Interview by James Lindbloom (March 2000)The image of Charles Gayle as homeless -- the saxophonist spent two decades playing for change on the streets of New York, often sleeping there as well -- has stuck with him. To critics who embrace his brand of soul-scalding free jazz, it's a powerful image: the disenfranchisement of the creative musician made flesh. But Gayle's circumstances are more comfortable these days, and while he won't be featured on a smooth jazz compilation anytime soon, a strain of melodicism which had only been hinted at before has become more overt in his recent work. Ancient of Days (Knitting Factory Records) was released this month; look for Creation Changes on Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 label, later this year.
Gayle spoke by phone from his apartment in the East Village on December 30, 1999. The original impetus for the interview was his upcoming tour of the US in February; however, due to an injury incurred while attempting to lift a piano, Gayle was forced to postpone his tour. Currently recuperating, he hopes to reschedule for the spring.
PSF: The image of you as homeless has stuck with you, though that's not true anymore. What's your current living situation?
I just have a small apartment -- very little, just a couple rooms, a kitchen, and that's it. I mean, I'm inside, you know? It's working out all right.
PSF: Does music pay the bills?
No, I can only get by. There's nothing to complain about -- I get a chance to do some travelling, and I do like to play. But as far as getting to the point where you can kick your heels back a little bit... I don't anticipate that. I look at it as, "this is not the rich man's music." And that's fine. I know when you travel and do a lot of things that some people think that you're doing quite well. This is just not a money brand of music, so to speak.
PSF: You were recently teaching at Bennington College; are you still there?
I'm on vacation. Whether I go back or not, I don't know.
PSF: What were you teaching? What was that whole experience like?
Well, it was just a little theory, as they call it, and just working with students to help them play better. I don't know -- I'm not that kind of a teacher.
PSF: More like, teaching by example?
More so... "Let's just keep going, it'll work itself out, and we'll talk about it as we go." But being a teacher -- I think your heart has to be in it.
PSF: Those are always the best ones.
Yeah, I'm not a teacher by heart. Not even close. It's nice to pass along information to people -- whether I get it from them, or they get it from me. That works better for me.
PSF: Do you still play on the sidewalks of New York?
No, I haven't, but I'm trying to get my alto so that I can do that. I'd just stopped; I had a little [sopranino] horn, and that wasn't working too good. I want to get an alto just for that purpose, because I miss doing that. I'm sort of lost without doing that.
PSF: Are you getting away from the tenor, or is the alto just an additional instrument?
No, just as an extra instrument. I stay with the tenor when I play gigs and things like that. The alto is just easier to carry around, and it penetrates the sound of the street even more. All the time I was playing in the street, I was basically playing alto anyway -- 80%, 70% was alto.
PSF: I've seen reference to a stage persona of yours named "Streets the Clown." There have been photos of you in makeup on a couple CD's, and in magazine articles, but I don't really have an idea of what the act consists of. Can you describe it?
Oh, boy. Well, you see what he looks like; he's a raggedy guy. It's acting out, to a degree, love, pain, joy, and things that happen in life -- it could be a situation like your heart is broke, and I'll tear hearts up and start crying, and try to play it on the piano too, or the horn. Some of it's about social/political stuff -- not just for that, I'm not trying just to cause an effect -- it's just things that are in your heart, that's all I'm saying. Some issues are a little more touchy than others. But I do 'em. Sometimes I'll use little props, sometimes I don't. It's usually pantomime -- I wouldn't say traditional pantomime -- but just no words. And I'll act it out or play it. It can be some sort of act of love -- it could be about a little baby, or just helping somebody. Or it could be an act of violence, where there's blood on the piano -- well, not really, you don't see it, like that. It's a way of me trying to not just play, but to try to bring a visual thing to the playing. I never said it was going to be a big deal, but it was just in my heart to do it.
I just felt a lot of times that playing wasn't enough for me, especially since I've been in the street. If it's a very major part of your life -- not just playing, but eating out there, and hanging out, and sleeping out there, sometimes -- it's not all about performing, and playing, or something very formal. It just doesn't come down to that a lot of times. A lot of people who play in the street can go home and play. But when you're really in the street, it's not always about performing and tunes. Other things come into your mind and into play. You'll be talking to people. Sometimes you'll be running after a siren -- well, not running after it like an ambulance, but just playing around with it, and making the same sounds. I don't want to say I'm doing it for visual effect, but a lot of that is happening, while you're playing. At least it did for me. So, a lot of times, playing just wasn't enough for me.
