"EVERYBODY'S GOT A HEARTBEAT. AS PQRST CURVE. BUT IT'S LIKE A FINGERPRINT. NOT ALL OF THEM ARE EXACTLY THE SAME. THERE IS A LITTLE VARIANCE. BUT THAT'S YOUR TIME. THAT'S YOUR BEAT."
Alvin Fielder was an American drummer, a pharmacist, an educator, a family man, a raconteur, and a friend. I first connected with Fielder in the early 2000s when he’d occasionally write or call the Signal to Noise office to report upon the passing of an important but little-known colleague, provide a factual correction, or to hype his brother Bill’s trumpet playing. Based in Houston in the mid-1950s as a Texas Southern University student moonlighting in the house band of the Eldorado Ballroom, Fielder returned triumphantly in the new century to mentor a younger generation of improvising musicians working in Space City. After his reemergence here, I saw him perform at least nine times, and every one was a special occasion. The duo concert with Roscoe Mitchell recorded at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in March 2013 reunited the pair on stage for the first time in forty years. During a stint as one of KTRU's Sunday jazz DJs, I wedged Alvin and bassist Damon Smith into the on-air booth for a sizzling duo set, broadcast live. A Christmas eve concert in 2010 was notable because it took place just downstairs from the historic Eldorado, and because it debuted a Houston supergroup that would endure for seven years. In between the concerts there were trips to the Menil Collection, to the Silver Slipper, and to Luling City Market. Fielder was an avuncular figure and a laugh riot, always ready with a dirty joke, a couple of hot stock tips, and a complicated tale concerning an obscure mentor, verbally annotated with key band associations and technical analyses. Each visit meant much more than just the music.
Born in Meridian, MS in 1935, Fielder graduated from high school at 15. He enrolled at the historically Black Roman Catholic Xavier University in New Orleans and studied with the influential drummer Edward Blackwell and pianist Ellis Marsalis, then transferred to Houston’s Texas Southern University in September 1953. Through friends of his father, he landed a $35-per-month apartment on Wheeler Avenue between Live Oak Street and Emancipation Avenue, right next door to (the “Wild Man of the Tenor Sax”) Arnett Cobb. It also put him in proximity to the Sunday night jazz scene at Club Ebony, where he fell in with trombonist Jimmy Harrison and saxophonist Richard “Dickie Boy” Lillie. First, they hired Fielder to play Bebop repertoire in their own units, then they introduced him to trombone player Pluma Davis. “Pluma always had a good band,” said Fielder, “and Pluma always played all original stuff. Good arrangements based on the blues, "I Got Rhythm." His band backed all the singers coming in--Lowell Fulson, Amos Milburn, Big Joe Turner. So, once I got into that scene, I was in three different bands!”
Fielder marveled at the musicians that came in and out of Davis’ group during the years he held court at the Eldorado. There were the tenors–Don Wilkerson, A.D. Norris, and of course, Dickie Boy. There was trumpeter John Browning, who played often with B.B. King, and trumpeter Joe Scott, who doubled as artistic director of the Duke and Peacock record labels, wrote luscious orchestrations for reeds and strings, and set Fielder up with a few studio sessions. On piano, you had Perry Deal, who Fielder calls, “probably the most modern musician in Houston, a cross between Bud Powell and Monk. He was so weird, he’d be wearing overcoats in the summer.” Trombonist Jimmy Harrison and bassist Carl Lott Sr. were other stalwart band members, seasoned older musicians who worked with the likes of Horace Silver and Jimmy Lunceford. Fielder admitted as an eighteen-year-old, he had a little catching up to do when he first jumped in with this group, but ever the scientist, he wrote out every drum part in order to learn the arrangements precisely. He’d also nick lessons from the drummers of touring acts like Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, James Moody, and Benny Green that routinely came through the Eldorado. In 1955, he joined the band of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson for its regular gig at Club Ebony. Do any photographs of these bands survive? Fielder’s wife of forty years, Carol, just laughs. “Alvin promised his father that if he’d let him come to Houston, that he wouldn’t play the drums, so if photographs ever existed, he probably destroyed the evidence.”
