Category Archives: Cadence

An Interview with Alvin Fielder, July 2002

Following up on the previous post, which contained a couple of interviews with Kidd Jordan, here’s one with drummer Alvin Fielder that I initially conducted for what I’d hoped would be a Downbeat feature on the pair. DownBeat wanted to go shorter, and gave me permission at the time to run the verbatim transcript of each interview in Cadence. Now it’s time to post this on the blog. A  lot of valuable information.

[for a retrospective, read John Litweiler’s wonderful Jazz Times article from 2001. For an oral history with Alvin Fielder, Sr., link here.

Alvin Fielder (7-1-02):

TP:    Let’s start with the standard boilerplate questions. You were born in ’35.

FIELDER:  Yeah, on November 23rd, in Meridian, Mississippi.

TP:    When did you start playing drums?

FIELDER:  Oh, back in ’48, when I was in high school.  About 12-13.

TP:    Was your family musical?

FIELDER:  Yes.  My father had studied the cornet, and my mother was a violinist and a pianist.  My grandmother was a pianist, and my uncle was a clarinetist.

TP:    So playing music was something you did.

FIELDER:  Back then, practically everybody did.  Every household had a piano. Everybody did something — poetry, dance or something.  Not in a professional way, but they just did it.  Well, TV wasn’t out then, so I guess you had to pass the time.

TP:    What line of work were they in?

FIELDER:  My father was a pharmacist, and my grandmother worked for the Federal Government.  She was a home demonstration agent.  She worked all over the county. She would go out and teach the country women how to can and preserve foods, about sewing and various things. My grandfather was a brick mason and a stone mason, and he had a crew of about 15 or 20 men.

TP:    So these were people who had survived and built firm roots in the South.

FIELDER:  Oh, yes.  All the neighborhoods were pretty mixed.  When I say “mixed,” I mean this.  On the corner we had the high school principal. Next to the principal was one of the town’s biggest plumbers, and next to him was a butcher, and on the corner was a guy who owned a big tavern.  On our side of the street, we lived next door to a man who was a Colonel in the U.S. Army, a black guy, and on the corner was an apartment complex that my people owned.  We had a variety of people in our neighborhood.

TP:    When did you start playing drums?

FIELDER:  Back in 1948, when I was 12 or 13.  The latter part of my freshman year. The school band had just started there.

TP:    It was segregation, separate and I’d imagine not very equal.

FIELDER:  Well, not really.  But we didn’t know the difference.  I’d been in Mississippi all my life.  That was the way it was!  I’d done a little bit of traveling, not much.  I hadn’t seen that much.

TP:    Was it only a school rudimental situation, or were you listening to records, too?

FIELDER:  I can remember early on I used to listen to people like Louis Jordan and Joe Liggins and Ella Fitzgerald.  Early on. There was a trumpet player who had been in World War II whose name was Jabbo Jones.  He came home, and he brought back all these records which he’d carry around to the neighbors’ houses, and play — all the Fats Navarro stuff and early Kenny Dorham and Dizzy…

TP:    Oh, so he brought bebop to town.

FIELDER:  Yeah, he was a real bebopper.  I happened to hear…it was a Savoy 78. “Koko” was on one side and on the other side was “London Fog,” by Don Byas, which was valuable.  I think that’s the first modern jazz thing I heard.  I was quite impressed with Max Roach’s 32-bar drum solo, and I wanted to play drums after that.  I had studied piano from when I was about 6 or 7 up until about 10, but I didn’t really like it, so I stopped playing piano and started playing baseball and football. Then I heard Max Roach and Charlie Parker, and that was the turning point of my life.

TP:    In what part of Mississippi is Meridian located?

FIELDER:  It’s right on the Mississippi-Alabama line. Meridian had three ballrooms and 10 or 12 clubs. A lot of bands came through. One band was led by Red Adams, a tenor player who played out of the Coleman Hawkins thing. He had a trumpet player by the name of George Frank Sims[(?)], who had worked with Barnum & Bailey, who was a good friend of Louis Armstrong.  He could play.

TP:    So he was one of those carnival cats.

FIELDER:  Well, he had worked in the carnivals.  But he was a jazz player.  He even spent some time in New York.  At that time, his people owned two funeral homes. A well-to-do family.  He would work the country clubs and everything.  Everybody knew him.  He was a good dresser, always drove a Cadillac, had a lot of money, and just a real nice guy.  So I got a chance to play those jobs with him at the country club.

Then I was working with another group by the name of Lovie Lee and his Funky Three.  He was Muddy Waters’ piano player.  I saw him recently on a “BET on Jazz” thing that had been filmed six or seven years ago. He was a boogie woogie piano player, a blues player. I played those kinds of jobs.

TP:    So you were playing jobs in Meridian during high school.

FIELDER:  Yes.  I started playing jobs after the first year or so.  I wasn’t playing very much, but…

TP:    You could keep time.

FIELDER:  Yeah.  Keep time. I learned how to use the brushes right away, playing the dances and stuff, and of course I was playing the shuffles, too when I played in the blues clubs.

TP:    You didn’t want to get too abstract in those blues clubs.

FIELDER:  [LAUGHS] Yeah. But going back: In Meridian, everybody passed through.  B.B. King was through at least once a month.  Ray Charles came through once a month.  Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie — everybody came through town.

TP:    So on Dizzy’s southern tours, he’d stop at a ballroom in Meridian.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  And that’s the first time I saw Kenny Clarke.  I was 11 or 12.

TP:    Kenny Clarke left Dizzy in ’47, and Joe Harris took over. But they did a southern tour in ’46.

FIELDER:  I think it was called the Hep-Stations.  The man who brought them there is still alive.  He’s about 97-98, and I usually go by and see him.  His name is James Bishop.  He owns a funeral home.  He brought in all these bands — Buddy Johnson and Lionel Hampton.  I got a chance to meet a lot of these people.  I met Jymie Merritt very early, in ’49 or maybe ’50, in Meridian when he came through with B.B.’s band.

TP:    Which means you had a chance to observe professional drummers early on. So as a kid you learned your rudiments, and then started playing.

FIELDER:  I didn’t learn the rudiments right away, see.  I didn’t get into the rudiments until I got to New Orleans and Houston.

TP:    Didn’t you have a teacher?

FIELDER:  I had a teacher, but of course, the teachers were like clarinet players or trumpet players.  I enrolled at Xavier College in New Orleans in 1951, when I was 15, and started all over again. I got with Ed Blackwell, and Blackwell had me transcribing stuff.

TP:    Describe the New Orleans scene in the early ‘50s.

FIELDER:  I met Ellis Marsalis in ’52 when he was going to Dillard.  He became a good friend. He was playing tenor saxophone then, and a little piano.  His teacher was probably the first bebop pianist in New Orleans, Edward Frank.  I think he was a violinist in the beginning, and then he started playing piano. He was out of the Bud Powell thing.  He played his left hand things with some of fingers sometimes, and then he’d play with his elbows and stuff.  He could play!  He was part of the first of the bebop movement down in New Orleans, with Ellis and Alvin Batiste and Blackwell… There’s a drummer Ed Blackwell used to listen to…

TP:    Are you referring to Wilbert Hogan?

FIELDER:  That’s right.  Wilbert Hogan.  By the time I got down there, there were several fellows.  Harry Nance was a left-handed drummer, a very good reader.  He could write anything.  He wrote everything in 16th notes, and he would tie those notes together… Yeah, he was precise, a very good player. Then there was another drummer by the name of Tom Moore, who worked with Dave Bartholomew.

TP:    Earl Palmer was down there, too.

FIELDER:  Earl was there.  But Earl was playing more out of the Shelley Manne thing.  He could play, though. He was working the good jobs.  And he had a day job, too.  I think he worked for the railroad or something, and he was working probably five-six-seven nights a week.  Always working.  I had approached him about studying, and he referred me to Blackwell.  He said, “I just don’t have time, but there is a drummer here — Ed Blackwell.” That was how I met Ed.

TP:    So you approached Earl Palmer for lessons, and he sent you to Blackwell.  What was Blackwell like?  Did he have his modern sound, or a different type of sound?

FIELDER:  Blackwell was basically playing out of the Max Roach thing.  He was practicing every day with a tenor player and a trumpet player.  The trumpet player’s name was Billy White, who used to sound a lot like early Miles Davis, and the tenor player’s name was Booty.  That wasn’t his real name.  He’s in New York now, and he used to work with Idris Muhammad a lot.  They would be practicing all day long.  I’d go to pharmacy school, get out of school at 4 or 5 o’clock, and go right down to Blackwell’s house and watch them practice.  They were playing all of the early Charlie Parker things, “Buzzy” and things like that.  I didn’t hear them play “Confirmation” then.  I didn’t hear them play too many of Dizzy Gillespie’s things.  I didn’t hear them play Monk.  Mainly Bird’s things.

TP:    Things that Max was on.

FIELDER:  Yes, Max.  I really didn’t find out about Kenny Clarke until later.  I didn’t find out about Roy Haynes until later.  Blakey I found out about in ’52.

TP:    Were you dual-tracking, or devoting most of your time to studies?

FIELDER:  To studies.  Blackwell was the first one to put me in a book.  It was a rudimental book, the “100 Rudimental Drum Solos” by Ludwig, if I’m not mistaken.  That was just for the hands and to get me disciplined.  That’s what we did.  I was with Blackwell for about maybe a year-and-a-half, until I transferred from Xavier to Texas Southern in ’53.  I met Blackwell probably after being in New Orleans for half a year or three-quarters of a year, and then all of the second year.

TP:    Was there any scene to speak of for modern-thinking musicians in New Orleans then?

FIELDER:  It was more or less a mixture, because there was a lot of rhythm-and-blues. But the rhythm-and-blues at that time was different than the rhythm-and-blues is now, because all of the rhythm-and-blues bands had a bunch of bebop players playing in them.  All of them!  All the drummers I heard — people like Tom Moore, Harry Nance, June Gardner — either came out of the Max Roach or the Blakey thing.  They were playing the shuffles, but they were hip shuffles, not like the backbeat type shuffles.  That was a help after I got into Texas.  I ran into a trombone player there by the name of Plummer Davis, and I played in Plummer’s band.  I don’t know how I got that job.  I took Richie Goldberg’s place.  Richie Goldberg was a drummer out of Houston who went on to work with Bud Powell, Ray Charles, and with Roland Kirk’s band. Good bebop player. He was a drum-maker… He made all of Billy Higgins’ drums in later life.

I got a chance to study with a lot of drummers in Texas.  Every time they’d come to town, I’d be there. I met G.T. Hogan, a very good drummer who had worked in Earl Bostic’s band with Benny Golson and Coltrane and Tommy Turrentine.  Another drummer by the name of Jual Curtis, J.C. Curtis.  He used to play with Al Grey’s group with Bobby Hutcherson, and also Wilbur Ware.  I got a chance to practice with Jual all the time.

All the bands were coming through. When Gene Ammons came through, I would practice with his drummer, whose name was George “Dude” Brown.  I got a chance to spend a lot of time with him.  James Moody would come through and he had Clarence Johnston.  That’s how I had a chance to learn my paradiddles; he taught it to me the easy way.  Then Bennie Green would come through with Charlie Rouse and Paul Chambers and a drummer from Newark, New Jersey, by the name of Chink Wilson.

TP:    So you picked up this and you picked up that and you picked up something else.

FIELDER:  Right.  And I would write everything down, and I’d write down all their books.  Clarence Johnston would come through with a trunk-full of books on the road.  He could read his butt off.  George “Dude” Brown couldn’t read at all, but a swinging drummer.  I also studied with Herbie Brochstein, the guy who owns Pro-Mark drumsticks.  I was one of his students, and so was Stix Hooper.

TP:    So you were a very analytical young guy.

FIELDER:  I think too much.  But it all paid off.  I’ve got just books of things.  I’ve got books of Max Roach’s four-bar solos and Roy Haynes’ extended solos — stuff like that.  I don’t even look at them now.  Well, I look at portions of them, but that’s all.

TP:    So you’re in Houston, you graduate Texas Southern, and then what’s your path to Chicago?

FIELDER:  I graduated in ’56. I had taken the State Board of Pharmacy and passed it, but I was 19, so they wouldn’t allow me to practice pharmacy any place except with my father until I was 21.  I went back to Mississippi, and just lolled around, until I decided to go back to grad school.  I went to the University of Illinois, the Medical Center Branch on South Wood, studying manufacturing pharmacy.  In the meantime, I met Sun Ra…

TP:    Did you have family in Chicago, like a lot of people from Mississippi?

FIELDER:  I had an uncle and cousins, and a lot of my mother’s family.

TP:    So you had some roots there.

FIELDER:  I hadn’t been there.  But I had a lot of kinfolk there.

Let me tell you about my first night in Chicago.  I told my cousin, “Look, I’d like to go out and hear some music!”  He said, “Fine.”  So we went down on 63rd Street.  This first club I went in was on Stony Island between 62nd and 63rd (I can’t remember the name), and it was Lester Young, Johnny Griffin, Norman Simmons, Victor Sproles, and a drummer by the name of Jump Jackson.  He was big in the union politics.  He could play time, but he really wasn’t one of the premier drummers there.  He wasn’t like Dorel Anderson or Marshall Thompson or Vernell Fournier or James Slaughter or Wilbur Campbell.  But he got the job!  I thought, “Oh God!  If these guys are using this drummer, I know I’m going to be able to work.”  So we sat, we listened.