PSF: Does Streets make an appearance at all your shows now?
Well, I always have him with me. But there's certain situations where it just doesn't work. Either it's not the time, or the room doesn't afford you the right situation. Sometimes he's there -- I say "he" because I feel like that about him -- but he's not really active. Sometimes I'm just dressing like that, but I don't do too much acting. You have to keep a balance, because people really want to hear you play. But sometimes I dress up because I really feel more comfortable like that than I do just standing up on a stage. I mean, I can handle it, because I've done it for many years, but I feel much more comfortable looking like that. It's a personal thing. It wasn't a show to try to entertain anybody; it's just something I had to do for myself. It wasn't to try to bring some different art or anything to anybody; it's for me.
PSF: You were describing how you play off of the street noise when you're outside, by yourself; you're interacting with sounds that don't respond back. After doing that for so many years, how did it differ when you began playing with your own groups? Do you listen and respond to your bandmates? Do you follow them, or do they follow you?
I think it just works either way, because I really never talk to them about playing. I don't think I ever discuss music with them, unless there's something that just has to come up. I just don't talk about music. Maybe I should, but somehow I never got around to it. I don't have anything to say; I don't know what to say. I mean, there's a lot of things you can formally say about it, if you have a prescribed agenda, so to speak. But I don't have that. I just have to trust them. Sometimes it doesn't work -- not just for me, but for them; they might not like what I'm doing, and I respect that. But I basically never say anything. If we play off of each other, it just happens.
PSF: On some of your more recent albums -- Delivered and Solo In Japan -- I hear a strong melodicism creeping into your work. Do you sense yourself playing differently than you did ten, twenty years ago?
Yes, I do. Some of it I like, some of it -- well, I don't want to say like or dislike. See, a few years ago, I was just desperate. I was playing out the way I was living. You're still thinking musical thoughts at times, but that was just a different energy and a different life. A lot of it was probably more edgy, and I use that word loosely. It's still there; it's still in me. But I somehow think I'm getting a little more melodic. I don't know why, I just think so. I'm not saying it's good. I still feel as energetic, but it seems like you pick your shots a little different.
PSF: Exactly. That's why I'm hesitant to use a word like "tempering," because that makes it sound like you're cooling off, or backing away from something.
It's just trying to create more lines than that. And I don't know why that's happening. I don't question things like that, but I know what you mean, and I agree with you. But the energy -- I feel very strong, thank God, and I do push the pedal a lot. My health is still good. I'll be 61 on February 28. I feel very healthy. Am I in fact healthy? Yeah, I hope so. I don't do too much to go against that.
PSF: In thinking about how your style is changing, how often when you play -- either on stage or in the studio -- do you feel like you've broken through to something, or done something new? What circumstances prompt it?
For me, it's just frustration. I think I'm getting into something now, and it isn't there yet. But I have to come out with something else, because it's not going to work to do this. You have to think, of course; if you have anything to work out, you work it out in your mind, or some people do it on paper. But then some of it is just pure emotion, to let that hang out too.
PSF: And that just happens day by day.
That happens day by day. But as I listen -- and I try not to listen to myself, but I have -- I'm getting frustrated now, in a good way. I don't mean that in terms of being depressed. I want to push a bit more and try to get a new language. I'm trying it now; it's time to move on. I don't want to stay the same. It's just not in me to feel like that. I don't know if everything can be such a noticeable difference, but it's just boring to walk out and feel like you're using the same language all the time to express yourself. It's boring for me; I love listening to other people if they're doing it -- they can do what they want to do. But I need that edge. I think if that's not there, then I don't want to play anymore. Even if it's bad. I'm not saying any of it's good, but even if it's not even liked, that really doesn't matter. I just got to do something different now, because it's not worth it to stay the same.
PSF: You played with Cecil Taylor's band, on his album Always A Pleasure. How did that situation come about? What was it like to work with Taylor?
It was a good experience. He asked me to play in his group in Germany, and that's how it started -- well, I had played with him one other time. So we played a couple concerts there. And how was it to play with him? It was nice; it was a wonderful experience. I didn't have a problem with it in any way. Cecil is -- I don't know him that well, but I didn't have any problems with him. I mean, people can talk about different musicians having these different incidents and stuff like that, but we got along fine. I thought it was really something to play with him, because he's a very challenging person. He's not boring, by any stretch. Sometimes when we played, it was a sort of going at each other in a way to push it. I remember a couple gigs we had that were like that, when there's just a bass player, a drummer, and him and you playing. So I enjoyed it, I'll just say it like that. But I don't have any extraordinary stories to tell about it, wasn't nothing like that. But it was a good experience. Cecil is Cecil, and he's very important in this music.
