MY NAME IS ALBERT AYLERNR
Sometimes little-known stories, when brought to light, capture the imagination. Such is the case with My Name Is Albert Ayler, a short but dense portrait of a jazz saxophonist who died under mysterious circumstances at age 34 in 1970. Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin turns Ayler’s life into a poignant and gripping narrative. You don’t have to like or even appreciate Ayler’s striking brand of music to be moved by this heartfelt tribute.
In fact, Collin demonstrates that very few ever did like or appreciate Ayler’s avant-garde style, which is partly why the musician lived mostly in poverty and failed to achieve any kind of real popular success. Yet, as My Name Is Albert Ayler also shows, Ayler’s fellow musicians recognized his striking originality and tried to help him “make it.”
Collin looks back to Ayler’s middle-class upbringing in Cleveland, Ohio (he was born in 1936) and how he joined a military band and some R&B groups as a young adult before finding and realizing his signature atonal “free” style. Because black musicians, let alone black jazz musicians, had a tough time finding work in the United States, Ayler gravitated to the more welcoming environment of Europe—particularly Stockholm, Sweden. Later, with the encouragement of more celebrated saxophonist John Coltrane, Ayler moved to New York City, where he struggled to break out from obscurity.
No doubt, Ayler was held back by both his race and his iconoclasm, but he was also saddled with a younger brother, Donald, who was eventually diagnosed as psychotic yet insisted on also becoming a musician. Ayler may or may not have been helped by his last girlfriend, Mary Parks, who is portrayed in the film as a highly controlling force in his life.
Like the recent documentary about the late Kurt Cobain, About a Son, My Name Is Albert Ayler benefits from the “voice from the grave” of its subject, as Collin uses revealing recordings Ayler made in the mid-’60s about his experiences. He also found some rare footage of Ayler in performance and a haunting fragment of a naked Ayler staring into the camera. Most of the film is composed of interviews with those who knew him, including Donald Ayler, Edward Ayler (his father), drummers Sune Spangberg and Lionel Marshall, and the many women in his life, including Mary Parks (in voice only), Ann Westerman and Carrie Roundtree.
Even though the film makes no secret about Ayler’s fate, it is hard not to be moved by the tragic ending or the epilogue featuring a trip to the man’s small, inconspicuous grave. No matter how one feels about Ayler’s complex and challenging compositions, My Name Is Albert Ayler will have a profound effect on a basic level.