An interview with Arthur Doyle, May 11th 2001
Surveying the careers of the first generation of free jazz pioneers, it's tempting to subscribe to a kind of conspiracy theory – despite the concerted efforts of a handful of festivals and labels, many of the musicians (most of whom are still below retirement age) who broke down the doors of perception and opened the way for today's free music are struggling for work. Some (Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp..) have attained the status that allows them to demand – and get – substantial remuneration; others (Noah Howard, and the ubiquitous and indefatigable William Parker) sustain themselves through sheer hard work, but many have simply disappeared or died in abject poverty (Giuseppe Logan, Marzette Watts, Arthur Jones..). While young lions in Chicago and elsewhere ride to fame on a wave of partially misunderstood (at least by critics) nostalgia for the "golden age" of Albert Ayler and Frank Wright, many of the musicians who helped create that age – Sunny Murray, Sonny Simmons, Arthur Doyle – are still scuffling to make ends meet.
One such player is tenor saxophonist, flautist and vocalist Arthur Doyle. Born on the 26th June 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, Doyle has played with a host of free jazz luminaries (Milford Graves, Noah Howard, Bill Dixon, Alan Silva..) as well as alt.guitar heroes Rudolph Grey and Keiji Haino, becoming as a result something of an underground cult hero himself, despite releasing a mere handful of recordings (only thirteen albums to date, plus a handful of limited edition singles) since 1969. Through the good offices of Sunny Murray, with whom he is currently doing a string of dates in Europe, I managed to track Doyle down to the Studio des Islettes, a tiny and rather shabby jazz club tucked away up a sidestreet behind the Gare du Nord, where he played two Sunday evening gigs with pianist Bobby Few to an audience of barely a dozen people. With remarkable candour and dignity, his story charts the hopes and fears of a whole epoch of jazz history.
"My mother and father had very little education, but the five of us [children] all got university degrees. Three of us got Masters degrees, two got Bachelors of Science. They became schoolteachers and engineers. I'm the crazy one, I'm the black sheep of the family – I was into jazz! There was a jazz station in Birmingham, Alabama. Jazz has always been important in Birmingham."
Doyle's earliest exposure to jazz was to Louis Armstrong (who, as a singer and performer, remains a hero) and Duke Ellington (like his future playing partner, Noah Howard, he was later blown away by the tenor work of Paul Gonsalves). Originally drawn to the alto sax, he took lessons from Otto Ford, a family friend. "He was way ahead of his time for Birmingham, Alabama. He was a genius, but he had to clean buses to make a living." Moving to Nashville to study at Tennessee State University, he played jazz with Horace Silver sideman Louis Smith and ex-Sun Ra band member Walter Miller, and rhythm and blues with local bands. "There was a really active jazz and r'n'b scene in Nashville. Most of Ray Charles' orchestra came from there, along with musicians like David "Fathead" Newman, Joe Guy and Cleveland Eaton." At TSU in 1965 Doyle played in a big band led by pianist Donny Hathaway, and also backed Gladys Knight, who was "on a little tour before she made it big."
After graduating from Tennessee State University, Doyle went first to Detroit in trumpeter Charles Moore's big band, but soon realised he wasn't going to find work there ("Everybody was dressed like pimps with straight hair and driving Cadillacs. I didn't fit in.."). Returning to Alabama he hooked up with Johnny Jones and the King Casuals, an r'n'b act that allowed him to tour as far as Boston, where he also played in a sextet led by Frank Washington. Finally arriving in New York in 1967, he contacted singer Leon Thomas, whose brother Shiene he knew from TSU ("He had a place in Harlem. I sat in with Pharoah Sanders a few times.."), but the decisive encounter which pushed him into free jazz was with Milford Graves.
"A friend of mine named Leroy Wilson was walking down the street in Harlem and ran into Milford Graves. Milford was set up there with Amiri Baraka and those cats, and looking for musicians to play the free jazz, so he gave Leroy his number and I called him up. He didn't really like what I was doing, because I was still playing be-bop. He wanted somebody like Albert Ayler, who I didn't know at the time. I played with Milford, Arthur Williams, Hugh Glover and Joe Rigby, and I started working on my own particular style. Free jazz soul."
