On January 2 of 1967, saxophonist Charles Tyler entered the Feature’s recording studio in Indianapolis to cut an LP titled Eastern Man Alone for the groundbreaking experimental music label ESP-Disk.
It was Tyler's second record as a bandleader, and he was joined on the session by a group featuring Indianapolis jazz great David Baker, who'd arranged a scholarship for Tyler to study in his fledgling jazz studies program at IU.
The music Tyler and his ensemble laid down in the studio that day was unlike anything else happening in the Indianapolis scene. As a saxophonist, Tyler specialized in unleashing roaring torrents of free-form melodic improvisation.Eastern Man Alone was quite possibly the first major exploration of avant-garde music in Indianapolis, and it remains one of the most significant.
Eastern Man Alone looms large in my LP collection. Growing up in the bland and rigidly conservative cultural landscape of suburban Indianapolis in the 1990s, I was desperate to find some evidence of a defiant creative spirit in my hometown. My first listen to Eastern Man Alone provided that. Tyler's work shattered all restrictive conventional perceptions of Hoosier artistic expression, and I loved it.
Tyler's Eastern Man Alone has acquired an enthusiastic cult audience around the world. On his website Head Heritage, the British new wave rocker Julian Cope heaps praise on the album, writing that Eastern Man Alone, "should have been called The Psychedelic Sounds Of Charles Tyler because that's just what it is, high-energy trip music that will space you right out." In a 2010 Jazz Times magazine review of the LP, writer Lyn Horton waxed that Tyler's "music is seminal, even more so it seems than either John Coltrane’s and Ornette Coleman’s was, because it is downright raw."
While Eastern Man Alone remains a significant milestone within the context of Indianapolis music, it was just one small step in the grand musical journey of Charles Tyler.
Tyler was born in Cadiz, Kentucky in 1941, but largely grew up in Indianapolis. Tyler attended Crispus Attucks, where he studied under the great Attucks' bandleader Russell Brown and called Naptown jazz greats like James Spaulding and "Killer" Ray Appleton classmates.
His time at Attucks provided the strong musical foundation he'd build his career on, but it was a summer trip visiting a Midwest relative that led Tyler to the pathway of avant-garde expression he'd follow for the remainder of his life. During a trip to Cleveland at age 14, Tyler had a chance encounter with saxophonist Albert Ayler, a titanic figure in the world of free jazz. After graduating Attucks and completing a brief stint in the army, Tyler returned to Cleveland to join Ayler's revolutionary jazz ensemble.
In 1965, Tyler recorded two important LPs with Ayler, Bells and Spirits Rejoice on ESP-Disk. These recordings brought his work to an international audience and also earned him an opportunity to record with ESP as a leader. Tyler's debut LP Charles Tyler Ensemble was recorded in NYC in 1966, and the follow-up Eastern Man Alone was recorded the following year while Tyler was studying at IU.
Tyler's time at IU would mark his last period of residency in Indiana. Tyler would spend the rest of his life working in geographical regions more sympathetic to his radical musical vision, bouncing from California to New York and eventually landing in Europe.
In total, Tyler released a dozen highly regarded solo LPs before his death from heart failure in 1992. All of Tyler's LPs are worth hearing, but I'd particularly recommend 1975's Live in Europe released on Tyler's own Abka label. Fronting an incredible group, featuring the brilliant Steve Reid on drums and Melvin Smith's screaming guitar, Live in Europe is one of the most aggressive and hard-hitting jazz albums ever recorded.
The sound Tyler achieved on Live in Europe anticipated the throbbing noise of New York "no wave" bands like DNA and James Chance several years before that scene materialized. In addition to his solo work, Tyler also recorded as a sideman on several important LPs by the extraordinary jazz violinist Billy Bang, as well as touring with the beloved avant-garde big band maestro Sun Ra.
Despite has achievements, in Indianapolis Charles Tyler remains largely unknown. His name is omitted from almost every major treatise I've read on Indiana jazz history, including David Williams' exhaustive and otherwise essential 2014 book Indianapolis Jazz. Perhaps Tyler's radical free jazz sound was too abrasive for Hoosier ears. And it seems that's still the case today, 50 years after his debut recording was released.