Alvin Fielder Talks Free Jazz, Working for Tricky Dicky and About Dying A Few Times

Alvin Fielder helped found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago, worked for the Nixon Administration and spent much of his life running the family drug store.

However, hearing him talk about all of his accomplishments by phone from his Mississippi home, winning Nameless Sound's "Resounding Vision Award" could very well be his favorite achievement.

In 2009, Fielder was playing a trio gig in New Orleans when he started feeling completely awful. Fielder, a pharmacist for 56 years in Starkville and Jackson, Mississippi, didn't know what was up so he visited the doctor.

The blood work came back and showed that the normally healthy Fielder was suffering from heart, kidney, blood and liver problems. He was immediately admitted to the hospital, where he spent most of the next ten months.

Medical personnel took all of the blood out of Fielder's body to clean it. His weight dropped under 100 pounds and he couldn't walk. At one time, he was sent over to hospice.

"I actually died a couple of times," says Fielder, who adds that nobody could figure out the problem. "I was on life support and couldn't come off. Then one day, I just came off. Of course the wife was sitting there crying."

A few months later, Fielder, now age 73, investigated and found the answer: An intense response to a drug that he had taken for a skin ailment. "The allergic reaction happened after two or three months of being off the drug," he says.

Makes sense why he's excited about the "Resounding Vision Award," huh?

"I was very much surprised," says Fielder about his reaction when Nameless Sound founding director David Dove told him the news. "You've got other musicians that haven't received the award, like Kidd Jordan, who's been honored by the French government, the late Bill Dixon and other drummers like Andrew Cyrille and Sunny Murray."

A look at Fielder's résumé proves that he's very much being modest.

After attending Texas Southern University, Fielder moved to Chicago in 1959, where he connected with the AACM, an organization that unites musicians who present sounds on the advanced-listening side of the spectrum.

"That group really changed my life along with Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson when I was working with him in Houston at Club Ebony," says Fielder. "[The AACM] had strict rules that we can only play original music. We couldn't play anybody else's music. We couldn't even play Coltrane's music." 

In 1969, with fellow AACMers Roscoe Mitchell and Malachi Favors off to Europe to play for more appreciative audiences, Fielder moved back to his hometown, Meridian, Mississippi, where his father wanted him to take over the drugstore.

In the '70s, he split time between Mississippi and Washington D.C., where he worked for Emergency School Aid Assistance (which would become the Emergency School Aid Program), a White House-based project that helped deliver money to Southern states in order to speed up desegregation. Fielder's first boss was Spiro Agnew.

Throughout all of the work and job commuting, he made time to advance the avant-garde vernacular displayed on the Delmark Records-released Sound (1966), a small-group ensemble recording (which features Fielder) under Mitchell's name that pissed off a lot of straight-ahead and traditional jazz heads.

"I remember the recording well. Roscoe and Malachi brought in all of these little instruments such as juice cans filled with various amounts of water for different tones," says Fielder. "The record came out around the same time as Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures and Conquistador. That was the difference between New York avant-garde music and Chicago avant-garde music.

"I love the music. The name of the first album with Kidd Jordan and other New Orleans musicians was No Compromise. I won't compromise the music for anything," says Fielder. "I'd rather be a dishwasher or quit playing than compromise the music."

Today, Fielder is retired from the pharmacy business so he has more time to work on music that includes the recent formation of a quartet with Houstonians Dove, Damon Smith and Jason Jackson. "We've played together twice and there's enough good stuff to come out with a CD," he says.

He also informs the serious jazz nerds of Rocks Off that Nessa Records finally bought the master tapes of a 1964 AACM document and turned it into Before There Was Sound, a just-released recording that features the same lineup from Sound except Fred Berry is the trumpet player in place of Lester Bowie.

Says Fielder, "I have a lot of expectations for the music. It has kicked my butt all of these years. I still have to practice every day and I do a lot of listening."

Alvin Fielder will be honored by Nameless Sound during the "Resounding Vision Award" party, scheduled to take place from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Thursday at The Audley Society, 3231 Audley. Past award winners are Joe McPhee, William Parker, Pauline Oliveros and Curley Cormier.

At 8 p.m. Friday, Fielder, Edward "Kidd" Jordan and William Parker will perform at the Eldorado Ballroom, 2310 Elgin Street.

For more information about the party and the concert, visit the Nameless Sound website.

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