FEATURE: Ghosts and Spirits. Remembering Albert Ayler at the London School of Economics in November 1966

Albert Ayler


Fifty years Ago next Tuesday 15th November, ALBERT AYLER made his only British appearance when BBC2 recorded a programme at the London School of Economics and later erased the untransmitted tapes. George Foster was at the recording …and in the pub afterwards. Here he writes about his own memories of the evening, and tells the story of what happened to the recording:

On Tuesday November 15th 1966 The Old Theatre at the London School of Economics was full for a BBC2 recording in the series Jazz Goes to College. Most of the 400+ audience were students like myself getting the then rare experience of being in a TV recording. There were also quite a few musicians and jazz fans who had wangled complimentary tickets. We were waiting for Humphrey Lyttleton to introduce the first British appearance by Albert Ayler with a band featuring Donald Ayler on trumpet, Michel Samson (violin), William Folwell (bass) and Beaver Harris (drums) The previous night the theatre had been used for a recording of the Stan Getz Quartet featuring Gary Burton, Steve Swallow and Roy Haynes. The video of the Monday evening gig is on YouTube (LINK) .

This captures the scale and atmosphere of the venue well and the Getz band are on superb form. (Astrud Gilberto did not appear with them because of a major breakdown in her relationship with Getz.)

Original poster(80 x 40 cm) Collection of George Foster





MEMORIES OF THE NIGHT

Most of the audience were expecting more music like the Getz concert, and even if they read the Melody Maker and the Jazz mags, they really had little inkling of what was coming.

In 1966 there was an increasing rejection of the established and the stirrings of what was to become an unprecedented search for new directions were in the air. This was before the cultural revolution of 67/68: John and Yoko had first met in the previous week; Hendrix had arrived in London a few weeks earlier and was looking for work; 6 months earlier someone had called Dylan "Judas" in Manchester; a new "alternative" paper - International Times - had been launched in October inaugurating a new venue- The Roundhouse with a "Rave" featuring Soft Machine and Pink Floyd https://50.roundhouse.org.uk/content-items/launch-international-times.

Ornette had played his historic concert at Croydon in August 1965.The Little Theatre Club had been a centre of the London free improvisation movement since January 1966. and Chris McGregor's Blue Notes bringing were introducing a new wild energy to the London Jazz scene.


Only a few of us had heard Ayler's first records on the Sonet and ESP labels them. Alan Beckett (who wrote pieces far ahead of his time for New Left Review and International Times) was a regular visitor to our University College lunchtime Jazz Record sessions and had recently brought some Ayler LPs to a meeting. I had been very impressed by Spiritual Unity which seemed to me to be an important development on the trio work by Coltrane and Rollins. But I think that few of his European audience at the time recognised the spiritual side of Ayler and the role of evangelical religion with its traditions of glossalalia - "speaking in tongues" - and possession by spirits which emerged in his playing as ecstatic screaming and in his album titles like Ghosts and Spirits Rejoice. I think that we were expecting the avant-garde aspects of Ayler's music to be an extension of Ornette's but instead we found something which was very primitive. It was that most dangerous and threatening of encounters, when what you expect to happen is utterly transformed into something strange and even threatening.

The Ayler band had appeared at the 1966 Paris Jazz Festival on Sunday 13th November and flew to Heathrow on the Tuesday morning. There were immediate problems with UK customs who wanted to search their instrument cases for drugs. Albert is said to have demonstrated that there was nothing hidden in his horn by playing it in the customs hall. Drummer Beaver Harris protested at being made to unpack his cases and got into a shouting match with the customs officials. It apparently culminated in him being frogmarched into an inspection room where he was made to strip and given a full body search. The black members of the band may well have found the attitudes of British officialdom a shock after the relatively racially-tolerant atmosphere of Paris. These were the days of Enoch Powell.

