Charles Gayle Embraces His Alter Ego

The NYC jazz legend is on a righteous path

Michael Dorf, the Knit's original owner, faced a conundrum when the opportunity for Gayle to play presented itself. "I didn't have a phone," remembers Gayle. "So Dorf bought me, what they call, a beeper. That was to let people know if I was living in an empty building. I lived in one on 9th Street. The rest was a lot of abandoned buildings in Bed-Stuy or Crown Heights."

Dorf, via e-mail, recalls Gayle: "I was a very young guy when I met Charles. He represented everything I imagined in a Jack Kerouacian New York avant-garde artist. I thought that was so cool. His playing had a fierce, almost intimidating energy that, to me, was his pure expression of living downtown. Yet, when you talked to him off the stage, he disarmed with a warm smile and friendly vibe. It was a contrast I loved. I know the small crew of followers who came to the Knit understood."

Gayle is now operating inside a new iteration of his former punk-meets-avant stomping grounds. The forward-thinking experimental imprint Northern Spy—home to the likes of avant-jazz noodlers Spanish Donkey, shrieking experimentalists Diamond Terrifier, and pedal-hopping electronic terrorist Hubble—put out Streets; Gayle sounds galvanized about his new label and its roster of potential collaborators, as well as on Streets' straight jazz rollick and self-described "avant-garde paint-peelin'" compositions.

(From left) Michael T.A. Thompson, Charles Gayle, and Larry Roland
Courtesy of Charles Gayle
(From left) Michael T.A. Thompson, Charles Gayle, and Larry Roland

Not that the album represents closure for him. "I just feel this is a good time of life, to play and just not to fall off," Gayle says. "I really don't wanna fall off, lay back, and hear people say, 'Oh, yeah, that guy is 75 or 80,' and they only come out of respect because they know you're leavin' soon. I don't want that. I wanna be as creative and healthy as humanly possible at this age and still wonderin' what I'm doin' and keep that edge.

"If you like what you're doin,' there's nothin' better. I feel like I'm just getting into this now. I know that sounds weird. But to me, all the rest was a practice up until now."

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