CharlesGayle: Outside, “Outside” and Inside the Scene 

After a brief stint of minor success in New York’s late-1960s free jazz scene, tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle found himself unable to find work as a performer. Even within the abstract and often abrasive realm of free jazz, Gayle’s music was particularly difficult to approach. Leaders in the genre, such as John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, displayed a continued reverence for aspects of jazz that had distinguished the music from its inception. Coltrane’s freest music still incorporated technically demanding solos over a driving, if now thoroughly liberated, rhythm section. Ayler, while not a virtuoso on Coltrane’s level, kept his roots in the jazz tradition by incorporating the sounds of early New Orleans brass bands into the arrangements that backed the shrieks and howls of his enormous tenor sound. But for Gayle, a self taught musician, the liberation of free jazz allowed him to express his deep-seated religious fervor. While at its most conventional his music could approach a free gospel sound, the vast majority of his recorded work jumps between the anguish of a man prostrating himself before G-d and the peculiar joy of a man approaching his Creator through sound. Gayle’s insistence on preaching his idiosyncratic interpretation of the word of G-d to audiences further alienated him from the scene. By the end of the decade, Gayle found himself outside the jazz world. By the beginning of the 1970s, he was homeless.               

For the next 15 years, the streets and subway platforms of New York City were Gayle’s only performance sites, and the demands of street performance shaped his sound. To be noticed amongst the manifold distractions of a bustling metropolis, you’ve got to play loudly. To have any chance of making ends meet, you’ve got to play for hours at a time. In the late 1980s, upon receiving his first club dates in almost two decades, Gayle wowed audiences with his ability to express a wide range of emotions through his horn without pause for hours at a time. But his music garnered little attention on the streets, where his day-long performances rarely earned him a night of shelter.                         

On an ordinary Friday morning last January, world-famous violin virtuoso Joshua Bell brought his 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius into a
Washington D.C. subway station. Inconspicuously bowing through the first notes of his challenging stage repertoire, Bell began his experiment in philosophical aesthetics: would the hordes of work-bound Washingtonians notice that they were witnessing a rare free performance from a world-renowned star? The answer was no. Only one passenger stopped to listen to the performance. After his day’s work, Bell left with 32 bucks and change. No doubt, he’d be sleeping on the streets with Mr. Gayle if his limo weren’t awaiting him around the corner.


Bell’s experiment inspired The Washington Post to take a rare venture into philosophical aesthetics.[1] In addressing what we are to make of the public’s lack of response to Bell’s “art without a frame,” correspondent Gene Weingarten interviewed the National Gallery’s senior curator, Mark Leithauser. Leithauser responded to the dilemma as follows:Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame…and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting… I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: ‘Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.’  The article does not conclude this segment by arguing that the art market is a sham, but instead by attributing the origin of Leithauser’s comments to be the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant’s “obviously correct” philosophical position is summarized as follows: beauty is not only a measurable fact or a mere opinion, but is “a little bit of each, colored by the state of mind of the observer.” In short, “context matters.”           

In attributing Leithauser’s stance to Kant, Weingarten is conflating two different philosophical positions. Although Leithauser’s stance is not fully fleshed out in the article, it seems that the institutional stamp of approval gives art its value, and without this stamp the work is not an appropriate object for aesthetic appreciation. It is only after an art-world insider has appraised a particular work by judging its “quality” in conjunction with her research into the work’s provenance, rarity, and relation to other works in an artist’s oeuvre, that the work is a candidate for aesthetic contemplation. It seems that we are living in a society so thoroughly inundated by images that we require institutional judges to focus our search for beauty on a particular set of objects. Other types of high culture, including music, have similar screening mechanisms. One rarely comes across a piece of contemporary classical or jazz music without an expert, such as an orchestra conductor or an event sponsor, selecting the work for performance. The political and economic repercussions of this institutional system remain to be examined, but we can already see that institutional leaders promote a view in which similar objects are judged categorically differently in different contexts, with the key to the aesthetic realm lying in the hands of art institutions.  

