“I was an avid listener to an FM radio program that disk jockey Ed Beach had every morning. I tuned in one morning in the middle of a Gary Peacock chorus, which caught my attention, and then Albert came in on the recording and it blew my mind. Found out where he was playing and went there with my trombone, introduced myself, and sat in.” - George Stell
And the rest was history. Well, not exactly. Pick up a copy of Albert Ayler's "Live in Greenwich Village" album or read a review of the February 25th, 1967 concert at the Village Theater and you will probably find “George Schnell" or "George Steele" credited as the trombone player. Both are incorrect. The trombonist was George Stell, now an emeritus professor of physics at Stony Brook University. The errors appear to have originated in the initial reviews of the concert and have been repeated through the years; in fact, to my knowledge the misspelling has not been corrected on any release of the material. However, Revenant did get the spelling correct in their "Sightings" section of the wonderfully researched book that was included in the Holy Ghost Box Set; so rest assured that the truth is slowly marching in....
A few examples collected from reviews and comments on the Village Theater performance highlight the uncertainty that seems to have existed at the time regarding the mysterious trombone player:
- “At the end was a piece involving all the afore-mentioned musicians plus an unannounced trombone player, whom I was not able to hear because of lack of amplification.” - Elisabeth van der Mei in Coda, May 1967, p. 28-30 (see entire review here)
- “Two-thirds of the concert was actually performed by a septet. The harpsichord player, Call Cobbs, listed on the program, failed to appear. For the last three numbers, trombonist Steele joined the group.” - George Hoefer, Down Beat Vol. 34 No. 10, 1967 (see entire review here)
- “The group, including a trombonist named either George Schnell or Steele (depending upon the source), Freedman sitting in for Sampson, and Alan Silva in for Grimes, also played the Village theater in February.” – Todd Jenkins, Free Jazz and Free Improvisation, 2004.
George Stell contacted me last week. He thanked me for getting his name correct in my review of the Greenwich Village album. Admittedly, I unknowingly got his name correct because I used the credits listed at the superb discography over at www.ayler.org. Patrick Regan, the studious caretaker of that comprehensive web site, noted the incorrect spelling of George’s last name back in 2002 (follow this link and scroll down to August). Below is a brief excerpt from an interview that George did with Ben Young at WKCR back in 2002, where Ben explains the mistake and then George and Steve Tintweiss go on to discuss another mislabeling problem common to Ayler's music - the taxonomy (to use an appropriately scientific term) of his songs.
George and I corresponded a bit via email last week, and he was nice enough to answer a few of my questions about his life story, his experiences with Albert, and his life before and since those interesting times in 1966-67. I am fascinated by his story, as his life is an interesting mix of passions – including both jazz and science. He has had a highly successful career as a theoretical physicist, educating students and performing pioneering research on the molecular structure and mechanics of fluids; in fact, the photograph at the top of the post is from an issue of the Journal of Statistical Physics that was dedicated to him back in 2000 (Journal of Statistical Physics, Vol. 100, Nos. 1/2, 2000).
With his permission, I summarize and reproduce some of his responses to my questions below: