Call it destiny. Roy Ayers was barely out of short pants when big-band jazz giant Lionel Hampton, who played vibraphone with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Benny Goodman, reached out to Ayers and literally passed the baton.
"My parents took me to see him at a concert in Los Angeles. I was five," Ayers recalls during a phone call from his New York City home. "He walked around the hall singing 'Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop'--he'd go right up the aisles and back on stage. I was sitting on an end chair and as he passed by he reached out and handed me his mallets. My parents said that he'd laid special vibes on me, because about 12 years later I started to play the instrument."
Known for bristling grooves that have made him an international jazz-funk icon, the 66-year-old Ayers is a sought-after collaborator and popular source for hip-hop artists introducing his feel-good jazz to a new generation.
His recordings have been sampled by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, 50 Cent, Puff Daddy, Big Daddy Kane, the Notorious B.I.G., Brand Nubian and Mary J. Blige, among others. Music writer Richard S. Ginell has hailed Ayers as "one of the prophets of acid jazz."
Ayers will perform Sept. 10 at Jazz on the River along with the latest version of the Original Superstars of Jazz Fusion, featuring Ayers; trombonist Wayne Henderson of the Jazz Crusaders; flutists Ronnie Laws, Bobbi Humphreys and Lonnie Liston Smith; guitarist Jon Lucien; and vocalist Jean Carne.
"It's a nice show. We perform two songs each and a pair of songs together at the end," says Ayers, who founded the collective in 1982 and led two successful tours before disbanding the group. "You never know what's going to happen, but we're having a great time."
Ayers honed his craft working in the '60s for some of the biggest names on the West Coast jazz scene, including Chico Hamilton, Gerald Wilson, Teddy Edwards and Phineas Newborn. His first album, 1963's acclaimed West Coast Vibes, was produced by L.A. music critic Leonard Feather.
By the late '60s, Ayers was working with jazz flutist Herbie Mann in a well-established group that played frequently at the legendary Lighthouse nightclub in Hermosa Beach, Calif. That group virtually defined jazz funk in that era. In the '70s, Ayers' music ranged from the spiritually inspired He's Coming to the R&B-oriented Mystic Voyage to the 1978 disco hit "Freaky Deaky." In all, Ayers recorded 30 albums on major labels between 1963 and 1987.
His 1991 comeback album Searchin', on Ronnie Scott's U.K.-based Jazz House label, marks a return to the jazz-funk grooves that brought him fame in the '60s. It also brought him to the attention of a new generation of artists experimenting with the then-emerging fusion of jazz and hip-hop that later would become known as acid jazz.
In 1993, former Gang Starr rapper Guru collaborated with Ayers on the seminal acid-jazz album Jazzmatazz. The resulting track, "Take a Look (At Yourself)," found Ayers in the studio and laying down a sublime atmospheric sound. Two years later, Ayers joined the Roots on "Proceed," on the HIV/AIDS benefit album Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool.
He doesn't contain the satisfaction he feels finding renewed interest in his music. "Hip-hop and rap has overpowered the jazz and R&B genres, and a lot of those older artists can't get work anymore," says Ayers, whose next recording is being produced by Easy Mo Bee, who supervised Miles Davis' 1992 acid-jazz album Doo-Bop.
"I've been lucky that people have been sampling my music, because it's been very lucrative for me. They liked that analogue sound that I had back then because it has a certain authenticity that electronic samples lack. And it's created a whole new audience, a whole new group of people who are just discovering what the Superstars of Jazz Fusion are all about."
Jazz on the River takes place Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 9-10, from 11am to 6pm. Saturday features KEM, the Bobby Hutcherson Quartet, Eddie Marshall's Holy Mischief Ensemble, the Al Williams Jazz Society and Nina Sheldon. The Sunday lineup is Etta James and the Roots Band, the Clarke/Duke Project with Stanley Clarke and George Duke, the Original Superstars of Jazz Fusion and Clair Dee. Bob Dorough performs both days on the Wine Garden Stage. Johnson's Beach, Guerneville. $47.50-$190. 925.866.9599.