Unlike the saxophonists who evolved into free playing by extending and eventually subverting the stylings of bop (John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Simmons..), Doyle, like Ayler and Frank Wright, came at free playing from another direction: gospel, soul and r'n'b. Practising one day with a faulty reed, Doyle discovered by chance the extraordinarily gritty sound produced by singing and blowing into the horn at the same time. The resulting "Voice-O-Phone", coupled with the gutsy honkin' and screamin' beloved of r'n'b tenormen – in a free jazz context – was a revelation to him, and he even tried to patent his discovery (a rather misguided move, since Rahsaan Roland Kirk had been singing through his flute for several years and Dewey Redman had happened upon the same saxophone technique when he arrived in New York, also in 1967). He was soon in demand. Charles Stephens, a trombonist and childhood friend from Birmingham who later featured on Doyle's first solo album, "Alabama Feeling", introduced him to Sun Ra, who also originally hailed from the Magic City. Doyle recalls that Ra "wasn't that interested in talking about Birmingham at that stage.." but invited him to sit in with the Arkestra at Slug's Saloon on several occasions. Like others who orbited around Ra's solar system (notably guitarist Sonny Sharrock, who Doyle knew but didn't play with), he was never tempted to move into the communal house on East 3rd Street. He eventually turned down an offer to play with the Arkestra at the 1969 Newport Festival because he had a gig already booked the same night with Graves at a high school in Harlem. "Told Sun Ra I couldn't make it. Milford Graves told me later I should have, that they were going to invite me into the Arkestra. But I wanted to stay kind of independent. I had a job working as a caseworker in a Welfare Office in the Bronx. That was a tough job. I worked there for a couple of years."
Doyle did accept to join alto saxophonist Noah Howard's band with trumpeter Earl Cross, pianist Leslie Waldron and Norris Jones (aka Sirone) on bass, and Muhammad Ali on drums. (A 1967 concert at Town Hall with Albert and Donald Ayler was sadly not recorded.) Howard recalls: "Arthur was always hanging around. I think he worked well in the group because I gave him the space to do his thing the way he wanted to do it." Howard, originally from New Orleans, had arrived in New York from San Francisco in the mid 1960s, and already had two fine ESP albums under his belt when he went into the studio in March 1969 to record "The Black Ark", which, like his later Village Vanguard album, has long been unavailable (due to contractual wrangling, Howard explains) and has hence become one of those mythic "lost" treasures that surface at Internet auctions for astronomical prices. It's well worth hunting down. Richard Williams' 1972 review of the album in Melody Maker described Doyle as "dangerous.. He never plays anything you could recognize, just furious blasts of rage. It sounds more like raw energy than anything I've ever heard. He's nasty, man." (It was this review that caught the eye of guitarist Rudolph Grey, with whom Doyle formed the first edition of the Blue Humans in 1978. More later..). On "Domiabra", Doyle sounds as if he's trying to blow his whole body through the saxophone – it's a tour de force comparable with Pharoah Sanders' wildest solos with Coltrane, or Frank Wright's "Your Prayer", a cry of pure fury. But was Doyle angry? "No," he laughs, in his Alabama drawl. "That was just the way I was at the time. There was a big revolution going, with Dr. King, Malcolm X, Mohammed Ali, and we were playing for that. We were part of that."
Though busy in the early 70s playing with Bill Dixon, Sam Rivers, Andrew Cyrille and Dave Burrell, and forming his own group with Charles Stephens and Juma Sultan, Doyle suffered the first of several nervous breakdowns in 1972.
"I just couldn't take all this conspiracy from the United States government. We were up in Harlem with all the revolutionaries. I just wanted to play the music, but we were pushed into something else. Police raiding the clubs, and everything. There was some dirty business with Albert's death. Joe McPhee told me the police had something against me. Sunny Murray and I were talking about this recently, and he says there was some conspiracy thing against free jazz from the beginning. I think the United States government had something to do with it. Between 1972 and 1974 I wasn't working at all. I was in New York, but I was recuperating from my nervous breakdown."
Conspiracy or not, no recording of Doyle's playing has come to light from the period between 1969 and 1976, when he recorded "Bäbi" with Hugh Glover and Milford Graves. Doyle finally moved out of the city ("to get out of the rat race, the killing and struggling and all that I don't believe in"), to upstate New York, where he worked as an employment counsellor and resume writer. Hugh Glover apparently quit music soon after to work in a drug centre, Doyle recalls.
"Bäbi", another impossibly hard-to-find album on the IPS label, is a ferocious three-movement blowout recorded live in March 1976. Though Doyle claims the piece "was eight or nine years in the making – we talked about it for a long time..", the raw, tribal power of Graves and Doyle trading war cries is blood curdling, and the audience reaction near ecstatic. (Doyle claims Graves has tapes of a second set recorded that day.) Sitting in the audience at WBAI Free Music Store was guitarist Rudolph Grey, who'd been "keeping an eye out" for Doyle ever since reading that review of "The Black Ark" back in 1972. When Doyle played The Brook, a loft space on West 17th. St, in the autumn of 1977, Grey made contact and the two exchanged phone numbers. The concert at The Brook – at that time managed by Charles Tyler, with whom Doyle formed his own label DRA, also in 1977 – was released as the first album under the saxophonist's name.
