Charles Gayle, Jazz Saxophone Great, Gone at 84

Renowned reedist was a fixture on the NYC avant-garde scene

Charles Gayle (Image: Wikipedia)

Fiery avant-jazz saxophonist Charles Gayle has died. He was 84.

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.


AUDIO: Charles Gayle “Repent”

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.


AUDIO: Charles Gayle, William Parker and Rashied Ali “Touchin’ on Trane: Part A”

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.


Steve Holtje
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Steve Holtje

Steve Holtje is a composer (classical and soundtrack) and improviser (keyboardist in the Caterpillar Quartet and This Humidity). His classical compositions have recently been performed by pianist Tania Stavreva and the Cheah-Chan Duo; one of his soundtracks can be found on Bandcamp. His day job since 2013 has been running ESP-Disk, first under founder Bernard Stollman and, since Mr. Stollman's passing, doing his best to perpetuate and publicize the indiest indie label's unique legacy. He has produced albums by Matthew Shipp, Amina Baraka & The Red Microphone, Fay Victor, etc. Previously he worked at Black Saint Records, where he was present at the last studio session of Sun Ra. Other jobs have included editorial positions at Creem, The Big Takeover, and The New York Review of Records; inevitably, he also worked at a record store in Williamsburg (Sound Fix), where one night after closing, while drinking across the street at Mugs Ale House, he preached to some tourists about the greatness of jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley, which led to him reopening the store and selling them a copy of Harley's Re-Creation of the Gods. This is widely considered the most Holtje-esque occurrence ever. (Photo by Dale Mincey)

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