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Alvin Fielder: It's About Time

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Drummer Alvin Fielder grew up in Mississippi, but the fruition of his musical career in Chicago came in the 1960s, when he worked with Sun Ra and appeared on Roscoe Mitchell's legendary Sound (Delmark, 1966) LP, one of the first AACM recordings to be released. After returning to a pharmacy career in Mississippi in the late 1960s, Fielder began working regularly with New Orleans saxophonist Kidd Jordan in the Improvisational Arts Ensemble.



A relationship that spans over thirty years, Fielder and Jordan have collaborated frequently with bassist William Parker, pianist/saxophonist Joel Futterman, and tenor man Fred Anderson among others. Steeped in the music's history, and especially that of the drummers, Fielder took time out from his schedule to speak with writer Clifford Allen in late 2005. Unpublished until now, the writer feels that—on the heels of a tour with Jordan and the release of Fielder's Clean Feed Records debut (featuring another longtime collaborator, Dallas-based trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez), A Measure of Vision—now is most definitely the time.

Chapter Index

  1. Beginnings
  2. Give the Drummers Some
  3. Chicago and Playing Free
  4. Last Trane to Jackson
  5. Selected Discography



Beginnings



Alvin Fielder: I was born November 23, 1935 in Mississippi to Alvin and Carrie Sue Fielder. I have one brother, William, who is a jazz and classical trumpeter. He's had a lot of good students, people like Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Terrell Stafford, as well as numerous symphonic trumpeters. A bit of statistical information about Meridian, Mississippi: it's about fifteen or sixteen miles from Alabama, about in the middle of the state. I first studied piano, and that was maybe a year-and-a-half, two years, and I became pretty bored with it and so we stopped that. I played baseball and football until about 1946-1947.

In the meantime, I was listening to a lot of the pop bands like Roy Milton, Louis Jordan and the Tympani Five, as most kids would. There was a musician in town that had been in the Korean War in about 1948. He was a trumpeter that had been in service and we used to call him "Jabbo Jones." He came back and he had a lot of records—Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell—and he would just walk around the street with these records, go around peoples' houses and play the records.

Somehow I got my hands on a Savoy record; "Koko" was on one side with Charlie Parker, and the other side was Don Byas. I heard Max Roach play "Koko" and I've been a believer ever since. That really turned me on to modern jazz, and I heard the way Max played drums. I didn't know what Max was playing, of course, I jut knew it was a beautiful sound. It sounded differently than, say, the drummers that Louis Jordan had, or Roy Milton, a drummer who was the head of a very good rhythm and blues band.

I learned the tunes and I joined the school band. I was about thirteen, and there was another drummer we called Pat and a bass drummer named Charles Sparrow. It was a fifteen-large band, not a whole lot of guys of course, and I took lessons from Duke Otis. We played the marches and stuff, but we didn't really learn the rudiments. It's just what I had to play during the football games.

I graduated in 1951, and I went to Xavier down in New Orleans. I went as a pharmacy major, but in '52, I ran into a drummer by the name of Earl Palmer. He was a good jazz drummer, and he was making all these record dates and working every night and day. I asked to study with him. He told me that he was very busy, and he recommended Ed Blackwell. I didn't know Blackwell, but I went to him and said "I'm Alvin Fielder; I'm going to Xavier and you were recommended by Earl Palmer. I'd like to study with you." Blackwell said "come on in."

All About Jazz: Well before his move to Los Angeles?

AF: Yes, this was in '53. He was probably working with the Johnson Brothers then. Plas Johnson—do you know about him?

AAJ: I've heard the name, yes.

AF: He was a tenor player and played the "Pink Panther." It was a good band, and Blackwell practiced all day. There was also a trumpet player named Billy White and a tenor player by the name of Bootsy. He lives up in New York now and plays with Idris Muhammad, but they would practice all the Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Max Roach tunes, all day. class="f-right s-img">


Give the Drummers Some



AAJ: And Blackwell got into something entirely different from Max.