While a critical explication of Kant’s aesthetics is beyond the scope of this essay, the essential point for my argument is that while Kant requires a particular mental disposition for an appropriate appreciation of beauty, nowhere does he suggest that this mental disposition needs to be aroused by institutional arrangements. Such an argument would have been unlikely in the late 18th century, when many contemporary institutional arrangements were either non-existent or undeveloped. Instead of relying on institutions, Kant is persuasive in arguing that beautiful natural objects will engender widespread (if not universal, as Kant claims) appreciation in individuals disinterestedly viewing them. If a man were to watch the sun setting above the ocean and claim that it was not beautiful, we would not think any less of the evening, but instead claim that he did not constitute his mental faculties correctly so as to appreciate the view. But Kant’s lack of attention to the variety of aesthetic preferences that develop in a multi-cultural society makes his claims for the universality of aesthetic appreciation far more questionable in the case of man-made objects and performances. If one were to criticize Bell’s performance by judging it not beautiful or claiming that it was ridiculous for a performer simply to follow a composer’s notes instead of creating spontaneously or articulate a wide range of other criticisms, we could not claim that the critic was wrong, but instead that her taste in classical music was not well developed. But for an individual for whom we can presuppose an adequate acculturation to the norms of classical music, it seems that we ought to ask more of her aesthetic senses than an appropriate contextualization of the performance as either institutionally sanctioned or outside of this institutionalization. It would be no surprise to Kant that many subway riders did not experience “the harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties” upon hearing either Gayle or Bell perform; riders who were unwilling to pause long enough to take a disinterested stance towards the performances would not be considered reliable critics.[2] But there is something unsettling in Leithauser’s view that a non-aesthetically appreciable object is transformed into an aesthetically valuable object simply in relation to the wall on which it is hung or the stage on which it is performed. A great deal of the meaning we derive from art is stripped away if there do not exist some properties (at least in those works that are not created to comment upon art institutions, arouse other cerebral ventures dependent upon its presentation within institutional frameworks or work in relation to other institutionally sanctioned works) that can be appreciated in any number of contexts. Kant is correct to argue that these properties exist, and that searching for these properties is a valuable pursuit inside and outside of institutional settings.

As contemporary cosmopolitans hurry through cities, there isn’t enough time to stop and question the aesthetic properties of each passing stimulus. While Kant would likely find it unfortunate that modern individuals do not often pause for aesthetic contemplation in their daily lives, this state of consciousness is so deeply entrenched in our contemporary world that it is seemingly beyond either criticism or redemption. In a culture such as our own, art institutions serve the function of allowing individuals to cultivate their aesthetic senses within the norms of institutionally provided genres and settings. But since Leithauser and other institutional leaders admit that a significant portion of the aesthetic pleasure that comes from experiencing institutionally sanctioned works derives from the mere fact that they are institutionally sanctioned, we are left with arrangements in which power has the potential to outweigh aesthetic qualities in the determination of which works we enjoy and which artists we patronize. The power to select certain artists, and inhabiting the correct socio-cultural space so as to be selected by institutional experts, has a large effect on who is successful as an artist, and even on who is considered an “artist” at all. The quality of jazz did not decline in the late 1960s, but many jazz musicians struggled to remain popular as other genres of music accelerated in terms of popular appeal. Unlike classical music, which has long since lost its popular appeal but continues to be supported by public arts funding and wealthy philanthropists, it was a long time coming before jazz artists received even a fraction of this support. In recent years, institutions such as The Lincoln Jazz Center have provided comparatively limited support for only the most mainstream jazz musicians.  Considering the forces of power that shape our aesthetic experiences leads to a series of questions, all of which can be viewed through the lens of Charles Gayle’s life and work. To begin, what effects does site specificity have on both institutionally sanctioned works of art and works of art that lie outside of this realm? More specifically, how do institutionally sanctioned artists’ site specific projects shape audience response and the art-world itself, and how are the socio-cultural statuses of non-institutionally sanctioned artists shaped by the specific sites for their projects? We will approach these question through Miwon Kwon’s One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. Secondly, what forces control the selection of art-world insiders, institutionally sanctioned “outsiders” who play a particular and limited role in the art-world, and artists who are so far outside of the mainstream that there work is ignored by art-world insiders all-together. We will approach this questions through Colin Rhodes’s Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives. Finally, what aesthetic theory, if any, is applicable to Charles Gayle and other struggling free jazz musicians of the late-20th century. We Will approach this question through the theory of put forth in R.G. Collingwood’s The Principles of Art, amongst other theories. It has been argued above that the response to Charles Gayle’s work, as well as its inherent aesthetic properties, have been shaped by the specific site in which it was performed. The fact that Charles Gayle did not choose subway platforms and sidewalks to make particular aesthetic gestures puts his music outside of Miwon Kwon’s treatise on site specificity, a work in which site specific artists are seen consciously to manipulate particular places in order to transform the site, the work and/or their audience. Kwon does not put forth a specific definition of site specificity, but instead attempts to map the trends of an ever evolving insider art practice by creating paradigms, which “are outlined as competing definitions that operate in overlapping ways in past and current site-oriented art.”[3] He is describing a practice in which:…the site is not simply a geographical location or architectural setting but a network of social relations, a community, and the artist and his sponsors envision the art work as an integral extension of the community rather than an intrusive contribution from elsewhere (emphasis mine).[4] Watching the video that documents audience reactions to Joshua Bell’s subway performance, in which passengers commonly seem annoyed by the distraction or oblivious to its presence, makes it seem that unsanctioned street performances are more of “an intrusive contribution from elsewhere” than an addition to the site as Kwon conceives of it. Gayle’s far more abstract and at times grating performances wee likely taken to be more even more of an intrusion.           

