Mr. Ayers -- recording artist


I was beginning to think we’d never get around to making the CD that Nathaniel Anthony Ayers has been talking about for years.

Last summer, on a trip to San Francisco, where Mr. Ayers was honored for his spirit by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, we came up with the perfect name for it:

“Putting on Ayers.”

But when readers and friends asked when it would be available, I had no good answer.

Some days Mr. Ayers is fine; some days not.

Some days he wants companionship; other days he needs to be alone.

As for the CD, he’d back off one day, calling it a terrible idea. And then he’d be ready to roll the next day.

Finally, a few weeks ago, it all seemed to be coming together. We had a day booked in a Silver Lake studio. A pal of his, Joe Russo, had agreed to fly in from Connecticut to record with him.

L.A. Philharmonic pianist Joanne Pearce Martin and violinist Robert Gupta had juggled schedules. And Michael Balzary, also known as Flea of the band Red Hot Chili Peppers, was eager to join us.

Then, the night before, Mr. Ayers -- a former Juilliard student who was homeless and playing a two-string violin when I met him five years ago -- backed out of the recording session.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said, complaining of an upset stomach that I suspected was caused in part by a case of nerves.

I woke the next day to an urgent message from Mr. Ayers: He was feeling better and ready to go, and I was relieved I hadn’t called off the whole thing.

An hour later, he canceled, and I lost a few more strands of hair.

The other musicians were standing by. Would Mr. Ayers reconsider?

OK, he said.

I picked him up on skid row and packed his bass, cello, violin, guitar, trumpet and flute into my car. He left his viola, French horn, keyboards and trombone in his room, perhaps saving them for his second CD.

On the way to Silver Lake, Mr. Ayers was nervous but game. He wanted to know how the day would play out, and I reminded him there was no strategy other than for him to jam on as many instruments as he cared to play. Steven Argila, a pianist and owner of the studio, had met Mr. Ayers before and was ready to go with the flow, and the same was true of Stephen Krause, the recording engineer.

Bass player Flea and drummer Scott Gold, my mate at The Times, beat us to the studio. I think it’s fair to say Mr. Ayers had never met anyone named Flea at Juilliard, but musicians are musicians, and they were all playing together before long.

Mr. Ayers was on piano, Flea and Gold backing him up. Mr. Ayers had a smile on his face, and Flea seemed happy just to be there. He had begun e-mailing me when I first started writing about Mr. Ayers, telling me he was inspired by the story and would love to play with him if possible.

“For me, it’s just having a belief and a faith in the healing power of music,” Flea said, telling me he could identify with the way music gives Mr. Ayers sanctuary during tough times.

Flea described himself as “a street urchin” in his youth, running around L.A. and getting into trouble before music rescued him. After the success of the Chili Peppers, he set up the Silver Lake Music Conservatory, which has taught music to hundreds of kids, whether or not they can pay. It was just such a nonprofit, the Music School Settlement in Cleveland, that gave Mr. Ayers his start 45 years ago.

Ayers and Flea have another thing in common: They are both still students. Flea studied music theory last year at USC and has been learning piano. Mr. Ayers started on the bass but can’t stop exploring other instruments. He’d rather struggle with the viola, say, for the sake of the challenge, than impress on the instrument he’s mastered.

“That’s exciting,” Flea said, telling me the artistry is in the risk.

Yes, but it makes for mixed results. Mr. Ayers played violin, cello, bass, piano and trumpet with varying degrees of success. There were moments of brilliance, with Mr. Ayers swinging on cello and bass, and there were moments that won’t make the CD cut.

He’s got his own sound, for sure, unstructured and sometimes unresolved, manic, lost. He plays his life, and he plays it in a jazzy, bluesy voice framed by the classical training. I wonder sometimes if formal treatment, which Mr. Ayers resists, would smooth his expression or remove the soul.

Flea and Argila were wowed by Mr. Ayers’ rich, haunting tone on trumpet. And after giving Mr. Ayers an impromptu lesson on violin, Gupta insisted the man’s got magic fingers.

“What I notice in him when we play together is a sort of different glint in his eyes; there’s a different character,” Gupta said. “It’s the student at Juilliard, the really brilliant, talented, quick student. That hasn’t gone away.”

Nor has the dream that whatever instrument he holds in his hands, something is out there and possibly within reach, something pure and magical and uncompromised.

“Mr. Russo,” he asked his friend after the recording session, “do you think I could be good again?”

You can see video from the recording session Thursday night in my report on KCET’s SoCal Connected. For a preview, go to The CD “Putting on Ayers” will be available in several weeks at the Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Foundation,, with proceeds benefiting arts programs at mental health agencies.