AF: Not at that time. Blackwell was about seven or eight years older than I and he was Max Roach. He used to sit down and play Max licks, Billy White would play Miles, and—no, it was strictly that. They weren't experimenting then as they would later on, and I never thought of Blackwell as a New Orleans drummer. I always thought he played very differently from the other drummers. He was a bebop drummer. There were other drummers like Tom Moore. But I'm talking about Max, and you didn't hear much of Blakey, Roy Haynes, or Kenny Clarke. Everything was Max Roach let me tell you, even though all these other drummers were playing at the time.

AF: Alan was known for that. There was a trombonist in Houston who was at that concert the other night; do you know Jimmy Harrison? Tall guy, with a cane—he was the baddest trombone player I have ever heard in person. He and Alan Dawson were in the service together and Jimmy had told me about Alan when I was in Texas from '54 to '56. Alan was known for the way he played drums. He was melodic, very clean, and he could swing his butt off. I always used to think of him as a super-clean Philly Joe Jones, because Philly Joe had all kinds of technique too. He was more streetwise with it, though.

AAJ: I'll have to think on that and put it together, but it makes sense to me.

AF: Alan was a very great teacher; he's probably one of the best drum set teachers ever. Philly Joe, Max, Kenny Clarke actually came out of Cozy Cole, and they all worked out of that Charlie Wilcoxon book—Rollin' in Rhythm, Swingin' the Rudiments—and I got the chance to spend a night with Kenny Clarke and Cozy Cole much later. I was like "whew!" [chuckles], best time I ever had! I sat there and just listened to all their stories.

Now, where was I?

AAJ: We were getting around to a philosophy of percussion through all these folks. We were at Alan Dawson, though.

AF: He turned out a lot of great students, and I'm not familiar with his method but whatever it was, most everybody that actually came from him wound up very good.

AAJ: I think they're teaching a way of life, and this comes back to the Valerie Wilmer book [As Serious as Your Life (Serpent's Tail, 1980)], being around somebody like Blackwell or Denis Charles, if not assimilating the exact musical patterns, that their way of living translated to music.

AF: That's another thing, you are your environment. After '52, I wasn't around Blackwell very much, but we kept in touch and he'd send me letters. I'd see him from time to time at festivals and such, and what we'd do is go over stuff. I have his letters, and I go through them still and I play a lot of his things, but not like him. Actually, Blackwell was a school unto himself. I love him, but I never tried to pattern myself after him. I guess I patterned myself—well, I listened to Max Roach more than Blackwell. I listened to Billy Higgins more than Blackwell. The early Art Blakey—now, all these drummers had various stages. There was a Tony Williams part, a Max thing, and I pick out certain phases of their playing because we all change.

AAJ: One can glean a lot from certain aspects of somebody's teaching and put it into their own canon, without necessarily having the rest of it be helpful.

AF: You know, Tony Williams, I heard a lot of Jimmy Cobb in his cymbal work early on. I heard a little bit of Kenny Clarke, I heard some of Max Roach, and I heard a lot of Roy Haynes.

AAJ: Yeah, definitely, that was my first estimation. Could you explain "digging coal?" I've heard this bandied about with drummers before.

AF: Those were the drummers back in the '20s who played just a snare drum or a variation of the cymbal pattern on the snare—ssshh-bop, ssshh-bop—on the snare drum. Kenny Clarke always referred to it by that, "digging coal." In talking to Kenny, he mentioned a drummer that's very seldom talked about, by the name of Cuba Austin. He was with the McKinney Cotton-Pickers, a territory band of the Midwest. He was their drummer at one time, and Kenny Clarke mentioned that he had heard him play the cymbals throughout a song. He hadn't heard other drummers do that at the time, and that stuck with him.

Of course, Cuba—I talked to some drummers who had heard his stuff—he was a good drummer, but he just never made that breakthrough. I don't know that much about him family-wise, but he worked in that band, which was very popular at the time. However, it wasn't like being in the Basie band or the Bennie Moten band, or Duke's band.