PSF: There seems to be a new audience that's coming to free jazz from the fringes of the rock world (such as Henry Rollins and Thurston Moore). Also, the music is gaining wider exposure in the mainstream for the first time in decades (as in David S. Ware's signing with Sony). As a performer, do you notice any differences in the audience yourself? Do you feel like the times are changing and allowing your music to be more successfully received?
I do see younger faces in the audience. That's always a good sign. I see the old audience and I see the new audience, absolutely. I remember the audience from what was basically the beginning of this music, in the 1960's; and of course, a lot or even most of the people who were in that audience are still here, you know, because that was only thirty years ago. But I see a lot of new people, over the years, hanging in with the older ones. To say that they're all from rock, or this or that, I don't know, because there's different factors; I don't want to just say it's one thing. I know Rollins, I know rock people, and I know that there is a contingent of people who step over. I've played in what are essentially rock clubs, and the rockers have been there, along with the free jazz people. And they hang; they don't leave. They stay there if the energy's nice enough; if it isn't, they go home, you know. So they love the energy, but not only that -- I don't want to just say the energy, because that's sort of putting them down. They are still listening to the music. They can dig the slower songs as well as the fast ones, because they have that in rock too. So they're checking the music out. And the young ones are the ones who came up and dug Streets. They really were the ones who said the most things about that, in a positive way. And I understand why. They're not so dug in right now about what things should be. They eventually will be, but they're not there yet! So, yeah, there's a lot of young people. As a matter of fact, I played a gig last night, and most of the people I had never even seen before -- and I've been around New York a pretty good while. That was an 80%, 90% new audience. Even in New York, I never saw them before.
PSF: There was a change in your album titles and song titles around ten years ago, to reflect your resurgent belief in Christianity. How was your playing affected by this personal change? And in general, how do your beliefs affect your music?
Well, you see, when I started recording, I considered myself a Christian then; I was just using titles that were less direct. I've been listening to jazz all my life, and I just feel -- and I can only base this on what I hear in myself -- that there's a form that's rooted in the church. I'm not going to say gospel music, per se, but there's something that's just in me to feel that, to be that, because I grew up around it. I mean, I don't sit up here listening to gospel every day of my life; I'm not into that. But I hear those things so easy, and I know them -- even though I'm not playing them directly, because I don't want to do that all the time. I just dedicate my music to God and Christ, that's all. Not every song, you know, I'm not like that. I just feel, why not? It's in me to do it. I'm not trying to do this for nobody else, or trying to tell somebody I'm some big Christian or something. I'm not into all that. I just feel that God is the most important thing in my life. Not that I'm some great saint walking around, you know. I don't make any excuses for nothing. I understand the Bible, and it's not about having to be some perfect person. But for me, it's in my heart -- and God will make that decision of whether I'm a phony or not -- that He's the important thing in my life. I mean, there's my family and all that, but God is the center. Whether I ever say anything about it or not, it's just there, and it won't go away. I'm not trying to preach to nobody.
PSF: So, if you're not here to preach, or proselytize, do you still feel like you have a message to communicate? When you're playing for an audience in, let's say, a rock club, where the majority of people are probably non-believers --
PSF: -- do you feel like you can communicate successfully with your audience on that level? Is there a sense of disappointment when you don't? Or are you content with simply saying, "This is who I am and this is what I'm about"?
