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.
Harry Barnoff, Nathaniel’s mentor at the Cleveland Music School Settlement, tells us about his protégé’s talent (and about his early approach to honing skills). Though initially unfocused, the young double bass player was able to perform well even when he ignored assignments and skipped practice.
Once again, the public limelight is taken away from bassists and what we are capable of. Imagine if they kept true to the story and had shown some virtuoso bass solos and excerpts, how it would have increased awareness of what we can do. Would the story have been less marketable if he were portrayed as he really is in real life? I say that it’s less marketable to classical musicians and audiences, but it makes no difference to the general masses. Since Hollywood has zero pause about changing facts, why not make him a Jazz bassist, while we are at it?