AAJ: It was more like a proving ground for people who would go on to do other things.

AF: It was one of the better territory bands at that time, but I don't know if they played New York. They usually played the Midwest, so you didn't get the chance to hear them on the radio. I don't have any records by them (somebody like Kenny Washington probably does), but I really would like to hear it.

AAJ: I know I've seen collections of those recordings around—whether or not the drummer is Cuba, I don't know.

AF: That actually stuck in Kenny Clarke's mind, because when you think about it, Papa Jo Jones, Kenny Clarke, you gather they're about the same age. Kenny Clarke spent some time in Kansas City, and I've heard things written about Papa Jo where his cymbal patterns bounce pretty much like Kenny Clarke's. Kenny Clarke had a beautiful cymbal pattern—my God!

AAJ: And he was getting it from these interesting sources, it sounds like.

AF: Well, you know, it's not just the sound, but the conception of playing. Of course, the cymbal was a timekeeper instead of the bass drum. That was what he got from it. I'm sure that Kenny Clarke had some other influences there, but he mentioned Cuba and that left something for me to find out about. He must've been a little older than Klook. He was probably born in the 1890s or something about that, maybe 1900.

But it's a conception thing, and I'm finding that drummers like Roy Haynes—I was watching him last night, whew! This was BET on Jazz, and he was in the Chick Corea band with Joshua Redman and Terence Blanchard and Christian McBride. They were playing all these Bud Powell things, you know, and oh he sounded good!

Alvin Fielder
Alvin at Willowridge High School - 2005 workshop organized by Nameless Sound



AAJ: There was that trio with Danilo Perez and John Pattitucci a few years ago that was also something else. This would've been 2000-2001 or so.

AF: The thing with Miroslav Vitous and Chick Corea, Now He Sings Now He Sobs (Solid State, 1968), that was fine. There was another one Roy did with Phineas Newborn, called We Three (1958), on Prestige. Roy is a good all-around drummer, and the way he uses his bass drums, cymbals, snares, he's dancing around the snare drum and off of the cymbals, and then he hits the bass drum—whew!

AAJ: It's interesting too, because he can step away slightly and play nearly free-time, with Andrew Hill in the early '60s, he was...

AF: I can go further back than that on you! Miles Davis did a thing called "Morpheus" on Prestige. He had Bennie Green, John Lewis and Percy Heath on it, and you should hear it—Roy's playing all across the bar lines, the first really free drumming I'd heard. If you get a chance to hear it, Sonny Rollins was playing as well, and Miles was loose, loose, loose! It's by John Lewis, a beautiful thing, just free and loose. If you heard it right now, I think you would say "when was that made?" It was done probably in the early 50s. It's beautiful!

So, Roy—out of Max, Kenny Clarke and Blakey—was always the loosest. Another drummer that was really nice and loose is Jack DeJohnette. Also Al Foster, you know—whew!

AAJ: As far as the post-Max, post-Philly Joe drummers, I've always been fond of J.C. Moses, even though he's a little later.

AF: I knew him. He was a bit out of the Blakey thing, too. He was from Pittsburgh, and I don't know what they put in the water there, but God they turn out drummers like mad! I'd like to meet a drummer there by the name of Joe Harris; are you familiar with him?

AAJ: No, not really.

AF: He took Max's place with Bird, and Kenny Clarke's place with Dizzy Gillespie. He did a record date with Teddy Charles, Art Farmer, and Gigi Gryce—and those arrangements, man!

AAJ: Oh, was that the Teddy Charles Tentet (Atlantic, 1956)? Then I do know him. I just forgot.

AF: Well you need to go back and listen to him. I'm jumping around, but there's a way of listening that I always try to tell my students. When you get into any record album, I usually listen to each part first, listening to the album about four or five times. Then I put it all together after I've got the form of the tune and everything. You have to listen to the whole thing after that. CD's are not meant to be listened to and put on the shelf. You really haven't heard it—not until you've got it. You don't have to be a musician to do that.