"Alabama Feeling" is definitely one that should have made it to The Wire's "100 Albums That Set The World On Fire" (Wire 175). Doyle is joined by old Birmingham friends Charles Stephens on trombone and the "criminally underrecorded" Rashied Sinan on drums (Sinan's only other famous outing was on Frank Lowe's extraordinary ESP album from 1973, "Black Beings"), who brought along a student of his, Bruce Moore "to give it more rhythmic feel". Richard Williams' meaty Fender Bass completes the line-up. From the opening magnificently-titled "November 8th or 9th – I Can't Remember When", the album powers ahead with thrilling energy playing that easily matches the best of ESP and BYG Actuel. Doyle released the album in an edition of 1000 (the 1998 CD reissue, transferred by Wharton Tiers direct from vinyl, complete with surface noise and dodgy editing, was also limited to 1000 copies).
Doyle and Rudolph Grey first played as The Blue Humans on December 10th 1978, at Max's Kansas City on a bill with Mars and DNA. Drummer Beaver Harris was added to the group in early 1979 (Rashied Sinan stepped in when Harris was unavailable), and over the course of "six or seven gigs" the trio was the first to "open up the punk rock section to jazz. Rudolph Grey's idea. Take the music to another audience. Young white kids, that's the lifeblood of the music, young middle-class white kids. If they can put you on, you get the music across. That's what Thurston Moore understands. Sure, I regretted the fact there weren't many black kids there listening to us with the Blue Humans. Back in 69, Milford and I used to play in Harlem in the streets and the black kids really dug us, you know."
Doyle decided to go to France in 1981 ("I just went, like that – nobody invited me – I always wanted to go to Paris.."), but returned to New York to play with the Blue Humans at the legendary Noise Fest on June 20th, on the same bill as Glenn Branca. It was the last time the Doyle/Grey/Harris trio played together (though Grey and Doyle went on to play and record often, Beaver Harris died in 1991).
1982 found the saxophonist back in Paris playing with Alan Silva's Celestrial Communication Orchestra on "Desert Mirage", a double album on Silva's IACP label. Doyle played lead tenor in a big band mainly comprised of students from Silva's revolutionary jazz school, the IACP (Institut Art Culture Perception). Though the long ecstatic free-form jams of the CCO's mythic triple album "The Seasons" (BYG Actuel) are replaced by intricately voiced (and very Gil Evans like) arrangements, and the recording quality leaves much to be desired, Doyle's all-too-brief solos are inspired. "We recorded another set with that band: I solo more on the second set! I hope that'll be released someday. It was beautiful working with Alan, I love Alan a lot. I'd never played with him in the States – first time I played with him was in Europe. He gave me work. I taught at his school, and he got me some private students too."
Shortly after, Doyle found himself in another kind of jam. In 1982 he was accused of a double rape and spent the next five years moving around the French prison system.
"They framed me up with two American girls and another fella. A lot was spoken at my trial about my first nervous breakdown. It was a set-up job, to drive me insane. It was hard for my mother when I was in jail, with the CIA, FBI and the government harassing her and the whole family. But she dealt with it best she could. Girls finally broke down and said it was no rape.."
Denied access to a saxophone in prison, Doyle wrote his memoirs (which promptly and mysteriously disappeared from his cell) and occupied himself writing the Songbook, an extraordinary collection of nearly three hundred songs, selections of which feature on his 1990s solo albums, notably "Plays and Sings from the Songbook", "Songwriter" and "Do the Breakdown".
