Q&A: Charles Gayle On Homelessness, Streets The Clown, And His Faith


This week the Voice sat down with New York jazz titan Charles Gayle, whose new album Streets portends a man on a quest to find peace within his craft and headspace. Gayle and Tom Surgal (of local avant-jazz stalwarts White Out) go way back to the revered ’80s downtown era, and the percussionist, via email, reflected on their history together. “In many ways, I’ve always thought that Charles’s life mirrors the life of Coltrane, in that he too was lost and then he was found,” Surgal said.

“Charles was floundering in his earlier life, leading a dissolute existence, and then he experienced a spiritual awakening and he was saved. And like Trane, his playing began to reflect the new found intensity of a man on a righteous path. There has always been a sense of urgency to his playing, like he was making up for lost time. And also like Trane, he has always practiced relentlessly. I know people who used to live in his old squat who claimed he never stopped playing. A lesser-known facet to Charles’s personality is that he possesses enormous curiosity about the human condition. He is always studying people and has keen insights in to the way peoples’ minds work. I’ve always thought he has the intellectual predisposition more characteristic of an author than a musician. This stirring need in him to fathom those around him no doubt feeds in to the dimensionality of his playing, help making him the consummate musician that he is.”

Here, Gayle delves even deeper into Streets and his inspiring trajectory.

What was the concept behind Streets in your mind?

Obviously, it was about the streets. But it wasn’t about trying to do something just for the audience and to have an effect. I wasn’t thinking about that and it didn’t really enter my mind like that. It was just an idea of, in certain situations, to act out the music and play it at the same time or act it out in a short skit first and play to describe the music. It was personally for me to come out of this. Streets came from the years of that kind of life—living in the streets and abandoned buildings. I just happened to name it that. That was just sentimental, like I should call it something like that.

What made you have this revelation to be Streets the Clown all the time?

I’m just more comfortable that way and I have to really not run away from that. There’s some things that happen [as Streets that cannot] with [street clothes] on—nice things. I’m not gonna hurt nobody. I decided a few months ago, last year, whatever, that “OK, you have to do this because it’s just in your head and get it out of your head.” I don’t know even what people think about it, ’cause nobody ever says anything.

When you play live, do you try to combine music and skits?

For me, it’s easy to do it. Most of the time you don’t use [the skits] because people come to hear you play, so you gotta really be on that. But sometimes, I will. Sometimes, it just doesn’t fit the stage or fit the circumstances. You can always do something but then that depends on your imagination and everybody’s got one. It just depends on the situation.

So, being Streets all the time at gigs is the culmination of everything to this point?

Getting the record out and going ahead and just being this now. You have two personalities—it’s almost like living with your brother in here. It’s almost like you’re thinking two things. Besides music, now you’ve got something else to think about and it stays very close.

Your new label Northern Spy seems very supportive.

They were nice enough to let me put that on the cover. They could’ve said no and I don’t know, maybe I would’ve went along with that. I don’t wanna disturb nobody. They said fine. They were really on it.

How did you hook up with Northern Spy?

I just so happened to be looking for Tom Abbs. He used to work at ESP-Disk. I didn’t know he had left. When I talked to him before at ESP about [putting out] records, we didn’t come to any kind of conclusion. I called him and I didn’t know he had a record company at all and so me and him talked. I didn’t get into what happened [at ESP]. I didn’t really know who Bernard [Stollman] was or nothing. I didn’t know anything what was going on. So, it got to be about Tom Abbs and Northern Spy.

Northern Spy has a diverse roster of artists and is seemingly on the rise.

I looked at [their website] on the computer. I didn’t know anybody ’cause I don’t know anybody. But I could see there was a mix, because they showed the pictures and the people. That youth, that enthusiasm—that’s great. I like that, man.

Does it remind you of the ’80s and ’90s when you were playing at the Knit, Cooler and CBGB?

