Nathaniel Ayers: Journey from Juilliard to Skid Row

Today, his life is about film and book projects
by Louise Lee

In some ways, Nathaniel Ayers at age 57 is a typical adult beginner on the violin. Taking his first lesson just this March, he spent the session working on proper posture, including holding the fiddle, and playing a few scales. Ayers practices exercises and drills, working toward playing simple melodies. But there the similarities with the garden-variety novice end. Ayers, despite decades of affliction with untreated schizophrenia and life on the streets of Los Angeles’ Skid Row, demonstrates what other professional musicians say is a passionate musicality and an extensive knowledge of solo, chamber, and orchestral repertoire. Years of pushing his belongings in a shopping cart and sleeping among rats apparently hasn’t stopped Ayers from retaining a love of music that began when he was a teenager in Ohio and continued when he enrolled as a double-bass student at the Juilliard School in the 1970s.

And media have taken to his story in a big way.

Ayers first came to public attention in Los Angeles in 2005 after Los Angeles Times writer Steve Lopez overheard Ayers playing violin on a busy downtown LA street and made him the subject of a series of newspaper columns. Earlier this year, Lopez published The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music, a Putnam book that’s part biography of Ayers and part memoir of the two men’s growing friendship (see In Print review on p 69). The book itself was the focus of a feature article in the New Yorker magazine. The Soloist is the basis of a movie of the same name, scheduled for a November 21 release by Paramount Pictures, starring Jamie Foxx as Ayers and Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez.

Ayers couldn’t be reached for comment for this article. An official at Lamp Community, the Los Angeles charity assisting him with housing, also couldn’t comment, citing client-confidentiality laws.

The movie, directed by British filmmaker Joe Wright ( Atonement, Pride and Prejudice), promises to be a feel-good story of a talented musician struck by mental illness in the same vein as Shine, the 1996 Oscar-winning film about pianist David Helfgott.

Ayers’ real-life story, though, started out quite ordinary. Like many kids, Ayers wasn’t studious when he took up the double bass, his initial instrument, according to Harry Barnoff, his first teacher at the Cleveland Music School Settlement, a community school. “In the first year, he fooled around,” Barnoff says. “But later, he suddenly got a fever and said, ‘I want to be a bass player like you.'”

Ayers began practicing diligently even though, Barnoff recalls, his natural ability meant that “he could be without a bass for a month and then pick it up and you’d think he’d practiced every day.” Barnoff says both he and colleagues, upon hearing Ayers play, agreed that the teenager had the potential to join any of the Big Five. But several years later, while on scholarship at Juilliard to study with the late Homer Mensch, Ayers started showing symptoms of schizophrenia. Dropping out, Ayers bounced to Ohio, Colorado, and eventually Los Angeles, sometimes calling his former teacher collect to talk about music and bass repertoire, Barnoff says.

It was the sight of a homeless person playing the violin that caught Lopez’s attention. “Maybe guitar or tambourine, but I’d never encountered a homeless violinist,” Lopez says. “It didn’t sound bad. . . . Clearly there was some training there.”

Intrigued, Lopez approached Ayers to talk and check out his story. Once Lopez independently verified Ayers’ claims, such as his past study at Juilliard, the two began a relationship during which Lopez not only wrote about Ayers, but also became an advocate, finding ways to help Ayers pursue music and, over many months, introduce him to social services that could help him move off the street.

Lopez, an amateur guitarist, became increasingly convinced of Ayers’ musical abilities and sensitivities. At a Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsal of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony that the two attended together, Ayers explained to Lopez the history of the work and why it has its nickname, the writer recalls.

But despite Ayers’ passion and knowledge, “he’s not a polished musician,” Lopez says. “He is self-taught, but he has a natural ability to get a great sound out of whatever instrument he’s playing.”

Indeed, over the years with no bass handy, Ayers had picked up the trumpet, cello, and violin, playing instruments as he found them and transporting them in his shopping cart.

FORMAL TRAINING

Ayers’ background and habits were initially a concern for Robert Gupta, the 20-year-old LA Philharmonic first violinist who, after meeting Ayers through orchestra administrators, volunteered to teach him. Prior to the first lesson, in a practice room at Walt Disney Concert Hall in March, Gupta wondered if Ayers had developed awkward technique over years of self-instruction (he had) and didn’t know if Ayers could read treble clef (he can). Also, Ayers’ mental state “was a concern,” says Gupta, who studied premed and has a background in neuroscience.

At his first lesson, Gupta saw that Ayers is “not a big fan of scales and warm-ups.” He coached Ayers on basic finger position and rearranged his shoulders (Ayers doesn’t use a shoulder rest). Then, Gupta recalls, Ayers asked him to play, and Gupta obliged, running through the opening of the Beethoven concerto and some of the slow movement of the Brahms. When Gupta finally got to the Sibelius, he says, “I got a glimpse of Nathaniel’s genius.” Gupta played the beginning, and Ayers played it back, “opening on pitch.” Although Ayers used one finger and the vibrato was too wide, coming from the base of the arm, “he was concerned about delivering a musical message,” Gupta says.

Since that first session, Ayers has taken more lessons with Gupta, who says he doesn’t receive any payment. As he’d do with other beginners, Gupta writes a fingering over virtually every note in the book of simple duos that Ayers is learning. “It’s incredible to see this man with so much passion,” Gupta says.

Ayers is now off the street with the help of the LAMP Community. He is receiving financial benefits from the upcoming movie and the book, which reached the New York Times best-seller list, even though, Lopez says, Ayers isn’t interested in money and doesn’t even put out his open violin case when he plays on the street.

Indeed, Ayers told the New Yorker earlier this year that he finds the spotlight “kind of taxing.” When he’s not practicing, Ayers works as a custodian, cleaning the facility where he lives.

But Ayers’ mental illness remains largely untreated, according to Lopez. “We have bad days,” Lopez says. Music, though, is therapeutic for Ayers. “He has an advantage over other people with mental illness because he has a passion,” the writer says. “Music brings him peace and relief and sanity.”

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