In charting the “genealogy of site specificity,” Kwon explores the “paradigmatic practice[s]” of insider artists creating site-specific works over the last thirty years. In the early 1970s, artists such as Hans Haacke and Mierle Laderman Ukeles used site specific works to expose insider “art’s inextricable ties to the ideologically suspect if not morally corrupt power elite, [and] recast the site of art as an institutional frame in social, economic, and political terms…”[5] While these artists are taken to be “resist[ing] the commodification of art in/for the marketplace,” Gayle has not been presented with the luxury of profiting from works that are critical of the institutions that either directly or indirectly sanction and sponsor them.[6]

While not a strict definition or a presentation of a “neat linear trajectory of historical development,” Kwon’s work on site-specificity explores a phenomenon that is shaped by “artists, curators, and critics,” all of whom are as well positioned within the confines of the art-world as the site-specific works themselves. Instead of shaping the art-world through the choice of site specificity, Gayle’s socio-cultural status as an “artist” and his particular performance space have been shaped by his lack of entrance into this sanctioned space. It is my belief that Gayle is one of the most inventive and beautiful saxophonists improvising today, and that his alienation speaks more to the particular structures of our institutions than to his talents. But either way, an art-world insider’s work on site-specificity is only relevant to Gayle’s work as a point of opposition, and Gayle’s experiences lie outside the paradigms of site specificity detailed in One Place After Another.

In the art-world, there are “outsiders” and there are outsiders. The former category, “Outsider Art, is defined, at least in part, by the marginalization of its creators.”[7] But the political implications of Outsider Art and its relation to artists working completely outside the perception of art-world insiders is demonstrated by Colin Rhodes’s full definition of Outsider Artists as “a heterogeneous group…[including] those labeled as dysfunctional through pathology…or criminality…or because of their gender or sexuality, or because they appear to be in some way anachronistic, or are seen as un(der)developed, or often simply because of a cultural identity and religious belief that is perceived as significantly different” (emphasis mine).[8] The essential point is that these artists are valued in relation to labels and perceptions provided by art-world insiders insofar as they appear valuable to these institutionally certified judges. French artist Jean Debuffet, who first sparked interest in Art Brut, “excommunicated the provincial French self-taught artist Gaston Chaissac, one of the earliest Art Brut ‘discoveries’, allegedly because of his contact with ‘cultivated circles’.”[9] Marginalized artists are seen as valuable inspiration by art-world insiders insofar as they have been selected for qualities, for example ignorance or insanity, that shelter them from the corrupting influence of the art market. Once these attractive qualities are seen as lacking, Outsider Artists can simply be dumped, at which time they return to being painters, musicians or whatever else, truly outside of the art-world.