For the younger people now, this is their time. Of course when you’re 20, 30, 40, that’s an exciting time. Of course for me, this is too. I don’t wanna say “Getting old is not exciting.” [Laughing] This is a great time, man. This is one of the best times of my life. It’s just at peace. All the heavy stuff doesn’t have the same effect. I certainly don’t live like I did then. I got a place to stay for years and I got heat. I play music and get to tour. It’s all good in work terms, and I have my health so I don’t see how it could get better than that. I feel very good.

What is your take on being a jazz musician living in New York?

It is what it is. I played a lot in New York in my life and Lord willing, I’ll play more. There’s nothing to complain about. I don’t know what people think of me, even as a musician or anything, I just know I get a chance to work. Of course, it goes in cycles and comes in waves. I’m used to it.

Do you get asked to play gigs often?

I do, but there’s some things I just don’t want to do anymore. I’ll have two or three tours a year and once in a while I get a gig in Europe or somewhere in America. When you put it all together, most of time I’m not playing. Maybe less is more. It works for me.

What about playing in New York?

They got a couple of clubs that offer, but I just I can’t do it anymore. It’s hard for me to ask a bass player and a drummer to play for 50 dollars. I can’t ask them to do it. They want to do it because maybe they want to play and I understand that. Especially in New York, they don’t get a chance to play a lot—especially this music. But with that kind of temptation it’s hard to say no. I’m not asking people to play for 50 dollars anymore. It’s not like I’m a money person. Obviously, I’m very poor. I’m not even middle, nothing. I’m getting by! When people talk and they say “I’m getting by,” I’m getting by. But I do work and I practice a lot. What it is, it is. It’s been working. I got nothing to complain about. I really worked a lot in my life.

When you were homeless, did you think you were going to make it?

Back in that time, with those conditions, it was hard to think about the future, in a way. But it was either do this or nothing because you make up your mind you’re gonna do it or that’s the end of it. The streets and all that was really in a way self-imposed—where was I gonna go anyway? People offered and I didn’t want to, you know, take anything from anybody.

After gigs, did people offer for you to stay at their place?

I’ve had that and squats and empty buildings I stayed in. I slept on somebody’s floor two times and I said “No, I really got to do this on my own.” It’s just my nature; maybe because the way I grew up. It’s very hard for me to take something from somebody, even in those conditions. I’m not saying that’s good or bad; it’s just the way it was.

You’ve been in Manhattan since the ’70s. Can you fathom what the city has evolved into?

Unbelievable. It was a different ballgame then. Now I think and see and walk and I’m like ‘Huh? Okay.” But I look at it as you need infusions of money. I know people got really angry [then] and it got into race and it still does. I understand you’ve got a neighborhood of various ethnic groups and all that. That’s New York and it keeps changing too. That is what New York is about: change. I don’t have a problem with anything. To me, if you could pay the rent, if you could for this, go on. That’s all I can tell ya because I don’t own any of this and there’s no point in me getting’ an attitude about it. This land is not my country in terms of “It’s mine. I got it.” No. But the change? I look at it as everything’s changing. Brooklyn, too. I walk. I walk a lot. I walk up to Times Square. I’d live in the middle of Times Square actually. I just like all these people. I guess I like crowds. I don’t know what that means.

Do you still play in the streets and the subways, or are you done with that?

Sometimes. Well, in the subway, I do. Some people recognize me. You get that. As a matter of fact, before I go to Europe, I’m going in [to the subway] to loosen up a little bit. I loosen up here [in my apartment] or in the park. Sometimes I put the hat down, sometime I don’t. I get money, but sometimes it very difficult. I’d be playing and I can practice. That’s all.

How much is the character of Streets the Clown and living and playing in the streets intertwined?

