"My imagination is beyond the civilization in which we live. I believe I am the prophet."
-- Albert Ayler
We are few in number and getting fewer all the time.
If there are probably less than 25,000 people left on this Earth who were lucky enough to experience live the classic John Coltrane Quartet, there are probably less than a fifth of that who were also lucky enough to experience tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler performing with his trumpet-playing brother Donald.
In fact, if you toted up the number of cities worldwide where the Ayler Brothers performed together, they would surely total up to less than 25, despite a European tour with George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival troupe. And Buffalo, miraculously, was one of those cities on March 9, 1968, as part of the legendary but still tragically little-known Buffalo Festival of the Arts.
Which is why one of the most important jazz events of this year will, in fact, be a film to be shown Thursday in Hallwalls, which is probably the one local arts aggregation most in the spirit of that fabled 1968 event. It's called "My Name Is Albert Ayler."
Of all the "free jazz," "high energy," "new thing" musicians who suddenly sulfurized jazz in the '60s and early '70s, Ayler remains jazz's archetypal extremist. To have heard Ayler in the flesh launch himself into evangelical multiphonic furies from those simple, diatonic and frequently hymnodic lead melodies was to have experienced, I think, one of the primal American musical experiences of modern times.
And yet, over the years Ayler has become more of a musical symbol than musician, much less a man. And that's because the body of the 34-year-old jazz saxophonist was found floating in the East River on the morning of Nov. 25, 1970. While much paranoid conjecture has surrounded that event, to the point of making it jazz's most famous "cold case," it has long since been obvious from the ever-mounting evidence of the past two decades (including the nine-disc 2005 Ayler box set called "Holy Ghost") that Ayler was a deeply tragic suicide.
Swedish documentary filmmaker Kasper Collin's "My Name Is Albert Ayler" -- surely one of the greatest of jazz documentaries -- seems to confirm that.
The obscene irony is that there really is a way in which Albert Ayler was merely ahead of his time.
In a modern world that basically plucked Buffalo-raised homeless saxophonist Charles Gayle off New York streets and realized he merited an international music career, Ayler's messianic extremism would be understood in a way that it seldom really was in his lifetime (which led Ayler to horrendous attempts at commercial popularity just before his death).
Extremists have a place in music now -- not the prophetic place Ayler sought, but a deeply honorable one.
Jazz's former far left wing loved Ayler for much the same reason. He and Ornette Coleman were the musicians chosen to play at John Coltrane's funeral. (Says former Ayler sideman Gary Peacock about Coltrane now: "Trane loved Albert. He thought he was crazy though.")
When Cecil Taylor's drummer Sunny Murray sneaked Ayler into a Taylor gig to sit in with the band against Taylor's initial wishes, Ayler's opening phrases, Murray says charmingly in the film, caused the blistering composer/pianist to rise "four inches off the piano stool."
Musicians' tales of each other usually tend to be charming. The film is full of them -- the especially delightful Murray, for instance, talking about learning how to "get girls" from talking like Ayler.
In his well-mannered, soft-spoken way, Ayler wanted to be the radical new beginning of something in jazz.
"This is the real blues," he says in one of the many recorded interviews we hear in "My Name Is Albert Ayler." "This is the new blues . . . the people must listen to this music."
"This is the only way left for a musician to play," he claims in the film. "All the other ways have been explored."
The film makes it clear how much he'd been brought up to think messianically from a family deeply immersed in religion and whiffs of apocalypse. Even in his teens in Cleveland, said his mother: "He said his horn was his girlfriend and I was his second." He himself blithely admits that as a kid, he was always "hoping to be a great artist some day."
His trumpet-playing brother and musical collaborator Donald wasn't as lucky. We hear of his escalating bouts with madness and cocaine, of his embittered return to his family in Cleveland after Albert -- who'd brought him to New York in the first place -- had acquiesced to Impulse Records' desire to record without Donald.
In his final months before being found in the river, the film tells us, Albert could be seen staring at the sun, knowing full well it might blind him.
In the notes to the box set, Valerie Wilmer wrote of Ayler in the sweltering summer heat just before his death "wearing a full-length fur coat and gloves, his face covered in Vaseline -- 'got to protect myself.' "
Only the passage of years might have protected Albert Ayler from himself, his family, his ambitions and failures.
This is a profoundly moving jazz film. For jazz cognoscenti, it's essential.
MY NAME IS ALBERT AYLER
4 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Albert and Donald Ayler, Sunny Murray, Gary Peacock and assorted friends, musicians and Ayler family members
DIRECTOR: Kasper Collin
RUNNING TIME: 79 minutes
RATING: No rating, but G equivalent.
THE LOWDOWN: Much-acclaimed documentary about the avant-garde jazz musician will be shown at Hallwalls (341 Delaware Ave.) at 8 p.m. Thursday. Tickets are $7, $5 for students and seniors, $4 members.