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Jazz At The LSE

The Infamous Albert Ayler ConcertThe

On its 50th anniversary in November 2016, Robin Kidson recalls the notorious Albert Ayler concert at the London School of Economics.



In the autumn of 1969, I came down to London from wild Northumberland to study for a degree at the London School of Economics (LSE). I was 18 years old. I came with an almost obsessive interest in jazz mainly gleaned from reading books borrowed from Hexham Library, listening to Radios 2 and 3 on an old valve wireless, and watching the telly on the rare occasions when modern jazz was featured.

I soon discovered that the LSE had a flourishing jazz society. The School’s location in the centre of London meant it was relatively easy to put on the London based jazz performers of the day, and, more importantly, attract an audience to see them. In addition, it Albert Aylerhad a lecture theatre – the so-called Old Theatre – which was a superb venue for jazz. Within a week of arriving, I had seen two memorable concerts at the School – one featuring John Surman and the other, Mike Osborne. I joined the Jazz Society and squeezed myself on to its committee. In my second year at the School, I was the Society’s Chair.

I was intrigued by references in the Jazz Society’s files and in the reminiscences of older graduate students to an event which had been held back in 1966 – something about a concert by Albert Ayler which had been put on by the BBC in conjunction with the Society. The BBC had recorded the concert but never broadcast it – the presumption was that the music had been far too avant garde for sensitive souls at the Corporation. There has always been a rebellious streak at the LSE (even though most of the rebels end up becoming pillars of the Establishment) and it had become a badge of honour that the School had put on something the BBC found too hot to handle.

Albert Ayler


Over the years since, the abortive LSE concert has become a cause celebre amongst both hard core Ayler fans and the wider jazz community. November 2016 sees the 50th anniversary of the concert, as good a time as any to revisit the event and see what really happened ….

Well, what happened is that the BBC proposed two concerts at the LSE to be recorded and then broadcast as part of its Jazz Goes To College series. They booked the Stan Getz Quartet to appear on Monday, 14th November 1966; and the Albert Ayler Quintet for the next night, Tuesday,15th November. These two American artists were at opposite ends of the jazz spectrum – Getz was hugely popular at the time and had wide appeal well beyond a jazz audience. Ayler, on the other hand, was developing a reputation as the most avant garde of jazz musicians.


The Stan Getz concert went off smoothly, and was recorded and broadcast as planned. You can see it below.   It features an impossibly young looking Gary Burton and shows the Old Theatre (packed for the occasion) to good effect.





The Ayler concert on the following night was a very different kettle of fish. Ayler, on tenor sax, led a quintet made up of his brother Donald on trumpet, Michel Sampson on violin, Bill Folwell on bass, and Beaver Harris on drums. They were not in the best of moods when they came to the concert having been subject to some hassle by police and immigration officials at Heathrow – Humphrey Lyttelton, who presented both the Getz and Ayler concerts, wrote later that “the musicians arrived tired, angry and bristling with aggression…”. The mood was not improved by various technical hitches.

Ayler’s reputation was such that many leading British jazz musicians and critics were in the audience including Ronnie Scott and Albert Ayler QuintetDerek Jewell. Ayler was not going to be playing any other dates in England so this was going to be the only chance to hear him – it turned out in the end that the LSE concert would be his only ever public performance in this country.

The Quintet’s playing on the night clearly divided opinion – Jewell, reviewing the concert in the Sunday Times, talked of “the sheer poverty of musical ideas” and added that “it moved me not at all, except towards the exit”. Alan Beckett, on the other hand, wrote in the International Times that “it was full of life, positive, immediately relevant” and criticised Humph saying that his introduction “presupposed all the critical reifications the music cut through; in general, the BBC seemed to patronise the group and treat them like strange animals …”. He added, prophetically, “some people present seemed determined not to let the music go any further into the world”.

Humphrey Lyttelton himself, in his book Take It From The Top remembered that “the music itself was a strange mixture of hymn-like dirges, played in rough union with a bleating, street-band sound which I found not unattractive, and those frenetic bursts of musical gibberish which have come to be known as ‘freakouts’”.

Ronald Atkins, writing in Jazz Monthly, whilst acknowledging that Ayler played to “a rather baffled audience” and that “the reception was mixed”, also highlighted the roots of Ayler’s music in traditional gospel and New Orleans marching bands:

“... some hated the music, some thought it limited. Those who reject anything faintly different dismissed the group out of hand. In a complementary gesture, some who respond exclusively to the latest sounds (until later ones come along) were disappointed: after all, they had not gone to the LSE just to hear a Trad. band. Myself, I loved it…And make no mistake, the ensemble playing is everything Albert Ayler Paris 1966one could wish for: clean, well-integrated and with untold imaginative touches. The relationship between melody and rhythm fascinates and, of course, is quite revolutionary”.

Incidentally, Ronald Atkins remembered the concert (and Ayler’s music) in a thoughtful article in the August 2016 issue of Jazz Journal.

We cannot make up our own minds about the merits or otherwise of Ayler’s playing at the LSE because the BBC decided it was not suitable for transmission. How this decision was reached, by whom and on what basis (aesthetic? technical?) is unclear although Bill Cotton Jnr, the thenHead of Variety at the BBC is rumoured to have been personally involved; and that “jazz experts” were consulted.

A couple of years later, the BBC went further and wiped not only the Ayler tape but almost all of the rest of the tapes of BBC2 jazz recordings (the Stan Getz recording must have escaped the cull) in an exercise to reuse scarce videotape. Even Humph calls this “an act of criminal negligence”.

I recently wrote to the BBC’s Written Archives Centre to see if there was any formal record of the decision not to broadcast the Ayler LSE concert. The Centre wrote back having diligently looked through the relevant files but could not find anything – “editorial decisions of this kind were not uncommon”, they write, “and there’s no guarantee of being able to follow any paper trail”. They also looked to see if there were any contractual papers but, again, could not find any. They were “slightly surprised at this, since Ayler must have been paid, but there are often complications when it comes to records of payment to artists not resident in the UK”.

A piece of film exists of the Ayler Quintet playing in Europe around the time of the LSE concert which perhaps gives some idea of how the band sounded that November night in London fifty years ago.




There is also the recording of Albert Ayler in Paris in 1966 shown above (click here).

Ayler himself was only to live another four years during which he struggled with mental illness but continued to develop his music, moving away from the avant garde towards something more structured and conventional but still interesting. His body was found floating in the East River in New York on 25th November 1970.

There is an excellent website devoted to Ayler and his work at:

Robin Kidson



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