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”.