After nearly 20 years of creating art work completely outside of the view of art-world institutions, Charles Gayle was ‘discovered’ by club promoters at The Knitting Factory and their colleagues at Silkheart Records. The liner notes accompanying his first recordings praise the stamina Gayle gained as a street performer as well as the purity of his music, which was to seen to have avoided the trends and commercial pursuits explored by jazz musicians during the passing decades. This purity was seen to make Gayle’s music “straight out the Sixites,” an original artifact from a seemingly purer age.[10] His recordings were also marketed to highlight his struggles as a street musician (with titles including Homeless and Daily Bread) and Gayle demanded that his records’ packaging also reference his intense religious beliefs (Repent, Consecration and many others). Gayle was still thoroughly on the outside of the jazz scene, with only occasional club dates and no major label record releases. Gayle also suffered from waning interest amongst art-world insiders when he began to solo piano albums that focused on standard repertoire, as opposed to his outside explorations. But even with many years spent too far outside of the art-world’s view to be considered and Outside Artist and recent mainstream recordings that alienated Gayle from the particular role he fulfilled for his newfound audience, the period of Gayle’s ‘discovery’ fits into a few of the categories established by Rhodes as requisites for status as an Outside Artist. Gayle was banned from various clubs for expressing his idiosyncratic religious views and he inhabited a space outside the corrupting influence of market forces due to his long-standing unwillingness to play more mainstream music. These qualities, which for nearly two decades kept him truly outside the jazz scene, were a large part of his ticket to recognition in a jazz world that sought uncorrupted artists to replicate and expand upon exploratory sounds of decades past.

We have already seen that the period in which Gayle performed completely beyond the gaze of art-institutions does not fit into Miwon Kwon’s paradigms for understanding site specificity. We have also seen Colin Rhodes’s definition of Outsider Art to apply to Gayle in a chronologically limited sense. Outsider Art hinges upon the endurance of personal and aesthetic qualities that initially marginalized the artist. For so long as these qualities persevere under the watchful eyes of art-world insiders, Outsider Art is seen to have particular values. Where art-world insiders are praised for a wide range of qualities that often include theoretically interesting intentions, Outsider Artists are praised for creating works without internalizing the teaching of art schools or the demands of patrons.

Given the socio-cultural positions through which Gayle has traveled, being both outside the art-world and an Outside Artist, it is unclear that conventional aesthetic theories will be relevant to his work. One of the many attractive features of R.G. Collingwood’s writings on art is the limitations he places upon the scope of his aesthetic theory at the outside of his work: “Everything written in this book has been written in the belief that it has  a practical bearing, direct or indirect, upon the condition of art in England in 1937.”[11] While some aesthetic theories strive for trans-historical applicability, no aesthetic theory is as trans-historically appropriate as writings targeted towards aesthetic issues in a particular time and place. In The Mirror and The Lamp: Romantic Theory and The Critical Tradition, theorist M.H. Abrams explores the surrounding cultural factors that have historically influenced aesthetic theories, writing that “in any period, the theory of mind and the theory of art tend to be integrally related and to turn upon similar analogues.”[12] The transition from 18th century taste theories to 19th century expression theories is no exception. Taste theorist David Hume proposes an ideal observer who has “a perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, [and] a due attention to the [finished] object.”[13] Expression theorists differ from taste theorists in their attention to the artist’s inner working as opposed to the finished product. For expression theorists such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, one cannot develop a taste for the finished product as a thing in itself, as this would separate the object from the spontaneous overflow of emotions that created it. For the aforementioned expressionists as well as Collingwood, this emotional overflow matters because it is an essential part of the process of arriving at the truth about what emotional responses are appropriate for living and acting freely, a use that gives art much of its meaning.

