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Charles Gayle: Always Reaching

Rex  Butters By

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At some point in the set, I put a mask over my eyes...so people can look at something. Then I can't see anything. It's hard to judge the keyboard at all. It's to create another music. It pushes me.
Charles Gayle's life and art must certainly inspire anyone choosing to look at it. A humble, articulate man who laughs easily, he's seen more than his share of hard times. Yet now, at 65, his creative arc takes the upswing as critics and audiences begin to catch up. A highly original saxophonist, Gayle resumed his piano studies in the last decade and has released his second collection of solo piano performances, Time Zones. At times playing with enough force and ideas per finger to suggest a blues drenched Conlon Nancarrow piano roll, the tour de force opens another window on his powerful inspiration.

All About Jazz's Rex Butters caught up with Gayle to talk about how he came to the instrument, and how in many ways he views it as separate and distinct path from his work on saxophone.

All About Jazz: Time Zones is your second solo piano record?

Charles Gayle: Right.

AAJ: Did you have an affinity with the piano as a kid?

CG: My family just insisted that I take piano at 7 or 8 years old. I don't know what I had an affinity for, but we all like music somehow, whatever bag it is. No, they just said I'm going to play piano, so at least I'm going to have that in my hip pocket if I need it. That's the way they felt. Initially, when I was a kid they just felt in those times, it's nice to have something else you might be able to turn to. I didn't have a choice about that.

AAJ: Did you hear a lot of jazz around the home?

CG: Well, not exclusively. I mean, jazz was there, what they called popular music: doo wop, or whatever the people were doing at that time. We had Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, jazz, piano players, "Fatha" Hines, that kind of stuff. We had some of the popular music of that time that we had in the neighborhood. I guess you call them black records. Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole, that was in the house. Louis Armstrong.

I was about 12 or 13 years old and I started to really get into jazz, started really paying attention to it as I got a little older. I wanted to find out how they did what they did. They played "How High the Moon," and I didn't know how they got all those notes out of it. So I worked on it. I figured it out, somehow, on my own. I kept working on it. It wasn't a particular method, except to see how the people soloed, and to get an understanding of that through bop, and I don't want to say ragtime, but Louis Armstrong was still around then. It just sort of happened—eventually playing jam sessions.

AAJ: How did you pick up wind instruments?

CG: Two ways. I told a guy I'd out play him in six months. I started out on alto. The other one was, I started to get into it really heavy going to jam sessions, about 18 years old. When you got to jam sessions, I eventually discovered that once you got up from the piano, you couldn't play no more if somebody else sat down. And then I discovered that the horn player stood up all night. I said that's not going to happen. It's true. I really checked that out. So I went to saxophone. I tried trumpet. I was bad. The other reason was I challenged a guy who was playing, a friend of mine. I don't know why I told him I could beat him in six months. But I put that on the table, then I really started getting into it.

AAJ: And did you beat him in six months?

CG: Nope. He wasn't that advanced, but I didn't get it. I have to admit, I didn't get it.

AAJ: Were you on alto long?

CG: No, actually I switched to tenor right away. There was an alto available, and that's what I started playing, and I hung with it a year and I went to the tenor. When I was out on the streets I played alto a lot. But I went right to tenor. One of my friends gave me a tenor.

AAJ: At that time you were playing bebop?

CG: All bebop. That was it. In the '50s, that's all they played.

AAJ: When the new thing came in, that sounded good to you?

CG: There is a misconception about this new thing. The new thing came in, a couple people played it, but it wasn't to jump on. A lot of things were changing at that time. Ornette was the first one out there, but he wasn't the first one to play that music. I would say he was the best representative as far as it being worldwide, because he was great. But what happened was in the late '50s, there was a sort of a movement going on in the African neighborhoods, the social rights movement. And it started to change the music. Now, that's just my interpretation of seeing and growing up in all of that. And some of the freer music, not completely free, was in the church, and it was also in the bars, some of the blues bars when they were letting it all hang out. It wasn't exclusively that music because it was blues, but they'd always have some free parts in it.

I heard some people play it before it became national. I think a lot of people in different cities can say that. But if you want to put it that way, I was in it from the jump. Even playing bop I was freeing up. I knew the changes, I could play, but I was still playing free. I mean I could insert freedom in there, I'll put it that way. I know a trumpet player who played when we were growing up and he come to jam sessions, and he couldn't play a note of them tunes, and he was free and played. Of course, people wanted to get rid of him, but he did. I knew a drummer who was doing it. They weren't into Ornette or nobody. I'm sure they knew him, but it was about them. Most free players couldn't play changes. When the music did switch, most of them really didn't play changes. A lot them went straight to playing free. It became a music in itself.

AAJ: Did you find many people to play with at that time?

CG: No, but I was branching out. I played two musics. I would play straight, you know, piano bars, playing on gigs. I would play piano, sometimes bass. If I had a gig or situation to play free, I'd play free. It was basically me and two other people playing free where I came from. We were a trio, and then eventually we got this trumpet player and he played free. It became a quartet. I came to New York in the mid-'60s, got some gigs, got to know people. I worked with Eddie Gale, Ronnie Boykins. I found Rashied Ali. We hooked up a few times. We were running together.

AAJ: When you were living outside, did you get access to a piano at all?

CG: No.

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