It’s connected. There’s a different kind of freedom out there, for me, in the street. I understand what I understand. It doesn’t mean I know everything about this Streets character. It’s very free out there to walk around and play, you stop, you can do this. On stage, you have to stay on it. If I’m out in the street playing and I wanted to talk to somebody, I’d just do it. I can’t do that looking like [myself]. I’m not free.

Everybody starts playing, they play and then it’s over and that’s the end of it. That’s boring to me. It’s not that it’s boring to them. But to me, that’s just in a jacket—for me. I just have a freer thing inside personally. If I want to walk off the stage as Streets, they may say “What is he doing?” But nobody’s saying “Don’t do it.” I’m much freer whether it’s a connection with the music or not. I’m just freer.

Streets has a variation of avant-garde and straight jazz.

I could play hardcore. I understand that—try to get the paint off the walls and all that by playing. We’ll do that some days and maybe sometimes I’ll just do it alone. I can play chord changes, play changes, regular jazz or avant-garde—to have a variation; not just one approach. But you never hear people do that; they play one thing and that’s not bad. That’s the way they make a living, fine. But I can’t do that. If I want to play body and soul, we play body and soul; if we want to play paint peeler, we play paint peeler. It’s just to be free, respectfully, not to insult or hurt. You still have to deliver something. There’s an order to this freedom. This is just the way I am. Who would put a nose and clown feet on? Not to say a person wouldn’t. I remember Sun Ra and Art Ensemble had some stuff. I’m not trying to be them or copy them.

Do you enjoy “paint peeler?”

I enjoy that energy, the thrust, the physicality and the mental state of pushing it. But I also enjoy playing ballads and other music because I grew up playing straight jazz.

Did it cross your mind that playing the role of Streets is somehow disrespecting jazz?

Absolutely. I had to think about all that and even back then. It isn’t disrespect in jazz but who says I have to dress the other way. I understand that some people would like it and some may not. Especially acting because I was very bad at it when I started—just to get the timing right, it took me long to do something. Another guy talked to me recently and said “You may be doing this and it may hurt your overall thing.” I said “Well, it’s gonna have to hurt it.” I don’t wanna be in a straitjacket anymore and do everything just because it’s not do something different just to be different—no. If people do that, that’s fine.

But for me, this is who I am. It has nothing to do with jazz, people, audience, anybody. This is just the way I am as a person, okay? Here’s another thing: you can play free and not be free because you built up the vocabulary of how to play certain things to get the effect. Some people are just free. It has nothing to do with music. Some people have a freer personality, a freer inside.

Are there other jazz musicians that are free like that?

No. I answered real quick because I’ve thought about it. If you think about the history of jazz, Dizzy Gillespie was probably the most outgoing, free cat. I’m not saying he was a clown but he just had this different kind of spirit. Monk was, to a degree. I would call Monk’s playing a little freer than most people. I’m just saying in person and personality, not just the effect of their music. Other men I have to slow down. I think Louis Armstrong was. He just had something. I know a guy Han Benninck—he gets a little something on the stage. He does some stuff.

Everybody’s doing it the same way: you get on stage, you play, get off stage. I’m not saying people have to dress. To get on a stage and or whatever it is, you play, everybody looks the same, which is fine. That’s the way societies are. You just follow the herd; that’s order and you need that. In jazz, the only other person who was really funny was a guy named Victor Borge, he was a piano player. He was a comedian, too, and he could play.

Do you listen to music?

I haven’t really listened to music for years. Once in a while, at night, I get a little thing in my ear to listen. I might hear somebody play because I don’t listen to avant-garde music anymore. I gave everything away—all the records and everything. I don’t really have an interest to listen because for so many years I was learning how to play. I like Art Tatum. I like Clifford Brown and Coltrane. But I had to stop listening to [Coltrane]. I’ve heard him, I saw him play. Coltrane is a very strong player and I don’t want to get too influenced by him. I did, to a degree, when I was young. I don’t have a personal desire to listen to music; it’s not that I’m against it. Once in a while, Clifford popping out there, I love that. More him, than that kind of thing. Maybe Miles if I heard him with Coltrane and Paul Chambers. I still practice and ya still trying to learn how to play because I still feel like I am just getting there. I don’t go to shows or nothing.

