Born in Ohio in 1936, Albert Ayler was an American jazz saxophonist best known for his contributions to the avant-garde and free jazz movements. He was particularly famous for his tone, which has been called and primal.
Ayler first learned saxophone from his father, regularly playing duets with him on the instrument at church. Playing oboe and alto saxophone throughout high school, Ayler eventually acquired the nickname Little Bird, a nod to jazz legend Charlie Parker, who was often known as Bird or Yardbird. In 1952, Ayler first began playing R&B style tenor saxophone with blues musician Little Walter, touring with the band for two summers. After graduating high school, Ayler attended the Academy of Music in Cleveland to study music alongside friend and contemporary Benny Miller.
Ayler joined the military in the late 1950s, traveling to Europe and playing in his regiment’s band. During his time abroad, he was exposed to increasingly divergent styles of music and was introduced to fellow tenor player Stanley Turrentine. By the time he returned to the United States, Ayler’s style had become so experimental that he found difficulty finding work, as traditional jazz artists disapproved of his tendency to eschew traditional harmony. It was not until he moved to Sweden in 1962 that Ayler began recording, establishing a name for himself before returning to the United States.
Ayler found a jazz scene that was much more supportive of his style upon his second return to the U.S., with jazz great Eric Dolphy calling him the best saxophonist he had ever seen. Ayler’s new free jazz sound would help shape the genre, often lacking a rhythmic pulse with wild soloing. Despite its unstructured nature, however, Ayler always managed to make his pieces recognizable as a distinct part of the jazz tradition. By 1970, Ayler had begun to experiment with even more diverse sounds, incorporating mariachi and marching band music with an old jazz tradition of improvised group solos. Although he became known for playing in the space bebop developed by his friend and mentor John Coltrane, Ayler categorized his own material as energy music in a 1970 interview.
In his final years, Ayler’s style became increasingly similar to rock and roll, incorporating hippie- culture lyrics and utopian themes. He then recorded an R&B album, New Grass, that was widely panned by fans and critics, ultimately proving to be a commercial failure.
In late 1970, Ayler was found dead in New York City’s East River. Although some speculated that he was murdered, it was later generally agreed upon that the death was a suicide. Despite his relatively short career, Ayler would go on to influence hundreds of die-hard fans, leading some to call him one of jazz’s few cult artists. Today, an annual festival is held in his honor in Greenwich Village, New York.