SFJAZZ.org | Portrait of Roy Ayers

On The Corner Masthead


June 10, 2019 | by Rusty Aceves

Considered the “Godfather of Neo-Soul,” vibraphonist, composer and soul jazz luminary Roy Ayers returns to SFJAZZ on 6/22 with his superb band, bringing the funky, feel-good sounds that have made him a musical icon and one of the most sampled artists in hip-hop. Here's a brief portrait.

The Los Angeles native was born to a household full of music, and in a story worthy of a Hollywood film, set his sights on the vibraphone at the age of 5 after attending a Lionel Hampton performance — a life-changing experience that culminated in Ayers receiving his first pair of mallets from the iconic vibraphonist, bandleader, and composer himself. Study of piano, and participation in the church choir solidified the aspiring musician’s inclinations, and Ayers’ path was clear when his parents presented the then 17-year-old with his first vibraphone.

In a second seemingly preordained happenstance, Ayers discovered that then-rising vibraphone giant Bobby Hutcherson was living nearby in the same Los Angeles neighborhood. Studies and jam sessions with Hutcherson led to Ayers’ increasing confidence as a young artist, forming a jazz band while still attending Thomas Jefferson High School in the late ‘50s — the same school that produced saxophone legend Dexter Gordon.

Ayers went pro in 1961, paying his dues as a sideman while starting a career as a leader, releasing his debut, West Coast Vibes, in 1963. Ayers found a mentor as part of flutist Herbie Mann’s band later in the decade, recording and touring with Mann while formulating his singular approach as a leader, recording a trio of jazz/funk sides for Atlantic in the late 60s with Mann as producer.

The 70s saw Ayers come into his own as a composer and bandleader, forming his wildly popular Ubiquity group that fully embraced the funk and dance rhythms that were, and remain, the lifeblood of urban pop music. The albums Ayers issued during the 70s for the Verve and Polydor labels, including He’s Coming, Red, Black & Green, Vibrations, Everybody Loves the Sunshine, and his landmark soundtrack to the classic 1973 Pam Grier blaxsploitation film Coffy, are quite appropriately considered classics of the genre.

With a career spanning over four decades and over 50 albums, Ayers is a celebrated, near mythic figure in contemporary R&B, hip-hop and soul. He has worked steadily over the years, changing with the times to integrate the latest sounds, while his classic sides have been eagerly snapped up by crate diggers and hip-hop artists — a visibility that consistently creates new generations of fans while making the vibraphonist and his music eternally relevant and timelessly hip.

Ayers has most recently been working with a number of today’s major artists including Talib Kweli and Erykah Badu, who calls Ayers, “the king of neo-soul music.”

Roy Ayers and his band perform 6/22 as part of the 37th San Francisco Jazz Festival.