Then we drove to a club named Swingland on Cottage Grove in between 62nd and 63rd.  Lo and behold, I go in Swingland, I hear this BAD music, unbelievably terrible.  Johnny Griffin, John Gilmore, Bill Lee, Wilbur Campbell, and Jodie Christian. They’re playing “Cherokee,” Wilbur Campbell asleep on the drums, but I mean, BURNING.  Oh, man!  I couldn’t believe my ears.  I had never heard anything that bad in all of my life.  I sat there and I listened, man, and I got nervous.  I had to leave the club.  Of course, I came back the next night.  But I went down the street, and at the Kitty-Kat Club there was Andrew Hill, a drummer by the name of James Slaughter, who was really burning, too, and Malachi Favors.

So that was my first night out.  Then, look here, I haven’t been the same since.  Believe me, I heard three different types of drummers.  Wilbur was a musician and a beautiful drummer.  He was more or less out of that Elvin Jones thing from the ’50s.  And I heard some Roy Haynes then.  I didn’t hear much Max Roach or Kenny Clarke in it.  A beautiful touch.  James Slaughter was a rudimental drummer, the type of drummer who would go on a set and say, “Well, I’m going to play the drag paradiddle throughout this whole set, and see what I can do with it.”  He would turn it inside-out, and play it off the cymbal or the snare toms.  Beautiful cat.  He showed me a lot about the rudiments, and I really appreciate it.  I talk to him all the time still.  He isn’t playing any more.  He has arthritis.

TP:    So you’re in Chicago, and you start to get yourself into the scene.

FIELDER:  Right.  I started playing around, and met a tenor player named John Tinsley.  John was out of the bebop thing, although he wasn’t like Nicky Hill or George Coleman, any of those players.  But he would always keep a quartet together, and had a good group. I was working a dance thing with him on the West Side, and lo and behold, the pianist was Sun Ra.  I’d never heard of Sun Ra.  Sunny and I started talking.  He asked me where I was from, and I told him I was from Mississippi.  So he said, “Look, man, I bet you can play some shuffles.  I’d like for you to come by and practice with me.”

So I did.  Went down to this big auditorium.  I don’t even remember where it was.  All these people were there.  James Spaulding was on it, and Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Hobart Dotson, a trombone player named Bo Bailey who was one of Julian Priester’s teachers, and Ronnie Boykins.  I see nine or ten other people sitting out front. I didn’t know it then, but they were drummers.  Bugs Cochran was out there, and several more drummers I didn’t know.  They called a tune, and I played it, then he called another one and I played it.  I thought I was playing well, but as I look back, I’m sure that I wasn’t.  Anyway, Sunny invited me to join the band.  So I did.  He was using two other drummers then, sometimes together and sometimes not — Bugs Cochran and Robert Barry.  I guess I listened more than I played.

TP:    Was that your first time in a situation where you were outside the norm?

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I was way above my head.  Everything was way above me.  John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, all those guys.  But it got to be interesting, and…

TP:    How regularly did you play with him?  I know he was rehearsing all the time, but not gigging all the time.

FIELDER:  I was with him part of ’59 and’60. We’d play on weekends at various places.  I guess we played more at the Queen’s Mansion than any place.  But we would play all over, on the West Side… Of course, the money wasn’t that great.  But then again, as I look back, I should have been paying him.

But from that, I was working with Ronnie Boykins’ trio. I was working in Spaulding’s quintet.  He had a group with Bill Lee and a trumpet player by the name of Dick Whitsol.  I just wonder where he is now.  I can’t remember the piano player.  We used to play a lot of the colleges.

TP:    So basically, taking you up to the early ’60s, you’re playing with Sun Ra, playing gigs that are more straight-up with people from Sun Ra… Were you doing other things?

FIELDER:  I was working with several groups.  I was working with a tenor player by the name of Cozy Eggleston.  Steve McCall was working with him some; DeJohnette was working with him, too.  And I thought of the drummer’s name who influenced Jack.  His name was Arthur McKinney.  We all played around.  But going from Sun Ra, though:  One summer I went to Denver with a saxophonist named Earl Evell(?) and a pianist named Daniel Ripperton. Actually we were going out to California, stopped over in Denver while passing through, and met a bass player named Sam Gill who was working in the Denver Symphony. He used to work with Randy Weston; he was in school with Gunther Schuller and Max and John Lewis. He was telling me he and Richard Davis had gone out and auditioned, and he got the job.  He was a great player.  We were working after-hours.  We did that for six months.  That was in 1961, I think.

TP:    Let me ask you a more general question.  Obviously, the way you’re hearing music is starting to change, or there’s something in you that’s looking for something different…

FIELDER:  Well, not at that time.  I was still tied up in Max Roach.  Max was like my Daddy, Granddaddy, Great-Granddaddy, everything.  I’d heard Blakey on those early Miles Davis things down in New Orleans, “Tempus Fugit,” the ones with Jimmy Heath and J.J. Johnson.  And I’d heard Kenny Clarke.  Wasn’t that impressed with Klook at that time, until I learned better.  Roy Haynes?  I heard Roy, but I didn’t really hear it.  But early on, in Chicago, ’60-’61, I was still listening to Max.

TP:    Well, Sun Ra was always swinging at that time.  There comes a point where you go from a notion of swinging and keeping a pulse to a notion of time being something different.

FIELDER:  Interacting and stuff, yeah. But I hadn’t reached that level musically.

TP:    For instance, Jack DeJohnette is someone who would feel very comfortable playing both time-based things and bebop, and then also going into other areas.

FIELDER:  Jack was always very loose.  I can remember him playing at sessions at the Archway, where a lot of drummers came, and Jack was always the loosest of them all.  You can attribute that to Jack being a pianist, knowing the music, knowing how the changes were falling.  Most drummers know the structure of tunes.  One of the things I try to teach my students is how to recognize the II-V-I turnbacks, the cycle of fourths, and what a minor-III chord is, the sound of the VI, and things like this.  But Jack was a pianist.  He knew all of that then, whereas Steve McCall didn’t.  I was somewhat familiar with it, but I didn’t really know it.

TP:    I’m trying to get at what brought you from a swinging drummer to the person who is playing on Sound.

FIELDER:  [LAUGHS] All right, we’ll get to that. In 1962 I spent about eight months in New York.  Pat Patrick showed me around. I had a chance to play with Bernard McKinney, Tommy Turrentine, Wilbur Ware, all of the beboppers. But it was a little clique thing; all the musicians from Boston, Detroit and Chicago played together every day.  During the summer.  Tony Williams had slipped away from home and came to New York to stay with Clifford Jarvis. Clifford Jarvis was at all the things, and another drummer from Boston, George Scott.  I was playing every day. I was listening to Billy Higgins and Elvin by this time, a lot to Philly Joe and to another drummer by the name of Arthur Edgehill. I went back to Chicago later that year, and somehow got with Muhal. Muhal had a trio with Donald Garrett, and I replaced Steve McCall in the trio.

TP:    What sort of gigs were you playing?

FIELDER:  We were rehearsing. We did a lot of practicing.  Then he brought in a tenor player by the name of Bob Pulliam, who lived on the West Side.  Good tenor player.  I don’t know what’s happened to him. I first started to loosen up after meeting Muhal.  Roscoe Mitchell came to a rehearsal I was doing with Muhal, Kalaparusha and Lester Lashley. He just sat and listened, and asked me could I play free. [LAUGHS] I said, “Yeah, I play free.”  So he invited me to a rehearsal with Freddie Berry and Malachi Favors.  That’s how the original Roscoe Mitchell Quartet started.  Of course, then I was still playing like Max, Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and trying to play Elvin’s cymbal patterns.

I think the turning point in my life was one night when I was at the Plugged Nickel — Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd, Howard Johnson, Beaver Harris.  Sun Ra had always told me, “Al, loosen up.”  I didn’t know what he meant, really. I wasn’t familiar with Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille at that time.  When I heard Beaver, I said, “This is what it is!”  It was like he was playing time, but there was no time. He was playing all across the barlines. If they were playing 4, he might play 4-1/2, another cat plays 3-1/2… It was like a conversation.  It wasn’t like 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4, BAM.  It was just flowing. I developed a philosophy there that I wanted to play my bebop as loose as possible and I wanted to play my free music as tight as possible. That way, it can all blend in.  Billy Higgins is a good example.  Andrew Cyrille is a good example.  So is Elvin.

My drumming went in a different direction for a long while.  Then I was tight, I guess.  None of the bebop cats would call me any more, once I started working with Muhal and Roscoe.  Of course, the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet led into various groups.  We tried various people, like Leroy Jenkins for a while, and Gene Dinwiddie, but that didn’t work out.  Somehow, we got Lester Lashley, and after Freddie Berry left, Lester Bowie came in.

TP:    Still, there’s a process of transition going on.  Because Sound doesn’t sound like anything being done at the time.

FIELDER:  It wasn’t.

TP:    It sounds wholly unto itself, it’s totally realized and virtuosically played. Yet you say in ’64, you were playing more or less straight-ahead.

FIELDER:  In the beginning, I heard Ornette and Eric Dolphy in Roscoe, which I guess is conservative when you think of Albert Ayler and Frank Wright.

TP:    I don’t know if “conservative” is the word I would think of…

FIELDER:  Maybe the word is wrong. Omit that word. [LAUGHS] Insert another word.

TP:    Well, the music of Ornette and Eric Dolphy and Roscoe has form, and there’s very little in Albert Ayler and none to speak of in Frank Wright.

FIELDER:  Yes.  But see, the first compositions we played in Roscoe’s group were very much like Ornette’s music.  “Outer Space” and… I can’t even think of the tunes.  He’s still playing those tunes.  And they were actually swinging.

TP:    Would you say that Roscoe in ’64-’65 was on a world-class level as a musician?

FIELDER:  Look, let me tell you something. I remember Joseph Jarman, and all of the guys in the AACM.  Only a few players could compare to Roscoe.  Of course, Muhal.  At that time, Jodie Christian, of course.  Fred Anderson.  But I do believe that Anthony Braxton wouldn’t be who he is today if he hadn’t heard Roscoe.  Joseph Jarman either.  Absholom Ben’Sholomo was another one of the saxophonists in the AACM.  Now, Braxton’s playing always amazed me.  Because when I first heard him, man, I heard a lot of Paul Desmond!  He was swinging, but it was a different type swinging.  When he got around Roscoe, his swing got a little deeper.  But it was never as deep as Roscoe’s. Roscoe was the most advanced saxophonist in the AACM by a long shot.  He influenced ALL of the saxophonists.  Roscoe was in the middle at that time.  He would always tell the rhythm section to play straight, but of course, the front line could play totally free.

TP:    He did that in the Art Ensemble, too, with Moye playing a straight four swing beat.

FIELDER:  Yeah, he had me doing that.  And when I left the group, I formed a trio with Anthony Braxton and Charles Clark.  We used to play opposite Roscoe a lot. Then the group expanded into a sextet, with Leo Smith and Kalaparusha and Leroy Jenkins — trumpet, alto, tenor, violin, bass and drums.

TP:    Did that group have the seeds of that trio where there’s very little kind of pulse, or were you the pulse?

FIELDER:  That group swung a lot.  We were In and Out.  It was very flexible.

TP:    With Charles Clark, I can imagine.  Tell me what it was like to play with him.

FIELDER:  Oh, unbelievably easy.  It was floating.  In a way, it’s like working with William Parker now, but Charles was lighter.  William has a pulse… Oh, he’s one of my favorite bass players, along with Henry Franklin and Malachi Favors. There’s an electric bass player in New Orleans, Elton Heron, who’s a beautiful player.  I just finished a record date with William and Elton, and they played beautifully together.

TP:    I realize that things were changing in Chicago during that time, and straight-up jazz was on a decline.  Places were closing down.  But suppose someone like Sonny Stitt had called you, if Ajaramu couldn’t make it, given the way you were thinking at the time, would you have done that type of gigs?

FIELDER:  I played with Gene Ammons and Bennie Green and Pat Patrick and Sun Ra and Malachi Favors.

TP:    Right before the AACM years?

FIELDER:  Yes.

TP:    So you weren’t rejecting bebop.

FIELDER:  Oh, definitely not.

TP:    Because a lot of the people who were taking things out were rejecting bebop.

FIELDER:  Bebop has always been a challenge, and it still is.  Bebop is the foundation for everything I play now.  Even when I’m playing totally free, my phrases are going to be bebop phrases, but I might play them looser, slower, or faster.  I have developed a way to apply the rudiments to bebop and to so-called “avant-garde,” free music. I think it can be done.  I have tapes of probably 90% of the concerts I’ve done since the ’60s  I go back, I listen, and see what I have to leave out or didn’t play.  But of course, the Chicago years were the turning point.

TP:    Why do you think that sensibility was emerging at that time, to incorporate so many different approaches to music into an improvisational aesthetic?

FIELDER:  It was mainly because we weren’t working. Where could Joseph Jarman work?  So we had to set up our own network.  And the thing was to play original music.  It wasn’t to play Charlie Parker’s music.  It wasn’t to play Coltrane’s music.  That was part of the AACM bylaws.

Everybody was playing in different situations.  Muhal was working with everybody!  He had worked in Woody Herman’s band and in Max’s band, and was playing all types of jobs around town.  Jodie was, too.  I was playing everything. I was playing barroom music with Cozy Eggleston, and… But some of the musicians weren’t really working at that time.  I just think that we all took on Muhal as a father figure.  Muhal is a genius.  Genius!  If any Chicago player were going to get the MacArthur Award, it should have gone to Muhal.  See, Braxton is a beautiful player, and a very smart fellow, but I think it should have gone to Roscoe before him.  But first and foremost, it should have gone to Muhal.  He was everybody’s teacher.  Everybody’s.  I can remember MJT+3, when you were dealing with Booker Little and George Coleman, Bob Cranshaw and them… Muhal was the strong man in that group in the beginning.