In 1956 at the age of 19, Fielder completed his undergraduate study at Texas Southern University (where he was in the same graduating class as Barbara Jordan), then went home to Jackson, Mississippi to work with his father at the family pharmacy. He was still too young to practice but passed the state board exam with flying colors and by Christmas 1958 had made it to Chicago, where he enrolled at the University of Illinois for graduate study. He quickly met a number of emerging creative musicians—pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, and an astral traveler proselytizing in Washington Park named Le Sony’r Ra—and became a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. For about a decade in Chicago (including a yearlong detour to New York in 1962), Fielder operated at the vanguard of contemporary creative music, but those efforts, when recorded, have mostly remained unreleased.
What if Alvin hadn’t returned home to Jackson in 1969 to run the family pharmacy? To be sure, Fielder lived a busy life full of music and political activism. He worked for Nixon’s White House helping to desegregate the schools, provided opportunities for his AACM colleagues to perform in Mississippi, and over the years developed a small but potent discography of recorded work with trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez, pianist Joel Futterman, and saxophonist Edward “Kidd” Jordan. He seemed to me to be a man with no regrets about his career path. But if Fielder had stayed in Chicago, or if he’d based himself in New York through the seventies and eighties, the recorded history of modern creative jazz might have been significantly different. “He realized it was a fork in the road,” says Carol Fielder. “But when his family needed him, there wasn’t any question.”
For decades, Fielder’s Houston gigs were rare as hen’s teeth. Dennis Gonzalez brought him down for a Houston Jazz Festival gig at Hermann Park in August 1989 that also featured saxophonist Frank Lowe and bassist Henry Franklin. Then, nothing until a concert with multi-reedist Assif Tsahar organized by the record store Sound Exchange, and performed upstairs at Notsuoh in January 2001. David Dove, then the founding director of the fledgling Pauline Oliveros Foundation in Houston, attended the gig and just having come from giving a lesson, happened to have his horn with him. “That night I did something I never, ever do,” says Dove. “I asked to sit in. I just had to play with that drummer!”
Dove and Fielder kept in touch afterward, and Nameless Sound presented Fielder for the first time in 2005 in the company of Kidd Jordan and William Parker, a concert also heard elsewhere in this edition. Fielder didn’t play again in Houston until Christmas Eve 2010. His daughter Alison had accepted a job offer in Houston in 2008, and after recovering from a serious illness that sidelined him for almost a year, Alvin came to town for a holiday visit. Bassist Damon Smith had moved to Houston from the Bay Area just a few months earlier, and a quartet with Smith, Dove, Fielder, and saxophonist Jason Jackson seemed like a sure bet. The concert took place at labotanica, the alternative art space organized by Nameless Sound’s then-administrative director Ayanna Jolivet McCloud, just downstairs from the historic Eldorado Ballroom where Fielder began his professional career. It was one of the most warm-blooded concerts I’ve ever attended, it featured a potluck reception as an extension of everyone’s Christmas festivities. Alvin’s family was there and so was mine.
This Houston quartet toured the Deep South together, released a CD (there’s another one on the way), and provided the support for most of Fielder’s future Houston activities. Two later gigs—one in Houston, one in Austin–also added vibraphonist Damon Choice to the group. Fielder’s final performance on the planet took place at Lawndale Art Center on November 12, 2018 with a lineup that included David Dove and bassist Sonia Flores, followed by a large group set where the trio was joined by trumpeter Jawwaad Taylor, saxophonists Danny Kamins and Jason Jackson, and percussionist Muhammad Jafari. When Fielder died on January 5, 2019, Houston grieved. Writing in her landmark book As Serious as Your Life, Valerie Wilmer observed that in the mid-‘70s Fielder was “continuing to live by the code of the AACM [and] determined to share it.” That obviously never changed. – PETE GERSHON
Spending time and playing with Alvin was so profound. Very few musical experiences have been as important as connecting with Alvin's ride cymbal. It centered a foundational aspect of my bass playing like nothing else before it, while simultaneously helping me to find freedom in more jazz-based playing situations.
