Spy Music Fest: Arthur Doyle
An essay and interview by Robert Peterson and Jim McHugh
Last Friday, Northern Spy launched its second annual Spy Music Festival, a 16-day music marathon in New York that features the likes of Rhys Chatham, Loren Connors, Thurston Moore, Arthur Doyle, Magik Markers, Jason Lescalleet, Diamond Terrifier, and many more. Last week, we posted interviews of artists playing at the fest, conducted by other artists playing at the fest. (Read the previous feature, between Rhys Chatham and Colin Langenus, here.) Today, we’re ending the feature with this beautiful essay on venerable jazz artist Arthur Doyle, written by Robert Peterson and Jim McHugh. Peterson (an artist and curator) and McHugh (formerly of Dark Meat, currently playing guitar in NYMPH) are members of Arthur Doyle’s New Quiet Screamers, who are playing with Man Forever July 11 at The Stone. Check out the rest of Spy Music’s lineup here.
Arthur Doyle has dedicated his life to the singular musical purpose he calls “free jazz soul,” a form that knowingly and aggressively eradicates the constructed walls between the sub-genres that he has, throughout his long career, actively helped illuminate, progress, and define: bebop, free jazz, vocal soul music, punk, noise, and lo-fi. His dense, immediate mojo hits so heavy that he doesn’t so much blur the lines of these designations as render them utterly useless; truly, this ain’t no mental exercise, no postmodern intellectual attempt at illuminating semiotic meaninglessness or some shit like that. Arthur’s soulfulness — his sheer in-the-momentness — provides the center of gravity from which these multifarious expressions spring, and for this reason, they feel natural as can be, unfettered by burdensome over-thinking, unplanned as sunlight suddenly splitting a storm cloud and warming your skin.
When viewed through a historical prism, Arthur’s career reads like that of a journeyman session player and a desert-wandering visionary; he was both, and his life’s work rubs shoulders with giants of the American Canon. While studying music education at Nashville’s Tennessee State University, he began playing R&B in groups with future members of trumpeter Louis Smith, the future Arkestra blower Walter Miller, and a pre-fame Gladys Knight. Upon graduating, he lit out for Detroit to join a big band, but the city’s cultural maelstrom of bebop, Motown, pimps, hustlers, and radicals violently angling for social leverage alienated the young musician. He returned to Nashville to take a touring gig with Jimi Hendrix’s former R&B unit, The King Casuals, augers of the hit soul version of “Purple Haze,” under the new leadership of Junior Wells’ collaborator Johnny Jones.
Doyle got as far as Boston with the band, hopped off the tour bus, and meandered to Harlem — epicenter, concurrently and causally, of the militant post-Malcolm X consciousness of Amiri Baraka and AB Spellman, and the most extreme exponents of jazz’ New Thing. Drum-genius and music-therapist pioneer Milford Graves, with whom Arthur would collaborate on the monolithic Babi Music in the mid-70s, introduced Arthur to a new way of approaching his music. “Milford was set up with Amiri Baraka and these cats,” Doyle says, “and was looking for musicians to play the free jazz, so I called him up. He didn’t really like what I was doing, because I was still playing be-bop. He wanted somebody like Albert Ayler, who I didn’t know at the time. I played with Milford, Arthur Williams, Hugh Glover, and Joe Rigby, and I started working on my own particular style: Free Jazz Soul.”
In New York, Arthur began working with luminaries Leon Thomas (one of the few figures you could count as a musical predecessor to Arthur) and Pharoah Sanders. Soon word got around that Sun Ra wanted to bring him into the Arkestra fold. He had also been pursued by New Orleans native Noah Howard to join Howard’s group and record The Black Ark. He ended up turning down the job with Sun Ra’s Arkestra to work with fellow sax man Howard, Leslie Waldron, Juma Sultan (Jimi Hendrix’s percussionist in Gypsy Sun and Rainbows), Muhammed Ali, and others. Doyle’s methodology was forever altered by his experiences in these inflammatory and improvisational musical realms. Equally as important is the fact that his sound was inexorably shaped by the decisions he made as a musician.
Some musicians compose the same way over and over; they use a 12-bar blues. I’ll find something in spontaneous improv, write it down, and from there I can change the mode, the key, the timing, and so on.
One key to understanding the singular spirit of the man is his devotion to his art as a by-product of his daily life. He does yoga every day and intersperses improvised horn practices within yoga sessions. This is why when we talk about Arthur we are talking about an ever-present, ever-expanding spirit. This raises a conundrum for those around him, because his pedigree, his past as reedsman, is chock full of the best of the best, but as a person in the contemporary sense he is engaged in what is now. This ensures that when you hear him, you will never hear the same thing twice. “The way I write,” he says, “is spontaneous improvisation. After a while, I might run across an idea I like and write it down; it gels in my mind. Some musicians compose the same way over and over; they use a 12-bar blues. I’ll find something in spontaneous improv, write it down, and from there I can change the mode, the key, the timing, and so on. This way, the focus of my music is the phrase which then I repeat and change to add dynamics to the whole composition.”
With his minimalist’s compositional approach to maximal expressive improvisation, it’s no surprise Arthur eventually ended up playing, in the early 80s, with agro guitar-weirdo and Ed Wood biographer Rudolph Grey in the no-wave-leaning Blue Humans (with former Ayler drummer Beaver Harris) at punk dens like Max’s Kansas City and Hurrah. When asked about how he ended up in this seemingly incongruous aesthetic matchup, Arthur invariably answers: “He asked me; I said ‘yes.’”
Arthur has followed this open-minded yen to play with whosoever is exploratory and genuine and musically forthright enough to a life-in-sound that spans five decades, several countries, and dozens of albums. In the late 90s, he wound up in Tokyo, blowing the doors off the place in groups with legendary psychedelic guitar-titan Takashi Mizutani of Les Rallizes Denudes and the venerable noisemaker Keiji Haino. The live recordings of the Mitzutani/Doyle collaboration could without reservation be categorized among those that one could listen to over and over again for a lifetime and hear new layers emerge every time. In the aughts, he has collaborated and recorded extensively with free-drumming hommes terribles, Sunny Murray and Han Bennink. He has worked with Thurston Moore, Hamid Drake, and countless other luminaries along the way. All in a life’s work, Doyle says:
“I want to pay homage to a lot of people that I can’t do on the saxophone but I can do with spoken words… but I try to put it all [together], where all combine to be one. You can’t separate the singing from the saxophone. You can’t separate the flute from the saxophone. You can’t separate none of it from the saxophone. It all revolves around one instrument, and that is Me, Myself.”
[Photos: Andy Newcombe (top), Seth Tisue]