Roy Ayers: man of the mallet and the moment

Roy Ayers
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.

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