Avreeayl Ra

Avreeayl Ra by Mark Sheldon

Chicago master drummer / percussionist AVREEAYL RA was born in Chicago on May 21st, 1947 and still lives there today. He is a renowned musician always in demand among visiting jazz artists in Chicago. Avreeayl’s father, Arthur “Swinglee” O’Neil, was a tenor saxophonist who was mentor to many young Chicago musicians, including John Gilmore, later the mainstay of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. (Avreeayl reports that John Gilmore had a crush on Avreeayl’s sister and so spent as much time as he could at the family house.) Swinglee O’Neil played in one of Sun Ra’s early Chicago bands, and Sun Ra played in one of Swinglee’s groups as well.

Avreeayl is a long-term member of the Chicago AACM, his relationship with the seminal music organization having begun with early studies with AACM co-founder Kelan Philip Cohran. Avreeayl has performed and /or recorded with Fred Anderson, Amiri Baraka, Fontella Bass, Lester Bowie, Ari Brown, Oscar Brown, Jr., Henry Butler, Henry Byrd (”Professor Longhair”), Hamid Drake, Malachi Favors, Donald Raphael Garrett, Charles Gayle, Henry Grimes, Billy Harper, Joseph Jarman, Edward “Kidd” Jordan, Nicole Mitchell, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Malachi Thompson, and many more.

The venerable “Chicago Tribune” music critic Howard Reich wrote recently, “An indispensable Chicago innovator, Avreeayl Ra shapes the music-making swirling around him with remarkable precision and poise... extraordinarily sensitive percussion.” John Kelman of IndieJazz.com has described Avreeayl’s playing as “part Tony Williams, part Elvin Jones, and all Avreeayl Ra.” And John Litweiler in “The Chicago Sun-Times”: “He supplies ingenious sound colors and textures.”

Avreeayl considers himself greatly blessed to have come up in the richly progressive Chicago “avant-garde” jazz community. Though he has lived briefly in New Orleans and New York and has toured widely in the U.S., Canada, Europe, the Far East, and Africa, he has always returned home to live in Chicago.

Besides playing and recording music, these days Avreeayl devotes much of his time and phenomenal energy to documenting on film the hidden spiritual roots of Chicago music, focusing on the Congo Beach Initiative (which was inspired by Congo Beach in New Orleans). This is a drum- and spirit-centered society in which Chicago musicians, dancers, and artists of all descriptions, young and elders alike, have congregated for many years at 63rd Street and Lakefront, playing music and practicing their spiritual and healing arts throughout the night, while developing an undying, evolving, spontaneous, organic communal life based in the rhythms, sounds, images, and spirituality of the African-American soul. Avreeayl is also documenting the Chicago jazz community, in particular life stories of the elders in the music. And another project is the study and documentation of modalities for healing and spiritual balance both inside and outside the music.

(Photo above by Mark Sheldon at the Madame Walker Theatre, Indianapolis, 'O5, http://marksheldonphotography.com, www.allaboutjazz.com/gallery/msheldon.htm)