Jazz-funk pioneer, purveyor of good vibes, multi-instrumentalist, collaborator extraordinaire and writer of film scores – Roy Ayers has packed all of this into a lifetime and so much more.
At 79 years young, he’s one of the few members of his generation – one that grew up in the 1940s and 50s in LA – who’s still out there doing it.
And who hasn’t heard or been touched by songs like Everybody Loves the Sunshine. And if you haven’t heard some of his many seminal works in the 1970s, you will almost certainly have heard hundreds, or maybe even thousands of samples from them over the years.
– We began by asking him about his early memories and musical experiences…
Some of my early experiences? Well I sang in the church choir, all the beautiful songs and hymns at that time. There was also a band in high school that I played drums with. It was later on that I got into the vibraphone, but since then I’ve been playing the vibes for a very long time. I dug the vibe and I just loved it. Good vibrations, and good vibes.
I’m assuming your mother taught you to play piano, how was that?
She taught me to play, she was my own teacher, yes. My father didn’t do anything in terms of my teaching…but he loved the drums though.
Did your family ever play together? (Roy’s father played trombone and his mother played piano)
No, my sisters did a couple of things – but we never actually played together as a group.
Can you describe the South Park area of Los Angeles in the 1940s and 50s (known as a cultural hotbed, as Harlem was to New York)?
Basically, everything was happening which was really really cool, there were some really good vibes and I loved LA at that time.
Who were your main inspirations in music?
Well Bobby Hutcherson and Lionel Hampton were two people who inspired me so much, and always with great vibes. Collectively their sounds, and those of people like Bill Jackson, created an amazing feeling for me.
You’re known as a legendary live performer, but are there any concerts that you’ve attended over the years that stick in the mind?
Yes, I remember several groups, and many that I’ve played with or guested onstage with…but I used to go see Rick James all the time, because he was one of my favourites. Rick and I became close friends over the years, and I even played on a couple of his shows. Very nice memories.
What made you gravitate towards the vibraphone?
All I can say is that the sound affected me and it was wonderful, I’m so happy that I can play the vibes, because it gives me a wonderful feeling, even now.
You’re a multi-instrumentalist, do you think we’re losing that now, or are you still encouraged by new generations of musicians?
I think it’s wonderful that the new guys are playing great music, as musicians they are very good, so I take my hat off to them. I have no worries where that’s concerned.
What was it like playing at Glastonbury last year?
It was so wonderful because of the crowd, the excitement…and the laughter!
What are your memories of the New Year residency you used to do at the Jazz Cafe in Camden?
I had many good years there as a matter of fact, they were great years…not just good, they were great, and the energy was in excess. Performances are great, and the great ones are really wonderful because they are unforgettable, especially for those that love their music…I hope everyone had a great time, because I did.
What work are you most proud of in your career?
I would say I’m most proud of the great albums that I’ve participated in, and there have been so many great compliments paid to me too, so that means a lot.
I read in an interview that you described music, and touring, as life or death for you?
It’s keeps you alive because it’s a way of communication, I love it…because it’s a kind of communication without words, and everybody feels it.
You’ve collaborated with so many artists over the years, such as Guru, Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys and rappers like Tyler the Creator – what makes a great collaborator?
Collaboration? A good collaborator is someone who knows how to get down – and get down low! Erykah Badu, she was a magic lady, she was fabulous, and I was lucky enough to work with her extensively.
Did you know Gill Scott-Heron (memories of him)?
I met him many times over the years. He was a dreamer, but he had good dreams and I was very inspired by him. Gill took me on adventures…
“He’s a Superstar”, “Time and Space”, “Searchin'”…did you feel you were in a particularly spiritual place, or a place of inspiration when you recorded those kinds of songs?
I was in a spiritual place then at that time, yes, it was very good. And I’m still there! Time is like space with me, and space is like time.
I must ask you about the song ‘Poo poo la la’, which has become a jazz-funk cult classic over the years…what, or who was the inspiration for that track?
Oh my God!! Poo poo la la – my God!!! You’re the first person to ask me about that song in a long time. All I can say is that, it was women and poo poo la la!
My girlfriend is Erykah Badu! (laughter)
So, it’ll take more than the Corona virus to stop you touring presumably?
Oh yes, I’m going to travel all of the time. In fact I’m not going to stop travelling – when I give up is when I stop travelling.
Anything else you’d like to do?
Several things yes, but I still want to record some more music. That would be amazing, and it’s what I love to do.
For anyone who’s never seen you live – what would your message be?
My message? I will continue to play my music and keep it live – no jive!
And with that Roy laughs once more, and bids the Cocoa Diaries farewell…you get the feeling that his spiritual quest through time and space is far from over.
Roy Ayers is touring in April across the UK.