When I really made the change, I had no alternatives. I either had to play one way or the other.  There were different camps at that time, and being able to play free with some kind of control… I guess I’m not like Sunny Murray, who is just a creative force.  I think of Sunny Murray the same way I think of Max Roach in the music.  Because when you think about it, all modern drummers come from four sources.  They either come from Max, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes or Kenny Clarke.  Kenny Clarke first, of course.  And the newer drummers, the free drummers, the avant-garde drummers, all come from Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille or Beaver Harris.  I don’t know why, but they come in threes and fours.  Andrew Cyrille I like to think of as the Max Roach of the free drumming.  I think of Sunny Murray as the Roy Haynes of the free drummers.  I think of Milford Graves as the Art Blakey of the free drummers.  And I think of Beaver Harris as the Kenny Clarke of the free drummers.

TP:    Pittsburgh, there you go.

FIELDER:  That’s right.  And Beaver Harris studied with Kenny Clarke.

TP:    Chicago was isolated enough that you could develop your own music, but sufficiently big and cosmopolitan that what you did had to be on a very high level of sophistication, and there was enough other artistic activity to provide a template against which to bounce off.

FIELDER:  And see, I didn’t know it then, but there was a drummer there by the name of Ike Day.  Ike Day — I guess indirectly — was an influence.  I was listening to Wilbur Campbell also, and Wilbur comes from Ike Day.  I was listening to Vernell Fournier.  Vernell came from Ike Day.  I was listening to Dorel.  Dorel was from Ike Day.  And the stories I’ve heard about Ike Day… I used to sit down and just talk to Wilbur Campbell and Vernell and to Slaughter about him.  Somebody needs to write a book on Ike Day, really.

TP:    Andrew Hill described him as sort of layering rhythms in the African manner.

FIELDER:  Stacking the rhythm.  Yes.  But the bottom line was that he reminded them all of Big Sid Catlett.

TP:    He was a great show drummer, apparently.  Buddy Rich dug him.

FIELDER:  Yeah, Buddy and Art Blakey, when they’d come to town, they’d want to see Ike.

TP:    So you’re in Chicago, and you are the drummer on one of the landmark records of the mid-’60s.  Sound is kind of like Shape of Jazz To Come because it doesn’t seem to have any antecedents.

FIELDER:  It was done at the very same time as Unit Structures.  That was different than the Chicago way of playing…and I guess the New York way!

TP:    But you’re the drummer on this, and then you leave Chicago when, in 1969?

FIELDER:  August 1969.

TP:    Take me from Sound up to 1969.

FIELDER:  Okay.  At the time we recorded Sound, I was just about getting ready to leave the group, because Roscoe and Lester Bowie had brought in another little drummer, and we were rehearsing with him… I can’t think of his name.

TP:    Philip Wilson?

FIELDER:  No, Philip came in a little later, after a guy who was also from St. Louis.  I can’t think of his name.  So it was three drummers sometimes, and we had started to play the little instruments a lot, and I wasn’t playing the drums that much.  Actually, nobody was.  Everybody was playing everything else.  I felt the challenge had left that group.  I wanted to play.  I wanted to swing.  I wanted to develop in a certain way.  I was listening to Elvin Jones, listening more to Blackwell also, and to Billy Higgins constantly. I was listening to Wilbur Campbell a lot, too.  So I felt I had to leave.  Anthony Braxton had just gotten back in town, and I approached him and we formed the trio together, and then the sextet I told you about. We were working every Thursday night at some club, making $10 a night…

TP:    But you weren’t exclusively a musician.

FIELDER:  I was working in pharmacy.  I was married.  I started working in pharmacy again six months before I got married.  When did Kennedy get killed?

TP:    November 1963.

FIELDER:  Well, I started working six months before then.  But I wasn’t working full time.  I was working to make enough money to play.  But we were working every Thursday night at some club, making $10 apiece.  I suggested to the guys, “Why don’t we approach the club-owner, rent the club and take all of the door and pay ourselves?”  They didn’t want to do it.  So I left the group, and turned the drum chair over to Thurman Barker.  Then we formed another group, Fred Anderson, Lester Lashley and me; that was called The Trio.

TP:    Lester Lashley was playing bass?

FIELDER:  He was playing bass, cello and trombone.  Very good group.  Michael Cuscuna reviewed us in Coda.  He loved it.  I was in that group until I left in August of ’69.  I can remember when everybody was getting ready to go to France, Roscoe and them; they had a concert out at University of Chicago, and Philip couldn’t make the job, so I played it.  That was the last job they played there.  I left two or three days after they did.

TP:    They went to Europe and you went back to Mississippi.

FIELDER:  Back to Mississippi, yeah. [LAUGHS] And after I got back to Mississippi, I got involved in politics, with the Republican Party and stuff.

TP:    The Republican Party?

FIELDER:  Well, they enabled me to bring in Roscoe, Kalaparusha and all the AACM people, and Clifford Jordan and Muhal and everybody!  I used to work out of the White House.  I worked out of the White House for two-and-a-half years.

TP:    You mean in the Nixon White House?

FIELDER:  Yes.

TP:    Who did you know there?

FIELDER:  I was on the Executive Committee of Odell County.  My grandfather had been in the Black-and-Tan Party.  He had been the State Treasurer. My father was a Republican.  My whole family.

TP:    I guess that was an act of rebellion in Mississippi at that time.

FIELDER:  Well, in Mississippi, you have to remember that Blacks couldn’t even talk about joining the Democratic Party back in the teens and the ’20s and the ’30s.  That was like a death wish.  So all blacks then were Republican.  Since I was raised up in that type house…

TP:    Were they able to vote?

FIELDER:  No.  You had to pay a poll tax, I think $2 a year or something.  I have all of those records.  I’m in the process of putting the house back together like it was back in 1913.

TP:    So you went to Mississippi, and your family connections were such that you immediately stepped into a very strong community role and were able to make things like this happen.

FIELDER:  Yes.  I belonged to everything — the Lions Club, Chamber of Commerce, ACLU. I don’t belong to anything now.  Anyway, I was able to get grants from National Endowment, from Mississippi Arts Commission… I worked most of my concerts at the Meridian Public Library.  Roscoe and Malachi Favors and John Stubblefield worked the first job. Stubb and I had worked in Chicago, too, in a group with Leroy Jenkins — violin, tenor and drums.  That was a great group.  So that’s what I did after I left Chicago.

TP:    You had your pharmacy business, you expanded the pharmacy business, and you played.

FIELDER:  Right.

TP:    How did you meet Kidd Jordan?

FIELDER:  I met him through Cliff Jordan.  I was working with Cliff a lot in a quartet — tenor-piano-bass-drums.  Cliff had come to Mississippi, and I’d play all the Mississippi dates with him.  I had written a tune for Kenny Clarke and Max Roach and Billy Higgins, and we always played it.  Of course, Cliff went back to New York. In 1976, Kenny Clarke had come through town, and he was going to Chicago to work the Jazz Showcase for a week with Clifford, Al Haig and Wilbur Ware.  Clifford told Klook about me.  So Kenny Clarke called me at the drugstore.  “This is Kenny Clarke.” “Come on, man. Whoever you are, don’t play with me.”  “No, I’m Kenny Clarke, and Cliff Jordan told me about you.  I’d like to invite you up to Chicago.”  So he sent me a ticket, and I went to the Jazz Showcase and watched him play. Kenny Clarke was a very slick, busy drummer, but very quiet, with a touch unlike any other drummer.  Actually, Philly Joe Jones played a lot of Kenny’s stuff, but louder, and he played a lot of Max’s stuff and Blakey’s stuff.

Anyway, Cliff and I got to be very close friends. Cliff went to New Orleans, and did a clinic at Kidd’s school, Southern University of New Orleans. He called me and said, “Look, Al, there’s a saxophone player down there who’s a helluva saxophonist, but he’s getting ready to stop playing.  Go down there, talk to him, and play with him.”  So one Sunday I drove down with a bass player named London Branch (he’d been in Chicago; good bass player), and we looked for Kidd all day long.  Couldn’t find him until 6 o’clock that evening.  We sat and talked for a minute, and Kidd said, “Let’s go play.”  So we went out to the school, just the three of us, and we played til about 9 or 10 o’clock that night.  Kidd said, “Man, look here, I haven’t this much fun in a long time.”  I said, “Neither have I, man.  I’ve been playing some, but this is… Wshew!  What we need to do is just come back down here.  We’ll be back next weekend.”  When we came back down, Kidd had gotten together a tenor saxophonist, Alvin Thomas; Clyde Kerr on trumpet, a percussionist (I can’t think of his name); and another saxophonist by the name of Curt Ford.  We played all that Sunday.  God, we just played-played-played.  I’ve got everything on tape.  When we went back the next week, it was a quintet — Clyde, Kidd, London, Alvin Thomas and me.  We brought in some arrangements.  Then we decided to name the group Improvisational Arts Quintet, to keep it together and start playing.”

TP:    It seems the operative assumptions of the saxophonists you played with in Chicago were a little different than Kidd’s.

FIELDER:  They were.  You must remember, a lot of it is environmental.  Kidd is from Crowley, Louisiana — Cajun country.  I don’t know of any other saxophonist in the South who plays like Kidd.  Now, I have played jobs where Kidd has sounded like Johnny Griffin.  And he’ll play Johnny Griffin tunes.  At the end, though, he’ll stop and laugh — heh-heh-heh.  He loves Johnny Griffin.

TP:    But he just can’t bring himself to go there.

FIELDER:  He chooses not to go there.  Our trio with pianist Joel Futterman… We have some unbelievable tapes.  Joel is from Chicago.  He once had a quartet with Jimmy Lyons and Richard Davis; they did an album, and it took them three and four months to learn the music he wrote.  After that, Joel said, “I don’t ever want to play any more written music.”  He’s a beautiful pianist.  Joel is bad!  We’re going to put some of our tapes.

I guess Joel and Kidd reached a point where they just don’t want to play any more written music.  However, Kidd is very versatile.  Have you heard that date with Kidd and Alan Silva and William Parker?  Well, he’s done another one with Bill Fischer.  Bill Fischer is another genius.  He was my college roommate. He did a lot of writing for the McCoy Tyner Big Band and Cannonball.  He’s from Jackson, Mississippi.  He was a tenor player, and switched to cello.  He and Kidd did an entirely written thing, with Bill playing synthesizer and Kidd on alto.  Kidd had music stretched out over rooms, and he read it all. Kidd is an excellent saxophonist.  He studied a fellow by the name of Fred Hemke at Northwestern .

TP:    Donald Harrison and Branford Marsalis have both talked about Kidd as a teacher.  Donald said Kidd told him about his intervallic concept.

FIELDER:  Yes.  And he plays all the reeds — clarinet, flute, alto, tenor, soprano, sopranino.  He plays everything.

TP:    To me, his musicianship is beyond question.  My question is why the imperative to play on the tabula rasa all the time? And do you feel that you can get there consistently, or is there a sort of predictability within the process?

FIELDER:  In working with Kidd, I always am surprised.  Because Kidd works it off a different angle. He’ll work off a cymbal. He’ll work off of a rim-shot. He’ll work off of a tom-tom sound.

TP:    Does he listen mostly to the drums?

FIELDER:  He listens to everybody, all at the same time.  His ear is phenomenal.  I’ve heard him play opposite Brotzmann and Fred Anderson and Frank Wright.  Kidd is a chameleon, with all this technique and knowledge; he can go anywhere, at any time, at the drop of a hat.  I’ve been extremely fortunate to play with saxophonists like Roscoe… Cleanhead Vinson was another great player!  An unbelievable violinist.  Most people don’t know it, but he played good bebop violin.  When I played with him in ’55 and a portion of ’56, his saxophone skills were out there.  He played all kinds of ways.

TP:    The musicality isn’t what I’m talking about. It’s the mindset.  You’re a guy who came up in the South in an environment where metrical swinging was the imperative at all times. Again, the question is becoming more pronounced because of the climate of the times.  The younger musicians aren’t grabbing onto that sensibility.  They’re blending it all with other things, picking and choosing from styles and periods.  Why does the tabula rasa remain the main imperative?

FIELDER:  I think there is something even past this.  Younger students often ask me, “Is there a formula?”  There is no formula.  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 incorporate all of it. I told how the drummer Harry Nance would break down everything in 16th notes and tie it all in.  With so-called free music, I can analyze everything. Everything I play, I can write. I used to sit down with Billy Hart and do that.  Every time I talk to DeJohnette, the first thing he brings up is, “Are you still writing everything, Al?”  No, I don’t any more.  I’ve gotten past that.  I’m writing it in my head, and I play it.  Really, I still hear everything in 1/1 time.  Everything is one.  However, you have your phrases, your fallbacks.  If you listen to my solos, even in the so-called free music, they are all based on two-measure phrases, four-measure phrases, eight-measure phrases.

TP:    Small cells.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I’ve made it my business to track rhythms, going back to Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton, O’Neil Spencer, Kaiser Marshall, Cuba Austin.  I like to track things.  I did a study of Art Taylor.  Most people think Art Taylor is from Max Roach and Art Blakey, but he’s not.  He’s from J.C. Heard.  J.C. Heard has just a branch of Big Sid Catlett.  He took just one little branch.  That’s like Al Foster.  Al Foster took a branch of Tony Williams, and he’s working that into his own thing.  Everybody took a little branch of somebody.  I like to listen to drummers play, and I say, “Oh yeah, that’s a pattern I heard such-and-such a person play on such-and-such a record. Really, there’s nothing new.

