Charles Gayle (February 28, 1939 – September 7, 2023) emerged as a luminary in the realm of American free jazz. While the saxophone brought him initial recognition in the 1990s, after long periods of relative anonymity, Gayle’s diverse musical arsenal also featured his talents as a pianist, bass clarinetist, bassist, and percussionist.
Born in Buffalo, New York, Gayle’s personal journey remained somewhat enigmatic due to his reserved nature in interviews. His career began with a stint teaching music at the University at Buffalo, before the allure of New York City drew him in during the early 1970s.
In a turn of events, Gayle found himself without a home for nearly two decades, serenading the streets and subways of New York City with his saxophone. He recalled a deliberate choice to embrace homelessness, a state of existence he viewed as a blank slate. In his words, “I had to shed my history, my life, everything had to stop right there…” Through these challenging times, music was his refuge and sustenance, even if his earnings were as meager as US$3 a day. As he roamed from Times Square to Wall Street, music remained his constant companion.
Although Gayle didn’t foresee his homelessness lasting as long as it did (close to 15 years, by his estimation), his fortunes took a turn in 1988. Swedish label Silkheart Records spotlighted him through a trio of albums, establishing him as a prominent figure in free jazz. Since then, Gayle’s career flourished with associations with esteemed labels like Black Saint, Knitting Factory Records, FMP, and Clean Feed. Beyond performing, he also imparted his knowledge at Bennington College.
Gayle’s music resonated with spiritual undertones, drawing inspiration from both the Old and New Testaments. His faith profoundly influenced his work, with several albums dedicated to God. His musical origins can be traced to black gospel music, and he had the privilege of collaborating with jazz greats like Cecil Taylor, William Parker, and Rashied Ali. Among his oeuvre, “Touchin’ on Trane” (FMP) with Parker and Ali stands out, earning accolades from the Penguin Guide to Jazz.
Although known primarily as a tenor saxophonist, Gayle explored other instruments and occasionally infused his concerts with spoken word. He often broached topics of faith and religion, emphasizing his commitment to authenticity. Adding another layer to his public persona, Gayle sometimes performed as the mime “Streets the Clown” – a liberating character which he saw as an escape from his own identity.
Gayle’s diverse discography also includes unique endeavors such as “Jazz Solo Piano”, showcasing his expertise in playing bebop and dispelling myths about free jazz musicians. He appeared in the 1985 jazz documentary “Rising Tones Cross”, directed by Ebba Jahn, where he collaborated and interacted with peers like Rashied Ali and Marilyn Crispell.
As a leader or co-leader, Gayle’s work spanned several albums. Some highlights include:
- “Always Born” (Silkheart, 1988)
- “Touchin’ on Trane” (FMP, 1993)
- “Jazz Solo Piano” (Knitting Factory, 2001)
- “Time Zones” (Tompkins Square, 2006)
- “Streets” (Northern Spy, 2012)
As a sideman, he lent his talents to several projects, such as:
- Sunny Murray‘s “Illuminators” (Audible Hiss, 1996)
- William Parker‘s “Requiem” (Splasc(H), 2006)
- Cecil Taylor‘s “Always a Pleasure” (FMP, 1996)
Charles Gayle‘s life journey, from the streets of New York to the stages of global jazz festivals, stands as a testament to his indomitable spirit, profound faith, and unwavering commitment to his art.