No wonder everyone wants to sample the great vibes of Roy Ayers
Ayers is pivotal in funk and jazz, and has stories of working with Fela Kuti and Rick James
Roy Ayers: One of the most-sampled artists in music history. Photograph: Donna Ward/Getty Images
Roy Ayers grew up in the midst of the southern California black music scene, with musicians such as Barry White and Eddie James. Ayers’s mother said that when the great jazz musician Lionel Hampton gave him a pair of vibraphone mallets when Ayers was five, he “laid some spiritual vibes” on the boy.
Almost 70 years later, those vibes, and Ayers’s appetite for creativity, continue. He remains a pivotal figure in music, from post-bop to jazz-funk and beyond – all of which will be explored in a soon-to-be-released documentary. His 1980 record, Music of Many Colours, with Fela Kuti, was a true meeting of minds, and his work with Guru and Kerri Chandler was inspired. So it makes sense that he is one of the most-sampled artists in music history, to the point where he is even considering a project in which he samples himself.
What effect did the gift of the vibraphone mallets have on a kid who grew up in what was South Park, and is now South Central?
“It was very inspiring,” he says. “Receiving those mallets motivated me to go on to play the vibes greatly. To this day I feel very blessed that his inspiration had this lasting effect.
“I do it occasionally at some of my shows. If a child can get that same kind of inspiration that Lionel Hampton gave to me, I’m happy with that. I feel it is important to get whatever you can, when you can.”
Kuti was another formative influence on Ayers, and another brilliant musical mind. Ayers met him in Nigeria, and the experience was a bit of a cultural eye-opener for an African-American who had grown up in California.
“Fela was very special,” he says. “When he told me that I was Yoruba [a west African ethnic group], I said, ‘I am?’ I never knew that I was Yoruba, never even thought I was Yoruba.It was very surprising to me, and at the same time made me feel very good. It made me feel like a part of the tribe. I grew to become even more interested in African music. I was very hopeful that I could just gel. It was a beautiful, rewarding experience to have met Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
“He had 27 wives, and I saw a very good relationship between Fela and his wives. I saw that his wives had to ‘bid’ for him. One time they were arguing against each other, and I was in the front room with Fela. He said, ‘Shut up. Don’t you see I have my friend Roy Ayers here? You’re disturbing him.’ I thought that was an interesting and fun moment.”
Ayers’s music has drawn from a range of stylistic influences, from Edwin Birdsong to Harry Whitaker. But he credits Marvin Gaye as being particularly important to him, particularly the album What’s Going On, because Gaye was trying to promote peace, love and kindness, as well as the truth that “war is hell”.
“He was an incredible performer,” says Ayers. “We talked for a while, I believe, in Cleveland, Ohio. His truth with God in his stories and music delivery made a lot of sense. I believe his album should have won a Grammy. That album was the epitome of albums. If that was all he could say, it was wonderful.”
Ayers has also worked with Rick James. “He has also been sampled hugely, but was initially frustrated about it. Everybody has to do whatever they have to do; that’s how I feel. Everyone reacts differently. Some react negatively; some are positive.
“Rick James was an exceptional personality. We recorded together and had so much fun during the recording time. That was a very special moment. It’s moments like that that make you reminisce. It truly was a bright and beautiful moment. Nothing but love for my friend Rick James.”
Ayers composed the soundtrack for the 1973 film Coffy, which was then used in Jackie Brown. “I admire Quentin Tarantino’s enthusiasm – honouring what has gone before, recontextualising it,” he says. “I feel like people like Tarantino are very important to keep things carrying on. Bringing the past to the present, and keeping it moving on through to the future.”
Ayers has a special relationship with Europe, and has released some live recordings from Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London. What makes it important to him?
“Europe is a wonderful place to tour and work in,” he says. “I go multiple times a year, and the fans are absolutely wonderful. They really do show their support and love for the music, and are just great. It’s a wonderful experience to perform at Ronnie Scott’s and the Jazz Cafe. Both rooms are great, even though I personally like the vibe at the Jazz Cafe a little more – something about the fans. But Ronnie Scott’s has some wonderful people that come out to the shows as well.”
Certain songs of Ayers’s, such as Everybody Loves the Sunshine and Searching, have a positive outlook on life. Can he think of other songs in that vein that have inspired him?
“It’s very interesting because I became inspired by great songs by Miles Davis,” he says. “Songs like Walking. As a young musician I was inspired to play as many different songs as I could learn by Miles Davis. Actually he and Lionel Hampton were my biggest inspirations.”
Roy Ayers plays the Sugar Club, Dublin, tomorrow