The band were scheduled for a brief rehearsal and sound check but arrived late, tired, hungry and angry at their treatment at the airport. During the sound check Donald Ayler had a major confrontation (bordering on violence) with a BBC technician who walked on stage and moved the microphone near the bell of his trumpet while he was playing. Ayler's reaction to this may sound petty until you realise that any collision between the mic and the trumpet could have produced a painful split lip and rendered the trumpeter unable to play. However, it is clear that Donald could be a very difficult person. Valerie Wilmer (Jazzwise Nov 2016) mentions Donald's "increasingly erratic behaviour" and he was to spend many years in psychiatric institutions.

They demanded a meal-break and were directed to the student self service canteen, where Donald caused chaos by standing on his head in the queue and blocking everyone's way. The security staff were about to escort the musicians out of the college buildings when a member of the production team came down and managed to calm things down - temporarily.

There were arguments over money: Albert was increasingly worried about the money for the gig and complained constantly that they were not getting the agreed fee. Arguments over money may well be behind the "We go crazy!" incident described by Humph when at the end of the concert the producer asked for a short ensemble piece, which Albert refused to play.

The sound-check. Photo credit and copyright by Val Wilmer (*) 

My memories of the concert are of the band dressed in conventional suits and ties, rather like the Getz band the previous evening and launching into The Truth is Marching In which sounded like a Tom & Jerry cartoon of a New Orleans marching band. It was a shock to most of the audience who were unprepared for the intensity of the sound (a recording of the same piece being performed in Berlin 4 days earlier is on Youtube and accords well with my memory of the opening number). Most of the audience were won over by the simple and child-like collection of dirges, marches and canons that followed, though my memory is that the band, were playing much more angrily than on the Berlin recording, especially Sampson on violin who was producing loud, fast and aggressive phrases above the ensemble.

The greatest degree of hostility to the music seemed to come from the British modern and hard bop players who were witnessing the negation of their ideals of technical mastery of complex harmonics by a band apparently unable or refusing to play properly. According to Valerie Wilmer they constituted "a row of sneering elders" and Humph mentions Gordon Beck's threat to go and get some rotten fruit. There were several interruptions for "technical problems". When the stage manager announced "We apologise for interrupting the music" Ronnie Scott could be heard shouting "Why?"

At the end of one of the frustrating interruptions the stage manager began a countdown from 10 and Beaver Harris conspicuously pinched his nose and held his breath then collapsed with laughter and there was a further interruption with BBC crew and musicians openly becoming more and more exasperated with each other. The recording ended with a short ensemble piece intended to go at the start of the edited programme. There appeared to be a lot of argument and delay over this as Albert argued over money

After the gig ended I went to the nearby George IV pub. Opinions were divided among the people I talked to: musicians were mostly openly hostile, seeing Ayler as a threat and challenge to hard-earned professional skills; those familiar with Ayler's records were impressed at the sheer energy flowing from the band on stage; a couple of students I talked to thought it puzzling but fun.

FIFTY YEARS ON

Trying to understand my own attitude 50 years later is a difficult undertaking. I was ambivalent: the music at the LSE was fun, in a surreal or dadaist vein, seeming to challenge the complexities of much modern jazz. The problem was that I liked listening to complex chord changes and rhythms and the music I heard that night was an interesting concept but an unsatisfying experience. I could see that Spiritual Unity was an important step forward, but the approach I heard at the LSE seemed to me to be going nowhere. It was revolutionary and challenging without offering a viable alternative. The uncontrolled energy and primitive nature of this music was all a bit too close to a sort of Year Zero of Jazz where everything was scrapped and everyone had to go back to the beginning and start again. It was only with hearing the New York Art Quartet, Archie Shepp (especially Four for Trane) and the work of Steve Lacy that I found viable alternatives with enough connections to earlier jazz to satisfy my tastes. Since his mysterious death in 1970, Ayler's reputation has grown and his influence is widespread, but it seems to have been his trio work that has been absorbed into a wider tradition, even in the playing of some of the musicians who sneered and felt threatened at the LSE Concert.