"I learned to sing. I had the time. The words for the songs came from everywhere, headlines from the newspapers, my personal experiences with women and men, my time with Milford Graves, my memories of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Mohammed Ali, Amiri Baraka, Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, the things they said they were going to change, the things that haven't changed that much.. After three years they gave me a horn. When they moved me to Strasbourg I had a saxophone in there. When I went to Metz they had a horn there too. That was readaptation, they said, getting me ready to be released. I felt bitter towards the United States government, not so much the French administration. They were very good to me, worked everything out and got me out of jail "
Returning back to upstate New York to "get back on his feet", Doyle continued to work on the Songbook. When he finally recorded, it was "at home, on a boom box. I couldn't afford no studio." The resulting albums and singles are among the strangest and most compelling recordings of the last years of the twentieth century: though comparisons might be drawn with the instant poetry of Beefheart's "The Dust Blows Forward 'N The Dust Blows Back", or the atrocious no-fi sound quality of Eugene Chadbourne's early cassette recordings, the works that come closest to Doyle's musical and linguistic universe are the early songs of Harry Partch. Like Partch's "Barstow", which assembled its texts from cryptic and poignant graffiti left by desolate desert hitchhikers in the Depression, Doyle's lyrics transcend the personal to become universal. Oblique references to family and friends are intercut with hoots, whoops and hollers that seem to derive as much from ancient Africa as from the doo-wop and r'n'b he grew up with. Saxophone, flute and recorder are no longer distinct from the voice, but are instrumental manifestations of it ("You can't separate the singing or the flute from the saxophone, you can't separate none of it. It all revolves around one instrument and that is Me, Myself.")
The 1990s saw Doyle renew old contacts, working with Rudolph Grey, Wilber Morris, Rashid Bakr, and making new ones, notably the insatiable free jazz enthusiast Thurston Moore. In 1997 Jun Tanaka (Keiji Haino's agent) booked a string of solo, duo and trio gigs for Doyle and flew him out to Japan. ("They like me there. They were selling copies of "Alabama Feeling" for $200!"). He played and recorded with bassist Barre Phillips, and did a duo concert with Haino (which Doyle says was recorded: "Well, I have a cassette of it.."), and two dates with the elusive Takashi Mizutani, underground guitar hero par excellence from the cult psychedelic group Les Rallizes Dénudés. How did Doyle get on with the Japanese guitarists?
"Mizutani didn't say too much. I didn't contact him myself. Jun Tanaka booked a place for two or three nights, and two hundred people showed up. Mizutani was a strange kinda character. He just wanted to play music. But I got on well with Haino. We sat down before the concert and went through the melodies of the songs. Don't smoke in front of him though! Don't bring any strange shit to Japan, they'll throw you in jail, man!" How did he manage to make himself heard over Haino's legendary wall of sound? "I just turned the microphone up loud," he deadpans.
In March 2000, he returned to Paris. In typical Doyle style, he was spotted playing in the Metro (truly underground) before eventually teaming up with legendary drummer Sunny Murray (the two had previously played back in 1980) for a series of dates in Europe and a recording session for Fractal, which yielded the album "Dawn of a New Vibration". On his first studio date since "Black Ark" thirty-one years earlier, Doyle sounds relaxed, even playful, throwing in quotations from hoary old chestnuts like "In A Persian Garden" and the Young Rascal's "Groovin'" (his original laid-back suggestion for the album title was "Bus Ride Home"..).
Sunny Murray recalls: "I could tell he'd been playing with Milford. It took him some time to get used to playing with me." Doyle, studiously avoiding comparisons between Murray and Graves, describes both as geniuses. "I've played with some great drummers, man.. Sunny, Milford, Muhammad Ali, Rashied Ali, Rashied Sinan, Tom Surgal. Playing with Sunny Murray is about as much rhythm and drive and feeling and emotion as you can get."
In a recent interview (prompted by a negative review of his trio album "A Prayer for Peace", with James Linton and Scott Rodziczak) that stirred up a minor flurry of controversy in an Internet Newsgroup, Doyle was cornered into saying he doubted if "white boys could play free jazz the way it ought to be played." When questioned on this, he's quick to set the record straight.
" I don't know why I said that! Rudolph Grey, Keiji Haino, Burton Greene, John Zorn, Tom Surgal, they can all play free jazz. And Jim and Scott are white boys! From North Carolina. White boys! Two more white boys who can play free jazz! It's just music, man."
Ever hopeful for something to turn up, be it new work or releases of concerts already recorded, Doyle still intends to return to the Songbook.
"I'm trying to record all of them, hopefully, before I die. Record all of them. Those songs are everything I've lived. They're dedicated to my family. My family have given me so much and I have very little to give them in return."
Doyle is under no illusion as to the difficulty involved, but is determined to continue making his music, without compromise.
"I love being underground, man. They get you
into the mainstream, and it's not happening, trying to be commercial.
That was part of the conspiracy in the 1970s against free jazz. Rashied
Sinan.. he just disappeared. Government and police fucking with musicians.
