Interview: Roy Ayers
Originally published in the Nottingham Post
Your current touring schedule looks insane. You’re playing a large number of countries this month alone, including three separate trips to the UK. Is this a typical month for you?
Whatever they present to me when they do the booking, I just go along with it. I’ve been doing this for many years, and I’m 73 now. So it’s no problem; it’s great.
It’s the sort of schedule that could exhaust a man half your age. How do you maintain your energy levels?
I guess I maintain it by eating the right foods and staying healthy, not using alcohol or drugs, or anything like that. I keep my body clean; that’s the key to a healthy life.
Are you the sort of person that likes to get out and about, exploring each city you visit?
When I was young, but I don’t do that anymore. With most of the cities I’ve been to, I’ve travelled to them many times. I’ve been to Paris many times, and to London many, many times. So I don’t hang out anymore. It’s not even a thrill anymore. I just enjoy performing and sleeping and travelling.
Are there any places you’ve not yet played, that you would still like to visit?
The only place I haven’t been is most of the Middle Eastern countries. That’s because so many of them are having problems, like Syria and Egypt. I always wanted to go to Egypt. But I’ve been to almost every other country in the world. I’ve been to China, Russia, Brazil, and of course I work a lot in the USA.
How does your instrument, the vibraphone, handle all the travel? Is it a robust instrument?
I play a vibraphone called KAT. It’s small like a piano. It’s not huge, like the big vibraphone, so it’s easy to handle. Not only do I get the vibraphone sound, but I also get all kinds of synthesiser sounds. It’s very handy, very easy and portable.
How did you first start learning to play the vibraphone?
I got all of my musical training through Mr Samuel Browne, my high school teacher. He taught me musical history, and of course harmony. I graduated from there in 1958. And of course I’ve played with so many great artists. I went on to play with Herbie Mann, which was when I really started to get international recognition. I’ve worked with people like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Henderson from the Jazz Crusaders. I’ve recorded with Rick James, and I’ve done albums with George Benson. There’s so many great artists that I been with, like Guru’s Jazzmatazz and Donald Byrd, and I’m continuing to have a wonderful career.
Is the vibraphone difficult to learn?
It’s a difficult instrument, because it requires balance. When I was a little younger, I used to experiment with things. I used to put a towel over the top and play to people, because I remember where all the notes are. I got my first set of vibraphone mallets from Lionel Hampton when I was five years old, so I always wanted to be like Lionel Hampton. At one time, when I was very young, I was thinking I was going to be Lionel Hampton. When I grew up, my mother and father always played his music, so I was reared on Lionel Hampton.
Your music has never gone out of style. With some other artists, the audience will get older as they get older, but it’s not the case with you. You keep getting new generations turning up to your shows. Does that surprise you?
No, it doesn’t. It makes me feel good. As it happens, I have more sampled hits than anyone else in the music industry. It really made me feel good when they told me that. I have maybe 44, 45 songs that have been sampled by hip hop artists, and most of the songs that have been sampled have been hits, which is wonderful.
You’ve always been musically broad-minded. You’ve embraced jazz-funk, disco, Afrobeat, hip hop and house music. I’d like to know about your collaboration with the late Fela Kuti. What was it like, working with him?
It was a pleasure working with Fela Kuti in Nigeria. I spent almost a month over there with him. He was a mystery genius, because he taught his band, all of them, how to play in jail. He was a truly remarkable individual. Musically he was very on top of it, and he was a nice guy. I still have a couple of gigs that I did with him on video, in 1979. It’s never been seen, but it’s something that I plan on issuing later on. I have it in New York.
You’ve also worked with house musicians such as Masters At Work and Kerri Chandler. What was your first introduction to house music?
They come up with so much stuff over there in England, and that’s where I was exposed to it. I heard about it in New York, but I really heard about it on a much more popular level in England. It was so interesting to have all those kinds of transitions coming through my ears, because music continues to grow, and new expressions are happening, and I still continue to have a good time exploring new innovations.
What kind of band leader are you? Are you from the James Brown school of strict discipline, or are you more laidback?
I’m from the Herbie Mann school. He was the best leader that I’ve ever been with, and I run my band the same way. He was not very strict, but he was very organised and very together. He took care of business, and everybody got paid.
Do you always keep to the same set list, or are you open to requests?
Sometimes, in the middle of the show. I don’t mind them, if I have them planned. But sometimes people call for songs that I don’t retain any more; I’ve done 86 albums!
If I was asking for a song, it would be We Live In Brooklyn, Baby. Is that part of your repertoire?
We do that every night. We sing, “We live in Brooklyn baby, we’re trying to make it baby”, and then later on in the song we sing “We shop at Tesco’s, baby!”
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop and Goodtimes present Roy Ayers & Ubiquity live at The Approach on Sunday December 22.