Drummer Alvin Fielder Dies at 83

A founding member of the AACM, he helped push jazz’s rhythmic limits for six decades

Alvin Fielder in performance at the 2018 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (photo by Mark Robbins)

Alvin Fielder, an acclaimed free-jazz drummer and educator who was a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and also maintained a career as a pharmacist, died Jan. 5 at a hospital in Jackson, Miss. He was 83.

His death was confirmed by bassist William Parker, who was at Fielder’s bedside shortly before his passing. The cause of death was complications from congestive heart failure and pneumonia, including a stroke that Fielder suffered that same morning.

An alumnus of Sun Ra’s Arkestra in the late 1950s, Fielder appeared in 1966 on Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound, generally regarded as the first document of the AACM. From the late ’70s onward he primarily worked within the New Orleans creative jazz scene, and predominantly in ensembles (usually styled the Improvisational Arts Trio or Quartet) with himself, saxophonist Kidd Jordan, and pianist Joel Futterman as the core. He also worked frequently with trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez.

Despite his niche in the experimental side of jazz, “I didn’t think of it as [avant-garde],” Fielder told journalist Ted Panken. “I knew that I heard something different being played, but I just thought of it as an extension of bebop. …I like to think of it as playing looser, stretching rhythms, stretching the time, stretching the pulse.”

Alvin L. Fielder, Jr., was born Nov. 23, 1935 in Meridian, Miss. His father, Alvin Sr., was a pharmacist who had also played the cornet; his mother was a violinist and pianist. The younger Alvin studied piano as a small child, but gave up music until he was about 12, when he was inspired by hearing Max Roach’s drumming on Charlie Parker’s “Koko.” He joined his high-school marching band, but didn’t receive a formal lesson until he was a student (only 15 years old) at Xavier University in New Orleans, at which time his teacher was drummer Ed Blackwell.

Following his father’s career path, Fielder transferred to Texas Southern University in Houston to complete his undergraduate pharmacology degree, while studying with local drummers and performing at night. He then moved north to complete his master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

It was in that city that he met Sun Ra, working with his Arkestra in 1959 and 1960 but staying behind when the Arkestra moved to New York. He worked the scene on Chicago’s South Side, where encounters with pianist Richard Abrams and drummer Beaver Harris encouraged him to loosen his approach to time. It cost him work with bebop players, but gave him entrée into the experimental community that soon became the AACM, with Fielder as a charter member.

Fielder recorded Sound with the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet—making him effectively, if not officially, the founding drummer of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He then established a trio with saxophonist Fred Anderson and bassist/cellist Lester Lashley, working weekly while also holding down part-time work as a pharmacist. In 1969, however, Fielder returned to Mississippi to help out with family business—including the purchase of several drug stores—and to become a political activist. In 1971, he and promoter John Reese founded the Black Arts Music Society, under the auspices of which they were able to bring musicians from the AACM and elsewhere to perform in Mississippi.

In 1975, at the recommendation of saxophonist Clifford Jordan, Fielder met and played with New Orleans saxophonist Kidd Jordan; the chemistry was so strong that Fielder and bassist London Branch began making the three-hour drive to New Orleans every week to play with him, soon forming a band that in 1981 became the Improvisational Arts band. (Its size and membership was in constant flux, but its name was the Improvisational Arts Trio, Quartet, Quintet, or Sextet, depending on its personnel.) The group performed at every New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival from 1975 to 2008.

Fielder’s circle expanded in the 1990s to include Gonzalez and Futterman, the latter of whom became the third member of a longstanding trio with Fielder and Jordan. Fielder also helped in 1995 to found the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp in New Orleans, where he was one of four members of the drumming faculty.

“Younger students often ask me, ‘Is there a formula?’ There is no formula,” he told Panken of his educational approach. “I think that in order to play this music, you’ve got to have a working knowledge of bebop and a working knowledge of swing—of all music—and be able to incorporate all of it.”

Fielder was predeceased by a brother, William Butler Fielder, a trumpeter and professor of jazz studies at Rutgers University. He is survived by his wife, Carol; a daughter, Alison Fielder Porter, of Houston, Texas; two sons from a previous marriage, Alvin III and George, both of Chicago; and two grandchildren, Avery and Christopher Porter, of Houston.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.