What do you remember about being homeless?

I remember enough stuff. I used to keep my coat on all the time—even at gigs because that was really my house, in a way. It was all good—even the homeless. I wasn’t gonna say it was bad because I didn’t think of it that way. It wasn’t like “Woe is me, man.” I don’t remember thinking like that. I cried sometimes because it was just bitter cold. It was the cold you had to careful of.

Have you ever thought about living somewhere else besides New York?

Noooo, unless it’s the mountains somewhere—either the Alps or the Rockies. I don’t think I’m ever leaving New York but if I had to and could, my choice would be the Alps or the Rockies. I’d have to get up and look at that every day—that would do it. This city is has been described in so many ways but it does have a “thing.” I like competition because it pushes me. This is a competitive place and I really like that idea and I don’t wanna run from that. I used to do sports when I was kid and when I hear someone really kicking it, I say “Really? What is he or she doin,’ whatever it is?” It’s an inspiration to know you don’t know anything; that you know only that much. I would never even say I’m a good player or anything like that. You just wanna keep growing.

Have you listened to your own records?

I don’t listen to what I do. I had to when they are made. But other than that, just put’em away or give’em away. I know you can listen to maybe improve but I don’t use that concept except I know to work on technique. But I don’t get too stuck in one place.

Have you seen any money from your records over the years?

Basically, no. Part of that is probably my fault because I didn’t go after that—hire somebody, get somebody to do it or learn how to it. I figure this: it doesn’t hurt to be aggressive in that area. I know I wasn’t; I don’t blame anybody except me. If there was a way I could do it to get it, I didn’t do it. But it doesn’t matter.

What about the Northern Spy deal?

We have an understanding what the deal is. You do, you do; you don’t, you don’t. I still love you—you’re cool. It takes a lot to get me mad. It’s almost impossible. I figure this: we’re all dishonest sometimes. Nobody’s perfect. I’ve been able to work and help some people with money I’ve made or with good words, whatever. I can’t really complain after coming out of that other situation [being homeless]. I’m glad I went through that; I needed to go through it. I’m here. If it works out—fine, if not. I made a record or we made a record and that’ll help me. That’ll help the situation, or it doesn’t. Somehow my stuff just works out—it does. I’ve traveled to so many countries, eaten different foods, learned a couple of other languages. Some people don’t get a chance to do what I’m doing.

Your faith has made it onto so many of your records—song titles and album titles.

I’m a Christian. I know what it means to the Bible, but everyone’s got a different concept. Just to say simply: I believe in Jesus is the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. That’s first; that’s the love of my life. That sorta takes care of everything. I name most of the [songs] referencing the Bible, Christ, God or Holy because that’s just in me to do it. I don’t have to do it—nobody says I have to do it. There’s no law or someone saying “You’re going to hell if you don’t.” It’s just in my heart to do it. I’m not imposing anything but I’m not going to back off of it, either. Everyone knows I’m a Christian, but I had to make sure I could say that and not back off of that.

I’ve found it interesting in the history of jazz and when most people were growing up that most people who did have that faith—the Jewish people had theirs, the Christians had theirs, that was basically it in America—they never put that on the records. This isn’t in your face but it’s just what I do. I do ask the record company “If you don’t like it, just tell me. If I can’t put God, Christ or anything on there you let me know if it hangs you up.” Then we’ll have to discuss that but I’m not gonna make a big deal of it—that’s it. I remember asking [Michael] Dorf, and he said “I have no problem with it.” Nodody’s had a problem with it. I’ve never had any resistance. Ever. I’ve been onstage a couple times and people have said “Shut up,” but I understand.