About 20 minutes after the recording finished, Humph came in with the BBC producer Terry Henebery. I can only describe him as incandescent with rage, which seemed to be focussed on Beaver Harris for his breath-holding distraction. He and Henebery were openly vituperative about the music, the musicians' behaviour and the recording and were quite openly saying they thought it untransmittable. It is interesting in view of the conflicting accounts of why the concert was never transmitted that scrapping it was being discussed so soon after recording. Humph says he found the whole event a sort of entertaining spectacle, but he didn't use "entertaining" among the range of adjectives that night in the pub.

(Source: International Times Jan 16th 1967)

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE RECORDING?

There are various accounts of why it was never shown: the tapes had too many technical faults; the recording was plagued by technical problems, but if it got to the mixing and editing stage it implies that ere was some usable material.

International Times blames Billy Cotton Junior (younger readers should Google his father Billy Cotton Senior to understand the implication of this) who allegedly had overheard the tapes being mixed and ordered them wiped.

Cotton became the Head of BBC Light Entertainment (which included Jazz) in 1970. He was was a rising star and one of the senior producers, so his opinion would have counted a lot. the same story was current with David Attenborough (then Controller of BBC2) in the role of villain. Ironically he had been a recent part time Post Grad student at the LSE, and was very "hands on" in his approach to Arts Programmes, but took little or no interest in Jazz, which anyway came under Light Entertainment. Humph says that the programme was referred "upstairs" and deemed unsuitable for transmission. Programmes were nearly always shown to department heads by the producers who made them and "upstairs" may be Humph's shorthand for this. No one involved was prepared to defend the programme and the whole evening was written off.

The tapes would have been erased anyway in a recycling/economy drive. At the time broadcast quality videotape was extremely expensive, and recordings were regularly culled, the tapes erased and re-used. This seems to have happened to all the Jazz Goes to College tapes except the Stan Getz. However the notice in International Times must have been written well in advance of its publication date of mid January and seems to indicate that the decision to erase was taken within a very short time, presumably within days of the November recording. The sad fact is that whatever decisions or circumstances led to the erasure in 1966, the Ayler concert would have been wiped by the BBC anyway with the rest of the Jazz goes to College series

For three years later the BBC wiped most of its jazz video collection as part of a larger video-tape recycling project. There was a huge public outcry and people started publishing lists of what was lost reaching far beyond the jazz world as classics of modern drama were destroyed. The BBC (as Humph writes) was accused of criminal negligence and forced to adopt a proper archiving policy (even if it hardly shows its jazz holdings). The list of lost TV Jazz programmes is heart-rending: Miles at Ronnie Scott's, Max Roach with Sonny Rollins, Monk, Ellington, Hawkins…….

Ironically, producers hated to use the recycled tapes because they were very difficult to wipe fully clean . On many of them the erased recordings appeared as “ghosting” - barely visible traces of figures and faces. It seems an appropriate end for music so obsessed with ghosts and spirits.

Recordings of other nights on this European Tour can be found on Youtube (eg the full Berlin concert is HERE.

For this account of the infamous Albert Ayler Concert George Foster has drawn on the collection of documents at the ayler.co.uk site (LINK). This whole site is an excellent source on all aspects of Ayler) The pieces by Humph and Alan Beckett are to be found there. 

(*) NB ALL of Val Wilmer's photos of Albert Ayler from London and New York in 1966 are subject to copyright restrictions. 

2 comments:

  1. Updated link to European video
    The band made some European TV recordings on their 1966 continental tour but due to copyright issues the YouTube links are dead. There's a lot of audio but the only video coverage I've found is a couple of extracts from the Berlin concert on November 3rd, complete with a rather underwhelmed-looking audience:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-q3h7QwWNc

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for such an interesting and entertaining read

    ReplyDelete