NEW YORK — Charles Gayle, an uncompromising saxophonist who spent years living and performing on the streets of New York before beginning a recording career when he was nearly 50, died on Sept. 5 in Brooklyn. He was 84.
His son Ekwambu, who had been caring for him as he dealt with Alzheimer’s disease, announced the death but did not specify a cause.
Mr. Gayle said he had chosen to be homeless because it gave him the opportunity to explore music unencumbered by worries about changing tastes or living expenses. He was part of an ecstatic lineage of jazz avant-gardists such as late-period John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, purveyors of a style often referred to as “fire music.”
Mr. Gayle’s playing was eventually documented on nearly 40 albums under his name on a host of labels; he also recorded with pianist Cecil Taylor, bassist William Parker, and punk singer Henry Rollins.
Reviewing the 2014 Vision Festival, at which Mr. Gayle was given a lifetime achievement award, New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff wrote, “He plays tenor saxophone in cries and gabbles and interval jumps and long tones; his music usually describes motion and spirit rather than corresponding to preset tonal centers, rhythms and melodies.”
An ardent Christian, Mr. Gayle channeled his intense spirituality not only into his sound; it was also reflected in the titles of many of his albums and in the screeds he delivered extemporaneously during his performances.
Mr. Gayle also had an alternate musical persona called Streets: He would dress in a torn suit and clown shoes and wear makeup and a red nose. At first it was an occasional diversion, but he later performed as Streets regularly. In a 2014 interview with The New York City Jazz Record, he explained:
“It wasn’t a gimmick or anything like that. I looked at myself one day in the mirror and said to myself, ‘Stop thinking about Charles.’ So I put a rubber nose on and said ‘That’ll work.’
“It was really that simple,” he continued. “I saw a lot of clowns when I was young in the circus, but it was so liberating to go out in an audience while the band is playing and give a lady a rose or get rejected by her and everything — I can’t do that with regular clothes on. It helps a person mentally to escape — there’s a purpose in the escape, and it is the same thing as being in the music and trying to get past certain things. In order for me to do that I had to disappear.”
Charles Ennis Gayle Jr. was born on Feb. 28, 1939, in Buffalo to Charles and Frances Gayle. His father was a steelworker. He studied numerous instruments in high school and excelled in basketball and track and field.
After a period at Fredonia State Teachers College, Mr. Gayle returned to Buffalo to begin his music career. He first played trumpet and piano in local clubs before concentrating on tenor saxophone in self-produced concerts, while also working at a Westinghouse factory and later at a bank providing loans for Black-owned businesses.
From 1970-73, Mr. Gayle was an assistant professor of music at the State University of New York Buffalo (now the University at Buffalo). But, tiring of institutional responsibilities, he left academia and moved to New York City to pursue music exclusively. He had been there for almost a decade when he decided to live on the streets.
In the 2014 interview, he recalled: “I just walked out one day and that was it. That was one of the greatest experiences I had in my life, though I didn’t do it for that reason. You have nothing and you’re not asking anybody for anything. We seek security, and you learn about how people perceive you because of what you look like or what they think you’re about.”
He had music ready for release by ESP-Disk, Ayler’s label from 1964-66, but those plans were scuttled when the company went out of business in 1975. (That session has yet to be heard, but the label was revived in 2005 and released a 1994 performance by Mr. Gayle’s trio in 2012.)
Mr. Gayle spent more than 15 years homeless, performing on the streets of New York. Then, in 1987, he began his second act.
After promoter Michael Dorf heard Mr. Gayle play, he was booked regularly at Dorf’s Lower Manhattan club, the Knitting Factory. Music he recorded at sessions in April 1988 became three albums for the Swedish label Silkheart Records. From 1991 onward, Mr. Gayle would steadily release albums under his own name — some as the leader of a trio or quartet, others as a solo performer — among them “Repent,” “Consecration,” “Testaments,” “Daily Bread,” and “Christ Everlasting.”
In a 2013 interview with Cadence magazine, he reflected on the perils of being outspoken about his religious beliefs in his concerts, delivered with the fervor of a country preacher:
“People have told me to shut up and stuff. I understand that I can turn people off with what I say or do. The problem that people have with me is not me, it’s Christ they have a problem with. I understand that when you start speaking about faith or religion, they want you to keep it in a box, but I’m not going to do that. Not because I’m taking advantage of being a musician; I’m the same everywhere, and people have to understand that.”
Mr. Gayle also had a notable collaborative group with Parker and drummer Rashied Ali and was a guest on two albums by Rollins. In addition to tenor saxophone, he played alto and soprano saxophones, piano, viola, upright bass, and drums. He is seen and heard in an interview and playing with German bassist Peter Kowald’s trio in a 1985 documentary, “Rising Tones Cross,” produced and directed by his former wife, Ebba Jahn.
A biography of Mr. Gayle by Cisco Bradley, with all proceeds going to the Gayle family, is scheduled for publication in late 2024.
Mr. Gayle’s three marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his son Ekwambu, from his second marriage, he leaves two other sons, Michael, from the first, and Dwayne, from his marriage to Jahn.
Drummer Michael Wimberley, who worked Mr. Gayle from the early 1990s well into the new millennium, called him “a father, mentor, and friend whom I had the pleasure of creating some of the most adventurous improvised sounds, shapes, and musical dialogues with.”
“Charles’s intensity on the horn,” he added, “was so powerful in person. I had never experienced anything like music of that intensity before! He pulled me into the sonic center of his sound and raptured me.”