Friday, October 9, 2009

Lest We Forget: Charles Tyler (1941-1992)

It’s unfortunate that occupying the orbit, for a time, of another more charismatic artist can relegate certain musicians to also-ran status, despite an individual voice and hard work as a bandleader-composer. For every commercial success like Pharoah Sanders there are countless stories like that of the undeservedly obscure saxophonist Charles Tyler, whose association with Albert Ayler informed but didn’t determine his artistic path. Born in Cadiz, Kentucky on July 20, 1941, Tyler was raised mostly in Indianapolis, starting on clarinet at age 7 and by his teen years was playing alto saxophone in the school band, alongside fellow Indy staples like James Spaulding and Ray Appleton. During the summer, Tyler and his family visited Chicago, New York, and Cleveland – where he met the young tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler at age 14. Tyler recounted to Michael Cuscuna that “I was walking down the street during one of my summer sin Cleveland, carrying my alto. This guy about 19 years old with a patch of red skin on part of his chin stopped me and introduced himself and told me that he played saxophone too and started talking about music. Then, when I moved to Cleveland, I came across this saxophonist with white hair growing out of half of his beard. That’s how I recognized him and how our relationship began.”

After a stint in the army from 1957-1959, Tyler relocated to Cleveland in 1960 and began playing in earnest, rehearsing and discussing the spiritual with Ayler. During the first half of the decade, Tyler commuted between Cleveland and New York, also woodshedding with and encouraging Albert’s younger brother Donald on trumpet. He made his first recording with the Aylers on May 1, 1965, in a Town Hall concert that was released on ESP as Bells. Ayler’s Spirits Rejoice, recorded later that year at Judson Hall was Tyler’s final commercial appearance with the Ayler juggernaut (though recordings from Slugs’ were subsequently released). Indeed, his place in the music was enough to inspire LeRoi Jones to write in 1966 that “only Charles Tyler of the Ayler unit has the big wailing heavy alto sound that satisfies my particular need for flesh and blood.” It wasn’t long after that they parted ways, owing to the increased commercialization of Ayler’s music. But Tyler had already stepped out as a leader for ESP by this time, recording four of his own compositions on the eponymous Charles Tyler Ensemble (slated for reissue this fall).

In late 1966, Tyler returned to Indianapolis to study at the University of Indiana under David Baker, recording with a string trio on the intriguing and hard-swinging Eastern Man Alone album; he then relocated to Berkeley, California to study and teach. His West Coast experience brought him into the orbit of players like David Murray and Black Arthur Blythe and writer Stanley Crouch, and he also began playing the baritone sax again (his army band axe). Tyler moved back to New York in 1974, studying at Columbia University and leading his own barnstorming freebop groups with Blythe, trumpeter Earl Cross, drummer Steve Reid and others, well-represented on albums like Voyage from Jericho (Ak-Ba/Bleu Regard) and Saga of the Outlaws (Nessa). During the height of the “loft jazz” years, he ran The Brook, a performance space, and his own Ak-Ba label. While other mavens of the scene became veritable jazz stars, Tyler didn’t meet with the same success and relocated to Europe, recording with other expatriates like Khan Jamal and Steve Lacy. Though he continued to release powerful dates as a leader for labels like Storyville and Bleu Regard, Tyler was still relatively unknown in the jazz avant-mainstream when he died of heart failure in June 1992 at age 51.

Recommended listening:

Albert Ayler, Bells (ESP, 1965)
Charles Tyler, Eastern Man Alone (ESP, 1968)
Charles Tyler, Voyage from Jericho (Ak-Ba, 1974)
Charles Tyler, Saga of the Outlaws (Nessa, 1976)
Steve Reid, Odyssey of the Oblong Square (Mustevic, 1977)
Charles Tyler, Sixty Minute Man (Adelphi, 1979)
Charles Tyler, The Definite (Storyville, 1981)
Billy Bang, Outline No. 12 (Celluloid, 1982)
Hal Russell, Generation (Nessa, 1982)
Steve Lacy, One Fell Swoop (Silkheart, 1987)

Drawings of Charles Tyler performing at Environ by Brian Olewnick. This article first appeared in All About Jazz New York.


  1. Brian O. alerted me to this post. Nice piece. I fondly remember seeing Tyler at Rivbea with Earl Cross. Cross also had a nonet at the time. He too deserved to be more than a footnote.

    Missing from the recommended listening above is Khan Jamal's fabulous Dark Warrior on Steeplechase.

  2. Indeed, that's a fine one as well. I also left out a cool duo with Eugene Chadbourne.

    Tyler and Cross are like peanut butter and jelly. A fantastic pairing that - you're right - is criminally underrecognized. That goes for a lot of their "loft jazz" brothers and sisters as well.