AAJ: I tend to start with the whole and then take it apart, but...

AF: I pick one thing out first. The first thing I listen to is the drummer, of course, once the melody plays. Then I listen to the piano and bass play it, then the horn players, and then I'll listen to the whole thing. Now, I'm sure trumpet players would say they listen to the trumpet first, and it's left up to the person, I guess, how they choose.

I think about Billy Higgins; we're about the same age and—man, people had told me about him. Teddy Edwards, the tenor player, he told me about Billy from one of his first jobs, along with Leroy Vinnegar and a pianist, Joe Castro or Arthur Hillary, who lived out in Los Angeles. Hillary was a great player and taught school in Dallas for a while, actually. Billy Higgins was the young guy in the band, and that might have been his first recording date, I don't know. It would've been for Contemporary.

Every time Teddy came back here, he'd bring his book and I'd often play with him. Eddie Harris, Clifford Jordan—I'd play with all of them, and they had a lot of music and would always bring it with them. I got a chance to hear Billy early on, and I loved his playing! But you know, Billy Higgins went through various schools. His inspiration was really Kenny Clarke. You remember the first album that was done by the Modern Jazz Quartet? "All the Things You Are," "La Ronde," which was really "Two Bass Hit," Billy always told me that was the thing that inspired him. When I heard that, I knew my sound was going to come from that. It's a beautiful thing, man, and Kenny Clarke plays so beautifully!

Everybody is asleep on Kenny Clarke, and I read Modern Drummer every month and they have a calendar of birthdays. They didn't mention Baby Dodds, they didn't mention Kenny Clarke, they mentioned Roy Haynes, Jimmy Cobb, and Max Roach but not Philly Joe. They didn't even mention Big Sid Catlett, so I called them up and they wouldn't let me speak to anybody. I called several times and they don't know shit about drummers, let me tell you. They don't even know about drumming! It really pisses me off—I mean really!

AAJ: Baby Dodds' birthday is this month, right?

AF: Yes, I believe he's a Sagittarius—well, December 24, 1898, so he's a Capricorn.

Listen to this: Big Sid Catlett, Art Blakey, Jo Jones, Philly Joe Jones, they mentioned Elvin, didn't mention Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Blackwell, Billy Higgins, Shelly Manne, Baby Dodds, Sunny Murray or Andrew Cyrille.

AAJ: [laughing] So who did they mention? There aren't many people left!

AF: Well, Elvin and they didn't mention but about four jazz drummers, if I'm thinking right.

AAJ: And a lot of rock drummers were listening to the jazz drummers anyway, so it would make sense to mention more than a couple.

AF: You know, they listed Ricky Morales and Tre Cool and Alex Acuña, Sheila Escovedo and Dave Clark, Idris Muhammad. They also mentioned Billy Hart and Adam Nussbaum because they were born November 29. None of the people listed here—I don't know who put this list together, and that was the reason I called them. It's Modern Drummer, The World's #1 Drum Magazine, and I have every issue. I read it, even though it's one of the worst publications I do read, among Jazz Times, Down Beat, Cadence, The Wire, All About Jazz New York, and a few others. Man, I'm going to cancel my subscription—whoever does the writing, they don't need to be drummers but more than likely they aren't anyway.

AAJ: It's funny, I was just listening to the Baby Dodds solo record on Folkways the other day [Talking and Drum Solos (1959)], where he plays all those nerve beats.

AF: Did you hear him play "Tea for Two?" Shades of Max Roach! He hadn't heard Max, but the way he played it— whew! The funny thing is, older drummers—older musicians, I should say—it may sound antiquated, but in the time it was done... That's the thing, you've got to put yourself back there mentally.

AAJ: ...which is hard to do sometimes.

