Roy Ayers: man of the mallet and the moment

People often ask jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayers how, even after five decades of recording, he is still finding ways to introduce his sound to the masses. In his case, necessity has always been the mother of reinvention.

“If I didn’t have music I wouldn’t even want to be here,” Ayers, 71, said. “It’s like an escape when there is no escape. An escape for temporary moments.” Over the years his escape came in many forms: hard-bop, psychedelic R&B, disco, afro beat, hip-hop and house music. But no matter what, an audience always finds him.

After more than 60 albums and dozens of hits sampled by the likes of 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige and A Tribe Called Quest, the ripples of Ayers’ shape-shifting career remain woven into the fabric of popular music. Erykah Badu once dubbed him “the King of Neo Soul.”

The crossover savant of jazz funk returns to his hometown on Thursday to headline “Homage,” a tribute concert in Ayers’ honor at Exchange L.A., backed by revered hip-hop polymath Pete Rock with support from psychedelic funk bassist Thundercat and Stones Throw DJ J-Rocc.


Much of what today’s music fans know about Ayers comes subliminally through hip-hop. In fact, some would argue his profile got a major second wind when sample-minded emcees of hip-hop’s Golden Era decided to excavate his catalog in the 1990s. It’s easy to see Ayers’ multigenerational influence by looking at the “Homage” lineup of DJs rappers and musicians who have been affected by his music.

Ayers says at least 60 songs have sampled his music and become hits for rappers and producers like Redman and Snoop Dogg, who were infatuated with refitting his warm, jazzy haze of analog sound to the parameters of hip-hop.

“I’m happy to say that I never had to go to anyone to ask them to sample me,” Ayers said. “They just started doing it. It’s been wonderful hearing people put their own spin on my sounds.”

Though he relocated to New York in 1966, Ayers’ legend still lingers over burnt palm trees and busy freeways in songs like 1976’s “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” a classic emblem of West Coast sound.


But Ayers admits that the South Central L.A. he grew up in was very different than it is today. He was raised against the backdrop of the storied Central Avenue Jazz scene during the 1940s and ‘50s. The area (known then as South Park) was a relatively peaceful beacon of African American culture, fostering luminaries like Dexter Gordon and Charles Mingus.

Ayers can barely resist telling how as a 5-year-old in the crowd at the Paramount Theater he received his first set of mallets from the great Lionel Hampton. “At the time, my mother and father told me he laid some spiritual vibes on me,” Ayers said, his voice crackling with enthusiasm over the phone from New York. After picking up the vibraphones as a Thomas Jefferson High School student at age 17, they became his weapon of choice.

Hampton must have blessed him with prolific vibes as well. His discography, beginning when he was 23 with 1963’s “West Coast Vibes,” reflects only a fraction of the music he’s actually released, when you include his recordings as a sideman, solo artist or part of his ‘70s jazz fusion group Roy Ayers Ubiquity. His time pioneering the dance floor hybrid of “jazz funk” during his tenure at Polydor Records stretched into the ‘80s, before embarking on afro beat collaborations with Fela Kuti, side projects with Rick James and late hip-hop legend Guru of Gangstarr.

Despite a lengthy career and plenty of admiration from artists who’ve benefited from his influence, his admirers say that he doesn’t get the credit he should for his influence on hip-hop, neo soul and house music.


DJ Haylow is the director of the “Roy Ayers Project,” an indie documentary about Ayers slated for late 2012. Since starting the film in August, the veteran Bay Area DJ has also snowballed into a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation, education and documentation of Ayers’ career and its effect on music by people of color. Piecing together interviews from Ayers, musicologists and artists of multiple genres, Haylow hopes the documentary is a potent historical tool for younger generations and fans who witnessed Ayers in his heyday.

“I remember reading his Wikipedia page, it was only about two paragraphs,” Haylow, 31, said. “This is somebody who has been performing for over 50 years. I thought it was a complete insult. It’s important to document these artists in a context that lets them know that there’s a younger generation that will preserve their music when they pass.”

For that type of legacy, look no further than Stephen Bruner, 26, a.k.a. Thundercat. The South L.A.-bred bassist on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label is a studied virtuoso playing an assortment of punk, funk and psychedelic jazz. Bruner’s allegiance to Ayers runs deep.

“Discovering Roy’s music came at a crucial time in my musical development,” Bruner said. “It’s definitely affected my bass playing and my understanding of music that makes me comfortable in ways that I would have never been before, even singing on my own records.”


Thursday’s “Homage” show will to be both a tribute and a participatory event, as Ayers is still known for his spry, interactive performances. Having just released an album, “King of the Vibes,” he’s already started work on another and even squeezed in recent festival dates in China and the Ukraine, two countries he’d never visited.

As long as he’s in good enough health to grip his mallets, the ever-evolving king of the vibes shows no sign of slowing down.

“It’s funny, I started playing vibes when I was 17 and I still love it,” Ayers said. “The only difference now is that I’ve turned the 17 around to 71.”