TP:    It’s like you have this enormous Rolodex of rhythms going on in your mind and you cross-reference them at any given moment.

FIELDER:  On the spur of the moment.  And I go through so many books.  I’m going through a book now, Charlie Wilcox’s “Rollin’ In Rhythm.”  He has a study on a five-stroke roll, a six-stroke roll, and the extended rolls and stuff.  I can work one page of that, and I can play gigs for a month.  If you listen to it, you’ll hear Max, you’ll hear Philly Joe…

For instance, I went in the studio with a quintet about two or three years ago.  I decided to play all Monk and Charlie Parker things.  We were playing “Confirmation” and “Little Rootie Tootie” and so on.  The tapes sounded great. I make it my business to be able to play a strong cymbal pattern that way.  I’ll play the same cymbal pattern playing looser music, but I loosen it up.  I combine what I would play on the snare drums on both my cymbal and snare drum.  And it fits perfectly.

I used to practice with a lot of drummers, but I don’t any more.  I can’t find drummers to practice with.  Everybody is stuck on doing this particular thing. I think the rhythms of, say, 1994-95 and up, tend to be a little bit herky-jerky, whereas the rhythms in the ’40s and the ’50s flowed a lot more.  That went on through the period of Sunny Murray.  I don’t think the younger drummers have really listened to Sunny Murray.  Sunny has so much to say!  Andrew Cyrille I think is just as important as Tony Williams on the shape of drums…on the shape of musical drums.  You have drummers and you have musical drummers. Andrew is a musical drummer.  Sunny Murray is a rough musical drummer.  Sunny would say his music is controlled chaos.  I like to think of Andrew Cyrille as being the same way, really controlled.  Andrew is a whiz.  DeJohnette is a whiz.  Billy Hart is a whiz.  These are the drummers, outside of Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin, Blakey, Philly Joe and so forth… I hear younger drummers like Billy Drummond and Kenny Washington (fabulous drummer) or Carl Allen, Herlin Riley… I hear these drummers as drummers that could have played in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s quite easily.  But I’m hearing a newer rhythm in the drummers coming up. I’m not saying it’s bad.  But I think jazz has lost its street thing. I don’t mean the New Orleans street thing. I’m talking about the street thing that Philly Joe Jones had.

TP:    You’re talking about the attitude.

FIELDER:  Yes.  See, if you listen to the drummers from Boston as compared to the drummers from Philadelphia, to the drummers from Pittsburgh and Washington, the Chicago drummers, the Midwest drummers, the St. Louis drummers… There was a drummer named Joe Charles from St. Louis who was phenomenal drummers, sort of like Wilbur Campbell.  Wilbur was a little more disciplined than Joe.  But if you had to pick a St. Louis drummer, Joe would be the one.  And there’s one in every town.  Wherever you go, you’re going to find somebody.  In Pittsburgh, there’s Roger Humphries.  In Philadelphia, Mickey Roker and Edgar Batemen are still there, Edgar Bateman is still there. But Joe Charles had rhythm above that.  Billy Higgins told me about him.  Kenny Washington always talks about him.  Elvin talks about him.  If you can imagine a drummer with Kenny Clarke’s cymbal beat, Elvin Jones’ left foot-right foot-left hand, and a person who thinks like Sunny Murray, you’ve got your sound.  He made one record.  It was called “Buck Nekkid.”  You need to get it.  It’s BAD.  He was Ronnie Burrage’s teacher, I think, and Philip Wilson’s teacher.  A guy who never left town.  Guy who had a big family, worked in a meat market, and he worked with Grant Green and Jimmy Forrest and that was it.  But BAD.

But there’s somebody in every town.  There’s G.T. Hogan.  Billy Boswell up in San Francisco.  Other drummers in Los Angeles.  They all have a different rhythm.  I can tell a Boston drummer from a Midwest drummer.  I can tell a Midwest drummer from a West Coast drummer.  No matter who he is; that includes Larence Marable or whomever.  But it’s the same way.  You can usually tell a ’40s drummer from a ’50s drummer from a ’60s drummer, and so forth.  And of course, there’s further breakdowns.

But what worries me now about the drummers is they don’t have that roughness about them. If you listen to Philly Joe and Sunny Murray, there’s precision, but a roughness, too.

TP:    Did you perceive in the ’60s — and today, if you did see it that way in the ’60s — what you were doing as something that was avant-garde?

FIELDER:  I didn’t think of it as that.  I knew that I heard something different being played, but I just thought of it as an extension of bebop.  Most of the cats could go either way.  Most of them could.  I didn’t say all of them.

TP:    How did you see the music of the ’60s in relation to the culture and politics of the time?

FIELDER:  I’ve always associated changes in the music with world events, and I saw this as part of the Vietnam conflict and the Civil Rights movement.  But I never thought of myself as trying to be… It was more like a challenge for me to play some of the things that I was playing, and I wanted to see how I could work them out — from a coordination standpoint and a musical standpoint — and how I could interact with various players.  For an instance, in the Improvisational Arts Quintet, we had a bass player, London Branch, who was basically a bass player from Pettiford’s era, but he wrote from the Mingus thing — gorgeous arrangements and compositions.  We had Clyde Kerr, a trumpet player who was on the fringes of freedom but he played good bebop.  Alvin Thomas was not quite as far-out as Clyde was; great player and everything, but more of a bebop player.  Clyde had one foot in bebop and one foot in, say, the avant-garde music.  And Kidd was totally out.  So in any one composition, I had to play three different ways.  I could play the cymbal thing in back of one, and I could play a little dizzier and loosen up behind the next player, and with Kidd it was like go for it!  It was a challenge.

I found that more of a challenge than with some of the Chicago musicians, other than Muhal. With Muhal, I could go either way, and it never bothered him.  I could play as straight as anybody, and then I could just loosen it up and be totally free, or play a stream, or play air, or anything.  Of course, the music would always fit him, no matter what.  Roscoe was pretty much the same way.  But I never thought of it as being something different.

TP:    So the word “avant-garde” doesn’t mean anything to you.

FIELDER:  No, not to me.  I like to think of it as playing looser, stretching rhythms, stretching the time, stretching the pulse.

TP:    And it has to do with the internal satisfaction and interest.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I know when I’ve played well on a given night, and I’m very pleased after that.  And I know when I haven’t played well, even if I’ve gone back afterwards and watched videos, and it sounds fine.

TP:    You were referring to the younger drummers projecting a qualitatively different sound.  And when you’re talking about the musicians in the South — in Mississippi and Louisiana — who are playing free, you’re talking about people born before the Baby Boom.

FIELDER:  But you must remember, you don’t have but a few so-called free players down South.

TP:    Well, you were saying it’s you and Kidd and Clyde Kerr…

FIELDER:  And Joel Futterman.  He lives in Virginia Beach. Whenever we do a festival, we are the only ones there not from Chicago or New York.

TP:    Why do you think that this way of playing music hasn’t appealed to, let’s say, the brightest talents of the younger generation?  Presuming that’s true.

FIELDER:  Like you were saying, they were raised on a different diet.  They came up in a different area.  I talk to young kids in schools now, and they don’t know anything about FDR or Martin Luther King even.  Harry Truman, George Washington Carver — nothing.  No sense of history.  If I get a student, the first thing I do is talk to him about what was before Tony Williams.  But they don’t know anything about Kenny Clarke.  They don’t know anything about Papa Jo Jones. They don’t know anything about Chick Webb. They listen to the way Tony Williams tuned his drums after he started playing with Lifetime, not even the Tony Williams prior to that.  I knew Tony when he was 15, and Tony went through every drummer — Kenny Clarke, Max, Philly Joe, Jimmy Cobb.  So he could PLAY this.

TP:    Sam Rivers told me that Tony when he was 14 would play them and then play his variation on it.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I met Tony when he was 15.  I used to practice with him in New York.  Every day, he would go to the music store and buy another drum book. That’s what he was doing.  Just an unbelievable talent.  I don’t see that drive in players today.  And I see a lot of young drummers.  The guys can play their butts off, but they can’t swing.  Well, they swing in their way.  But a drummer like Billy Higgins could play like minimal stuff and just wipe all of that out.  Kenny Washington can do it.  Jeff Watts… I was listening to Jeff the other night on Jazzset, and the compositions he was playing, nothing was really burning; he was playing ballads and stuff.  But it was sounding beautiful.  I’m not saying that Jeff is young; he’s about 41-42 now.  I remember him early on.  He’s another Pittsburgh drummer.  He’s just another extension of what Pittsburgh has turned out.  I don’t know what’s in the water there.  But they have something.  when you think of Art Blakey, Joe Harris, Beaver Harris, Kenny Clarke, or Roger Humphries, who’s there now… Every time Roger Humphries came to town with Horace Silver, I would drive him around, and I’d take him out to the Slingerland Drum Factory. I always loved Roger’s playing; he played those parts so beautifully in Horace’s band.

TP:    We should talk about your situation with Kidd and your teaching.  How much does the group play?

FIELDER:  Now we probably play five-six times a year.  We used to play in little clubs, like a place in New Orleans called Lu & Charlie’s where we played a lot.  But most of our jobs now are festivals.

TP:    Who else do you play with?

FIELDER:  I work with a pianist in Memphis by the name of Chris Parker.  We have a trio together.  London Branch on bass, Chris and myself.  We play a lot of the music of Elmo Hope and Monk.  We just finished several jobs with the tenor player Harold Ousley in Tennessee and Mississippi about a month or so ago.  And I did a tour of Texas, Louisiana and Atlanta with Assif Tsahar about a year-and-a-half ago.

TP:    And do you teach around Meridian?

FIELDER:  No.  I teach at the jazz camp in New Orleans.  Herlin Riley… We have four drum instructors.  There’s a great drummer from Baton Rouge, Herman Jackson, who plays with Alvin Batiste.  Alvin is on the faculty.  Kent Jordan, Kidd, Germaine Brazile…

TP:    Sounds like you’d like to be playing more.

FIELDER:  I would, but I’d like to be playing in the right situation.  I’m not that fond of playing in clubs any more.  I like the festival thing.  We just can’t find a good manager.  So we don’t work as much as we should.  The trio with Joel Futterman and Kidd is a helluva group.  William Parker plays with us two or three times a year. I’ve played some with Peter Kowald, too.  Peter, Kidd and I just got through working together on April 28th.  We’ve got a great video.  It was a beautiful concert.

Kidd is like a twin, really.  He’s my daughter’s godfather.  He’s a beautiful player, a beautiful person.

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Filed under AACM, Alvin Fielder, Cadence, Chicago, Drummer, Uncategorized

An Interview with Kidd Jordan, July 2002

This interview with speculative improviser Kidd Jordan, best known internationally for his white-heat inventions on the tenor saxophone (and also the father of master musicians Kent Jordan [flute], Marlon Jordan [trumpet], and Stephanie Jordan [singer]) was taken for a short piece in DownBeat about him and drummer Alvin Fielder, his long-time friend and musical partner. Both interviews were published in their entirety in 2004 Cadence (the transcript of my conversation with Alvin will follow soon). The addendum at the bottom is the transcription of a separate conversation with Jordan for a commissioned Studio 360 piece on the nature of the avant-garde in the 21st century framed around that year’s edition of the Vision Fest.

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Kidd Jordan (7-08-02):

TP:    I’d like to get some basic facts and figures.  Were you born in New Orleans?

JORDAN:  I was born in Crowley, Louisiana.  That’s in southwest Louisiana.

TP:    In what year?

JORDAN:  1935.  I usually don’t tell people my age.  I played music in elementary school and high school, in regular school bands, marching bands, and then I went to Southern University in Baton Rouge.  I played there in the stage band and the dance band, which did all the dances in the area.  I started gigging around Baton Rouge.  A guy there named George Reed had a band, and all the cats who could play a little bit played in his band, a gig or two on Saturday night and Friday night.

TP:    What was your first instrument?

JORDAN:  C-melody saxophone, then alto saxophone.

TP:    Were you listening to records? Were you checking people out?

JORDAN:  In my early days, yeah, I checked out people. Illinois Jacquet was from Broussard, which is near my home town.  In fact, he used to come visit us riding a horse, because he was out… That was like the country, maybe 15 or 20 miles from where I was.

TP:    Can you tell me what kind of country it was where you grew up?  I gather one of your sidelines is raising thoroughbred horses.

JORDAN:  I’ve had horses since I was a kid.  My daddy used to deal with horses.  But it wasn’t thoroughbreds.  Some of them were quarterhorses, and they had little races.  But it wasn’t like what I’m doing now.

TP:    What is it like in that part of Louisiana?

JORDAN:  It’s closer to Texas than it is to New Orleans. That part of the country is where zydeco music comes from; Clifton Chenier is from that area. It’s strictly Zydeco and Blues from way around, and that’s what I came up listening to.

TP:    What did people do there for a living?

JORDAN:  During that time, it was the rice capital of the world.  They had about 15 rice fields when I was a kid.  Rice was a big thing; they’d have a big rice festival and so forth.  All that is dried up now.  But there were always musicians, with cats playing blues and also bands with cats playing horns.  When I was in high school, I was playing with some older men who had a band.  They played stock arrangements for three or four saxophones, and I would play with them at Christmas and Easter when they had some of their gigs.

TP:    If you were born in 1935, Charlie Parker was already well-established by the time you came of age.

