Friday, March 18, 2011

All About Jazz interview: Alvin Fielder

Here are some extended excerpts of an interview by Clifford Allen with drummer Alvin Fielder. Fielder was a student of Ed Blackwell's, and a founding member of AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a 60's Chicago free jazz collective). He played with Muhal Richard Abrams, Sun Ra, Roscoe Mitchell, and likely everyone else associated with AACM at one point or another. He talks about influences, the history of the drums in jazz, his interactions with some great drummers, and his time in Chicago.

...Blackwell practiced all day... all the Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Max Roach tunes, all day.

[...]He used to sit down and play Max licks... and... it was strictly that. They weren't experimenting then as they would later on, and I never thought of Blackwell as a New Orleans drummer. I always thought he played very differently from the other drummers. He was a bebop drummer. [...] you didn't hear much of Blakey, Roy Haynes, or Kenny Clarke. Everything was Max Roach let me tell you...

AAJ: And all those other guys—Max, Roy, Klook—were playing melodically, which is different from what I think of with Blakey's style.

AF: Well... Blakey's a melodic drummer too. Blakey plays a lot of form, and Roy Haynes does too. My contention is—and sometimes I get a lot of arguments from it—modern drumming, and by modern drumming I mean bebop only, we aren't talking about swing drummers, or one foot in swing and one foot in bebop. We aren't talking about Big Sid Catlett or Shadow Wilson, even though they are modern drummers. I'm talking about from 1945 on up, every drummer, every modern drummer, and it's still true: Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey and Roy Haynes—every modern drummer is a combination of those four drummers. Whether they know it or not, drummers today really owe a big debt to Roy Haynes and he owed a big debt to Kenny Clarke and Papa Jo Jones.

Elvin is a combination of Kenny Clarke, Blakey and Roy. You don't hear that much Max; early on you did, but in a different way. But today I hear the biggest influence in Elvin, Roy Haynes, and Tony [Williams]. In most of the younger cats, I hear Tony. I met Tony in '61. We used to play together every day in New York. There was a group of guys—Wilbur Ware, Pat Patrick, Bernard McKinney, Clifford Jarvis, George Scott, Ray McKinney (Bernard's brother), Ernie Farrow (Alice Coltrane's brother)—who would play every day. Every day.

And so I got a chance to meet Tony, before I had a chance to really hear him play. He didn't talk very much then—he was like fifteen or sixteen, very young—and every spare dollar he got, he bought a drum book. He was studying Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe Jones, Max, and he was listening to a lot of Clifford Jarvis. Clifford Jarvis was the hottest drummer in New York—better to put it this way, he was one of the swingingest drummers in New York, along with Philly Joe Jones.

AAJ: Jarvis could make a big band move as well as any bebop combo, which is tough to do.

AF: He was working with Yusef Lateef's quartet with Barry Harris and Ernie Farrow. Tony was there watching every night, and I was also there a lot. The funny thing about that was Clifford was the first drummer who was a student of Alan Dawson, and Tony Williams was Dawson's second student. Alan's a monster anyway, but...

AAJ: He's also interesting because of his multi-instrumental capacities; he could play vibes, he could play piano...

AF: Alan was known for that. [...] He was melodic, very clean, and he could swing his butt off. I always used to think of him as a super-clean Philly Joe Jones, because Philly Joe had all kinds of technique too. He was more streetwise with it, though.


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

Now, where was I?

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


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


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

AAJ: [...]Could you explain "digging coal?" I've heard this bandied about with drummers before.

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


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

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


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

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

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

So, Roy— out of Max, Kenny Clarke and Blakey— was always the loosest. [...]

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

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

[...] Billy Higgins went through various schools. His inspiration was really Kenny Clarke. You remember the first album that was done by the Modern Jazz Quartet? "All the Things You Are," "La Ronde," which was really "Two Bass Hit," Billy always told me that was the thing that inspired him. When I heard that, I knew my sound was going to come from that. It's a beautiful thing, man, and Kenny Clarke plays so beautifully!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[...] I got a chance to really know Max I guess maybe fifteen or seventeen years ago. Max always gave me a lot of respect and I always respected him. He was probably the dominant factor in my life after my father and grandfather. I used to write Max when I first started playing. I got Max's mother's address and what I'd do is ask him various things, how he practiced and what books he practiced out of, and he never answered of course.

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


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

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

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

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

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

He was a friend. If you noticed me playing brushes on Saturday night, a lot of those were his brush strokes that he told me about. He didn't show me how to play them, but he told me about them.


Billy and I would talk all the time, maybe once a month. We never talked about drums, but we talked about old drummers. Max and I, we'd do the same thing and talk about drummers like Shadow Wilson. Vernel and I talked about him too.

I went up there to go to school and ran into Sun Ra [laughs]! I ran into him when I was working with a tenor player named John Tinsley, and this would've been in early '59. We were working on the West Side, with a female bassist and Sun Ra found out I was listed on the gig. I knew nothing about him.

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

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

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


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

AAJ: This was the pre-AACM Experimental Band?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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