“The predatory levitations of Alvin Fielder, hovering like a hawk, demonstrating a drumming that is as much about sounds as rhythm, a Chinese calligraphy written across the music.” So wrote critic J.B. Figi, in liners to the 1966 Delmark album that introduced Fielder to jazz audiences. That album is Roscoe Mitchell’s breakthrough Sound, the first document of the new, exciting musicians of Chicago’s AACM; that monument of free jazz is the performance for which Fielder is still best known.
Just how accurate are Figi’s metaphors? There’s an element of confrontation in the smart cymbal commentary in the title piece: It makes the rubato soloists assert themselves or else tumble into the mobile Fielder’s clutches—predatory, yes. As for calligraphy, hear the rise and fall of percussion lines, his spacing of phrases, how his dynamics move, as well as the sounds of various parts of his cymbals: this is a sensitive and stylized art.
For a quite different view of Alvin Fielder’s art, hear him with the Improvisational Arts Quintet at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where they play each year. Last May, on a Saturday afternoon before hundreds of holidaymakers in the twilit jazz tent, the group was jet-propelled. The medium was totally free improvisation—no themes, no fixed tempos—and while there were lyrical elements, especially from guest saxophonist Fred Anderson, tenorman Edward “Kidd” Jordan and pianist Joel Futterman led most of the set into storms of screams, cries, crashing chords, a music of both anger and ecstasy. Perched at the end of the stage, the serious, sweating Fielder did not levitate above the music—rather, he drove the group with enormous power, lifting it to heights of extroverted energy. The set was aggressive, the players responded immediately and dramatically to each other; among them, Fielder was the most responsive, the most complex player, even a thoughtful and subtle one, in the midst of extreme extroversion. With the final drum roll, the expression of high concentration left his face, replaced by a big smile and cocked eyebrows.
Fielder, one of today’s very best free-jazz drummers, has been active for over 40 years. He was important to the early development of the AACM, he’s played in Sun Ra’s Arkestra and with Cecil Taylor, Oliver Lake, Eddie Harris, David Murray, Peter Kowald, Barry Guy and a gang of other jazz notables. He’s long been a regular on the New Orleans modern-jazz scene, and in the last decade and a half he’s become increasingly active on the concert and festival circuit. There’s a good reason why he’s not been a household name: he’s based in Jackson.
Since his teens, Fielder has been a man on the move. He was born Nov. 23, 1935 in Meridian, Miss., a small city of 35,000, where he began playing drums in his high school band. “Max Roach’s solo on ‘Koko’ [by Charlie Parker] made me want to play music on the drums,” he says, but he did not take any lessons until after his first move, to New Orleans. There, his first teacher ever was none other than Edward Blackwell, who made him transcribe Max Roach and Shelly Manne solos: “That was his way of teaching me to read music.” The time was 1952, when only a tiny circle of musicians played bop in New Orleans; back then Fielder also was attending Xavier University.
The next year he made his second move, to Texas Southern University in Houston, where he was adept enough to play in Pluma Davis’ sextet. This band backed performers such as Lowell Fulson, Joe Turner and Amos Milburn in Houston nightclub engagements: “The front line was all bebop players, including [tenorist] Don Wilkerson. That was when R&B was akin to jazz—it swung—not like R&B now.” Fielder’s budding musical career went on hiatus when he returned to Meridian for two years; at the end of 1958 he moved to his third big city, Chicago, for graduate study in pharmacy at the University of Illinois. A few months later, Sun Ra heard him play in a club and invited him to an Arkestra rehearsal.
Does Fielder play on any of Ra’s recordings? Nobody knows for sure, though he may be on a couple of discs that originated in Arkestra rehearsal tapes. He says, “My brother Bill played trumpet with Sun Ra. He’s on a 45 rpm record, ‘Watusa.’ Sun Ra used to call me when he wanted a second drummer to play with Bugs Cochran, and sometimes Robert Barry would make a third drummer. We played music from the Jazz in Silhouette album for a year and a half on the job. The most memorable gig was a trip to Indianapolis when Wes Montgomery sat in; Freddie Hubbard was there.” Since William Fielder was also based in Chicago, the brothers shared a South Side house for a while during the 1960s, and musicians like Booker Little, Hubbard, Nicky Hill, Joe Farrell and George Coleman would drop by to practice. William went on to become a leading jazz trumpet teacher, based at Rutgers University.
