Since the 70s Roy Ayers has been at the forefront of the jazz, funk and soul scenes. Composing some of the most influential songs of all time and promoting a message of uplifting positivity, this Los Angeles-born band leader and vibraphone player continues to inspire artists from across the musical spectrum.
Growing up in a musical family, his parents were friends with iconic vibraphone player Lionel Hampton. This legendary jazz band leader even gave the five year-old Ayers his first set of vibraphone hammers. The encounter would resonate through his whole life, setting the standard he wanted to achieve. “He was 95 years old when he played his last gig,” Ayers tells me, awe straining his voice. “I saw him play just before he passed, at the Half Note. He was so cool, just sitting there.” During his life Hampton released an incredible 134 albums, slightly overshadowing Ayers’ still impressive 91. “I’m not going to try and break his record,” he laughs. “But I’m looking to do as many as I can.” Now, 69 years on, Ayers is the star synonymous with the distinct vibes sound.
One trait Ayers shares with Hampton is modesty in the face of almost overwhelming acclaim. Astonishingly prolific, he’s had a significant cultural impact, inspiring both those who know him and those growing up with his music. Artists such as Erykah Badu, The Roots and Pharrell Williams have all cited him as a massive influence, a performance with the latter provoking mild bemusement. “We were doing a show with Alicia Keys. He got down on his knees saying: ‘You’re the man!’ He’s a great artist. I’ve never had anyone accept me like that. It was beautiful.”
We meet in a sun-drenched hotel bar, the 74 year old visiting Brighton for the latest date of a typically gruelling tour schedule. Understandably he’s exhausted after the journey here, but he’s smiling and animated during our conversation. Occasionally, as he recounts working with a peer, he pauses mid-sentence, a smile creeping onto his face as if recalling an adventure lost in time. “As I look back, I think: ‘My God, time passes so fast.’” It seems the time on tour is giving him space to be reflective.
Ayers began as a jazz musician in the early 60s, before going to New York under the stewardship of the great bandleader Harvey Mann. Working as a roadie and musician he studiously learnt his craft inside out. The 70s saw Ayers form his own band – Ubiquity. They developed a fresh outlook on jazz, sprinkling in elements of funk and pop, which opened his talents up to a wider audience. Although no-one involved knew it then, their music laid the foundations for house and hip-hop.
Abandoned by major labels, in favour of more mainstream disco sounds, Ayers started his own record company, Uno Melodic, in the 80s. Now he was truly a master of his own destiny. Although he’s experimented with a variety of styles, it was built upon a timeless foundation of funked-up horns, rich bass sounds, expansive keys, and of course the ever-present floating sound of his vibraphone.
These rich and vibrant tones have provided a well-stocked library of sounds for the hip-hop community to sample. Snippets from his biggest hit- ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’ have appeared in excess of 100 other records alone. Be it Dr Dre, Mary J Blige or The Jungle Brothers, there are plenty of chart-topping artists who wrapped a classic tune around that signature Ayers bounce. There remains a plan to release Roy Ayers Project, a documentary about the influence he’s had on that hip hop world. But what’s playing on his mind today is a film celebrating the legacy of the great Fela Kuti.
Whilst on an African tour, around 30 years ago, he travelled to the afrobeat star’s home with a cameraman in tow. Now the plan is to use footage they shot as part of a documentary on the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist. “Lots of people have released stuff on Fela, but nobody had it like I have it!” Ayers describes the profound effects of his time with his friend, how his vociferous sexual appetite saw him live with 47 wives and how people would simply gravitate towards him. If we’re lucky, we get to meet people who have a profound effect on us. When these people enter your life it’s like a wave flowing over you, changing your preconceptions and opening up new worlds. It’s clear the endless positivity flowing through Ayers’ music and life was greatly encouraged by his meeting with Kuti. “I never got to talk much about Fela. He was a good man.”
Whilst an exceptionally accomplished musician, the beauty of Ayers’ work is his eagerness to explore new genres and collaborate with artists that inspire him, seamlessly introducing these new influences. That list of collaborators is extensive, artists diverse as Masters at Work, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock all enjoying his creative flourishes. He’s unwaveringly generous and enthusiastic when talking about any of his collaborators. All these experiences have only reinforced his understanding of the happiness in living, of pursuing what you want to do. As he gets ready to leave, I venture we’re a long way from that five year old meeting his musical hero, all those years ago. “I guess everything worked out good,” he says, with a smile and wave of his hand to the nearby beach. “We got here…”
Roy Ayers plays Brighton’s Concorde 2 on Fri 24 July, 2015.