?
D.A.: I don't know if she's connected with it, but she probably knows something about it which nobody here knows about it, you know (Rusch 1979: 15-16).
Rumors immediately began to spread about the "true" causes of Albert's death: that he was shot by police, that he was killed by the FBI in a plan to suppress Black culture that also engineered the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Malcolm X, Eric Dolphy, Martin Luther King, John Coltrane and others, that his body had been found tied to a jukebox (Swenson 16), that he had been killed by the Mafia, that his death was related to drugs-either that drug use had driven him insane or that he was killed for nonpayment of drug debts, etc.
Of all these, the drug rumors especially should be refuted. Though both Beaver Harris and Sunny Murray report smoking marijuana during their tours with Ayler, his substance intake almost certainly never included addictive drugs such as heroin or cocaine.
Albert Ayler: Since we are the music we play, our way of life has to be clean or else the music can't be kept pure.
I couldn't use a man hung up with drugs, because he'd draw from the energy we need to concentrate on the music. Fortunately, I've never had that problem. I need people who are clear in their minds as well as in their music, people whose thought waves are positive. You must know peace to give peace (Hentoff, "Truth." 17).
The cause of Ayler's death remained a mystery until 1983, when Mary Parks, tired of the rumors, shared her knowledge with English discographer Mike Hames.
Mike Hames: The strains of surviving as a musician in New York seriously affected the mind of Albert's brother, Donald. Their mother blamed Albert for introducing Donald to the musician's life. She and Donald continuously pressed Albert to look after Donald. Albert helped in several ways, 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 could no longer cope. Although Donald was finally receiving hospital treatment after a nervous breakdown, Albert could not be convinced by Mary that the situation would end.
Albert told Mary that his blood had to be shed to save his mother and brother. He even told her how he wanted the rights to his music to be divided after his death. She rang his father but he didn't seem to believe it. Mary's sister then tried to dissuade Albert from taking his life and he promised to think it over (Hames 27).
On the evening of November 5, Albert again told Mary, "My blood has got to be shed to save my mother and my brother." After an argument, he smashed one of his saxophones over their television and stormed out of the house. Mary called the police to report Albert missing. Albert took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and jumped off as the boat neared Liberty Island (Hames 27).
Edward Ayler: He was truly a genius. Some make it and some don't. He didn't want to push out in front. That's all he wanted-to play. He had all the titles but not a dime ("Albert Ayler, 36").
On December 5, in the afternoon, Albert Ayler's body was buried at the chapel of Highland Park Cemetery in Cleveland, with 55 people, mostly family, in attendance ("Albert Ayler Dies").
Mysterious death came to two musicians closely associated with Ayler in the next year. Henry Grimes moved to California to become an actor and vanished without a trace (Wilmer 1980: 109). On September 21, 1971, Call Cobbs Jr. was killed by a hit and run driver ("Final Bar").
Albert Ayler: The cats, they say the better you are, the harder it is for you to make it but when you make it, you make it big. That's what America is, see. 'Cause they'll copy it from you (Koyama).
There is really no way to end this book. I first discovered Albert Ayler's music through the song "Change has Come" on the No Energy Crisis sampler, which I found in a bargain bin and bought because it had a Coltrane song on it. I was stunned by the music and, as I attempted to discover more about Ayler, I found that the intensity of his music was only surpassed by that of the reactions to it. One cannot passively absorb this music. The mind must constantly follow multiple strands of improvisational logic and spontaneous structure.
As I write this, in 1993, Ayler's albums are being re-issued, after being unavailable for about 15 years. On trips to rare record shops in L.A. in September of 1990, every store I visited had sold out of the Ayler records they had had in stock in March. Some current musicians, such as Gary Windo, Eugene Chadborne, Lester Bowie, Crazy Backward Alphabet, David Moss, and Gary Lucas have recorded versions of "Ghosts." Pianist Giorgio Gaslini released a CD consisting entirely of solo interpretations of Ayler's compositions. Michael Brecker, a saxophonist who has played with everyone from Horace Silver to Steely Dan to Parliament/Funkadelic to Bruce Springsteen, performs an unabashed tribute to Albert on "Folk Song No.1" from Pat Metheny's 80/81 album. Hardcore punk singer Henry Rollins, in a fall 1990 guest D.J. appearance on a L.A. college station, played over 30 minutes of Albert's music on the air. John Lurie, of the Lounge Lizards, has scored a ballet called "The Resurrection of Albert Ayler"(Perl 115). Many of today's best musicians besides these, such as Vernon Reid, John Zorn, David Murray, Bill Frisell, Elliot Sharp, Peter and Caspar Brotzmann, Universal Congress Of, Borbetomagus, Sonic Youth, the Kronos Quartet, and even David Sanborn, are working in compositional, timbral, or technical territory opened by Albert Ayler.
Simply, it is time for this music to rise again.
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