Q&A: Charles Gayle On Homelessness, Streets The Clown, And His Faith

Categories: Interviews

This week the Voice sat down with New York jazz titan Charles Gayle, whose new album Streets portends a man on a quest to find peace within his craft and headspace. Gayle and Tom Surgal (of local avant-jazz stalwarts White Out) go way back to the revered '80s downtown era, and the percussionist, via email, reflected on their history together. "In many ways, I've always thought that Charles's life mirrors the life of Coltrane, in that he too was lost and then he was found," Surgal said.

"Charles was floundering in his earlier life, leading a dissolute existence, and then he experienced a spiritual awakening and he was saved. And like Trane, his playing began to reflect the new found intensity of a man on a righteous path. There has always been a sense of urgency to his playing, like he was making up for lost time. And also like Trane, he has always practiced relentlessly. I know people who used to live in his old squat who claimed he never stopped playing. A lesser-known facet to Charles's personality is that he possesses enormous curiosity about the human condition. He is always studying people and has keen insights in to the way peoples' minds work. I've always thought he has the intellectual predisposition more characteristic of an author than a musician. This stirring need in him to fathom those around him no doubt feeds in to the dimensionality of his playing, help making him the consummate musician that he is."

Here, Gayle delves even deeper into Streets and his inspiring trajectory.

What was the concept behind Streets in your mind?

Obviously, it was about the streets. But it wasn't about trying to do something just for the audience and to have an effect. I wasn't thinking about that and it didn't really enter my mind like that. It was just an idea of, in certain situations, to act out the music and play it at the same time or act it out in a short skit first and play to describe the music. It was personally for me to come out of this. Streets came from the years of that kind of life—living in the streets and abandoned buildings. I just happened to name it that. That was just sentimental, like I should call it something like that.

What made you have this revelation to be Streets the Clown all the time?

I'm just more comfortable that way and I have to really not run away from that. There's some things that happen [as Streets that cannot] with [street clothes] on—nice things. I'm not gonna hurt nobody. I decided a few months ago, last year, whatever, that "OK, you have to do this because it's just in your head and get it out of your head." I don't know even what people think about it, 'cause nobody ever says anything.

When you play live, do you try to combine music and skits?

For me, it's easy to do it. Most of the time you don't use [the skits] because people come to hear you play, so you gotta really be on that. But sometimes, I will. Sometimes, it just doesn't fit the stage or fit the circumstances. You can always do something but then that depends on your imagination and everybody's got one. It just depends on the situation.

So, being Streets all the time at gigs is the culmination of everything to this point?

Getting the record out and going ahead and just being this now. You have two personalities—it's almost like living with your brother in here. It's almost like you're thinking two things. Besides music, now you've got something else to think about and it stays very close.

Your new label Northern Spy seems very supportive.

They were nice enough to let me put that on the cover. They could've said no and I don't know, maybe I would've went along with that. I don't wanna disturb nobody. They said fine. They were really on it.

How did you hook up with Northern Spy?

I just so happened to be looking for Tom Abbs. He used to work at ESP-Disk. I didn't know he had left. When I talked to him before at ESP about [putting out] records, we didn't come to any kind of conclusion. I called him and I didn't know he had a record company at all and so me and him talked. I didn't get into what happened [at ESP]. I didn't really know who Bernard [Stollman] was or nothing. I didn't know anything what was going on. So, it got to be about Tom Abbs and Northern Spy.

Northern Spy has a diverse roster of artists and is seemingly on the rise.

I looked at [their website] on the computer. I didn't know anybody 'cause I don't know anybody. But I could see there was a mix, because they showed the pictures and the people. That youth, that enthusiasm—that's great. I like that, man.

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