Alice Coltrane, 1970 by Lee Santa
(Santa's Journey into Jazz, a memoir with photos, will appear early next year.)
Meeting Albert Ayler and Alice Coltrane’s Cosmic Concert
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY, Easter Sunday, 1968
After being discharged from the U.S. Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey on Good Friday, 1968, I caught a bus to New York City. The end of the line for me was the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd Street. From the Port Authority I walked down to 34th Street and took a room again at the Sloan House YMCA.
The next day while walking the streets of Manhattan, I saw a poster advertising a concert at Carnegie Hall billed as the Alice Coltrane Cosmic Concert. The next morning, Easter Sunday, I purchased a ticket to the concert. In the meantime, I did some sightseeing in the area. Since I was near Central Park, I headed that way. On my way I saw a parade and decided to check it out. It was a Gay Pride parade ambling along 5th Ave., bordering the park.
I watched the parade for a few minutes before heading into Central Park. After walking around the park for a while I wound up in the vicinity of Sheep Meadow. I noticed a large crowd cheering on a couple of guys lying on the ground who were making out. Evidently they were trying to break some kind of record for the longest gay kiss ever.
In the meantime I had taken off my leather jacket and draped it over my shoulder, causing the concert ticket I had just purchased to slip out of my inside breast pocket. I didn't discover my ticket was missing until just before arriving at Carnegie Hall. Naturally, I was very upset by this development. Once inside the lobby I immediately went to the ticket counter and explained to a clerk what had happened. Without question or hesitation, the understanding older woman gave me a new ticket at no charge.
Feeling extremely fortunate and amused by the clerk’s eccentric manner and generosity, I started across the lobby when I saw a man who I was sure was Albert Ayler. I approached him and asked if he indeed was Albert Ayler. Yes, he said. I then asked him excitedly if he was playing tonight. Unfortunately he wasn’t, but he handed me a flyer advertising a concert that he and his brother Don were giving in a couple of weeks. He then introduced me to Don. I told Albert how much I liked his music, explaining that my first exposure to his music happened when I was in the army and purchased his ESP album Spiritual Unity. I explained how it floored me (to this day it is one of the most incredible pieces of music I’ve ever heard). I went on and on about how much I liked his music. He was very attentive and we spoke to each other for at least five minutes. I was struck by the fact that this hero of mine was giving me so much of his time, that he was genuinely interested in what I had to say. All this time Albert’s brother Don sat on a nearby steam radiator, quietly listening to our conversation. Both of them impressed me as musicians who sincerely cared what their fans thought and were more than happy to engage with them, which is something you can’t say about every artist.
When we concluded our talk I found my seat, which was front row center, a much better seat than the one I’d purchased earlier. I couldn’t believe such good luck had come from my miscue in Sheep Meadow, when I carelessly threw my coat over my shoulder and the ticket had been lost without me noticing. The box-office clerk had been extremely nice for doing this for me when she could have easily and rightly said no, and sent me heartbroken back into the streets and my room at the Sloan House.
Here’s how good the seat was. About three or four seats over from me sat another of my heroes, Ornette Coleman. With him sat a woman who I believe was the filmmaker, Shirley Clarke.
The flyer Albert Ayler gave me has had an interesting history. Sometime around 1998, I emailed a copy of it to Jeff Schwartz who I had learned of because of a manuscript he had written and posted on the internet: Albert Ayler: His Life and Music. Around 2002 I was contacted by John Fahey's Revenant Records. The company had been trying to locate a copy of the flyer and had learned from Mr. Schwartz that I had one. They asked me about getting a color copy of the flyer to use in a book that would accompany a CD box set of previously unreleased Albert Ayler material. I was more than happy to give it to them. The best part of this for me is that in a small but important way I have contributed to one of the best CD box sets ever produced by a jazz artist, and thus to the historical record of one of the most important musicians in all of music, Albert Ayler.
The Carnegie Hall Alice Coltrane Cosmic Concert which finally happened after all the excitement? It was magnificent, featuring Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, Jimmy Garrison and Jack DeJohnette.