I moved to Houston in August 2010. On that Christmas Eve I played with the quartet composed of Alvin, Jason Jackson, and David Dove. It was our first concert together. This group was important for many reasons. After an early gig, Frank Rubolino stood up said, “I will pay for this group to have an album out!” That moment restarted my label Balance Point Acoustics which is going strong today.
As we got deeper into playing, we spent more time together outside of playing music. He liked to stay at my place when he was in town, mainly to listen to records. He would find something he hadn't heard and go over each sound the drummer made, restarting the album until he fell asleep in a chair (even though we had a bed set up for him!). One record I recall him really getting into was a fantastic Phillip Wilson/Olu Dara duo LP. Another was Sunshine of my Soul with Jaki Byard, David Izenzon and Elvin Jones.
Another great memory was breaking away from the No Idea Festival in Austin, Texas with Ryan Edwards. We went to the legendary Kreuz Market barbeque in Lockhart, followed by the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. The whole car ride he was breaking down every single sound John Stevens made on a fantastic Detail album with Frode Gjerstad who we played with later in the festival.
As an example of how attuned his ears were, on another drive I did a "blindfold test" (where you guess the musician who is playing) and played him a live recording from Austria of a John Lindberg/Andrew Cyrille duo. He said, "Well, it sounds like Andrew – BUT– he is using European cymbals." He could literally hear that Andrew was playing with a borrowed kit in Europe!
We would also go to Houston museums together. He loved modern art and had a huge collection of work by the master print maker Stanley William Hayter, a painter, printmaker and teacher to many: Miro, Calder, Zarina, Giacometti among many others. We finally got to see one of his prints together at the MFAH! We would often have a barbeque lunch after.
This friendship developed in a way that made me more relaxed than I otherwise would be, working with such a master musician. Once, when we were driving from Houston, to Austin, he listed all the great bass players he had worked with, "... Lester Lashley, Ronnie Boykins, Wilbur Ware, Malachi Favors, Barry Guy, William Parker, Peter Kowald, and now I'm, playing with you!" That statement really drove things home.
Still, playing with him was the best. One of the most important conversations we had was about drummers who Cecil Taylor had worked with. Alvin said he liked Andrew Cyrille best because he was the most adventurous with swing. This opened up my ideas about how rhythm worked in every context. It showed me that the momentum created by swing was more transferable to areas of the music that were so far from its origins. In a recent conversation about this with poet Fred Moten, Fred posited, "What if 'free' was always there and 'swing' is what is new?" to take the idea even further. This idea is still evolving for me.
My current theory of how swing works in a traditional jazz context is that the musician must hold 3 & 4 as equal time signatures, rather than one over the other in a two-dimensional time system. So, the "advanced" versions add dimensions. And as it expands further, it can mean holding multiple ideas concerning where your sounds and ideas are rooted, in addition to the one you are actually playing at the moment.
The last time I saw Alvin, he met me in NY to play a fantastic trio with Joe McPhee. We then drove up to Quincy, MA, where I had just relocated from Houston. We went to a show that night, Steve Adams from Rova Saxophone Quartet was there and Al talked to a lot of the musicians. The next day we went out for an amazing seafood lunch and spent the day with Ra Kalam Bob Moses. That was a day of deep drum talk!
They went over all the people they knew in common, and they played just a bit. Bob keeps a bass in his studio and I played a bit as well. They talked about their various ideas about playing the drums – much of it beyond me! I went on to some important work with Moses that continued how my double bass work can fit with a master drummer. That work really started with Alvin.
We played our last concert together in 2016 with Jorrit Dijkstra, Jeb Bishop, and Pandelis Karayorgis, which was also my first Boston concert. He made sure we didn't squander our time together. His presence created so many rich experiences for everyone around him.