AF: Yes it is, unless you are a student of the history of the music. It's not a very old music— jazz is a little over a hundred years old.

AAJ: There are still a lot of people in the world who are older than jazz, if you think about it.

AF: Yeah, right, so it's a young music, America's contribution to the world of fine art, and everybody's trying to play the music all over the world. It's creative, and it couldn't have happened anyplace else. It couldn't have happened in Africa, Europe, Iceland, it couldn't have happened anyplace else except America. As Art Blakey said, "no America, no jazz." When you think about it, the only instrument that's actually been created in this country is the drum set. Drummers prior to 1893-1895 had to just play the drums with their hands and not with their feet. Cymbals from Turkey, tom-toms from Africa, snare from Europe, and somebody had the zeal and imagination to put them all together, even if they didn't play anything except quarter-notes everyplace.

If you think of a drum soloist like Max Roach, Max uses so much of the drums but he didn't get credit. People talk about the world's greatest drummer being Buddy Rich—a great drummer, sure, but when you look at the musicality of the drums, (and it's got to be a musical instrument—they do play music) Max Roach, even though I love Kenny Clarke and he fathered it, Max took it out there. I have video with Max Roach, Art Blakey and Elvin Jones on it. God—boy, mmh! He was Art Blakey's daddy and Elvin Jones' granddaddy! [laughs]

AAJ: The three of them playing together in a conference?

AF: Well, first they played separately, then they played together with their various groups. Then of course Art and Max played with Elvin's group, and Elvin and Max with the Messengers, and it was all mixed up. It was done in Germany I think.

AAJ: Max is not well right now, right?

AF: No, he's in a nursing home. He was at a thing for the New Orleans people, and he was in a wheelchair. I talked to various people in New York and I've written him cards, he hasn't written back of course. Max was very good to me; I got a chance to really know Max I guess maybe fifteen or seventeen years ago. Max always gave me a lot of respect and I always respected him. He was probably the dominant factor in my life after my father and grandfather. I used to write Max when I first started playing. I got Max's mother's address and what I'd do is ask him various things, how he practiced and what books he practiced out of, and he never answered of course.

Every drummer I've talked to has said the same thing: they listen to Max. A close second was Blakey, and I used to talk to Vernel Fournier all the time. I used to talk to Wilbur Campbell all the time.

AAJ: Vernel is someone I've only recently come to know about, but whenever I talk to drummers, his name seems to come up somewhere in the conversation.

AF: He was an amazing drummer! I met him in Chicago in the '50s, and he was with Ahmad Jamal. All the drummers would go down to The Pershing to watch him play—DeJohnette, Steve McCall—because he was so clean and polished, and he was just the perfect gentleman. He didn't have bad habits and he was very nice to people. After he had a stroke, he moved to Jackson [Mississippi] because he had a son and daughter there.

After I found out about it, I would go over to his house practically every day. I used to take him to dinner and go out to shows, bring him CDs and stuff, talk to him, and I was close to him for about two years. I was on my way to Finland to work the Tampere Jazz Happening with Kidd Jordan and Joel Futterman, and I was with him that Thursday night about ten o'clock (I was leaving that Friday morning) and he wanted me to carry his cymbals. "Aw, man, I'm already packed up and everything."

I got to Finland Friday, we closed the festival Saturday night, and I was talking to Jack DeJohnette (he was there with John Surman) backstage about little things, and of course Vernel came up. When I got back to New Orleans, the first thing I heard was that he had passed on Saturday night. The timeline was about fifteen or twenty minutes before we went on stage.

AAJ: So he'd wanted you to take his cymbals as in take them.

AF: Well, he wanted to know if I wanted to take them over so I could play them. I had packed up everything, and he took sick the next day after I had left. That Friday morning his daughter came and took him to the hospital about eleven o'clock and he went to sleep—he was in a coma. He never woke up and they pulled the plug on him.

