Skimming this issue, you might get the false impression that jazz is well heeled and glamorous: Bossa-nova chanteuses on major labels, Starbucks-assisted crossover projects, Queen Latifah.
But many of jazz’s stories are unspeakably sad, including that of Donald Ayler, who died in obscurity in Ohio on Oct. 21 of an apparent heart attack. He was 65, a mentally ill man who hadn’t recorded in over a quarter-century.
Donald is best known as the mid-to-late ’60s foil to another dark horse, his older brother, the free-jazz tenorist Albert Ayler. As Thomas Conrad details on page 29, the jazz community has seen a surge of interest in Albert’s work in recent years, beginning with Revenant’s Holy Ghost box set in 2004, a tome of rare and unissued recordings. I’d like to think this attention trickled down to Donald, and I hope he felt his work being reconsidered while he was still with us; perhaps he could experience even an inkling of the acceptance Andrew Hill found before he passed this year. He deserves it.
Holy Ghost includes the trumpeter’s ignored work as a composer and leader, dimensions hidden under his guise as one of the few brass fire-breathers, surrendering coarse blasts of notes alongside Albert that made Lester Bowie sound like Clark Terry. In interviews, Donald boasted of practicing trumpet nine hours a day for three months before joining up with Albert, a crash-course in technique that gave credence to free jazz’s reputation as the refuge of self-mythologizing charlatans unwilling to work for the glory of virtuosity. Not necessarily so with Donald: Albert raved about his alto sax playing as an adolescent, and what technique he lacked on trumpet he made up for with matchless energy and the Ayler gene for barebones melodicism. In the Revenant box, Donald’s “Our Prayer” is of the same gorgeous ilk as Albert’s avant-march staple “Truth Is Marching In.” With two leader cuts, he pulls off the seemingly impossible role reversal with the saxist and there’s no question as to whose sextet this is: On “Prophet John,” Donald relentlessly drives his mariachi-meets-Mecca theme like he’s hoofing it into battle; for “Judge Ye Not,” he doggedly blows bugle-call choruses, determined not to lose his majesty to the new-thing cacophony exploding around him.
The other project to re-open the trumpeter’s case is My Name Is Albert Ayler, a simmering tragedy of a documentary by Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin, who discusses his work in Conrad’s piece. With moments of haunting surreality, it cuts a similar family-portrait form to Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, the brilliant 1994 doc about the eccentric underground cartoonist R. Crumb. (The parallels between Donald and Crumb’s recluse brother Charles are eerie.) My Name also covers how sick and estranged Donald became after his firing and Albert’s death, and asks if Mary Parks (free jazz’s own Yoko) did indeed attempt to isolate Donald from his blood.
At least Donald’s departure allowed him to bypass the flower-power sell-out debacle that was 1968’s New Grass, which often plays out like a Christopher Guest-directed parody of Hair. It’s difficult to imagine what Donald would’ve played on it, because he seemed incapable of playing cute; he did, in fact, blow like his life depended on it or not at all. As Albert once said of his brother: “They say that the better you are, the harder it is to make it. But when you do make it, you make it big.”Originally Published