Of course, all of this work with Alvin would not have happened without the incredible context created by Nameless Sound. By the time I moved to Houston in 2010, the organization had created a rich situation in Houston for the music. The audience was informed and engaged and many of the musicians I ended up playing with had come up through Nameless Sound's workshops. I was able to play some very nice concerts for Nameless Sound, but the way the music was integrated into Houston's landscape really meant I could just get to work as soon as I arrived. – DAMON SMITH
WE WOULD LIKE TO THANK OUR FEATURED ARTIST, WORKSHOP PARTICIPANTS, AUDIENCE MEMBERS, AND ALL THE CONTRIBUTORS. WITHOUT YOUR PRESENCE AND AWARENESS WE WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO PRESENT AND LISTEN TO THIS STORY. THANK YOU FOR LISTENING.
ALVIN FIELDER began musical studies at 13 by joining Harris Senior High Band in Meridian, Mississippi, under leadership of Carlia “Duke” Otis. Alvin continued studies with Ed Blackwell while in New Orleans studying pharmacy at Xavier University. in 1952-53. After transferring to Texas Southern University in Houston, TX, he continued course of study with Herb Brockstein as well as private lessons with George “Dude” Brown, Gene Ammons, drummer from Washington, DC, and Clarence Johnston, James Moody’s drummer, from Boston, MA, whenever they came through Houston working. Alvin also had informal lessons with Jual Curtis and G.T. Hogan.
From 1954-56, Alvin worked with the “Pluma” Davis sextet, which included Don Wilkerson, Richard “Dicky Boy” Lillie, John Browning, Carl Lott, Sr., and many other Houston jazz luminaries. He backed such artists as Lowell Fulsom, Amos Milburn and other R&B artists with extended engagements in Houston. Alvin also made several studio dates for Duke records. He was also active on Houston jazz scene with Jimmy Harrison Quintet, John Browning quintet, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson sextet.
From 1959 to 1968, Alvin was active in Chicago with: Sun Ra Arkestra 1960-61, Muhal Richard Abrams 1962-63, Roscoe Mitchell 1963-66, Eddie Harris and Kalaparusha 1965, co-op trio with Fred Anderson and Lester Lashley 1967-69. In between, he worked with John Stubblefield, Jack DeJohnette, “Scotty” Holt, Joseph Jarman, and other Chicago jazz musicians. Alvin is a charter member of AACM with Muhal Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Anderson, Malachi Favors, Jodie Christian, Steve McCall, Phil Cohran, Thurman Barker, Ajaramu, Charles Clark, Christopher Gaddy, Freddy Berry, etc.
While in NY in 1962, Alvin played and rehearsed with Ernie Farrow, Bernard McKinney, Ray McKinney, Wilbur Ware, Vincent Pitts, Pat Patrick, George Scott and musicians associated with this era.
Alvin moved back to Mississippi in late 1968 to take over the family pharmacy due to his father’s illness. With John Reese and Black Arts Music Society, Alvin was active in obtaining grants from NEA and Mississippi Arts Commission to bring musicians such as Roscoe Mitchell, John Stubblefield, Malachi Favors, Muhal Richard Abrams, Clifford Jordan and others to Mississippi.
Alvin worked extensively in early 1970s with Joe Jennings, alto saxophonist now in Atlanta, and Edward “Kidd” Jordan, multi-saxophonist from New Orleans, with whom he co-leads the Improvisational Arts quintet. One of the most important new music groups in the South, IAQ has included at various times Clyde Kerr, trumpet; Alvin Thomas, tenor saxophone; London Branch, Elton Herron, basses; Darryl Lavigne, piano; Kent Jordan, flute. Also worked with Dennis Gonzalez, trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist from Dallas, another leader on the new music scene in Dallas and TX.
Alvin also had a founding role in the nationally-acclaimed Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Jazz Camp in New Orleans, LA. Alvin has been involved with this growing program since it began in 1995.
Recordings include Sound (1967) with Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, No Compromise (1983) with IAQ, The New New Orleans Music (1985) with New Music Jazz for Rounder, and Liquid Magic, Bannar, Namesake (all 1987) and Debenge-Debenge (1988) for Silkheart, (2006) Live at The Blue Monk, and (2004) Resolving Doors, The Joel Futterman, Alvin Fielder, Ike Levin Trio.