But in the history of jazz, maybe there were three people that mentioned Christ or God. If they have a faith at all, it makes you wonder why they never put Christ on there. I’ve thought about that a lot. I’m glad people know it and I don’t have to explain nothing. This who I am and what they think, they think.

I remember maybe Duke Ellington, maybe Louis Armstrong and Albert Ayler. Coltrane did “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.” That’s it. I’m not seeing nobody in my memory doing it.

What inspired you originally to turn to religion?

Growing up, originally a Christian in mind and heart, but I was living like you would not believe. I was way out there. This wasn’t really in here. But it changed later. It really changed a lot when I was homeless—not because of being homeless but it changed during that time, really in the 80’s and before although I was a Christian but I lived a life that was so… I couldn’t possibly be into that so my heart changed. Nobody said “You gotta change.” It wasn’t like that. The realization came that—I say to the Holy Spirit—I changed. I would say the major change happened when I was homeless but the change was earlier than that. The really “something’s going on here.” [Adamant] I didn’t regret it. It was hard but I can’t say I didn’t look back but I didn’t go back.

Have you reached the level of being at peace?

All these good things happened. I learned a lot. That doesn’t mean I know anything. With all that and being able to play, I don’t know who I am in the music industry at all to this day and don’t know what people think of me. They may say “He’s a horrible player.” I don’t know what they say. But the opportunities and things that have happened… I’ll say Miles Davis doesn’t enjoy it any more than I do (Laughing). It’s great—not just music but life. Just life… is… it’s beautiful.

It’s a horrible thing because of the things we do against each other. We all do it, and I have done it. But try to put that aside. It’s been beautiful. I mean, I don’t want to drop dead now, but… [laughing] but if I do, I do. It’s been so beautiful. I’m past the word of happiness. I don’t know that word too much ’cause it’s happenstance but it’s certainly peace. I don’t use the radio, I don’t listen to music or have sound. I could just sit.

What is a typical day in your life?

I use the phone to talk to people, talk to the family—not a lot but enough. We’re all in contact with each other. I go to the church, where we get all the food from Trader Joe’s and we feed the poor. It’s not a meal, though we pack the stuff in, they hear a service, they come down, they call out the names and they get the food. I do that at least three times a week then I play saxophone and practice. I walk a lot, eat very little and read the Bible. It’s basically like that—quiet. I can’t imagine television anymore and all that; I don’t know what they do on that.

Do you find it ironic that you are feeding the poor?

Years ago, I used to hear on Thanksgiving that people would go volunteer and feed the poor with a meal. That stuck in my mind. I said “Wow. That sounds like a nice thing to do.” I never thought I would be doing that for two years.

How did the songs on Streets come about?

I had something in mind. I didn’t want to do like, I say, just regular avant-garde and just keep on going “rrrrrrr.” Don’t push it; just play. Something easy but not paint peeling. I knew sorta what I was gonna do. Sometimes, I don’t want to know whatchya gonna do. Just do it. I sorta think it’s gonna be alright. I mean, if they run me out of New York, I’ll gotta think of something else I’m gonna do. There’s a couple of pieces [on Streets] I certainly will play because that’s what people do, anyway. I caught onto that trick. There’s a couple I really like doing and the rest I don’t want to think too much about it. I just practice technique, constantly release and go on the stage sorta uncertain. I want to be able to create 60 or 70 percent of it right there and I have no clue and I want it like that. It makes you push. I don’t get nervous.

Let me just say this: I understand I always have a safety net in terms of if I wanted to resort to playing some song or particular way because after years it just happens on its own. Sometimes I wonder what I’m gonna do! But as soon as it’s time to do it and the first note—I might not even know what it is—but then it works because ya gotta think now and you gotta put it out there. The ideas are either you can play for an hour straight—you could do that—but now I like to chop it up a little bit and do segments. It’s been working, and most of the people stay.

Charles Gayle Trio’s Streets is out February 14 via Northern Spy.