May 18, 2024

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The power with which Charles Gayle played was awe-inspiring, Fiery avant-jazz saxophonist has died at 84: Videos, Photos

Charles Gayle burst on the NYC jazz scene in the ’90s, at which point he was homeless, with frequent residencies at downtown club the Knitting Factory and a series of stylistically uncompromising CDs, mostly recorded in concert there and released on the club’s label, starting with Repent (1992).

Foreign labels Silkheart (which started recording Gayle in the late ‘80s), FMP, Blast First and Black Saint also issued crucial documents of this phase of his career, which catapulted him into collaborations with punk-rock icon Henry Rollins.

Born in Buffalo, NY in 1939, Gayle starred in school athletics and became a teacher. (Much more about this part of his life will become known when an in-progress biography of Gayle by Cisco Bradley is published in the coming years.) Playing multiple instruments, Gayle grew up when swing and bebop ruled jazz, but when the “New Thing” was ushered in by Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, et al. it transformed his playing, as shown on a 1965 recording with bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer John Bergamo (recorded in the latter’s home) and released in 2015 as Gayle Force on Neidlinger’s K2B2 label.

At some point in the mid-’70s, Gayle presented himself at the office of ESP-Disk’, which had released Ayler’s most important albums, and gave owner Bernard Stollman a demo tape. This led to the recording of an album intended for release by ESP, but the label ceased operations in 1975 before further progress was made (after the label’s 2005 revival, it eventually released a ’90s concert recording of Gayle). Gayle returned to Buffalo, then came back to New York City. It was at that point that he became homeless, living in a storefront in Brooklyn and later in a squat in the East Village. When Michael Dorf of the Knitting Factory wanted to be able to reach Gayle, he gave the saxophonist a cell phone. Package tours with other Knitting Factory artists raised Gayle’s profile here and abroad. In the mid-’90s he also recorded with free-jazz pioneers Cecil Taylor, Rashied Ali and Sunny Murray.

The power with which Gayle played was awe-inspiring. The sheer energy involved was impressive, but he was also a virtuoso of the style who had impeccable control of the tenor sax no matter how unfettered by mainstream standards his free-jazz playing was. Before he broke through into international fame in the avant-garde world, he inspired a devoted following on the NYC scene such that poet Steve Dalachinsky devoted an entire 2006 book to poems inspired by listening to Gayle play: The Final Nite: Complete Notes from a Charles Gayle Notebook, which garnered a PEN Oakland / Josephine Miles Literary Award. In 2014, Gayle was honored with a Lifetime Achievement award from the Vision Festival.

Gayle maintained an attitude of humbleness about himself, but time spent with him would gradually reveal his knowledge of how good he was in comparison to other players. For instance, he once told the author of this obituary that David Murray could play free, but he should stay away from standards because he wasn’t as good at playing changes as Johnny Griffin. It’s arguable that left Griffin as the only tenor saxophonist alive at the time who would be allowed to play standards—but around this time, Gayle would occasionally play standards in his second sets at the Knitting Factory, including “I Want to Talk About You,” identified with Coltrane but also the title track of a David Murray album.

Gayle ruffled some feathers when he talked about his fundamentalist Christian beliefs during his concerts, and then further threw off his fans when he went through a long phase of appearing in public as a mime clown named Streets, complete with costume. But the quality of his playing stayed high, and he introduced (in some cases, reintroduced) more instruments to his arsenal, ranging from piano, bass clarinet, and alto sax to several string instruments.

In recent years, with his health deteriorating, he moved back up to Buffalo to be with family, but returned to NYC more recently and was living here when he passed.

The author, while employed by the Black Saint and ESP-Disk’ labels, worked with Gayle in the ’90s and ’10s.

Gayle moved to New York City in the early ’70s and reportedly recorded an album for ESP-Disk’, but the label was running out of money at that point and closed up shop without ever putting it out. Throughout the ’80s, Gayle was homeless, living in a storefront in Brooklyn and a squat in lower Manhattan (or maybe the other way around) and playing on the streets and in the subways. He was featured in Ebba Jahn’s documentary Rising Tones Cross, which was filmed in 1984; he’s seen and heard with pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Peter Kowald, and drummer Rashied Ali; in a trio with Kowald and drummer John Betsch; and as part of a large ensemble led by Peter Brötzmann also featuring David S. Ware and Frank Wright. Quite a front line!

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