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?
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?
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.
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.