There was a year, 1962, when Fielder lived in his fourth city, New York, played few engagements, and spent his time jamming with other up-and-coming musicians. Otherwise, Chicago was his home for most of the decade; there he and brother William played with and learned from pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, father figure to Chicago’s exploratory musicians. A breakthrough came one night in 1965 when Fielder heard Archie Shepp’s group with drummer Beaver Harris. “I was still influenced by Max at the time. Hearing Beaver gave me a whole ’nother conception of how the drums could be played, ’cause he was over, under the beat, floating over it, deep into it. Now, all the time I was with Sun Ra, he kept telling me to loosen up and do something different. When I heard Beaver, I said, ‘That’s what Sun Ra meant.’ After that I heard Sunny Murray and Andrew Cyrille and Milford Graves. They would stretch time, then pull it back; it was flexible, like a rubber band. Swing drummers usually played in four and bebop drummers played with a dotted quarter-note feel: one, two-and, four. Free drummers would play all across the bar lines, and of course some tunes didn’t have bar lines. [Albert Ayler’s] Spiritual Unity, with Sunny, was a perfect trio; it hasn’t been played any better since then.”
Soon thereafter Fielder was playing with a group in a club when young Roscoe Mitchell walked in. “He took the saxophone out of his case and started playing; it was so loose and free that it totally freed me up to play that way, for the first time.” Soon he was rehearsing four times a week with Mitchell’s quartet; “Roscoe was playing more straightahead then; he sounded like he was influenced by Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy.” For most of 1966, Mitchell’s sextets included Fielder, who says, “His music began going someplace else, then, with the little instruments, the little percussion. By the time I left, I wasn’t even playing the drums that much any more.” By then Fielder was active with other AACM leaders, too, playing with big and small Abrams bands and with Anthony Braxton, and also with pianist John Gilmore’s quintet—no relation to Arkestra tenorman John Gilmore. It was a most intense period for these brilliant, volatile young players and composers. Their music was frequently metamorphosing, groups formed and reformed, and soon Fielder was playing regularly in a potent cooperative trio with tenorman Fred Anderson and bassist-cellist-trombonist Lester Lashley. In the spring of 1969 Fielder played in Roscoe Mitchell’s farewell-to-Chicago concert; Mitchell, the Art Ensemble and Braxton’s trio then moved to Paris in June. In August, Fielder left Chicago and moved back to Mississippi—this time, for good.
Fielder, the son of a druggist, was a registered pharmacist and had worked in drugstores during his Chicago years. Back in Meridian he began running his father’s drugstore; over the years he operated pharmacies in Starkville and Jackson as well. While he’d been living in Chicago, the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) had begun a slow transformation of Mississippi’s formerly rigidly segregated society. Along with operating drugstores in widely separated locations, he joined in school desegregation work and in producing concerts under the auspices of the Black Arts Music Society. BAMS brought outstanding musicians to play concerts in Meridian and Jackson, to audiences that proved to be pleasingly large and eager to hear the new jazz. The musicians were often Chicago-oriented—Abrams, Anderson, Eddie Harris, Clifford Jordan, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, Mitchell, John Stubblefield—and Fielder sometimes played with them.
