Alvin Fielder is a legendary jazz drummer from Meridian, Miss., who has performed in bands over the years with Sun Ra, Eddie Harris, Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Anderson and Roscoe Mitchell. He was one of the original members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the pioneering Chicago avant-garde organization that the New York Times has called "one of this country's great engines of experimental art." In the 1960s, he returned to Mississippi to help desegregate schools (as part of the federally funded Emergency School Assistance Program) and to take over his father's drug store. He retired from his career as a pharmacist in 2010, and will be 80 years old this year, though, as he told me, "I feel 35, and I play like I'm 35."
Fielder will participate in a free panel discussion at South on Main entitled "Jazz: Integrated Art in Segregated America," at 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 24. University of Central Arkansas professor Jackie Lamar will lead the panel, which will also include musicians Irene Crutchfield, Bill Huntington and London Branch. After the discussion, at 8 p.m., Fielder and his group (which features Branch, Huntington and Little Rock pianist Chris Parker) will perform. Parker, Fielder says, is "one of the best piano players down South, an exceptional pianist and a very underrated musician," and Huntington "is just beautiful — Bill was one of the first modern bass players in New Orleans." Tickets are $10.
I spoke to Fielder on the phone last week about his time in Sun Ra's Arkestra, the future of jazz and more.
You started out playing pop music — R&B and gospel and blues.
Most of us did back then. I enjoyed R&B, too – it was very different back then. And, in fact, most of the R&B musicians were jazz musicians, going back to the '40s and '50s. When you think of John Coltrane even, Coltrane went through the same thing. I'd venture to say 90 percent of the great jazz musicians who are 60 or older probably went through rhythm and blues bands. Even Max Roach played in a so-called R&B band. I think he played in Louis Jordan's band. He took Shadow Wilson's place for a while; Max said that was the hardest job he ever worked.
It was a good learning ground, and really prepared me to be a steady drummer. Most people think of me as avant-garde, but basically I'm a bebop drummer. I started playing avant-garde music when I got to Chicago, with the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians].
Why was the AACM started, and what did it accomplish?
The AACM was a group of musicians that weren't working regularly. Some of the guys were very talented players, but we couldn't find much work. We wanted to play a new kind of music, too. We wanted to explore and to play our own music. We didn't play Charlie Parker's music or Dizzy's or Bud Powell's. It was all original. It could be any type of music, but it had to be ours. We were able to put together various groups — various combines — and play each week. Sometimes there weren't many people, sometimes there were a lot. But it was a movement. And the AACM has been together longer than any musical organization I can think of, it's been 50 years.
A lot of other musicians criticized us. Some musicians we invited turned us down. We were searching for a newer music, separate from bebop, which is still about the most complicated American music there is. The AACM really made musicians think in a different way. It was a creative music, a new music. We weren't as aggressive in our playing as New York musicians, but we were using instruments that we made ourselves, and things like that. People called it freedom, but it was organized freedom. People called it chaotic, but it was organized chaos. And the main thing is, no matter what it was, it swung.
Tell me about playing with Sun Ra.
Ah, Sun Ra. I had gotten to Chicago and was working with a tenor player from the west side named John Tinsley. We played a dance on Easter Sunday, and John used Sun Ra on piano — that was the first time I met him. We started talking and he found out I was from Mississippi and he said, "Man, I bet you're a good shuffle drummer." He was playing straight piano at the time, a very, very good pianist. Knew all the standards and played just like a normal pianist would play. He invited me to his rehearsal — all these guys were there, John Gilmore and Hobart Dotson. And I got the job. Sometimes he used one drummer, sometimes he used two, a couple of times he used three. It was a good learning experience. Are you familiar with Sun Ra's album "Jazz in Silhouette"? That was the group I was in. It was a regular, straight group — let's say it was a cross between Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. We were playing some "out" stuff, but not much.
In "A Power Stronger than Itself," a book about the AACM, you're quoted as saying you didn't make much money with Sun Ra, but, "As I look back, I should have been paying him."
Right! The experience and the knowledge that Sun Ra had was incredible. Musical knowledge, but also learning to live as a person, in the artistic world. When you played with him, it was an adventure into learning something new. Learning new rules and regulations. He used to tell me I needed to loosen up more. I used to go by Sun Ra's apartment all the time. He lived in a small apartment with a piano, boxes of music, and we would have dinner together. He was a vegetarian. And we would just talk about various things. He never talked over my head, but he was a brilliant guy. A genius. I considered him like a big brother. He was an exceptional artist.
You were later active in school desegregation in Mississippi.
Yes, I worked in the Nixon administration, with the Emergency School Assistance Program (ESAP). I moved back to Mississippi in '68 and became one of the 15 members of this group — all the Southern states had one. We were in charge of integrating the schools and, if the government was going to support them financially, we were in charge of that. We would go over every school district's desegregation efforts — we were the investigators and had final say-so as to whether they received federal money. Out of 82 counties, maybe 20 or 25 got the money. And through that I was able to deal with the National Endowment for the Arts and get money to bring down a whole lot of musicians from New York and Chicago. Everybody came down through those grants.
Has it been frustrating to see that this is still such a problem?
It's not as bad, it's just different. It's changed. I don't know what you would call it, but it's nothing like it was in the '60s, believe me. It was socioeconomics, and it was attitudes back then. I saw attitudes really change in about 1971 in Mississippi, totally. It was an about-face.
It's been often pointed out that there are fewer young jazz musicians today than ever before. Do you worry about the genre's future?
Things change. When I was getting started, you didn't have jazz programs in schools. The learning process was all private study with someone older than you, more experienced. And just practice. But when you think about it, you've only really had 10, maybe 15 innovators in the history of jazz. Right?
Sure, if you say so.
No, no, no, think about it. You had Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane. And in between you had great players, but they weren't innovators. If you notice, there's been no innovation since virtually the '50s. You haven't seen a drum innovator since Max Roach. This music used to change every 20 years. It changed with the problems we had in America — WWI, WWII, the civil rights movement. Most of the younger musicians today are playing off the bebop thing still.
Take Thelonious Monk, though. Nobody has been more important in terms of writing jazz compositions, except maybe Duke Ellington. He was one of my favorite musicians, and his compositions are still challenges. I saw a well-known player doing some Monk tunes recently, and pardon the expression — the shit sounded corny. Monk didn't appreciate anybody playing his compositions, except maybe Bud Powell. Even Miles Davis' version of "Round Midnight" — they played it with the wrong changes. And if you notice, very few people played his songs until he died. There was a blindfold test Monk did with DownBeat Magazine back in the '60s. They played him a version someone else did of one of his tunes. And Monk said, "Look, man, I got to go to the bathroom."