When, in 1970, the free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler was found dead in the East River, a rumor started swirling that the Mafia had murdered him and disposed of his body by tying him to a jukebox and throwing him in. The truth was much simpler, and even more tragic: one of the great jazz players of the 1960s had apparently committed suicide at age 34.
Released in 2005, the documentary My Name is Albert Ayler is a remarkable look at the artist’s life and work. It was directed by Swedish documentarian Kasper Collin, and features interviews with Ayler’s bandmates including his brother Donald and drummer Sonny Murray. Murray tells the story of meeting Ayler for the first time in Europe in the early 1960s, and how the then-unknown saxophonist convinced Murray to let him play at a Cecil Taylor gig. Taylor said no, but Murray snuck him on and Ayler proceeded to stun Taylor into silence.
As New Yorker critic Richard Brody wrote of the film, “The ne plus ultra of free jazz, Ayler performed the musical equivalent of speaking in tongues: he left chord changes and swinging rhythms far behind and emitted great spiritual wails and shrieks from his horn. Collin expertly evokes the revolutionary impact of Ayler’s arrival in New York in 1963, when an astonished John Coltrane yielded the bandstand to him.”
Coltrane, in fact, requested that Ayler perform at his funeral. Ayler did, and the documentary features that astounding moment. The whole film is a revelation.