The thing I know best about the trumpeter Eddie Gale, who has died at the age of 78, is the first of two albums he made for Blue Note at the end of the 1960s: Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music, an uncompromising title for a piece of music designed to reflect the black experience. In mood and message, it aligns with Max Roach’s slightly earlier We Insist! and Archie Shepp’s slightly later Attica Blues.
Gale had already played with Sun Ra in the mid-’60s and appeared on Cecil Taylor’s first Blue Note album, Unit Structures, in 1966. As a child he’d listened to gospel music and hung around outside a Brooklyn club to listen to Lester Young. He’d taken lessons from Kenny Dorham and sat in with Coltrane at the Half Note: a life-changing experience. He would also be featured on Larry Young’s Of Love and Peace for the same label in 1969. Recording his Ghetto Music project was one of Blue Note’s more unexpected moves. The producer was not Alfred Lion, who took that role on just about every one of the label’s releases, but his partner in the business, Francis Wolff. (Lion had retired when Blue Note was sold to Liberty Records in 1967.)
The five compositions on this album use an instrumental sextet of trumpet (Gale), tenor (Russell Lyle), two basses (Judah Samuel and James “Tokio” Read) and two drummers (Richard Hackett and Thomas Holman), plus a choir of 11 voices, including two lead singers (Elaine Beener and Joann Gale). The leader apart, I’d never heard of any of these musicians before I got the album on its original release, and I’ve never heard of any of them outside of Gale’s orbit since. They seem to have been part of a collective based in Brooklyn.
Whoever they were, they made music with a raw edge and a powerful immediacy. You can hear that on A Walk With Thee, my favourite track from the album. The bass vamp, the martial/bolero drumming, the unison of the horns and voices: it’s a strong brew. Gale has a big sound with a wild edge. Lyle, the tenorist, solos with a kind of suppressed hysteria. It’s an offshoot of what Albert and Donald Ayler were doing a little earlier in the decade. It doesn’t need to be judged according to anyone else’s idea of finesse or sophistication.
A year later the singers and two of the players, Lyle and Judah, were on Gale’s second and last Blue Note album, Black Rhythm Happening, a year later, joined by Jimmy Lyons, the altoist, and Elvin Jones. Gale himself recorded with Sun Ra’s group in the ’70s (Lanquidity on Ra’s Saturn label) before moving to California, where he was an artist in residence at Stanford University, ran a workshop in Oakland and organised music-education programmes in San Jose, where he became the city’s official ambassador of jazz. In 2001 he received an award for his work from the California Arts Council.
Breaking the mode of graphic presentation Blue Note had established under the art director Reid Miles, Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music was released with a strikingly confrontational cover, at least by the standards of the time. A bunch of black men in hoods with women in white robes and mean-looking hounds? In 1969, that sent a message. And still it speaks.
* Originally issued on Blue Note in 1969, Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music was reissued on CD by Water Music in 2003. The photograph of the musicians is from the original sleeve and was taken by Richard Graf. Some of the details of Gale’s life are from this interview in Jazz Times by Andy Tennille: https://jazztimes.com/archives/eddie-gale/