Jazz musician Roy Ayers – The Forward
Nabil Ayers carries the surname of a famous father he barely knows except in the ubiquitous music of Roy Ayers – most famously in the 1976 jazz-soul-funk album of that name with the hit “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”. For young Ayers, he appears to surprise him when he least expects it.
Flashback to 1970, when Louise Braufman, a former white Jewish ballerina working as a waitress in New York City, took one look at the rising African-American jazz composer and vibraphonist and thought she would have a baby with him. .
After a few casual dates, she asked Roy Ayers and he accepted, warning her that his career was his priority and that he was unavailable for a serious relationship or any form of parenthood.
Nabil Ayers was born from this union and grew up with strong self-esteem, despite the absence of his father. His new memoirs “My life in the sun: looking for my father and discovering my family”, explores his unconventional yet richly diverse childhood, his own rise in the music industry, and the search for connection with his father, which led to the discovery of paternal black half-siblings and a slave ancestor .
Generations of Jewish ancestors
“Writing the book made me think about my identity and process it,” Ayers said. “I still don’t really identify with a race. There’s my mom who raised me and my dad who was really just DNA, and there’s all the people who helped raise me. I felt like everyone contributed to my identity. How can I choose just one? And that absolutely includes the three generations of Jewish ancestors who are a big part of it.
The book’s title comes from the opening lyrics to Ayers father’s signature hit, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”, which enjoyed moderate success when released in 1976. Recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in New York , the song has since become a cultural touchstone with a mix of soul, funk, jazz, rock and electronic music that mixes genres with cross-generational appeal.
And true to the name of the album that contains it, the song is everywhere. It has been sampled over 100 times by an array of artists ranging from Mary J. Blige, Common and Tupac to J. Cole, Snoop Dogg, Pharrell Williams and the Black Eyed Peas, and covered by D’Angelo and Cibo Matto. It has also been used in commercials and movie soundtracks. “I’ve heard it in many different iterations over the years, a lasting and lingering reminder of my otherwise absent father,” Ayers writes.
Thanks to his mother, Ayers didn’t grow up feeling his father’s lack of presence. His brother, jazz saxophonist Alan Braufman, was a strong and unwavering influence. “Every important fatherly moment was with him,” he said.
Culture more than color
He grew up with a strong sense of self in various communities in Greenwich Village, Brooklyn, Boston, and Amherst, Massachusetts. When her mother attended the University of Massachusetts, they lived in PMQs with families of different races, multi-ethnic and multi-racial children, and single parents. Culture was emphasized more than color, he said.
Ayers’ Jewish identity came from family rather than religious institutions. While visiting his mother’s relatives, who were Romanian and Russian Jews, and his grandmother’s father and wife in Flatbush, Ayers enjoyed eating gefilte fish, learning Yiddish, and celebrating holidays. (Interestingly, long before he met Braufman, a young Roy Ayers played with Herbie Mann, who was of similar ancestry.)
“I have incredible memories of all those Jewish experiences in Brooklyn as a mixed-race hippie kid who felt very connected there, not so much religiously as culturally, really loving and respecting him. I felt very cool and proud, like I belonged to something interesting when I was a kid.
His mother and uncle were drawn to the Baha’i faith which emphasized peace and equality. “My contact with Baha’is and Judaism was about good people and good food, things that kids like,” Ayers said.
When he was 10, his mother moved them to Salt Lake City, the predominantly Mormon city where he stood out as different. While some kids asked where he was from, if he was adopted and wanted to touch his Afro, Ayers said his sense of identity was intact from not having been “the weird kid for the 10 first years of my life. He remembers a synagogue and a JCC in Salt Lake City and felt connected to some of the Jewish students at his school.