In today’s multi-cultural, cosmopolitan societies, numerous theories of mind and of art are in conversation. Although Arthur Danto and others have attempted to provide definitions of art that apply to all art objects, these definitions will not flesh out the meanings of individual acts of artistic creation as fully as particular theories that are directly applicable to a certain type of aesthetic act, even if these theories are completely inapplicable to numerous others varieties. An updated version of expression theory is useful for understanding free jazz, including the music of Charles Gayle, regardless of the music’s incorporation into the art-world as a mainstream expression, an Outside contribution, or an expression fully outside the view of art institutions. I interpret Charles Gayle’s assertion that he “is not a musician” to mean that he does not compose or interpret a finished product.[14] Instead, Gayle claims: “I just want to blow my guts out.”[15] I interpret just blowing as a declaration of streaming consciousness, of directly channeling emotions into sound. While the theory that all artistic expression ought to be this type of direct channeling is no longer a widespread view, examples below will illustrate that this is a significant goal of free improvisation.

Single-reeded instruments are seen by many free improvisers to be optimal for expressing emotions through sound, with musicians in the free jazz tradition manipulating the horns’ reed biting contortions that range in intensity from whimpers and squeaks to sounds approaching the human scream. This direct expression of emotion through sound is best exemplified in a stripped down setting on German improviser Peter Brötzmann’s No Nothing, an album containing 16 short improvisations that paint aural portraits of human emotions and predicaments including The Wounded Savage and Syncopated Ecstasy. On Insomnia, Brötzmann calmly blow through a homemade horn to mimic the relaxation of man calming himself to sleep before blowing wildly with the frustration of exhausted failure.

The direct expression of emotion through Charles Gayle’s horn is supplement by the works of downtown poet Steven Dalachinsky, who sat in at nearly every one of Gayle’s concerts between 1987 and 2006. During these concerts he composted A Charles Gayle Notebook, in which each set of music is channeled into a stream of conscious response through works, Dalachinsky’s chosen medium. This book of poems is the only adequate response to free jazz I have ever heard. The music is expressed directly, without mediation. It demands to be responded to in like manner by an equally artful expression. 

Being an Outside Artist comes with a particular set of expectations in order to maintain limited status within the art-world. We have seen Outside Artists, including Charles Gayle, scorned for creating anything approaching or influenced by standard repertoire. While the life of an artist completely outside of the art-world is an economic hardship, it does come with the possibility of increased creative freedom. Nobody expects such an artist’s work to comment upon or flatter institutional arrangements or conventions. Nobody is paying any attention.

The best an overarching definitional theory of art can hope to do with artists outside the realm of institutional conventions is to include such artists within their definitions. More particular theories are applicable to these artistic practices when they arise independently as goals within the movement. Gayle’s art is an expression, nothing more and nothing less. It expresses ideals that are out of favor amongst liberal concert goers, but audiences are drawn back with the sheer ferocity in which these ideals are musically translated. Cultural institutions will continue to determine which objects and expressions are brought to our attention. But many more aspects of life might be brought to bear on our aesthetic senses, and our scope of interests need not be limited by institutional leaders. Charles Gayle’s art should certainly fall under our broadened scope, whether his art happens to end up outside, “outside” or inside institutional boundaries. 


[2] See Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, introduction, section 7.

[3] Kwon,

One Place

After Another, 4

[4] ibid, 6

[5] ibid, 19

[6] Ibid, 24

[7] Rhodes, Outsider Art, 120

[8] ibid, 7-8

[9] ibid, 16-17

[10] See Steven Dalachinsky’s notes to Gayle’s second recording, Homeless.

[11] Collingwood, Principles of Art, vi

[12] Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp, 69

[13] Hume, Of the Standard of Taste in Neil and Ridley, The Philosophy of Art, 259

[14] Dalachinsky, The Final Nite & Other Poems: Complete Notes from a Charles Gayle Notebook, 10

[15] ibid