10.09. – Happy Birthday !!! Roy Ayers was during the 1960s one of the most prominent and leading jazz vibraphone players in America. During the 1970s and 80s he came to change his focus and became one of the leading figures in R&B and jazz/funk.
The 1990s has once again brought him into a new direction and he is now regarded being one of the greatest innovators of the acid jazz movement. His music has often been described as being years ahead of it’s time.
Ayers was born on September 10, 1940, in Los Angeles, California. Thanks to the influence of his mother, a piano teacher, and his father, a trombone player, Ayers was a musical child. His introduction to the vibraphone came at the age of six, when his parents took him to a Lionel Hampton concert. After the show, Hampton handed Ayers a pair of mallets, sealing the youngster’s musical destiny with that simple gesture. It was not until he was 17 years old that Ayers finally got a chance to play the vibraphone, which he claims had been his favorite instrument all along.
By the early 1960s, Ayers was playing regularly with a number of local performers, including such fixtures on the Los Angeles jazz scene as Teddy Edwards, Chico Hamilton, and Jack Wilson. This experience soon gave Ayers the necessary confidence to become a band leader. His first opportunity to record in that capacity came in 1963, on a project called “West Coast Vibes,” released by United Artists. In 1966 Ayers, at the invitation of bassist Reggie Workman, sat in on a gig with Herbie Mann and his Quintet, at the Lighthouse, a prominent Los Angeles jazz club. Mann was so impressed with his work that he immediately made Ayers a permanent member of the group. Ayers toured and recorded with Mann for the next four years, a period that included the release of Mann’s smash hit LP, “Memphis Underground” During this stint, Ayers also recorded three solo albums–all produced by Mann: “Daddy Bug,” “Virgo Red,” and “Stoned Soul Picnic.”
Ayers left the Mann group in 1970, and moved to New York, where he quickly formed his own band, which he dubbed Ubiquity. Ubiquity did not have a stable lineup like a conventional band. It consisted instead of a constantly- shifting roster of musicians at various stages in their careers. The band included established pros like bassist Ron Carter and saxophonist Sonny Fortune; newcomer vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater; and others. Ayers used Ubiquity to create a new genre that borrowed elements from jazz, funk, rock, soul, salsa, and whatever else he heard and liked, and then synthesized them into an appealing melange.
The next dozen years represented an incredibly prolific period for Ayers and the various versions of Ubiquity. During that span, the group recorded no less than 20 albums for Polydor. Ayers spent the first half of the seventies building an audience for his new musical mixture. His approach was to incorporate anything that he thought sounded good. “I have a totally open mind about music,” he was quoted as saying in the liner notes to the 1995 compilation Evolution: The Polydor Anthology. “I love the music I listen to– pop, jazz, blues and soul–and I’m not closed to them. My music is a combination of styles fused into one. I like to cover the total perspective,” he continued. He also experimented quite a bit with his own instrument, becoming one of the first vibes players to alter the instrument’s sound with fuzz boxes, wah-wah pedals, and other effects more commonly associated with the electric guitar. At times, the vibes were a featured solo instrument, with Ayers taking off on extended flights of mallet fancy. Just as often, however, his vibes lurked in the background, shimmering behind riffing keyboards, guitars, and horns, all driven by a thumping rhythm section.
The emergence of disco in the second half of the 1970s brought Ayers and Ubiquity into the limelight. The hit song “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” from the 1976 album of the same title, became a dance floor sensation, and although it was never released as a single it probably remains the tune most associated with Ayers. In 1977, the song “Running Away” broke into the R&B top twenty, and is generally regarded as a dance club classic. The following year, Ubiquity recorded “The Freaky Deaky,” which became popular enough to inspire a dance step of the same name. These and other Ubiquity hits of the genre Ayers referred to as “disco jazz” became dance floor anthems, and have remained popular over the two decades that followed.
In 1979 Ayers and Ubiquity embarked on a nine-city tour of Nigeria with African pop superstar Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. The tour affected Ayers profoundly, and upon his return his music began to take on a more politically conscious tone. His 1981 album “Africa, Center of the World,” was a direct result of his experiences on that continent. “Feeling Good,” released in 1982, was Ayers’s last album for Polydor. That year he started his own label, Uno Melodic, primarily to release projects that he produced for other artists. Ayers signed with Columbia Records in 1984, and over the next few years he scored a handful of minor R&B hits on that label, including “In the Dark” in 1984, “Slip ‘n Slide” in 1985, and “Hot” in 1986.
During the 90s, Ayers split his time between leading his own band, performing live, composing and producing for other artists. Ayers also, since the end of the 1980s, had a successful collaboration with the highly regarded jazz club Ronnie Scott’s in Soho, London, UK. Together with Ubiquity, Ayers performed on several occasions as the official house band and also released several live recordings from the club.
In Britain, Ayers was seen as one of the founding fathers of acid jazz, perhaps its single most important progenitor. Hip- hop, acid jazz, and R&B artists on both sides of the Atlantic began to use samples from Ayers’s hits of the 1970s in their work. Dance club DJs could not play enough Roy Ayers to suit the tastes the people on the floor. Suddenly Ayers was back in the limelight. By 1995 demand for Ayers’s sound had grown large enough to warrant his first major label recording project in years, “Naste,” released on RCA. Simultaneously, Polydor attempted to cash in on his renewed fame by releasing “Evolution: The Polydor Anthology,” a two-disc compilation of Ayers’s work on that label. On top of all this, Ayers also did a guest stunt on the successful salsa/soul album “Nu Yorican Soul.”
As acid jazz continues to gain a loyal following in the United States, Roy Ayers, as its leading icon, has become a pop culture hero once again. Ayers spent much of his career trying to stay at the top by seeking out and capturing the musical mood of the times. Now, Ayers has seen that situation reverse itself. The musical mood of the times has chosen him and made him its king. “I’m honored that they picked my music….” he was quoted as saying, “I’m ubiquitous again.”