JORDAN:  I heard Charlie Parker when I was in high school, after the fellows came back from the war — they were talking about Charlie Parker.  I was fascinated with it.  That was the new music.  I started listening to Bird and everything else I could.

TP:    In high school, did you have a band teacher who gave you enough tools to start breaking down what he was doing?

JORDAN:  No, I was playing by ear.  I could read music, but I was playing the licks I got from Bird by ear.  In the early Downbeats they would transcribe some of his solos, and I started reading some of them, and listening to the records.  I listened to Sonny Stitt also, and everybody else I could listen to.  But Illinois Jacquet is the cat who gave me the first idea of playing free when he was with Lionel Hampton.  The honking tenor players with Hamp.  That gave me an idea that music could be done another way. That was the first glimpse, the first conscious attempt I had of that.

But I played alto a long time, and then when I heard Ornette Coleman, I liked him better than anybody, so then I started sounding… Well, ordinarily by the way I was playing, I was into something else.  I was trying to sound like something else.  But when I heard Ornette, that convinced me that I wanted to go another direction.

TP:    When did you hear Ornette?

JORDAN:  I guess the first record Ornette made.

TP:    I know Ornette came through Louisiana for a quick minute.

JORDAN:  Yeah, Ornette was down here with Melvin Lastie.  But they would come through them towns in them blues bands.  Ornette used to play with Clarence Samuels, who was a blues singer, who died in May. He played with Clarence Samuels and Roy Brown and a lot of them blues singers around here, and they would be touring around here.  I wasn’t paying no attention to them.  I was just paying attention to the grooves.  I had developed by the time I heard him on record, and then I knew there was another way, and I liked that and started dealing with that.

TP:    So you were 23-24 when you heard those records.

JORDAN:  No.

TP:    Well, Ornette’s first record was in ’58.  But you’re probably talking about “The Shape of Jazz To Come” or something like that.

JORDAN:  He made a record with a piano player.

TP:    With Walter Norris.

JORDAN:  Yeah, that’s the record.

TP:    That was on Contemporary.  It was recorded in ’58.

JORDAN:  All right.  This wasn’t  “The Shape of Things To Come.”  It was another one.  He played a standard tune on there, “Out of Nowhere.”  And the way he played that was practically all he ever did with what Bird and everybody else had been doing.

TP:    So by that time you’re 23…

JORDAN:  Yeah, I had finished college.  I could wail on my instrument.  I could play my horn then.

TP:    At Southern did you major in Music Education?

JORDAN:  Yeah, Music Education.

TP:    So you got your teaching thing and your pedagogy out of your education at Southern.

JORDAN:  Right.

TP:    You’re a little younger than Alvin Batiste.

JORDAN:  Right, about three years younger.

TP:    Were you at all linked up with him and some of the New Orleans modernists?

JORDAN:  We were in college together.  He was a year ahead of me.  In fact, we finished college together, because I caught up.  They had been in before me and were older me, but I caught up with them by going to summer school all the time.

TP:    So you were in a hurry.

JORDAN:  Well, I was just trying to play my instrument. I was just dealing with it.  Alvin and I were together in college, and we’ve been together all our life since the college days.  He’s my brother-in-law.  We married two sisters.  We’ve been in the deal all along!  But he was in a lot of jazz things.  I was playing rhythm-and-blues.

TP:    Was that just because there weren’t other types of gigs you could do?  Was it a practical matter?

JORDAN:  Well, it was a money-making issue,  but also I was trying to work on something else. I was trying to separate myself from all them tunes that they was doing, to arrive at something of my own and not just play what everybody else was doing. When I understood how “Cherokee” went, when I understood how “Giant Steps” and all them tunes went, it wasn’t interesting any more. I’m not a cat that just plays tunes.  I’m trying to get at me.  And I can’t get at me doing what everybody else is doing. Not that I’m trying to reinvent the wheel, but I’m trying to play my convictions and what I think about it.

TP:    So that’s just something that was innate, part of your personality.

JORDAN:  Exactly. You hit it right on the head.  I’m one of them that can’t tolerate a whole lot of stuff.  I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.  Now, playing in them rhythm-and-blues bands, a lot of times I played baritone.  I didn’t have to learn the tunes; all I had to do was solo.  I still play baritone a lot in bands, for shows and so on.  Very seldom do I play tenor.  Every now and then I play alto.  But in the Rock-and-Roll bands they always needed a baritone player, somebody who could play the notes on the bottom.  I’d just hear what they were doing, and follow the bass player or whatever, so it went easily.  A lot of times, with everything going on and since the microphone isn’t put up to me, I could practice on my horn without being so noticeable

TP:    So you heard Ornette Coleman.  Were you ever at any point in the ’50s or early ’60s playing jazz?

JORDAN:  Well, see, when you say “jazz” around here… Yeah, we had little jazz bands out here, but they wasn’t makin’ no money.  I mean, we had bands where we’d play Charlie Parker’s music and our own music.  Every now and then we’d get a gig, but no steady gigs playing that. I learned the chart, but I was trying to solo in a different kind of way.  When I was college, they used to call me weird.  I was at a reunion the other day, and they said, “Man, in college, man, we didn’t understand what you were doing; we still don’t understand.”  I don’t have no problem with that.

TP:    As long as you understood it.

JORDAN:  I hope I understand it.  But my main thing is that I just wanted to be a good saxophone player.  And the majority of the cats who play jazz are not good saxophone players.  That’s the first thing.  I mean, technical-wise. I mean, they play jazz, but to play a saxophone the way I want to play it, I’ve got to practice and deal with it on another level.  I’ve played a lot of the classical repertoire. I’m trying to play the instrument correctly, and I’ve put a lot of time into doing that.

TP:    In other words, you can get a so-called “legitimate” sound… You can make the saxophone sound pretty much any way you want it to sound.

JORDAN:  Yeah, I’ve played solos with orchestras, with swing orchestras, and all of that.

TP:    Do you have a favorite among the saxophone family?  One you feel most at home with.

JORDAN:  Probably alto, but I don’t play it too much.  I’ve played the alto longer than I’ve played anything.  But I couldn’t express what I wanted to express on alto. I’ve played alto, soprano, sopranino… I used to practice all of them.  The whole gamut.

TP:    So given a certain set of circumstances, if you were in practice, you could express yourself on an orchestra of instruments like Roscoe Mitchell does.  Have you ever played all of your stuff on one particular set?

JORDAN:  No.

TP:    Who were some of the people you were playing jazz gigs with?  Was that always around Baton Rouge, or were you going back and forth to New Orleans in the ’50s.

JORDAN:  Oh, in Baton Rouge we’d be playing with Alvin Batiste and all the dudes that was in school.  And in New Orleans, anybody who was on the scene, like Johnny Fernandez, Alvin Batiste, and the drummer…who was that boy…Blackwell.  Blackwell used to practice with a trumpet player named Billy White. I’d go there almost every day and practice with them.  Then there was Eddie Williams, and a trumpet player named Samuel Alcorn.

TP:    He was Alvin Alcorn’s son?

JORDAN:  Yes.  Samuel died.  But he was a good trumpet player.

TP:    Did you know Nat Perrillat there?

JORDAN:  Yeah.  I used to play with Nat.  Nat used to play with us around there.

TP:    And Ellis Marsalis, too?

JORDAN:  Yes.  I mean, all the cats was on the scene.  But Alvin and Ellis and them had a regular, organized band together.  But when we’d go jam, I’d go play with everybody.  We had a band with Samuel Alcorn and Eddie Williams, a tenor player around here named James Rivers, an alto player named George Davis, who was also a fantastic guitar player.  George played in “Chorus Line” for about twenty years.

TP:    So you were going back and forth between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

JORDAN:  When I was in school. But I moved to New Orleans in 1955.

TP:    So you’ve been living in New Orleans since ’55.

JORDAN:  Since ’55, right.

TP:    When you say you did rhythm-and-blues gigs, does that mean the type of thing that became famous as New Orleans rhythm-and-blues, Dave Bartholomew and so on?

JORDAN:  I used to go out on the road with people like Guitar Slim and whoever needed somebody.  See, Ray Charles used to make bands up around here.  Big Maybelle.  Anybody who came to town. Sometimes they’d come to town by themselves, and then put a rhythm section together and get some horn players.  Big Joe Turner, anybody who needed a band.  I remember one time me and George Adams went out with somebody named Chuck Willis, who was a blues singer.  George was playing tenor and I was playing baritone.

TP:    The George Adams who played with Mingus.

JORDAN:  Yes.  George was a bad cat.  He was terrible.

There was a cat named Lloyd Lambert who had a good band. He used to back up different singers and what-have-you.  A dude named Choker Campbell out of Memphis or somewhere, would come through and need horn players.  Anybody who was on the scene and needed some horn players, some of us would go out with them and deal with them.

TP:    Were those gigs satisfying for you in any way?

JORDAN:  Yes, they were satisfying for me, because there was a feeling that you’d get from dealing with that.  I’ve played with some of the great female vocalists, from Gladys Knight to Aretha Franklin, or Big Maybelle, Little Esther, Lena Horne, and there’s an aesthetic in dealing with those people that a whole lot of people don’t get to.  And the aesthetic from the blues is a part of the thing that I want to have in my playing.  I don’t care how out it gets

TP:    Can you describe that aesthetic?

JORDAN:  You can’t describe an aesthetic.  I know when it’s there, and I can tell when a whole lot of… I’ll give you an idea. The difference between what the Rock, like what David Bowie and them were doing…what do they call those new Rockers?  Acid Rockers or whatever.  That music is devoid of that aesthetic; I mean, the aesthetic that’s supposed to go along with that music.  And if you don’t know, you don’t know.  But those who know, know.  And there’s a certain aesthetic that Trane, had, a certain aesthetic that Bird had, and it’s not what they’re doing, but the aesthetic part of it.  That’s missing in a lot of the music people do now.  So many people can’t feel the aesthetic and don’t know what it is, and when they hear it, they don’t know where it’s at.

TP:    So that aesthetic comes out of playing dance music…

JORDAN:  Not necessarily.  The aesthetic comes from listening to somebody and hearing somebody like Muddy Waters or Big Maybelle or Dinah Washington, as opposed to somebody who don’t have any feeling in what they’re talking about.  Like, when you go to a church and hear one of them Baptist preachers who really get out and say what he’s got to say.  It may not be grammatically correct, but I mean, there’s a feeling.

TP:    Was that part of your early experience, too, the church thing?

JORDAN:  Not really.  I went to all churches when I was young.  I went to Catholic church as well as Baptist church.  But there’s an aesthetic that I knew was coming from the Baptist church that wasn’t in the Catholic Church.  It’s the way Gregorian Chant sounds in relationship to somebody who is really doing one of them “Precious Lord” kinds of things.  When you hear Aretha Franklin do “Precious Lord” or Martin Luther King talking about he went to the mountaintop and saw the Promised Land, that’s the same kind of thing. I told a dude the other day who asked me about playing jazz, “go listen to Martin Luther King’s speech, and then come back and we can talk.”  If you have none of that, then there ain’t no sense in us talking about that.

TP:    So that’s the sound you’re looking to get on your saxophone or when you play yourself.

JORDAN:  To a certain extent.  But that’s the kind of aesthetic that I would like to get.  I don’t get it all the time.  Because when I’m really out, I’m trying to do it.

TP:    When did you start to try to take it out?  After you heard Ornette?

JORDAN:  Not really.  I always had that idea.  When I first heard Illinois Jacquet, that gave me the idea.  I started flirting with that.

TP:    Or Arnett Cobb later.  People like that.

JORDAN:  Yeah, all them Texas tenor players.  I mean, them honking tenors.  I could hear something in there that I could deal with on a conscious level, not just learning what they was doing. See, that’s why I couldn’t deal with solos that’s all dressed-up, like practicing solos and getting them down and what-have-you. I’ve got to come up with a feeling.  I’ve got to come at it like it’s new all the time.  I just can’t come up with something that I’m playing over and over.  If I practice like that, I might as well be practicing classical music.  I’ve played concertos and all of that, and I don’t play them no more.

TP:    What was the impact Ornette Coleman had on you when you heard those records?

JORDAN:  Well, I knew that it was somebody serious and the music was serious and it was going another way.  So that’s the main thing.  Like, right now, when I start listening to Ornette, and start feeling good and pick my alto up, sometimes… Maybe Ornette is the reason why I’m playing tenor, because I gravitate to not wanting to sound like that.  It feels good, though.  But there ain’t gonna NEVER be no more Ornettes.  You can forget that.  I hear some people playing like Ornette, but Jack, they will never play like that.

TP:    Why is that?

JORDAN:  [LAUGHS] Because he has a way of playing!  That’s another thing.  You can copy somebody note-for-note, and can be so far off as far as the phrases and aesthetics are concerned, it’s not even funny.  So deep down with him… To me, he plays like Bird.  But it’s so amazing that he can play all that Bird stuff, and when you hear him play… Ornette told me one time, that’s the difference between a player and somebody who can improvise.  Players learn whatever anybody plays.  But you can give improvisers three notes and they’ll come up with something.  And if you’re really serious about improvising, you’ll improvise on the material you get to deal with.  That’s why I don’t deal with a whole lot of tunes no more.  I just want to get out and play on what I hear. If I hear something to play, I play it.  In fact, I’m at the mercy of the rhythm section or the people I’m dealing with.  If they give me something to play on, then I can play.  And if they don’t give me nothin’ to play on, then I’ll just try to hear what the drums are doing and play off the drums — or play off anything.  Other than just playing something for the sake of playing it.