Ayers aspired to play music from an early age. But as a biracial boy, he couldn’t fully identify with appearances by white or black stars like the Beatles and Stevie Wonder. Then, at age 5, he discovered the hard rock band Kiss. The heavy makeup they wore obscured their features, allowing him to imagine new possibilities. “I found something attainable in Kiss,” he wrote. “I had no idea what they looked like in real life and because of that, I felt like there was nothing stopping me from looking like them.” Learning that Kiss members Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley “were two Jews from New York, reinforced my sense of solidarity with them,” he said.
Music remained a constant guideline in his life, thanks to his father’s genes, his mother’s dancing and the encouragement of his uncle Alan. He attended many concerts in his youth, occasionally seeing his father perform, which fueled his youthful ambitions. Ayers played drums in bands with friends from third grade through high school, expanding his musical repertoire and tastes along the way.
As a rite of passage upon graduating from high school, Ayers’ mother suggested he might want to change his last name from Braufman to something easier to spell and pronounce. He accepted, becoming Nabil Ayers as he prepared to attend the University of Pacific Sound in Tacoma, Washington.
It wasn’t his name change.
While his mother was in the hospital after giving birth, his father had the middle name Sol entered on Nabil’s birth certificate. “Once my mum came home, she changed my middle name to Ahmal after an opera she saw,” Ayers said. “I could have been Nabil Sol Braufman all my life.”
A career of his own
Music continued to shape her identity and her career. As a drummer, Ayers has played in several bands including The Long Winters and Tommy Stinson. On his own label, The Control Group/Valley of Search, Ayers has released music by Cate Le Bon, Lykke Li, The Killers, PJ Harvey, Patricia Brennan and her uncle, jazz musician Alan Braufman. He co-founded Seattle’s famed indie rock outlet Sonic Boom Records, which was sold in 2016. Today, he’s president of Beggars Group US, where he oversees creative, marketing, radio, sales and entertainment. other components of the album release for The National. , Big Thief, Grimes, Future Islands and St. Vincent, as well as reissued albums including Pixies’ “Doolittle” which was certified platinum in 2019.
As an adult, Ayers finally contacted his father and learned the names of three half-siblings. Through contact with them and DNA testing, he learned of more ancestors on his father’s side, including a great-great-great-grandfather, Isaac Ayers, who was born into slavery and owned by a man named Dr. Ayers of Ashland, Mississippi.
As the missing parts of his paternal identity became clearer, Ayers found that being biracial impacted his dating attempts. Online dating site apps required him to specify the type of women he wanted to meet. “You can pick races that you like or dislike, that I struggled with,” he said. Friends introduced him to women, most of whom were white. “I quickly discovered that dating brought issues of race to the fore in my life like few other times had,” he wrote.
A Jewish wedding
While attending a colleague’s wedding, Ayers met a woman named AJ. “I thought maybe she was a bit Italian,” he said. He introduced himself and they started dating. He overheard her talking to a relative on the phone who asked if Nabil was Jewish. She replied no. When he later explained his Jewish background, she shared hers, deepening their bond.
They tied the knot in Hollywood four years ago in a Jewish wedding to a female rabbi. AJ’s parents walked her down the aisle to the fiddle music of “Fiddler on the Roof,” while Ayer’s mom and her husband Jim walked him down the aisle to “Everybody Loves the sunshine”.
“We did it all: chuppah, I stomped on a glass and we were lifted on chairs to ‘Hava Nagila,'” he said. “It was very powerful, very connected.”
Ayers and AJ reunite as a family for many vacations. Lighting their menorah reminds him of his great-grandparents. “It’s tradition – doing something that has the same food, the same prayers, reminds me of a time in my life 40 or 50 years ago,” he said.
While writing hasn’t replaced music in Ayers’ life, writing about race and music for The New York Times, NPR, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and GQ “is my new artistic thing.” As he tours with his memoir — which has received praise from Oprah and Black Jewish actor Daveed Diggs — he continues to expand his sense of self and family on both sides. “I had so many big influences and parts of my life and my Jewish ancestry was a huge, important and memorable part of that,” he said.