“I have Max Roach dancing in my head,” drummer Alvin Fielder once said when asked about his approach to his instrument. Fielder, is most recognized for co-founding, along with saxophonist Kidd Jordan, the Improvisational Arts Quintet. It was in Chicago that he gained a reputation for being a founder of the progressive Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and his work with forward-thinking musicians like pianists Sun Ra and Muhal Richard Abrams, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and others. Alvin Fielder, who was born into a musical family in Meridian, Mississippi, died on January 5, 2019 at the age of 83.
Those hip to Fielder often categorized him as a free jazz or avant-garde drummer. He viewed it differently. “I just call it modern music,” Fielder once said in describing the style of jazz that he and his fellow musicians pursue. “Bebop was the foundation of all of our music. The music was created in New Orleans and everything is an extension of that.”
Surprising, perhaps, is Jordan’s observation on the inner workings of Fielder’s playing. Fielder was encyclopedic in his knowledge of jazz and one could often hear his references to the history of jazz as he sat behind the drums. Jordan takes it one step further, saying, “Alvin was a bebop drummer at heart. He played loose but at heart he loved Max Roach and those cats. He came up with the beboppers.”
“The first time Kidd and I played together in 1974 it was like instead of a kinship it was a twin-ship,” Fielder remembered in a 2017 interview. Fielder’s pairing with Jordan, a native of New Orleans, was a natural as both explored jazz’s outer reaches. However, the longevity of this relationship remained remarkable as Fielder lived in Jackson, Mississippi since returning to his home state in the 1970s to take over his family’s pharmacy after a decade in Chicago.
Fielder spent some time in New Orleans in the early 1950s while studying pharmacy at Xavier University and took this opportunity to seek out instruction from master drummer Ed Blackwell. It was a relationship and friendship that would last a lifetime. “I learned a whole lot from him—musicality, technique and somewhat of a sense of humor,” Fielder said. The drummer then headed to further his education at Texas Southern University and in 1958 pursued his graduate studies in pharmacy at the University of Illinois.
“Alvin brought another vibe than what was happening here,” says Jordan of their initial meeting. “He had been with the AACM so he had fresh ideas.”
“Alvin had a big heart and he always wanted to play,” Jordan says with affection. “He could play loose with us and tight with other people. He loved music more than anything else in the world. Music was his thing. He was a soldier.”