Yeah, that's all. Sometimes I used to talk and I'd get in trouble all the time, because they wouldn't let me play in clubs if I opened up my mouth. And I understood that. Not that I was talking about Christ, because I'd be talking about men's and women's issues, you know, stuff like that. And I understood that, but somehow my mouth got in the way. I didn't really get into God a lot, like "you gotta believe this or you gotta believe that." I mean, I believe in Christ but sometimes I didn't even mention that. It was just issues. I was amazed that people got really uptight. I can say I understood it, but I didn't. I just feel like everybody believes different things in life, but I mean they got uptight. And I said, "Whoa." I respect everybody; they can believe what they want to believe about anything. We don't have to agree. But to get all bent out of shape -- I didn't really get on to that. Because it just doesn't happen like that, when you relax all that, and there's nobody threatening you. But that's cool. I did understand that. I was a little surprised in some cases, but it wasn't like I was saying, "If you don't believe in Jesus Christ, you're going to drop dead, and the world's going to end." Most of the time I never even mentioned Jesus Christ. I talked about abortion, I talked about love, I talked about hate, I talked about killing, I talked about murder, I talked about marriage. And I just said, "We can think about these things," that's all. I wasn't saying, "This is what you gotta do." I've been around; I know better than to tell somebody that. But people didn't want to talk about it. Now, they came to hear somebody play, and I attribute some of it to that. But understand, respectfully, that I'm not trying to hurt nobody. It's not about that. If you feel there's some viciousness -- if you feel that this man is just set intent on being evil with people -- well, I hope they're not picking that up. But I don't worry about things like that. Life is what it is, and you have to be who you are -- respectfully, hopefully. I just put my heart out there. And sometimes, of course, you put your foot in your mouth as far as other people are concerned.
PSF: If I understand you correctly, it sounds like you've backed off from addressing the audience directly as Charles Gayle, and instead you're bringing up these issues as Streets the Clown.
Yes, and he gets attacked too! So, it wasn't to be quiet; I didn't back off of that because of any response from people. Not that we never do that; we do that in life. But in this case, it wasn't because of that. Streets just came into existence, but it wasn't to camouflage, or find an easier way to do something. It absolutely was not like that. I never thought about anything like that. It just happened that he was in me to come out, and he did what he did. If he wasn't, and I thought by talking that I would lose every job, then I would lose every job. That's it. Then I would do something else for a living.
PSF: Do you have any new CD's coming out? The most recent issue was Abiding Variations on FMP, and that was an older session.
That was an older session. There was a couple CD's that didn't come out; there's more than one or two. I was trying some things, they got recorded, and I didn't really want them on a record.
PSF: Which ones are you thinking of?
Well, there's a couple on FMP; that one, and Berlin Movement From Future Years. I didn't that know was going to be recorded like that, because -- well, that's a long story. It was at a point where I was trying to get a certain two or three notes out of the horn at one time; I was trying to work on something. And somehow it wound up on a record. But in a way, I feel good too, because I don't mind exposing whatever it is. It can work against you, but it's out there. I'm not saying any of them are good. I never thought I was a good player; I never think like that. It's out there, and I'm not going to make any excuses for it. I'll take the hit, if it's a hit. If it's not, and people like it -- some people said they liked it, and I was shocked, you know? So maybe I won't say anything anymore. But to answer your question: there's one from the Knitting Factory coming out, that's supposed to be next month [January]. And there's one with [Henry] Rollins that was supposed to come out. It's already in the can, but I think he's travelling, and it won't be able to get done until the first part of the year.
PSF: Do you mean another one on Rollins' label, or actually playing with the Rollins Band?
Well, it's funny you ask that. The one I was talking about was just with the group that I play with. But then he said that he's going to put the one out that we had done a few years ago, with his group.
PSF: To wind up: are there projects you'd like to do that you haven't done yet?
A piano solo album. What else? Well, I'd like to do a thing with a trumpet player and a piano player, really tight stuff.
PSF: Any trumpet players in mind?
I don't know any trumpet players. I wish I did. They don't really have a lot of them in New York playing freer music. I want a trumpet player who can play like a freer Wynton Marsalis -- somebody who has that kind of technique, but plays... a different way.
PSF: That's a good way of putting it.
Yeah, I'm being nice here.
PSF: I am too.
We're not missing at nothing here, I see that! That's good, man, you can be in sync with someone you're talking to. I mean, it's been that way through this whole conversation, so I've picked up on that. But anyway, something like that -- I'd like to do a quintet. And I'd also like to do a real, real strong gospel album, from the church that I feel in my heart, that I know.
PSF: The Delivered album had an overt gospel tone; you had songs like "Amazing Grace," and "Go Down Moses" on it. You'd like to do another one in that vein, but even more so?
Yeah, I would really want to do a good one. I mean, one that I know I want to do, if I had the time, and the musicians wanted to sit down and do it. And I know what I would want to do on it, in a certain way. I would make it much, much stronger. That's about it. And then see what happens after that. I'd like to play some other kind of music. But that just has to happen on its own.
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