There is no mistaking the name, Ayers, and the color of the book cover: yellow. For those playing at home, the obvious association is Roy Ayers, the jazz vibraphonist turned funk-and-R&B icon in large part through his 1976 hit “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” The song inspired a generation of musicians, has been sampled by everyone from Cibo Matto to Mary J. Blige, and was dropped into the 2015 movie smash “Straight Outta Compton.” It also has hovered over the life of Nabil Ayers, who is Roy’s son but has barely had a relationship with the now 81-year-old musician.
The younger Ayers contemplates this in his new memoir, “My Life in the Sunshine,” which follows his path from an unorthodox childhood to his current post as a top music executive. Nabil’s mother, Louise Braufman, met Roy in 1970 and soon asked him to have a child with an understanding: The musician would never have to father the boy emotionally or financially. Roy kept his word. With the exception of a single lunch 16 years ago, Nabil, 50, and Roy have barely spoken.
Yet Nabil became a drummer, playing in successful rock bands, started Sonic Boom Records in Seattle, and eventually became president of the Beggars Group of labels, where he has overseen releases from the National, Grimes and St. Vincent. We spoke with Nabil recently from his home in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, Ally Jane Ayers.
Q: What made you decide to explain this part of your life in a book?
A: I loved writing in college and those were the only A’s I ever got, in writing classes, but that was not something I ever thought I would do. I wanted to work in music and play in bands. And so I think weirdly five or six years ago, I just started writing for fun. … And I ended up taking a memoir-writing class. I looked forward to going so much more than I ever did any class ever in my life in high school or college. And that’s when I started churning out lots of stuff about my life. I [wrote] about the record store and about bands, and kind of started getting into things about my father and my race, but not as much. But that’s when my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, said, “Well, this is all really fun. You can write about your bands and your record store, but you need to write about your father and your race because that’s what you’re interested in and that’s what people will be interested in.” It really scared me because that didn’t sound fun and the other things were fun.
Q: This is not a cathartic book. It’s a journey. When it comes to Roy, first off, why was it important in your mind to deal with that?
A: It’s because people ask me about him so much … because I live in New York and I work for a record company. And he is really more prominent and more out there than he ever has been in my life. So I think some of it is actually an answer to that. Not so much that when someone asks me about him, I can say, “Oh, read the book.” It’s not that I’m trying to evade the question, but I think I’m actually trying to sort of reconcile with myself and find a better answer, because I’ve never had a good answer and it’s always a bit too snappy. I don’t do that about anything else in my life. I think this is all stuff I’m still figuring out now as I talk about it.
Q: You just turned 50. What do you want from Roy Ayers?
A: I don’t think I actually want anything from him. But what I would like is for him to know that I am actually quite happy and okay with everything, everything being my life as he gave it to me, his involvement in my life, the good things that I got from him. But I do come to some conclusions at the end, which is basically how lucky I am. … On paper, my life could have sounded hard. Biracial, young mother on welfare, all that stuff. It was actually so much better than so many people’s lives that have traditional families.
Q: It is so interesting how you’re associated with your last name — a natural for a guy in music named Ayers — but also because of your first name. You open the book talking about being at a music festival and people mistaking you for Nabil Elderkin, the director who has made videos for Kanye, Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar.
A: It happens less now. But someone said, “This is Nabil,” and some normal-looking indie person will become more hip-hop. Like, “Yo, what’s up, man? Like, what are you doing?”
Q: It makes me think about what’s in a name. You took the name Ayers, but you were born with your mother’s name, Braufman.
A: At the time, I didn’t think anything because I was a 17-year-old in Salt Lake City. Roy was out of my life. … And then finally, once I’m in Seattle and things get more musical, and I think he starts touring more … whatever it was, that’s when it finally started to come back.
Q: And you even used “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” as your wedding song.
A: I do think the music’s incredible. I do think he’s totally underrated and deserves so much more and deserves a bigger legacy than I think he has coming. But I absolutely don’t think he was a bad father. I think I’m in such a weird, unique situation where he did everything he agreed to do, and it’s amazing that he did that. But some of the craziness in my head is like, “Sure, you can say that, but like, isn’t it weird to meet this kid 10 years later and not even want to spend 10 minutes with him, or to meet him 35 years later and not ask more deep, probing questions, but to actually just stick to the agreement so strictly?”
Q: Everything he agreed to do. But we are human beings with emotions and thoughts and it can’t help but make you say to yourself, “I’m of more value than an agreement.”
A: And the key thing to that, now that a lot of friends and relatives and other people have read the book, a common thing that I never really thought about … but people say, “Yeah, but you were never part of that agreement.” I think the biggest part of this is that Alan [Braufman], my uncle, is such an incredible presence and a force in my life. So when I was a kid … I had Alan, I had more than most people. So it was never, “Oh, I wish I had a father. Look at those kids. Look what they’re doing, look what I’m missing.”
Q: Did you tell Roy you wrote a book?
A: No. I mean, I don't have a way to tell Roy.
Q: You can’t call him?
A: I have that phone number that I’ve called over the years and either got voice mail or wishy-washy phone calls. And I have not used it. But what I did do was email [Roy’s son] Mtume Ayers, who I’m still in touch with. I told him, “I’m not in touch with Roy and if you want to let him know, feel free and let me know if you want me to send you a copy.” And he said something like, “Lol. Cool. Congrats.” Didn’t ask for a copy. So I mean I have to imagine everyone involved knows about it and I’m not trying to avoid it. Of course, I don’t feel like calling him. That’s the worst feeling in the world … calling him in those five seconds of what it feels like when the phone is ringing and I don’t need to do that to myself.