The East Village has been transformed into a high-rise highbrow apocalypse, but at least one vestige of downtown’s grizzled avant-garde remains: jazz titan Charles Gayle. “I walked into this because one winter, I couldn’t make it anymore, living in the squat and the cold all the time,” explains Gayle, formerly homeless survivor of New York City’s mean streets of old, now 15-year resident of a modest one-bedroom apartment below Tompkins Square Park. He has added muscle to his formerly rail-thin, streets-worn frame and is unapologetic about his homeless stint. “Still here,” says the trailblazing saxophonist and pianist. “I ain’t leavin’ this place.”
Gayle’s sax mettle has quelled this city’s clubs, streets, and subways since the ’70s, his skronk-bleeding free jazz fortitude extending from soulful, heart-ripping squeals to shape-shifting, spiritual melody à la Ayler and Coltrane. His immense catalog exceeds 30 records, and he has supported jazz gods like Cecil Taylor and the late Rashied Ali on other LPs.
Later this month, he’ll turn 73. His new record, fittingly titled Streets (Northern Spy) and named after his alter ego, “Streets the Clown,” might indeed represent his pinnacle, not only musically but also for his peace of mind.
“I didn’t want to look like this to myself,” Gayle says. “I looked in the mirror and said, ‘I can’t do this no more.’ So I was just sorta gettin’ Charles outta the way. I’m just more comfortable [as Streets]—I just feel freer.”
Gayle’s Streets guise, which he has appeared in sporadically over the past two decades, has him painting his mug, wearing Bozo feet, and turning on the charm (“I’ll step off stage and hand a lady a flower”). But the way he unleashes cacophonous horn blasts or pierces a piano’s keys shows that it’s no novelty act.
“I started doing Streets in the early ’90s, but I only did it twice a year,” Gayle explains. “Then I let it go for a long time. Now, I feel like I want to play only as Streets. Period. I don’t want to keep switching back. What everybody else does is fine; I’m not knockin’ anything. But I’m not doin’ this—I can’t. It doesn’t make sense. So I started puttin’ the nose on. I have to be free in here,” he says, pointing to his heart. “It’s not tryin’ to play just free music. It’s being a free individual inside.”
Gayle’s devotion to being a free individual manifested itself in the ’70s, when he left Buffalo for a room in Bed-Stuy. In New York, he took on odd jobs before experiencing an epiphany. “I said, ‘I have to change, but not because of religion’—and that was it,” Gayle recalls. “I gave my duffel bag to a friend because it’s all I had, and I just went to the streets. I had no idea what I was doin’. I didn’t know what it was gonna be like to be homeless and for how long. I had to get this race thing together because I was born in the ’30s, and I had to get that right—just how much to deal with, where I was gonna go, and what position I’m gonna put myself in to be pushed aside on a good job. My parents, grandparents, and everybody did that, but I couldn’t. That’s just demeaning. I couldn’t live the way I was living—taking jobs that didn’t go anywhere. I said, ‘Well, I’m not doin’ that no more.'”
Gayle’s saving grace, besides his Christian faith, was music. Self-taught on piano and saxophone, Gayle’s homeless existence not only forced him to get acclimated to the bleak decay of New York’s hellish streets but also to wail on his sax. Sometimes, he’d put the hat down for change; other times he wouldn’t even bother. “I made up my mind I was gonna play,” Gayle says. “No money or money. I think I had a tenor and gave it away. I took the alto to the streets because it was easier to carry around. I slept on top of that, covered it up and thought: ‘Wow. How do you go to sleep with 8 million people walking over you?’ You start to think completely different. Many years went by, and my whole life changed. I learned how to love people more than I did and to understand what you need or don’t need. But I think the greatest thing you learn is love—love for people, everybody.”
That communal love was most palpable at the old Knitting Factory on Houston Street, where free jazz intersected with art-rock and where, naturally, Gayle was embraced. “Those are the days,” he says, laughing. “There was excitement and a thing out there with youth and people and everything else. In a way, it reminds me of the ’60s because there was breakthrough stuff goin’ on.” Gayle’s recollections remain vivid. “I remember one time I went to play there. I knew Rudolph Grey, a guitar player. We’re sittin’ there, and the place was packed. I asked Rudolph: ‘All these people in here. Who’s playin’?’ Rudolph said, ‘You playin.’ That was nice.”
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.
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.”