TP:    So you need a dialogue.

JORDAN:  That’s the way.  When people play bebop, they dialogue.  They play off of changes.  So when I’m dealing with somebody else, I’ve got to play off of what they’re giving me to play off of.  Then you’ve got to react to that very quick.  If they go into the different keys or timbres or whatever they do, you’ve got to react to it.

TP:    So you’re in New Orleans from ’55 and going out with these bands and making some money, but then at a certain point you start teaching.

JORDAN:  I always taught.  I’d go out on the weekends and in the summertime.  But there was a whole lot of rhythm-and-blues records, a whole lot of rock-and-roll being made, and when the first line cats who was in the studio would get tired, we’d do it at night sometimes and on the weekends.

TP:    So if Lee Allen or Red Tyler were tired, you’d go in the studio.

JORDAN:  Right.  A lot of us would make some of that stuff.  And I was with one of them little hot bands down there that they called the Hawkettes, that went into the Neville Brothers.  So we always had some good grooves.  Idris Muhammad was the drummer in that band with us, and a drummer around here named Smokey Johnson.  John Boudreaux was the drummer before Idris, and he was a helluva drummer.  We always had good drummers in the Hawkettes Band.

TP:    Where were you teaching?

JORDAN:  I was teaching in a town called Norco, about 20 miles out of New Orleans in St. Charles Parish, at Bethune High School.  And then I came to Southern University in New Orleans.  I taught out there for maybe eight or nine years, and I’ve been at Southern now for 25 or 30 years, something like that.  I don’t know how long.

TP:    I’d like to talk about the relationship you developed with Alvin Fielder. The story I think you told me once is that Billy Higgins and Clifford Jordan were in town and played with you, and Clifford told Alvin he should go down and meet you because you were just about to burst with frustration.

JORDAN:  Well, at the time I wasn’t playing with nobody.  I was playing with myself. I was dealing with a lot of students, and they hadn’t gotten to the point where we could play together.  I mean, there were people I could play with, but I was into what I was doing. I was making gigs, playing dance music, playing whatever somebody had to play, but I wasn’t playing what I play with no bands. They wasn’t playing what I was playing.  They wasn’t playing free music.

TP:    It’s the difference between doing a gig and being a creative musician.

JORDAN:  Exactly.  There was no creative outlet for me.  I was playing by myself, and I was just starting with my students, so they weren’t to the point where I could get them together to play it.

TP:    How did you keep your inner strength to keep developing on your own?

JORDAN:  I’ll tell you, I could stop and play concertos.  I played every concerto there is on the saxophone.  People think that I have to play jazz.  But sometimes I play classical music, and I can go in and play clarinet and flute and stuff.  My main thing is to play music. It doesn’t have to be jazz.  It never was like that.  I was playing a long time before I heard any jazz that I really liked.  When I was in junior high school, I wouldn’t listen to no jazz.  I heard jazz later on.  But I was trying to be a musician, and trying to be a musician is one thing, and playing jazz is another.  I’ve had a lot of difficulties with jazz musicians, because a lot of them can play jazz, but they don’t play their instrument very well. And I always would try to play my instrument as well as people in symphonies can do.  I mean, being able to do on my instrument what any of those can do. If you get that frame of mind, you can practice on fundamental stuff.  I was practicing on fundamental things today, like tonguing and scales and all of that.  In fact, I believe you’re no better than your fundamentals. Trane was practicing fundamentals when he died.

I’m one of them that don’t care one way or the other.  I don’t care if somebody likes the way I play, if they like it or don’t like it. You still be playing what you got to be playing. If somebody listens or nobody listens, I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do. A lot of cats used to say, “Man, you ain’t never gonna hear Kidd play until you go to his house,” and when I’m really screaming and really playing, they say, “Man, don’t you do that on a gig?”  Because I don’t want to.  I play in my house. A lot of times I just play in my house, and think, “Man, if I was on the stage, they would really dig this,” and a lot of times it don’t ever come on the stage.  I mean, that’s just the way it is.

TP:    That’s just you.

JORDAN:  It will always be me.  I’m going to meet it on my terms.  If it’s not on my terms, then I’m not going to deal with it.  If I would never play another note, I could go out to the barn in the morning and feel just as good with the horses, dealing with them.

TP:    But still, Billy Higgins and Cliford Jordan were telling Alvin Fielder that he’d better go down and see you because you were so frustrated.

JORDAN:  Right.  When I was playing with Billy he found out I was frustrated. He told Alvin and Clifford Jordan and all of them, and Alvin came down and found me, and immediately we hooked up and started dealing.  That’s probably one of the best things that happened to me.

TP:    Why are you and Alvin so simpatico?

JORDAN:  I don’t know.  We’ve been playing so long, it looks like we can almost read one another’s minds.  I can anticipate some things; he can anticipate what I play.  We lock in.

TP:    You both have a scientific attitude towards your instrument.  He speaks about the drums in the same manner, like compiling almost an inner rolodex of rhythms and patterns that he might access at any particular time.

JORDAN:  Mmm-hmm.  And I’ll react to the patterns.  Whatever he lays down, then I’m going to react to it. He can collect them all and then lay them down, and then I’ll play over them.

TP:    So you meet around ’73.

JORDAN:  I’m not good with dates.  I can’t remember nothing about dates.

TP:    And you were teaching all this time.  Did you develop a particular pedagogy that’s yours, that’s individual to you?

JORDAN:  Well, I’ve got some things that I run my students through. We used to have bands, big bands that were completely free, and they would be writing some stuff.  Some of my older students now, we can get on a bandstand and just start playing.  Elton Heron still plays with me.  He’s one of the bass players that I use — an electric bass player.  Every time William Parker comes down, I use Elton and William together, and they work very well together. Some of those students I can call on right now.  We can play a gig in the morning, and won’t even have to say a word.  Back then, they were all playing free, writing songs and so on.  But after the music went conservative, then we started playing big band charts.  I teach them anything they want to deal with.  I don’t tell nobody how they got to play.  If they want to play Dixieland, we can get together a Dixieland group.  Whatever they want to do. All I want to do is teach them.  But when we start playing creative music, some of them latch onto it and start writing tunes and doing all kinds of stuff. We had some things that we’d go through every day, and right now I’ve got some students going through this.

TP:    What sort of things do you go through every day?

JORDAN:  It’s the system of what we do. I mean, hearing things. If you talk about being a jazz musician, the number-one thing you need is to be able to hear.  Not playing the same tunes every day, but setting up different sounds, hearing them and playing off of them. Setting up different scales and making scales up.  Setting up different timbres and playing off of them.  Hear the sound of that.  With guitars and pianos and synthesizers, you can get all kinds of sounds.  I’m playing with the strings of a piano now; no keyboard at all, just the strings of a piano.  They just run some metal objects over it like a hawk.  I’ve got a band where we use that, and I’m crazy about that instrument. We can do fantastic things.  I’m definitely dealing with that now.

TP:    How isolated were you, exactly, in the ’60s and ’70s?  Were you in touch with other similar-minded musicians?

JORDAN:  I was in touch with everybody in the city.  I was playing with different cats with the entertaining music.  But when I did what I was dealing with, I was doing it myself.

TP:    Where that question is leading: In ’76, you put together the first World Sax Quartet concert.  I’m presuming you knew those guys.

JORDAN:  Well, I was in New York for about two months during the summer that year, which was the year of the Bicentennial. I was going to Ornette’s house every day and playing in the loft.  Ornette was getting the electric band together. They was coming in there from Philadelphia, the bass player [Jamaladeen Tacuma], and I was playing in the lofts with them, and with David Murray and Hamiet Bluiett and others where David stayed at, over the Tin Palace.  I was playing every day with them.

TP:    So at the end of the 1975-76 school year you visited Ornette, spent the summer, and then organized that concert in the Fall?

JORDAN:  Actually, it was the last day of the semester.  School was out in December.  Because that was the only thing going on in the school, and I got that together.

TP:    Were you in touch with what the AACM was doing in the ’60s and early ’70s?

JORDAN:  Yeah, I was in touch with them, but they wouldn’t let me join, because I wasn’t in Chicago.  Muhal told me I had to be in Chicago to join. [LAUGHS]

TP:    Who did you know who was involved in that in the ’60s?

JORDAN:  I knew Muhal. I knew a lot of cats around Chicago. I was trying to catch Fred Anderson and Billy Brimfield, but I could never deal with them.  I knew the drummer, the cat who was in Air — Steve McCall.  One time I was in Chicago, and Steve was trying to get Muhal to let me play, and Muhal said, “Man, anybody who comes from the country can’t play this kind of music.” [LAUGHS] He wouldn’t let me play.  I always tell him about that.  But they had so many cats on the stand, I could understand why.

TP:    You knew them from your travels in bands?

JORDAN:  Yes.  I’d go into Chicago every now and then.

TP:    So you’d go with bands that weren’t just local in the South, but traveled around the country.

JORDAN:  In the summertime or Christmastime, I’d travel with anybody.

TP:    So you’d travel the country with these bands, and that’s how you met musicians everywhere, like a lot of people have.

JORDAN:  I met a lot of them in bands.  But every now and then, I’d go to Chicago or New York or somewhere where somebody was doing something.  Very seldom on the West Coast.

TP:     Describe the evolution of your band with Alvin Fielder.

JORDAN:  We used to write tunes.  I had a lot of tunes I used to write.  We had three horns on the front line at one time.  I was playing alto, we had a guy named Alvin Thomas playing tenor, and Clyde Kerr was playing trumpet.  So we used to write tunes: we’d play a head, and then we’d play off the head.  Then after a while, Alvin said, “Man, let’s stop.  We ain’t gonna play no more tunes.  We’re just gonna go on the bandstand and start playing.”  That’s stopped me from writing tunes. Every now and then, we play some of the old tunes that we’ve produced.  But the majority of the time, we just go out and hit.  Whatever comes, comes.

TP:    Do you think there’s something in the music that you and Alvin and the people who play with you make that’s distinct from people who are playing out music in other parts of the country or the world?  Is there a distinctive sound or approach that other people aren’t doing?

JORDAN:  I don’t believe so.

TP:    When did you start going to Europe?  When did the European audience and musicians start to embrace you?

JORDAN:  Alvin Fielder would probably know better.  The first trip we did was the Moers Festival.  I don’t remember the year. It was over 20 years ago.

TP:    How is it for you playing with the European musicians?

JORDAN:  Well, I react to whatever anybody does.  You stand there and deal with it.  You don’t want to be a drag.  But that’s my thing;I adapt to what people are doing.  I just fall in line.  Their aesthetic thing isn’ t there on a lot of it, but I can do what I do and feel good about it, and don’t be bitching about it.

TP:    Is there anyone you particularly like playing with there, like Peter Kowald or…

JORDAN:  Yeah, I like to play with Peter.  I like to play with Louis Moholo on drums.  I like to play with an electric bass player there named Frank Wollen(?).  When I go to France, Sunny Murray and the piano player Bobby Few are there, and Alan Silva is around a lot. If I’m in Germany, I can always find good musicians.  There’s a piano player named Fred Van Hove who’s good, and Schlippenbach is good.  Basically, it’s just a different thing to me.  I don’t worry about it.

TP:    So there’s a community around the world of people you can function with.

JORDAN:  Exactly.

TP:    Most of those people are older musicians.  Not so many of them are younger.  Why do you think that is?

JORDAN:  Because the young cats, they started looking back.  They started playing bebop again and traditional music.

TP:    Why do you think they did that?

JORDAN:  I don’t have the slightest idea.

TP:    Well, you’re a teacher.  You know some of these musicians well.  Some of them are really good musicians, too.

JORDAN:  That’s right.  I don’t know.  My thing is that people have to play what they feel comfortable in playing.  I think they feel comfortable with that.  And probably a lot of musicians now are playing music to make a living, and you can’t make a living playing the kind of music that we play, so I guess they choose to play music that they can probably make a living from.  I’ve always been a schoolteacher, so I didn’t have to make a living playing music.  That’s why I play like I play.

TP:    Well, it seems to me that most of the people born after 1955 didn’t come up living bebop, and felt that if they didn’t learn it they were missing something.  They didn’t have Charlie Parker right there, didn’t have Illinois Jacquet right there, didn’t have the rhythm-and-blues right there.  It wasn’t part of their life, and they felt they were missing something, and they had to go back and learn it.  I think they felt they’d be incomplete musicians if they didn’t do it.

JORDAN:  I’ve got a thing in my case now where Charlie Parker is saying he wasn’t a child of the Swing Era.  They’ve got that in one of them old Downbeats.  I’ve got it in my case now.

TP:    That may be, but he learned every one of Lester Young’s solos at 16 and 17.  He took them apart and learned them all and played in those bands.

JORDAN:  Well, I’ve got my doubts about that.  People say that.

TP:    He said it.

JORDAN:  Well, he said he wasn’t a child of the Swing Era.  I’ve got that in a Downbeat right now.

TP:    I don’t think the two statements are mutually contradictory.  But everybody comes out of a time and a place. Everybody starts from a first principle.

JORDAN:  I don’t know.  Bird could have did that without going through Lester.

TP:    Maybe so.