Appearances include Lincoln Center, Chicago; NO Jazz & Heritage Festival; Jazz Marathon ’82 Festival, Holland; Moers Intl. New Jazz Festival, Germany 1982; Jazz Danes LA Drones Festival, France 1984; Northsea Jazz Festival, Netherlands 1984; Heinekin Jazz Festival, Netherlands 1988; Atlanta and Texas jazz festivals 1989; Festival Intl. de Louisiane 1991.
NAMELESS SOUND FOUNDING DIRECTOR: DAVID DOVE is a trombone player, improviser, composer and workshop facilitator. He is the Founding Director of Nameless Sound, which began in 2001 as a branch of Deep Listening Institute.
MANAGING EDITOR: VERONICA ANNE SALINAS is an artist, writer, researcher, and listener. She is currently studying Deep Listening at The Center for Deep Listening at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She received her MFA in Sound from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She was selected as the 2020 ALBA sound artist-in-residence at Experimental Sound Studio (Chicago, IL), is an editor at the sound-based publication, The Eaves, and creator of the urban listening project, Chicago Land Sound. Her essay, "Sounding La Raza Cósmica" is featured in the anthology, Latina Outsiders: Remaking Latina Identity (Routledge). She has worked with Nameless Sound since 2014.
AUDIO ARCHIVIST: RYAN EDWARDS is a producer/recording engineer and improvising musician (guitar/voice/viola) based in Houston, TX. His work in recording is predominantly with classical and improvised/experimental music. Amongst many projects, he was mastering engineer for the Houston Symphony’s Grammy winning recording of Berg’s Wozzeck and many of his recordings of Nameless Sound concerts have been released commercially. He has worked with Nameless Sound since 2003.
VIDEO ARCHIVIST: DON WHITE hates writing boilerplate fluff about himself and would rather be editing video. A lifelong musical omnivore, he loves coffee, cats, Frank Zappa, and looks forward to being able to attend live performances again someday. He has worked with Nameless Sound since 2003.
NAMELESS SOUND ADMINISTRATIVE COORDINATOR: ANTHONY ALMENDÁREZ is an artist working in music composition, sound, noise, improvisation, performance, fixed media, and moving image. His work challenges the hierarchy between audio and visual stimuli confronting their respective stereotypes in relation to identity. Almendárez ultimately seeks to inject new modes of storytelling that are inclusive of histories and collective memories of those thriving along the margins of society. He received a BA in Music Education at CSU Dominguez Hills, an MA in Music Theory and Composition at Marshall University in WV, and is currently a candidate for the MFA in Sound Art at Bard College, NY. He has worked with Nameless Sound since 2018.
ABEL CISNEROS is a percussionist living in Houston. An alumni of the Nameless Sound Youth Ensemble, they have gone on to study with Karl Berger and have played with Damon Choice.
PETE GERSHON is the author of Collision: The Contemporary Art Scene in Houston, 1972-1985 (Texas A&M University Press, 2018) and Painting the Town Orange: The Stories Behind Houston’s Visionary Art Environments (History Press, 2014). From 1997 to 2013 he was the founding publisher and editor of Signal to Noise: the journal of improvised and experimental music, and from 2013-2014 the administrative coordinator for Nameless Sound. Since 2014, he’s been the program coordinator for the Core Residency Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
JOHN MARTINEZ is a percussionist living in Houston and an alumni of the Nameless Sound Youth Ensemble.
DAMON SMITH is a double bassist & improvisor living in St. Louis. More information can be found here: http://balancepointacoustics.com/
PHOTOGRAPHERS: John Allen, Dorota Biczel, Pete Gershon, Lynn Lane, Frank Rubolino, Damon Smith,
POSTER DESIGN: David Wang
RESOUNDING VISION AWARD INVITATION DESIGNS: Chris Lockwood and Jack Massing
NAMELESS: 20 YEARS OF SOUND LOGO DESIGN: Lillian Evans