They got people to go mainstream. I didn't want to play that, I wanted
to play free jazz soul. Free jazz soul music is what I play. I'm happy
underground. There's not much money, but I'm happy. And that's a victory:
Propos recueillis par serge LOUPIEN ( Libération):
Arthur Doyle ou la conscience noire
La route est longue et semée d’embûches,
des faubourgs de Birmingham (Alabama) au Café de la Gare de la
rue du Temple. Intérêt majeur des manifestations organisées
chaque dimanche et lundi d’octobre au célèbre café-théatre,
autour du Celestrial Communications Orchestra dirigé par Alan Silva,
le saxophone-flûtiste Arthur Doyle, figure capitalede la "Nouvelle
scène" new-yorkaise des années 70, installé
depuis peu dans la capitale, dresse brièvement le bilan de treize
années de lutte quotidienne contre la compromission.
J’ai perfectionné mes études musicales, la composition notamment à la Tennesseee State University de Nashville. J’ai appris énormément au contact des musiciens comme les trompettistes Don Jones, Louis Smith et Walter Miller, un ex-membre de l’Arkestra de Sun Ra, avec lesquels j’ai fait plusieurs "gigs" en même temps que je travaillais au sein d’orchestres de rythm and blues. Il existe à Nashville une scène jazzistique très active et un nombre considérable de clubs remarquables. Des musiciens comme Joe Guy, Hank Crawford, Cleveland Eaton,David "Fathead" Newman, et pratiquement presque tout l’orchestre de Ray Charles viennent de Nashville. A l’époque néanmoins, j’étais fermement décidé à aller à New York. J’ai d abord poussé jusqu’à Détroit (Michigan). Nous étions alors en pleine guerre du Vietnam et je me sentais très concerné par la révolution noire : Stockely Carmichael, Rap Brown, Leroy Jones. Nous avions d’ailleurs donné beaucoup de concerts dans ce sens. Et en débarquant à Détroit, j’ai rencontré plein de gens qui s’habillaient et se conduisaient en maquereaux : cheveux décrépés, cadillac, etc. Je me suis senti très étranger à tout ça. C’est en Alabama que Martin Luther King a commencé et que Mohammed Ali est monté sur le ring. Et peut-être notre optique est-elle plus radicale. Notre sens de la dignité plus développé. Quoi qu’il en soit, je suis rentré à Nashville avant d’entamer avec Johnny Jones and the King Casuals une tournée qui nous a menés au club Storyville de Boston, ce qui m’a permis de gagner un peu d’argent en jouant du rock and roll.
Mon premier "gig" new-yorkais, je le dois
à Leon Thomas dont j’avais rencontré le frère,
Shiene, à la Tennessee State, et grâce a qui j’ai ensuite
travaillé avec Pharoah Sanders. J’étais alors employé
dans un office d’assistance sociale géré par la ville.
Puis un ami, Leroy Wilson, m’a permis de faire connaissance avec
Milford Graves, qui correspondait exactement au genre de type que j’avais
toujours cherché. Il m’a parlé des influences de Coltrane
et d’Albert Ayler qu’il sentait dans mon jeu alors que je n’avais
jamais entendu ce dernier. En Alabama ou à Nashville, les disques
ESP arrivant toujours avec trois ans de retard. D’ailleurs, je ne
connaissais Milford qu’à travers la revue Downbeat. Avec lui,
ainsi qu’avec Arthur Williams, Hugh Glover et Joe Rigby, nous avons
pu développer nos concepts musicaux de liberté, spontanéïté
et naturel, et donné quelques concerts la plupart du temps au sein
de la communauté noire, car nous étions très conscients
de notre négritude. C’est ainsi que j’ai rencontré
Noah Howard dans l’Orchestre duquel je suis resté un an, jusqu’à
ce qu il se décide de s’expatrier en Europe. J’ai alors
travaillé avec Bill Dixon au sein d’une formation qui comprenait
également Sam Rivers, Sirone et Andrew Cyrille, puis avec le pianiste
Dave Burrell. En 1972, j’ai formé mon premier groupe avec
notamment Charles Stephens et Juma Sultan, et nous avons participé
activement au "New York Musicians Festival", manifestation organisée
en même temps que la "New Port Jazz Festival" par des
musiciens "oubliés" par George Wein : Sun Ra, Sam Rivers,
Archie Sheep, Roswell Rudd, etc., qui obtint un énorme succès
Jazz Magazine – n°330 (juin 1984) :
ARTHUR DOYLE : ALABAMA FEELING
De l’alabama à Paris en passant par Detroit
et New York, du bebop à une musique noire universelle : tel est
l’itinéraire du saxophoniste-flûtiste-clarinettiste
entendu naguère au coté de Milford Graves.
Vous avez rencontré Louis Smith...
1969 - NOAH HOWARD - Black Ark LP (Polydor/Freedom),
CD (Japan Freedom / Bo Weavil)
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