JORDAN:  Ain’t no maybe about that.  Bird had stuff that ain’t nobody else had!  Number one, Bird could outplay everybody on the saxophone.  That’s the first thing.  Lester couldn’t play the saxophone like Bird played.  This is another thing that I firmly believe.  Technique determines how you’re going to play.  Lester played a certain way because he had a certain technique.  But Bird couldn’t play like Lester, because Bird’s technique dictated that he had to play another way.  See, once you start dealing with the instruments… This is why, when you keep on shedding, if you’ve got a concept, it’s going to have to evolve, because the more technique you get on your instrument, the more you can do, the more you’re going to stretch it to another end.  If what you’re saying about going back and learning was the case, we’d have to go back to Scott Joplin and all of them old Dixieland players.  You’d have to go learn all of that.  See, this is why I deal in principles.  Once you understand how something goes, you don’t have to worry about it.  If you want to do it, you can do it.  But if you don’t understand the principle, then you’ve got a problem.  See, once you learn “Cherokee,” “I Got Rhythm” and the Blues, you can play anything.  There ain’t nothing in none of them repertoires that’s different.  The only different thing was Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”  After that, you could play all night and all day, and just play on “I Got Rhythm” and the blues and “Cherokee.”

One of the things that turned me off with bebop is it’s so repetitive.  Cats didn’t play but three or four different phrases — after you sit down and listen to it.  Sometimes I hear people play all night and all day, and they’ve played only ten different phrases.  They keep playing the same the same thing in a different place in a different time.  I’ve got to do something else.  And if I do something repetitive, it ain’t because I’m putting it in the same spot. It’s that I’m hearing something at a certain time, and it’s coming out. It ain’t like just taking this phrase and turning it around and doing this or doing that.

A lot of people don’t sit down and analyze.  I can sit down and listen to a whole lot of people’s playing, and it sounds good to a certain extent.  But it’s just like eating red beans and rice or gumbo.  They got some GOOD gumbo down here.  But I can’t eat gumbo every day.  I’m sorry.  I can’t eat red beans and rice every day.  I’ve got to have something different.

TP:    How are the students you have now?

JORDAN:  Not too good.

TP:    In what sense?

JORDAN:  Well, they’re not really trying to be good musicians.  Some of them are dealing with Pop music, some of them are dealing with Rap music, some of them are dealing with jazz.  I mean, they’ve got little studios that they’re dealing with, hooking up electronic stuff.  And they’re basically trying to do the kind of music that’s currently popular.  I wouldn’t want to tie them down with nothin’ that I’m doing, because I mean, they’ll never make a living doing this. All I can do is give somebody the fundamentals and techniques in order that hopefully they can continue to thrive and do what they want to do.

TP:    What do you teach, by the way?

JORDAN:  I teach Band, Saxophone, Ear Training and Music Appreciation.

TP:    What’s your title?  Are you head of the department?

JORDAN:  Associate Professor of Music at Southern University in New Orleans.

TP:    Is there an educational philosophy that differentiates Southern from other institutions?

JORDAN:  We just try to give the students what we think they can do.  Well, Alvin Batiste has a Jazz Institute at his place in Baton Rouge. He’s at the main campus of Southern University and I’m at a branch in New Orleans.  I don’t have a Jazz Institute.  Mine is music education. I teach jazz bands, but at my school they don’t get credit for jazz. They just do it because they want to. They get credit in Alvin’s Institute.

TP:    So basically, you’re now able to take your horn around the world and play with different people by having stuck it out as a schoolteacher.  Otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to sustain yourself and your family.

JORDAN:  Exactly.

TP:    You have two sons, Kent and Marlon, who are strong players. Were you very proactive in their education?

JORDAN:  No.  I got them good music teachers, and they started playing.  Both of them, truthfully, could be symphonic players now as well as play jazz. My thing is to be the best instrumentalist you can, and then do whatever you want. They saw me playing classical music all my life, and jazz, and playing with concert bands, and playing solos with orchestras and bands.  I just wanted them to be musicians.  And when you’re a musician, you can play a whole lot of stuff.  I’ve played a lot of Broadway shows.  I’ve played every Broadway show that came through town.

TP:    You played all the pits.

JORDAN:   Yeah, all the pits. And I played at the Fairmont, in a band over there.  The contractor is a dude named Herb Tassin.  I’ve been playing with him for about 25 years.  He gets every big show that comes to town

TP:    You’re still doing that?

JORDAN:  We do it, but not as much as we used to.  Herb Tassin was the main contractor in New Orleans, and I’ve been playing with him for thirty years on shows and whatever.

TP:    Were you involved in NOCCA?

JORDAN:  In the early days I used to teach some kids saxophone. But I don’t have time for that now.

TP:    Is that when you instructed Donald Harrison and Branford Marsalis?

JORDAN:  When I had them, NOCCA wasn’t even started.  Ellis was out on the road with Al Hirt. I just had workshops in school, and young kids would come around and play in the band, and I’d deal with them, and then they would play with the college students. But I was giving Donald and Branford private lessons when they were young kids, in junior high school and high school.  My son Kent was in the first class at NOCCA.

TP:    In a previous conversation we had, I was expecting you to agree with me about the benefits of the street music that people can do in New Orleans, and you stated that isn’t the case.

JORDAN:  Well, you get a good groove out of doing that, but you can be doing it all your life. After a groove there’s some other things supposed to happen.  I mean, you don’t live and die with grooves.  For instance, I like the groove Max Roach plays, but shouldn’t I love Elvin Jones’ groove also?  If you can understand what I’m saying.  It’s good to get a feeling like that, but I mean, I’ve seen some kids live and die with that same thing.  Some of them are 35 years old and they’re playing like they did were when they were 15 in the street.

TP:    Do you see some kids who were on the street who went on to do something else?

JORDAN:  Some of them go on to do something else. I guess it’s a personal thing.  After you learn about a groove and see where it’s at, then maybe you’re supposed to develop it and bring it somewhere else.  There’s a groove they call “Two-Way Pockaway.”  I figure I’ve been hearing Two-Way Pockaway all my life.  There ain’t too much you can do with that.  Or that groove that Professor Longhair and them played.  I played with Fess.  I would be a damn fool to be playing that same groove now! [LAUGHS] I loved Fess, don’t get me wrong. But man.  Shit.

TP:    Well, there are a lot of young musicians who would kill just to be able to get that groove.  It’s a fact.

JORDAN:  Well, they just don’t know.  They’ve got to try to listen to what somebody else is doing.

TP:    How many horses do you have?

JORDAN:  Between me and my nephews, we have 10 or 12.  We have about 7 of them running.

TP:    Do you raise these horses?

JORDAN:  No, we buy them.  We go to Kentucky and buy some as 2-year-olds, or maybe a yearling, and then we put them in training to run them. We’ve also got some Louisiana Reds.   We don’t have them raised in here at all.  I’m thinking about raising one for my grandson.

TP:    Any horses that have done well?

JORDAN:  Oh, yeah.  They’ve won some races.  We win races all the time.

TP:    What are the names of the horses that win the races?

JORDAN:  Dirty Red is a very good horse.  That’s one of them catchalls! [LAUGHS] We’ve got so many nicknames.  We had one name, Redbone.  That’s Dirty Red’s little brother.  We’ve got one named Mississippi Sound.  Got one, a young horse, we’re going to call him Kidd Stuff.  He’s never ran.  He hasn’t been tested yet.  So he’s going out at Kidd Stuff.

TP:    Are there any parallels between training horses and being a musician?

JORDAN:  Horse racing is like improvising.  You don’t ever know what they’re going to do. I go look at a horse race and see more improvisation than when I hear somebody play. When you bring the horses out there to the racetrack, they can be prepared, they can be the best out there, and depending on how the jockey gets them out of the gate, what the jockeys do, depending on how they feel, all of those… You say they’re going to do what they did the last time, and they do something altogether different.  So that’s some serious improvisation!  [LAUGHS] You see? Because sometimes when I hear people play, they play the same shit all the time. They don’t improvise.  They’ll be playing everything they know.

TP:    They play patterns and whatnot.

JORDAN:  Exactly.  I mean, they’ve got everything down.  They’re not improvising.

TP:    Well, there are some people who play bebop who sound pretty free with it.

JORDAN:  I’m not talking about bebop.  I’m talking about music, any kind of music.  They’ve got everything down that they’re playing.  Which is good, in a way.  I don’t have no problem with that.  But I want it to be just like when I go to a race, where you don’t know what’s going to happen.  How they’re going to get out, how they’re going to get in the stretch…It’s just improvising.

TP:    What happens when you’re not feeling the spirit?  Do you have cliches?  Do you repeat yourself ever?

JORDAN:  I always feel the spirit.  Yeah, I repeat myself if something comes to me.  I mean, there are some things that you will play, sometimes consciously or sometimes subconsciously.  But you don’t try to do it.  And there are certain stimuli.  I mean, you react to certain things the same way.  But you don’t do it as a conscious thing.  It’s subconscious.  Because you’re trying to hear.

TP:    But it’s always with the intent of trying to play something new.

JORDAN:  Going for broke, that’s what I call it. Always trying to do something off the top of your head. That’s the definition of improvisation. Taking it off the top of your head and trying to do what you do, and listen to what somebody’s doing and react to it.

TP:    How long does it take a student to get to the point where they can do that and not be bullshitting?

JORDAN:  I don’t know about that.  You’ve got to develop an ear to do that.  See, the majority of the people who play have learned by some hook or crook, but they don’t have a certain ear to develop in order to deal with that.

TP:    Can anybody improvise?

JORDAN:  I think anybody can improvise, myself. It ain’t gonna sound like what you want to sound like, but you can improvise.  You know, Beethoven improvised. And I’m sure Bach was a helluva improviser.  And Mozart.  They improvised, but it was just a different way.  They didn’t have the snap in it, and it was a different kind of groove, but it was improvised.  I had a little girl in a class one time.  You know the little pre-school instruments?  Man, I turned her loose; she played some stuff that was frightening.  I never will forget that.  Donald Harrison used to play some frightening stuff when he didn’t know what he was doing.  Sometimes, when they learn what they’re doing, it gets so sophisticated, it don’t come out.  It’s another thing.  I want mine to always be like it’s on the edge! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Is there more of a local audience for you now in New Orleans?

JORDAN:  Oh yeah.  Every time I play, they got cats coming out.

TP:    When did that start happening?

JORDAN:  Over the years it started building up.

TP:    Do you have disciples in New Orleans?  Are younger players coming up under you?

JORDAN:  We’ve got a few cats around here who can play. Some of them are playing rhythm-and-blues.  There’s a saxophone player here named Gary Brown that I put a saxophone in his hand about 35 or 40 years ago.  He’s playing in a club on Bourbon Street.  He’s one of the baddest saxophone players I know.  You can catch him at a club now, probably walking the bar, but Jack, look, sit down and let him open up on you and see what happens. [LAUGHS] Fred Anderson couldn’t believe his ears when he heard Gary play!  Lord have mercy, that boy can play.  I’m serious.  He’s terrible!

[-30-]

[7:34] TP:  Let’s just cut right to the chase since that’s what you do in a musical situation. What does the word “avant-garde” mean to you, first of all?

KIDD JORDAN:  I don’t usually like that word, “avant-garde.”  I usually talk about “creative music.”  Instead of saying avant-garde, I’d rather say “creative music.”  You’re creating the music on the spot like we did tonight.  I didn’t have any idea what’s going on, but you take all your skills and listening and practicing and developing it, and then listen to what people do and play on it.  I’ve heard some avant-garde people who play music that they just make a lot of noise.  I mean, they play a lot of stuff, but it’s not like music.  This music is a continuation of playing changes. And I played changes for a long time, and used to study changes, and now we study timbres and sounds that people make from the drums to the bass.  Like, tonight I was conscious of the tones that he was playing on the bass and I was conscious of the things that William set up, and when he [Milford] started singing I was conscious of the key that he was dealing with and conscious of the mood that he was dealing with.  So you’ve got to listen sometimes a little bit more carefully in this kind of music than when you’re playing music with changes.  Because when I used to play music with changes, I knew where they were, and a lot of times I’d practice a lot of the things, and they’d fall right where they were supposed to fall.  But with this music, you don’t know what’s coming.  So you’ve got to use your ear and deal with it, so you’ve got to create instead of “avant-garde.” I’d rather think about creative music, music of the time.

TP:    What do you think the term “avant-garde” means?

[9:18] JORDAN:  Well, the term “avant garde” started out years ago.  It started as a military term, the advance party.  The people who went before and covered the beaches…or the Marines were avant-garde, so they could get everything out of the way so the other people could come.  And it developed through every… In every age somebody has been avant-garde.  Beethoven was avant-garde in the Classical period. Everybody who was doing something different, they say they were avant-garde.  Each musical period, from the Renaissance we could somebody like…one of them church composers… Palestrini was avant-garde.  Beethoven was avant-garde.  In all those periods, you had somebody who was doing something different, and they put that “avant-garde,” being advanced, being an advance party.  It was a little bit more advanced in what they were doing than the other people.

TP:    Do you think that would apply to the area of music that you purvey?

[10:14] JORDAN:  Yeah, you can say it applies to it.  But I just don’t like… The reason why I don’t like “avant-garde”… See, I’ve been around a long time.  When this music first started here in New York, people would get up and just do anything, play any kind of stuff.  “We’re avant-garde.”  And that kind of turned me around.  And I prefer to think… The term “avant-garde” is cool, but for it to apply to music… Music is so close to my heart, I don’t want to apply anything to music I think that doesn’t really fit it.

TP:    Do you think that the concept of the “avant-garde” is something that means something at this time, not just in music, but all cultural forms?

[10:56] JORDAN:  Yeah.  It means something. It just means people that’s on the cutting edge, people that’s a little more advanced.  And they apply the term to the things… Because the people in… The warmongers, they’re avant-garde.  Look at all them sophisticated missiles and things.  I read the other day where they tested a plane that made its rounds, and it can go in and do much more damage than the old planes.  I don’t know what they call them.

