Albert Ayler in a Spray of Sunflowers


I’m happy to announce that my poem inspired by the life and work of Albert Ayler and his brother Donald has been published in Jerry Jazz Musician. My deep-felt thanks go to Joe Maita for giving this poem a home.

The story of the Van Gogh brothers Vincent and Theo is widely known, at least in broad outline. Less known (far less, I would venture) is the story of the Ayler brothers Albert and Donald. And yet it is our story, an American story and it is not far in the past. Like the Van Gogh story, the Ayler story has its basis in a passionate, uncompromising, bold-to-borderline shocking and extremely influential art. But the art that Albert Ayler made (with the sometime assistance of his brother Donald), despite its influence, is far less known than Van Gogh’s. Yet it is our art, an American art.

As familiar as it is, Van Gogh’s art is always in danger of being overshadowed by a simplistic depiction of his biography. This process is called romanticization. Since Albert Ayler is still only known to free jazz aficionados, he has not suffered as much from this process, but it is risked any time his story is told. He went out into the world, like Vincent did, following the unique path that led to the work that only he could do, and like Vincent his journey ended tragically while still in his thirties after an extraordinary artistic bloom. Vincent died of a bullet wound. Self-inflicted or no, we don’t know. Albert died in the East River, drowned. Suicide, accident, murder? We don’t know. We do know that Theo and Donald both were crushed by their brother’s deaths.

Parallels can be drawn further, it’s almost uncanny. While they worked in completely different fields—Vincent painting, Albert music—in different centuries and different countries, their work shares certain essential characteristics: emotional intensity, extreme vibrancy seeming almost to quiver out of control, and a sense of heart-breaking honesty. To my eye and ear this is the closest musical equivalent to Vincent’s sunflowers:

To the casual crowd Vincent and Albert can appear unbalanced or emotionally unstable, but to those who care to look closer, discipline, intelligence and absolute devotion define both men. Vincent and Albert both were articulate, deeply spiritual beings. True believers. And too cosmic for organized religion. They rolled across the earth like wheels of fire.

Ayler was keen on simple march-like tunes, asserting these musical figures periodically in a performance around which he and the other players would improvise wildly, calling back and forth to each other’s phrases as if in a white-hot revival service. Bells and Ghosts are great examples of this. Other times the tunes were like spirituals. Truth is Marching In incorporates both types of tunes:

Again I think of Van Gogh, likening these primal motifs to the flowers, chairs and faces he set ablaze in paint.

Albert Ayler is one of the pioneers of the free style in jazz. It would take a book to articulate the nuances of the term “free jazz”, including its social context, controversies and place in jazz history. Two good places to start are Valerie Wilmer’s As Serious as Your Life and Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz. I’d like to briefly acknowledge the fascinating and problematical nature of the word “freedom” in late 20th century American life. Gioia writes eloquently about this, pointing out the impossibility of exaggerating the importance of the word “freedom” in terms of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and its relation to free jazz.

Finally, I’d like to mention that this music means more to me than 1960’s political and avant-garde polemics. It’s living positivity. And while it’s common knowledge among  jazz aficionados that Ayler was tremendously important to John Coltrane, I see his music as one of a piece with the so-called post-modern jazz—that jazz which mixes and matches styles throughout the entire history of the music. Albert Ayler’s story should be known. He’s the true meaning of the word Star.

I have been made a universal man through the power of the creator…. We must get ourselves together soon or there will be nothing left.
—Albert Ayler

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3 Responses to Albert Ayler in a Spray of Sunflowers

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    Congratulations, Mark. The poem has, among other fine things, a wonderfully jazzy rhythm, free-floating, but always there. Hard to achieve that. Wonderful background essay, too, offering not just Ayler’s own story (and his brothers), but also a fascinating comparison to the van Gogh brothers, as well as the context out of which Ayler’s music arose.

  2. angela says:

    Oh my, sweet serendipity, just seeing this (do not have enough time to read with full attention). I cannot wait to read your poem ~ congrats! You shall not be surprised that I am now intrigued about Ayler after reading the Van Gogh comparisons. Listening Summertime and already dig…shall be back ~ (serendipity, btw, is because I just wrote about Gershwin and almost posted Summertime)

    • angela says:

      Love how your poem seems to riff from one name to the next – so many good one, too. Thank you for brining Ayler to our attention – never came across. Spotify list is amazing – there is such a depth to Bells, despite it seeming quite minimal… Dancing Flowers is a fave.

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