Nabil Ayers, a 50-year-old writer, drummer and music businessman, has no lack of personal memories of his time in Salt Lake City. His years away, though, are starting to grow long—his own time of residence here started when he was 10 and ended when he went off to college at 18. During that period, he and his single mother established a life in SLC that was very different from the one they’d enjoyed on the East Coast, where Ayers was raised a biracial only child in Amherst, Mass., Boston and New York City.
These times, among other chapters in a fascinating life, are captured in Ayers’s wide-ranging memoir published last month. His book My Life in the Sunshine is centered on his quest to establish a later-in-life relationship with his father, the jazz vibes player Roy Ayers, a legendary player and recording artist. (The younger Ayers changed his last name from Braufman when leaving SLC for college. If that name’s somewhat familiar, it could be due to Alan Braufman, his uncle and a notable jazz player in his own right.) As Ayers explores—and is repeatedly rebuffed in—an effort to reconnect with the elder Ayers, the author finds himself coming into contact with other relatives. The last several chapters of his memoir give a fascinating insight into not just his own life but how fractured family trees can reveal a host of truths about modern America.
The 1980s version of Salt Lake, meanwhile, is a place that’s well-represented in the earlier portion of Sunshine.
Transferred here at the encouragement of his mother’s corporate employer, the young Ayers found a city that was more conservative, in many respects, than his old home, but also cleaner, less hectic. The small family moved to Utah in May 1982. Life in the city differed in countless, day-to-day ways from their previous life, which featured true racial, class and cultural diversity, but it was also a town that proved open and friendly in other nourishing ways. By all accounts, the young Ayers was a solid student, a budding musician, a cross country runner and was well-liked in the halls of Wasatch Elementary, Bryan Middle and East High Schools. (In the interest of disclosure, my partner was an acquaintance and classmate of Ayers, a fact I learned after an interview with him.)
Collegiate and post-collegiate work experiences lead him to opening a small but influential record store chain in Seattle, which would lead to his starting a record label, also fairly described as small but influential. As a musician himself, he’d go on to play in a series of nationally-touring bands while still co-owning his record stores in Seattle. Back in New York and releasing records under his own stewardship, he’d eventually strike a deal to become the American boss of Beggars Group, a consortium of record labels. He’s still in that role, even as his interest in writing has increasingly scored him clips in national publications.
On Monday, June 13, Ayers joined Liz Lambson (aka Lizzy Luna, a visual artist, musician, writer, curator and more) at The King’s English Bookshop. The appearance was part of his summer book tour, during which he’s asking local co-hosts to join him for conversations about the book, accompanied by a short readings. At his SLC stop, Ayers was greeted by a full patio, many of the attendees dating back with Ayers to times in the halls of Wasatch, Bryant and East. As the events are meant to be an interactive experience, Lambson was charged with steering the conversation and the short, half-hour-and-change discussion veered across topics, though race and Utah were central to the conversation. (Even a sidebar conversation about their shared love of chunky, square glasses delved into the topic of race.)
Because the discussion was limited to a half-hour, the the conversation was only getting better as the house asked for things to switch over to a book-signing. Lambson and Ayers had an interesting rapport, batting notions of family back-and-forth. And if just judged by sales—copies were completely sold-out before the reading—the night was a success.
Though Ayers moved out of Utah after his childhood, the book exists, in large part, thanks to an arrest that he and his then-band were subjected to near Fillmore, where a state trooper busted the group for traveling with marijuana. Though charges were eventually dropped, the event was the clear, if slow-burning, catalyst for the memoir.
“I felt like writing about it,” Ayers says of that long-ago bust. “I didn’t need anyone to read it, I just wanted the story to exist. I wrote for seven or eight hours and had such a great time remembering the story that I wrote about 80 or 90 pages. I thought that ‘I guess I have a new interest, a new hobby.'” He took memoir-writing classes and sent a finished manuscript to agents, who were enthusiastic. “That’s the exact moment I thought ‘Oh, this might be a real book. There’s no turning back.’ The moment I knew that someone might help, I knew I had to do it.”
Learn more about My Life in the Sunshine can be found at nabilayers.com. Discover the latest in culture and arts around the city and the state. And while you’re here, subscribe and get six issues of Salt Lake magazine, your guide to the best of life in Utah.