TP:    They call them drones.  They used them in Afghanistan already, unmanned planes.

JORDAN:  But they got something a little more sophisticated.  They made the test run last week.  They said it was more sophisticated than what they did in Afghanistan.  So still, we can use that term in any situation.

TP:    A lot of people in the ’60s identified the term “avant-garde” with a political attitude or an attitude toward the social order of the world.  Is that operative for you?

[11:52] JORDAN:  Yeah, that’s operative for me.  Because always people had to do things to open… You know, I lived in the South, and I’ve been through almost apartheid down there.  Some people don’t know, and they’re beginning to know.  But I went through a whole lot.  And if it wasn’t for the political activists, things wouldn’t have changed as soon as they’ve changed.  So it’s relative as far as society is concerned and everything else.

TP:    So do you feel that the way your expression evolved, from someone conversant with changes and the tradition and the continuum of the music to playing with no preconception at all has anything to do with that, or is it more of an organic development of the way you came to hear things.

[12:37] JORDAN:  It’s more of an organic way that I came to hear things.  I’ve always wanted to express.  And you know, by my playing all kinds of music… I’ve played rhythm-and-blues, rock-and-roll, bebop, and with all of those, I couldn’t express myself.  I was looking for an expression, and I found out that this as the best way for me to express myself.  Because when I was playing those other kinds of music, I was trying to play like other people, I was trying to play other people’s expression and trying to sound like somebody, and then I wasn’t sounding… I could sound like other people who were very famous, but I wouldn’t feel good about it.  I’d have to practice to do it.  But now I practice over my ear.  I practice things to hear, and when I get to a situation where if somebody presents something, then I’ll be able to hear it on the spot.  Like tonight, somebody talked about Albert Ayler.  I wasn’t thinking about it.  I hadn’t thought about Albert in a long time.  But I started playing that kind of expression that Albert would play.  Not trying to… I haven’t thought about Albert in a long time.  But I’ve heard the music, but I’ve been through it… But I expressed me through the way Albert sounded — for a minute.  And God knows, there will never be another Albert.  And this is why you’ve got to try to express yourself.  Because if you’re trying to express somebody else and somebody who really did it… I mean, there’s a lot of people out there that think they sound like Charlie Parker.  But I heard Charlie Parker.  And once you’ve heard somebody and you know how they sound, you know nobody else… See, Sonny Stitt didn’t sound like Charlie Parker.  So… [LAUGHS] That’s something that people have…musicians have to come to grips with.  And some people don’t ever play their expression.  They’re always playing somebody else’s expression or trying to sound like somebody.  You never will get to your soul if you;’re trying to find somebody else’s soul.

TP:    Do you think the ability of being able to express your soul through music and being able to come to that is in itself being ahead of the curve, what might be referred to as avant-garde?

[14:44] JORDAN:  Well, I’d have to agree with you on that.  But it’s a term… It’s something that you have to work on, and it’s something you have to take a lot of abuse with.  Because I’ve been abused with this music.  People say “shut up, so-and-so-and-so.”  The thing about it is that people don’t understand what you’re working for, what you’re working towards.  And they base what you do on their expression of what they’re trying to do.  And they don’t know that if you’re working on something, sooner or later you may hit it — but you may never hit it.  And when you hit it, you feel good about it, but you’re still reaching for something else.

TP:    Can someone attain that level of expression dealing with the continuum, and not something akin to what we just heard you and William Parker and Milford Graves do?

[15:33] JORDAN:  Well, it comes out of the continuum.  See, once you understand the continuum… And we were swinging, we could swing, we could do all of this, and when he started playing, I would jump on it.  The continuum is listening and playing.

TP:    So it’s dialogue.

[15:46] JORDAN:  That’s right.  It’s dialogue.  Listening and playing.  And it comes out of a development.  But, now, if you don’t practice that development, you’ve got a problem.  Like, for instance, the day before yesterday, I was waiting on some kids to come to school, and I was in the band-room just practicing, and they said, “Man, that doesn’t make sense; what’chu doin’?”  Well, people who know me said, “Man, you know,” and they was listening… Then finally, it all came together, and they said, “Oh, man, I hear where that’s coming from; I hear the scale and I hear this and I hear…” I said, “Oh, I’m glad you hear that, because this is what I’ve been setting up.”  And I was wishing I could hear that tonight.  But what they played tonight didn’t suggest that.  But one of these days, somebody will suggest what I was dealing with the other day.  Not directly, but the sound, the timbre, all of that will fall together, and it will mean something.  It’s like stored in a computer.  And you start recalling the sound.  When somebody gives something, then you jump onto it, and add something to it, and take it and take it and stretch it on out.

TP:    Are there aspects of the vernacular culture of New Orleans, which I’m presuming you played when you were young, that contain the seeds of avant-garde music within them?

[16:58] JORDAN:  No.  I have to say no.  Because the majority of the people around New Orleans are content with playing… New Orleans is a town where people come to be entertained.  And you’ve got to play entertaining music. This is one reason why I say New Orleans is good in a way and it’s bad in a way.  It’s good because the kids play a lot of music.  You hear music in the streets.  You hear music everywhere.  But now… When we were coming up… I talk for the generation of Alvin Batiste and Ellis Marsalis.  When we were coming up, we didn’t play the traditional music.  We were playing bebop.  And then rock-and-roll came on the scene.  Well, we were playing rhythm-and-blues.  Rhythm-and-blues is the basis for everything.  But in the middle of rhythm-and-blues, here comes rock-and-roll.  But we were playing bebop at the time.  You know, the learning stages.  They were more advanced than I.  I was a couple of years younger than them.  But I was following them, I was hanging, trying to learn how to play bebop.  So here comes Rock-and-Roll out of rhythm-and-blues.  Now the kids in New Orleans, they don’t play bebop.  They’ll play some fusion music or they’ll play traditional music.  And they’ve got a lot of little Dixieland bands (we call it Dixieland) playing fusion, Dixie and what-have-you, but they’re not really trying to stretch.  New Orleans hasn’t been a town that encouraged people to step out.  Because I took a lot of abuse, people would look at me and say, “Oh, man, what you doin’?  You ought to stop.”  But they didn’t have an idea of what I was working on.  And it took a time for it to develop, because for a while I was just around there playing with myself.  And Clifford Jordan came to town, he and Billy Higgins, maybe about 35 years ago, and told Alvin Fielder (Alvin was playing in Mississippi; he’d just come down from Chicago), “Go down and play with Kidd, man, because Kidd’s about to lose his mind.  Ain’t nobody down there playing with him.” [LAUGHS] They came to town, they came to give a concert at the school, and we jammed in the band room all day long! [LAUGHS] I was hungry to play.  So it isn’t a town that encourages that.  But because of people playing music to entertain people.

TP:    Well, the reason I asked is because there are some people who cite the polyphonic aspects of the older music, and the marching band music, and particularly the rhythmic aspects of second-line beats as seeds for what people then did that might be construed as avant-garde.  I wondered what your perspective was on that?

[19:37] JORDAN:  Well, the music was hipper.  The old men who did it, some of the older men had a hip conception of what they did.  But the youngsters came back, and they didn’t develop that.  They went backwards instead of coming… Because some of them things they did in them second-line things… I remember old man Paul Barbarin… I mean, nobody…none of them youngsters could do it like that.  And some of them beats they had, I mean, they REALLY were hip.  But the youngsters behind them, some of them wasn’t good musicians; they only wanted to go out on the streets and play music and go out in the Quarter and have people throw money at them and go hustle with it.  It wasn’t a real thing of them really studying the music.  They were using it as a hustle.  And the study aspect of the thing got lost in it.

[20:29] They talk about the Young Lions.  When John Fernandez, he taught at Xavier, and Alvin Batiste and myself, when we started teaching around there and really putting the stick on some of them fellas, then this is where the young lions started coming from.  The age of Wynton Marsalis and Branford, and Donald [Harrison] and [Nicholas] Payton and all of them, I mean, we put another vibe on them, you know, that they had to learn their instruments well.  I have two sons… My son, Kent, Wynton and them used to come listen to Kent practice.  He’s a little bit older than them.  Because he was playing in the clubs with Ellis Marsalis when he was 12 years old, and Wynton and them would come to listen to them.  They were playing rock-and-roll when he was playing “Giant Steps.” So it’s a matter of that whole generation.  Then they started a school that they called the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and Ellis started teaching, Alvin Batiste was teaching… So some people think it was an accident, but it wasn’t no accident.  They were studying with cats who had mastered their instruments, and would point them in a direction to play jazz.

There’s one thing about me.  All my students that I teach, I don’t tell them what to play or how to play.  I give them the tools and tell them the things they’ve got to work on, if they want to play Dixieland, if they want to play bebop, or if they want to play… Because I know that you’ve got to find your own means of expression, and if you can’t… Because I couldn’t express myself in any of those modes other than what I’m doing now.  And I feel good about it.  And I played them gigs, and I say, “Man, I’ve got to go back and practice.”  Because when I was up here, I missed some of those notes, this wasn’t the right change, and so on and so on.  Now I get on the stage and just listen.

TP:    There are people who think that these days the term avant-garde is almost an outdated term.  For one thing, so much has been played, so much development has occurred that you have a couple of generations trying to catch up with everything!  How do you see the state of the music today in general?  You get to see a wide spectrum of it as an educator, performing around the world.

[22:38] JORDAN:  Well, in America, this is the first generation that looked back.  All the other generations were looking forward.  The movement we talked about, they were looking forward.

TP:    Where do you think this generation starts?  Would you give a point of demarcation for it?

[22:53] JORDAN:  This generation?  I would say with the groups around Wynton Marsalis’ age.

TP:    So we’re talking really two generations.

JORDAN:  Yeah, two generations.  I think this is the generation that started looking back.  And not because they wanted to, but the recording companies, they found out that they could make money… Like, all those old LPs, they couldn’t sell that, they started reissuing them, and a lot of those kids hadn’t heard that music before, and they thought this was something new.  And the people who run the recording companies knew that if the young kids would develop, they could continue to sell that kind of music.  I still believe there isn’t a trumpet player here who can outplay Miles and that can express on a trumpet what Miles did, and all of them came up after Miles, and Miles kept going on… People used to bad-mouth Miles about his fusion, about whatever he was doing.  But Miles was keeping… All the old people…Trane…they kept going on. But this generation has sort of stopped, and settled for what they’ve done.  And hopefully, they’ll get out of it, but as long as they’re making money and making gigs…

[23:48] There’s not too many people going to hire a band every night to play what we play.  In the old days, Trane and them got away with it, which was good.  But I don’t think we could get away with that.  I would love to play in a club a five nights a week.  Any club that would hire me for five nights, that would be a delight in my life; you know, going and play what I do five nights a week.  That would be beautiful.  But that won’t happen on more.  So they’ve got them playing the music that people would probably… Well, I’m not going to say they didn’t enjoy this, but music that they could feel better with.

TP:    Do you think one reason why what we’re going to call for lack of a better word the avant-garde flourished in the ’60s is because people were able to work five nights a week?  Because they did, even around New York at different places.  The AACM was able to make their own work.  Do you think that had something to do with it?

JORDAN:  That’s a good point.  I think so.  And maybe the economy can’t afford it.  The people that they got, they’ve got to have some people there that’s going to ring some people into the club and make some money, and sell some liquor, I guess.  I don’t go to clubs.  I don’t know what’s happening there.  But you’re probably right.  That’s probably what’s happening.

TP:    One other question, then I’ll let you go.  In formulating your concept, not just of music but of art, you’ve presumably drawn on other areas besides just music.  Can you talk about what you’ve incorporated and how it inflects what you do?

[25:30] JORDAN:  Well, I played with some Germans over in Germany. A.R. Penck.  You ever heard of Penck.  He’s a helluva German artist.  Butch Morris played on one of those concerts together.  Ask Butch about that session, that time we did some real hip stuff in Germany with Penck.  [26:10] And Markus Lupus(?) and Frank Wahlman(?) and all that kind of stuff, really.  That has influenced some of the things that I do.  And this cat just told me tonight, a cat from Germany, he’s in the audience tonight, and he said the TTT, the triple something…he said they’re putting out a record with us that we did with me and Alan Silva and some others over there.  He said, “You know, you’re an official member of the TTT.”  Because I’ve been playing with them since Frank Wright died.

TP:    How do you think the American notion of the avant-garde differs from the European notion of the avant-garde?

[26:43] JORDAN:  Well, the Europeans have more…other kinds of things that’s dealing with avant-garde.  The visual artists and different kinds of things.  The kids come up seeing more..for lack of a better term…a more out kind of thing.  The way they dress, some of them.  I used to see those kids over there 20 years ago with the earrings and their nose and different kinds of hair and stuff, and then maybe later, maybe about five years later, I started seeing it in the United States.  But the whole environment, it gives them more of an outlook of something.  People don’t frown on some of the things that they do here.  It’s a more advanced kind of thing.  And with art, I think… I know, as far as art is concerned. they can… I’ve played in museums with Penck and some of them, and boy, some of that art that people be buying, I’d look at it and say, “Boy, I know I’m missing something; I need a course in art appreciation.”  And they would be into it.  And as it went, I started to say, “Yeah, well, I’m seeing some of the things and how some of this is put together.”  So it has an impact on my subconscious, I would say.  And conscious mind also.

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Filed under Cadence, DownBeat, Kidd Jordan, New Orleans, Tenor Saxophone