“After Clifford Jordan played a concert in New Orleans,” says Fielder, “he came to Mississippi and said, ‘There’s a hell of a saxophone player back there who’s getting ready to stop playing. His name is Kidd Jordan. Why don’t you go down there and talk to him?’ Kidd was an outcast on the New Orleans music scene. He was playing totally free and he didn’t have anybody to play it with. London Branch, my bass player, and I went there one Sunday and spent the day hunting for him. We finally found him about five or six o’clock. We all went out to Southern University and started playing, and I hadn’t felt so comfortable playing since my AACM days.” This was in April 1975. Thereafter Fielder and Branch made weekly journeys to New Orleans to play with Jordan; soon they formed a sextet, and the next year they made the first of what would become annual appearances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
By 1981 the Jordan-Fielder group was the Improvisational Arts Quintet, with veteran trumpeter Clyde Kerr Jr., electric bassist Elton Heron and, for a time, Kidd’s son Marlon on flute. “At that juncture,” says Fielder, “the IAQ played anywhere from straightahead to postbop to totally free music. London Branch and Kidd Jordan did most of the writing, and that year we really started playing totally free, too. I like to say that we went on the bandstand buck naked.” The IAQ’s first recording was No Compromise, issued on Prescription, the label co-owned by Fielder and Ramsey McLean, a fine Mingus-inspired bassist; Fielder also plays hard-swinging drums on McLean’s modal-semifree-fusion LP History’s Made Every Moment: New Orleans Now (Prescription).
With everyday weekday trips back and forth to his drugstores and with weekend trips to New Orleans, Fielder was spending an enormous amount of time driving his car at night. For instance, just driving back to Jackson from his Starkville store, he says, “I hit seven deer, a wild hog, a horse, and an 18-wheeler, in 14 years. It got to be extremely stressful.” Later in the 1980s yet another stimulating association began, with trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez. Fielder began driving to Dallas to work with Gonzalez and to record albums for Silkheart with Gonzalez, saxman Charles Brackeen and trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah. Fielder says he chose to work daily at a nonmusical occupation “so I don’t have to prostitute the music.” But the years of stress climaxed in 1989, when Fielder suffered a stroke; while recovering, he had to learn to play the drums all over again. While he still works as a pharmacist, he sold his last store in 1991.
For most of the last decade Fielder’s best-known outlet has been the fiery Joel Futterman-Kidd Jordan combos. These musicians share an energy-music aesthetic, and his drumming invariably provides an ideal foundation for their sonic adventures. A good example is “No Train North” from the Futterman-Jordan Trio’s Southern Extreme (Drimala) CD, which opens with a complex drum solo; Fielder’s lines continue to develop even as the very aggressive pianist, then the tenorman Jordan elaborate on the initiating drum ideas—forceful music indeed. “Fournier,” on the Futterman-Jordan Quintet’s Nickelsdorf Konfrontation (Silkheart, 1995), opens with Fielder playing a Sit Up and Listen! figure; he then spins intricate webs of sounds and rhythms, during which the opening figure recurs often, disguised, to unify the solo. By now this art is less like calligraphy than sculptures in marble. For all the energy of Fielder’s playing, his colors are subtle, his designs are complex, his strokes are by turns bold and sly.
It’s somewhat ironic that in the years since the stroke, Fielder has been more in demand than ever before. One reason is his tours in America and Europe with Jordan and, often, Futterman. Also, as the underground-jazz audience has grown, he plays on the new southern circuit of free-jazz clubs and concert venues: “It starts in Baltimore and D.C. There are two places in North Carolina, one in South Carolina, a couple places in Atlanta, there’s Athens, Georgia, sometimes in Birmingham; right now Memphis is opening up and we’re trying to get things started again in Jackson. In New Orleans we have the Zeitgeist Theatre and the Contemporary Arts Center. In January I did a tour with Assif Tsahar to New Orleans, Austin, Houston and Dallas.
“After my stroke, I felt 30 years younger. I had so much energy, I couldn’t believe it. After such a close encounter, you tend to appreciate life more. You live a little more carefully; you eat a little better, go to bed a little earlier. Now, I have become a little more spiritual, a little more tolerant. I love everybody, now.”
Most of the time Alvin Fielder plays a drum kit made for him by Jackson drum maker Joe Partridge. The components: a 15-inch by 16-inch bass drum; a 13-inch by 13-inch floor tom-tom; an 8-inch by 10-inch mounted tom-tom; and a 7-inch by 14-inch maple snare. “I use WFL foot pedals, the old Speed Kings.” His cymbals: “A 20-inch K. Zildjian—Wilbur Campbell chose it for me—a 20-inch old A. Zildjian for crash rides, a 20-inch Istanbul and a 17-inch old A. that Roy Haynes gave me when he was with Getz.” He uses Pro-Mark sticks.