Cleveland jazz musician Donald Ayler led a tragic life
by Tom Feran
“Gone but not forgotten” was the headline, 10 years ago, on a newspaper story about saxophonist Albert Ayler, the controversial free-jazz pioneer from Cleveland whose fame had only grown since his death in 1970.
Forgotten but not gone was the sadder line that applied to Donald Ayler, his talented younger brother and collaborator.
Troubled and destitute, he was long unheard and out of the spotlight, except for a halting interview in the recent documentary, “My Name Is Albert Ayler,” which was screened by Cleveland Cinematheque in November. When a short preview ran in The Plain Dealer, few people noticed it was the same day Donald’s obituary ran in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. It was the only mainstream news outlet to carry it.
Overshadowed even at the end, he had died of a heart attack, in Cleveland, almost a month earlier. He was 65.
“It’s like Donny’s forgotten,” said Richard Koloda, a music historian and friend who served as a pallbearer. “People write him off as the tag-along brother, like an extra Mandrell sister. But this guy was a great musician. He influenced a lot of musicians. He knew he was good, but he never knew how much he was appreciated elsewhere, which was the real tragedy. There’s a lot of respect for him.”
A trumpeter known for his full, piercing tone, he performed with John Coltrane at Lincoln Center, toured Europe and played the 1967 Newport Jazz Festival. His “Our Prayer,” which he and Albert performed at Coltrane’s funeral, has been called one of the great jazz compositions of the 1960s.
“He was a talented kid, kind of quiet,” said his father, Edward, 94, who survives him. “We were buddy-buddy. He was kind, humble, intelligent, a good talker — and he talked his music well, too.
“I’m a good listener,” he added with a chuckle. “In the beginning, I didn’t understand it. As time went on, I kind of liked it and understood. That was a new music coming in. It was complex, avant-garde.”
“It was way out of the mainstream,” said Jon Goldman, an enthusiast who knew and recorded both brothers here. “It’s still way out of the mainstream.”
Ultimately, Goldman said, “[The Aylers] had much more of an impact on rock musicians” such as Patti Smith and Henry Rollins. “You’d see quotes from them, that among the people who influenced them were Albert Ayler and Don Ayler, much more than you’d see from jazz musicians.”
Jazz host Dan Polletta of WCPN FM/90.3 noted it’s been called “the ultimate jazz, because everybody gets to improvise at the same time. It’s music that people talk about but don’t really often listen to,” showing the influence of marches, bugle calls and New Orleans jazz.
“And don’t leave out religion,” Edward said.
Some musicians and critics found it exciting, original and spiritual, describing Donald’s solos as “a violent cleansing of his soul.” Others were outright hostile. They called it rambling, chaotic and unsettling, terms that became a tragic reflection of his career.
Koloda might know the story as well as anyone. He interviewed Donald extensively on his jazz show on Cleveland State University’s WCSB FM/89.3 and has been working for a decade on a book about the Aylers. The manuscript is 600 pages “and counting,” he said. “And I don’t have all the answers. It’s like ‘Citizen Kane’; everyone tells their own story.”
Born in Cleveland to Edward and Myrtle Ayler (pronounced EYE-ler) on Oct. 5, 1942, Donald attended Cleveland schools and graduated from John Adams High School. He had a paper route and played sandlot baseball. He told Koloda his early exposure to music came from his father, who’d played violin and tenor sax professionally; his brother; and from worshiping at Liberty Hill Baptist Church, where his brother and father had played.
He picked up the saxophone in his early teens, studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music and Cuyahoga Community College. He was 20 and working as a meter reader when Albert — six years older and already in a music career — persuaded him to switch to trumpet and “go places.” Don liked that it let him “deliver a more personal feeling and explore a greater range,” he told Koloda.
In the months that followed his change of instruments, he practiced nine hours a day, gigged with cousin Charles Tyler, who’d been instructed to get him ready to join Albert, and made a sort of spirit quest to Sweden, where Al had traveled in the Army. He hitched north of the Arctic Circle, saying he wanted to find his own form “not only in music but in thought.”
Albert invited him to join his band in New York in 1965, after they played at a New Year’s Eve house party in Cleveland. Don proved himself as a well-matched foil for his brother’s improvisations, recording and touring with his group. Struggling even in New York, but hailed as artists in Europe, they returned to Cleveland to play the fabled La Cave club in 1966 and a well-publicized concert at the WHK Auditorium in 1967.
Their partnership ended a year later, in a split that has several versions: Don had to be dropped because of mental instability that became what he termed a nervous breakdown; Al was being steered in a different direction by his label, or by a woman whose influence on Al alienated Don and other associates; Don’s skills weren’t up to his brother’s, or to his ambition; he was sent home.
Regardless, “They never broke off completely,” Koloda said. “Al never had another trumpeter in his act.” In 1969, after Don went home to Cleveland and then returned to New York to form his own band, Al joined them onstage.
But there was no encore. Albert was found drowned in New York’s East River in 1970, in circumstances that may never be explained. Don, who had been hospitalized in Ohio for mental illness, was devastated.
‘He lost the drive to push forward’
Don didn’t pick up the horn again for almost three years. But with the help of medication, and with friends Mustafa Abdul Rahim and Al Rollins, he played occasional gigs on Cleveland’s East Side. In 1981, he performed in Italy with an ensemble including Rahim and Clevelander Frank Doblekar. An entire concert was issued as a three-LP set, “In Florence.”
But he was, in the words of music journalist Val Wilmer, “unable to sustain a career,” and the free-jazz era had passed.
A time working in a Buckeye Road record store became Donald’s closest contact with the music business. His illness brought periods of managed care and ended a 1984 marriage. Friends said he was gentle, happy and “out of it in a friendly way.”
“He lost the drive to push forward” but “always joked he wanted Wesley Snipes to play him in the movie,” said Koloda, who recalled Don was “floored someone still remembered him” when they became friends in 1997. Koloda bought him a trumpet on eBay at Christmas 2000, though he “didn’t know if you could get your lip back after all those years.”
“He lived with me about 10 years,” his father said, “and he went from nursing home to nursing home” — finally Northcoast Behavioral Healthcare in Northfield, where he died Oct. 21. “I was getting ready to go there when I got the report. It was traumatic for me. He’s my last son.”
He was buried next to his mother Oct. 30 in Highland Park Cemetery, after relatives and friends filed past the casket, opened a final time.
“He looked at peace,” Koloda said.