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Alvin Fielder: It's About Time

By Published: July 16, 2007

Chicago and Playing Free

AAJ: How did you get to Chicago, exactly?

AF: I had finished pharmacy school, and I wanted to go to grad school. I was going to major in manufacturing pharmaceuticals at Illinois University. I went up there to go to school and ran into Sun Ra [laughs]! I ran into him when I was working with a tenor player named John Tinsley, and this would've been in early '59. We were working on the West Side, with a female bassist and Sun Ra found out I was listed on the gig. I knew nothing about him.

Most of the stuff we played was standards, but Sun Ra invited me back to one of his rehearsals. We went down to the South Side and went over his music; there were several players hanging around whom I didn't know. Bugs Cochran was there, some of the horn players too, but not on the bandstand. So we made another rehearsal and he started calling me for jobs, and he would use Bugs on drums and me, both of us, and I learned the music mostly from Bugs.

John Gilmore was there; he was like a brother, very nice, and Marshall Allen was also very nice. I was closer to James Spaulding at that time, and there was Pat Patrick who was like an angel. Ronnie Boykins was an angel, too, and he had his own trio. James Spaulding used me on his jobs, and [bassist] Bill Lee was in that band. We had piano, trumpet, alto, bass and drums. So I worked in Spaulding's quintet and continued to play with Sun Ra.

I went to New York and met Wilbur Ware, who was beautiful also, and Pat Patrick was there at the time because he'd made that Africa/Brass (Impulse!, 1961) thing with Coltrane. He met me at the train station and told me where to eat, found me a place to stay, and Wilbur and Pat were my guardian angels. I can always appreciate that—I love them to death. I got a chance there to play with Tommy Turrentine, people like that—it was a bebop thing, and that's what gave me my confidence. New York was my education—we weren't playing jobs, it was just rehearsals every day. I had some people from Meridian up there that also took care of me, and I was just playing all the time.

AAJ: How long was that time in New York?

AF: About seven or eight months. When I left, I went back to Mississippi, and I stayed there about two or three weeks, got good food and went back up to Chicago! [laughs] I was working around a lot with a tenor player named Cozy Eggleston—I don't know if you've heard about him—he had some things on Delmark. He was one of the tenor players from the old school, and he kept me working.

There was another alto player who played alto like Bird and tenor like Lester Young. I was in between these two groups making $20 a night traveling and in town, playing the bars. That's what kept me going because I wasn't practicing pharmacy. Later on I met Muhal [Richard Abrams] and Lester Lashley, Kalaparusha, all the fellas—I met Roscoe Mitchell at Muhal's house. We rehearsed with Lester Lashley on bass and Kalaparusha on tenor.

AAJ: This was the pre-AACM Experimental Band?

AF: This was Muhal's quartet, and Roscoe came by. He came over to me and said, "Can you play free music?" I said "yeah" [laughs] and he said, "come by our rehearsal Thursday." But, you see, I had run into Roscoe once before when I was working with a tenor player on the West Side, and we were playing a lot of bebop then, like "Cherokee." Roscoe walks in the place, undoes his horn case, takes out his alto and puts it together, walks on the stand and plays. The whole music thing just loosened up and I thought—"man!"—I had never played like that in my life! He played I don't know how long, but he finished and took his horn out of his mouth, took it apart and walked out. I didn't know who he was! But the music just elevated, right then and there, so I remembered that.

AAJ: It's kind of like the stories you hear of Ornette or Albert Ayler sitting in, that same aspect of changing things almost immediately.

AF: It loosened me up so much and I was playing fast, out of that Max Roach thing, but after I got with Muhal I didn't want to play like anybody else. Muhal was one of the greatest inspirations of my life, along with Max and the trombone player from Houston, Jimmy Harrison. Jimmy's an excellent musician, let me tell you. He's from Stamford, Connecticut, went to high school with Horace Silver and went to college with Frank Foster and we were playing all those Monk tunes back in '54.

Muhal—I never heard Muhal knock Sun Ra [Abrams and Ra were said by some to be at odds]. None of the great musicians would say anything bad about anybody. If you couldn't play, they would pick out your best parts and deal with that. They didn't feel intimidated by anybody; that was the beautiful part about it. It taught me a lesson. Billy Higgins always said, "I can make music with anybody." That can be done, and I work off of that too. When I play in back of Kidd it's one way, and when I play in back of William Parker I play another way, and with Joel Futterman another way. If I'm with Clyde Kerr, there's another way. Andrew Cyrille is like that, he's a very creative musician.

AAJ: Who are some of the "avant-garde" drummers you admire the most—your contemporaries as you came up in the 1960s?