He was a friend. If you noticed me playing brushes on Saturday night, a lot of those were his brush strokes that he told me about. He didn't show me how to play them, but he told me about them. If you noticed the first thing I played with mallets, I played part of Max's Drum Conversation (Enja, 1960). But, I try to play something in every concert that's dedicated to a drummer. I don't tell people, but sometimes it's Ed Blackwell, sometimes it's Billy Higgins, sometimes it's Max, Roy Haynes, you know.

I miss Vernel, I miss Blackwell, Billy Higgins—Billy and I would talk all the time, maybe once a month. We never talked about drums, but we talked about old drummers. Max and I, we'd do the same thing and talk about drummers like Shadow Wilson. Vernel and I talked about him too. Right now I'm talking to a drummer by the name of James Slaughter. I don't know if you know him but he was Andrew Hill's first drummer in Chicago. They worked together with Malachi Favors.

AAJ: They had that trio that recorded for Warwick (So In Love, 1958).

AF: Right. He's the one that taught me the rudiments, and then of course there was another drummer named Arthur Edgehill. He was full of history! The first time I went to New York in 1954, [other students were] going to drug manufacturing plants and I went to Birdland and he was the first New York drummer I saw in person. Let me tell you something, Art Edgehill was playing with Oscar Pettiford, Julius Watkins, Phil Urso (a tenor player with Woody Herman; he's still living). Art was on drums, and he always stuck in my mind and I started to look for him about ten years ago. He quit playing drums maybe 35-40 years ago.

AAJ: I know he played with Kenny Dorham a bit in the '50s.

AF: That's right, the Jazz Prophets with J.R. Monterose, Sam Jones and Bobby Timmons. He was with Shirley Scott; he was with Dinah Washington a long time also, and with Teddy Wilson's trio. He was in the original Horace Silver Quartet with Doug Watkins and Hank Mobley. They got Art Blakey for the recording date, but you know... a very beautiful guy, man, he's 79 now. I talk to him often—I found him through the saxophonist Charles Davis. Charles was down here and I took him to dinner, and Edgehill came up. Charles said "I used to play with him in Dinah Washington's band! If you're looking for him, I know a drummer named Jimmy Wormworth, and he talks to him all the time. I'll give you his number."

Alvin Fielder
Alvin at Willowridge High School - 2005 workshop organized by Nameless Sound

I called him and, man he's so full of history! He is that link because he knew Kenny Clarke, Max, Blakey, Philly Joe. He's a real nice cat, he lived in Brooklyn and he's one of the Brooklyn guys—he brought up cats I'd never heard of. There was a trumpet player he talked about who was just as bad as Kenny Dorham. I've only seen one record with him on it by Dexter Gordon—I don't know, maybe he died young—but full of history man! Somebody really needs to talk to him, because he's a whole book, really. He knew Oscar Pettiford and he knew Horace early on, Hank Mobley, Kenny Clarke. He lives in Deltona, Florida, which is a suburb of Daytona Beach.

He moved from New York to the Poconos to raise his family, and his daughter is an instructor at Delaware State. He's got a beautiful wife and for a little while he moved to Barbados where his parents are from. He might actually be from Barbados. His wife's brother is a pharmacist, so Arthur and he bought a drugstore in New York, and then later he moved to Florida.

Now, somebody needs to catch him—he's a great help, and he's got stories galore. Somebody could write a book—I talk to him all the time, and the stories about Charlie Parker, Miles and Max, there's just stories, man!

AAJ: It's funny to me, the people who haven't recorded a whole lot may transmit the history a little better than the ones who are hugely well-known.

AF: Let me tell you something. On his birthday, I sent him copies of all the things he was on with Shirley Scott and Lockjaw Davis, and the Kenny Dorham thing. I'm looking for another Kenny Dorham Jazz Prophets that he did on ABC-Paramount. He didn't have it; he didn't even have the Blue Note thing. I sent him my copy of that, and I sent him the Prestige things as well. So this Christmas I've got to think of something.

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