AF: Andrew, Sunny Murray... Milford Graves and that duo he did with David Murray—whew! That's a beautiful thing. It's like Sunny Murray with Albert Ayler and Gary Peacock, Spiritual Unity (ESP-Disk, 1964), if Sunny didn't play after that, it would have been enough. His latest thing on Eremite [Perles Noires I & II (2003)]—mmh, whew! I didn't play it right away. I waited about two or three weeks, and man I played that and thought this doesn't even sound like him. He's gone through another thing. That was a good recording, too.

AAJ: There seemed to be a conscious change in what Sunny was doing in the '70s, it seems like he got as far as he could get with that open wave of constant sound, and he reigned it in a bit.

AF: It depends on who he's playing with—if the musicians change, you have to change. That's just one of the phases; I've heard Sunny go through four different phases. I heard the Montmartre thing [Cecil Taylor, Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come (Debut, 1962)], and that was fine, but Spiritual Unity is another thing—oh God!

AAJ: He'd discovered how to play by not playing.

AF: Well, there's perhaps a better way to express it, he sounds like Roy Haynes but totally free!

AAJ: Right, that's the way I put it to him when I spoke with him.

AF: I don't know what kind of drums he had—that adds some effect too. I heard Sunny play my drums and he sounded differently because my drums are different. I heard Beaver Harris and he changed my life, too, as far as the drums go. Sun Ra always told me to play "loose," because I was trying to play all the bebop coordination-things, and he said, "loosen up!" I didn't know what he meant. I hadn't heard Andrew then, or Sunny either, and Beaver Harris came to town with Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd and Howard Johnson. I heard the shit that Beaver was playing with that group, and I went back the next night and that was what changed my way of thinking about the drums. Time/no-time, but the shit was swingin'! I heard that and I had to go home and think about it.

I heard Spiritual Unity after that, and then Conquistador and Unit Structures [both by Cecil Taylor with Andrew Cyrille, Blue Note, 1966], which came out around the time we were doing Sound. I heard Andrew and the way he played, and then I heard Milford Graves—those were the four cats I listened to for that particular thing.

AAJ: Beaver perfectly complemented Shepp and Rudd in doing that dirty, free swing.

AF: It was a street thing. Andrew's thing was cleaned up very precisely, and Sunny Murray was playing all across the spectrum. Milford Graves was out there—I thought of Milford as the Blakey of free drummers, Andrew is the Max of free music, Beaver Harris is the Kenny Clarke and Sunny Murray is the Roy Haynes.

AAJ: You pretty much hit the nail on the head with all those comparisons.

AF: Every time I listen to Andrew, I'm just thoroughly knocked over. Andrew, Jack DeJohnette, Billy Hart and Kenny Washington, Billy Drummond and Al Foster, Jeff Watts, and you just can't beat Roy— those are the people I probably listen to more now. Not that I take anything from them, but I enjoy them.

Alvin FielderAAJ: Back to Chicago, what ever happened to [former AEC drummer] Bob Crowder?

AF: I don't know; he went to New York and played with Gil Evans for a while, but I don't know. There was a drummer from New Orleans that went with Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins named David Lee Jr., very talented—Anthony Braxton told me about him. They were in the service together, and when I met Braxton, he always talked about David Lee. I finally got a chance to meet him in New Orleans, and he left shortly thereafter to play with Dizzy and Sonny Rollins. He came back home and the last time I talked to him we talked for two hours just about drums, very beautiful.

AAJ: I'd like to ask what your perception of "little instruments" was on account of playing with Roscoe and Muhal.

AF: If you listen to Sound, that is where it all began. Everybody's group did it a different way—there was Joseph Jarman's group with Thurman Barker, Fred Anderson and Billy Brimfield, Charles Clark and the pianist Christopher Gaddy. In Roscoe's group, we were dealing with all the little instruments and often we made them. We would do things like take juice cans and fill them with water, use little gongs, sticks and metal things to play them, and we used everything, man! That's the reason I play them now.

AAJ: I'm guessing that the Arkestra prepared you for that, but it seemed like such an about- face of the role of the percussionist as you'd experienced it up to that point.

AF: There's one thing I learned from Roscoe, and this was very, very important. Roscoe taught me how to play sound, how to use space and he taught me that a drum can sound different ways. If you noticed the other night, I was playing underneath the drums and so forth. With my personal drums, I have them tuned totally different. I touch them and they respond real fast, but that was what I learned from Roscoe—space. You haven't heard the early things that we didn't release with [trumpeter] Fred Barry. That was the first recording of Roscoe with Fred Berry, Malachi was on bass and I was on drums. Roscoe was talking through his horn, a cross between Ornette and Eric Dolphy. Freddy Berry was a clean, clean Don Cherry.

AAJ: Was he related to Robert Barry?

AF: No, no, he went to Southern Illinois University and got his doctorate in trumpet performance. He's over at the jazz program at Stanford. He's a very good trumpet player, good bebop player, good free player and all around.

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