Sunday, January 22, 2012

Resounding Vision Award 2012: Alvin Fielder

I've been asked by a few people to see the transcript of a talk I gave at the 2012 Nameless Sound Resounding Vision Award, honoring Jackson, Miss. drummer, educator and historian Alvin Fielder. What follows is the text that I read to introduce one of America's national treasures. Following introductions and the presentation of the award, Alvin played in duo with tenorman Kidd Jordan and in a trio with two drum students, Abel Cisneros and Juan Martinez. The next day saw Fielder, Jordan and William Parker give a workshop at Sterling High School in South Houston, Texas followed by an evening's performance by the trio (with special guest pianist Darryl Levine) at the Eldorado Ballroom. It was a fascinating end to the week and a wonderful start to the new year...


First hearing this music it seemed like it came from nowhere, or that it was rebelling against the old, that it was freedom from just as much (if not more than) it was freedom for. To me it seemed like Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, and the music of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) were counter to the prevailing legacy of jazz, rather than part of it. But in the course of listening to the music and talking to those who were there – and listening some more – that understanding became more fleshed out.

I first heard Alvin Fielder on Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound – the first AACM record to be released in1967. Probably that’s where some of you may also have heard his work. In the last few decades, based out of Jackson, MS his associates have included Kidd Jordan (New Orleans), William Parker (NYC), Joel Futterman (Virginia Beach), Ike Levin (the Bay Area), Dennis Gonzalez and Stefan and Aaron Gonzalez (Dallas). That’s a merger of a lot of different ways to play this music.

I met Alvin in 2005 after a gig here by the trio you’ll be seeing tomorrow night at the Eldorado Ballroom – with Kidd and William. He graciously allowed me to interview him, which was a really special experience (and anyone who’s talked to him for even a few minutes has had a hint of that). We’ve continued to talk regularly and each time we talk I get a history lesson, and maybe a drum lesson too (and I don’t play the drums). Alvin is a drummer but more than that, he’s a drum historian, and even more than that he’s an archivist, or rather a living, playing archive of jazz percussion. He collects stories and experiences from other drummers as a way of not only understanding what the drums’ possibilities are in this music, but as a way of playing within the orbit of the music’s history.

Now, you might expect a drummer to speak highly of people like Max Roach or Kenny Clarke or Roy Haynes, but the joy and awe that comes through when Alvin speaks about them – experiencing their music, sure, but also being a fly on the wall to their conversations, writing letters to them, documenting their own studies, is another thing entirely. Alvin speaks with equal depth about those drummers we may not know so well – Cuba Austin from McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, or Vernell Fournier, Ed Blackwell, Arthur Edgehill, Jimmy Wormworth, Beaver Harris, Joe Harris, Shadow Wilson… learning techniques from these musicians (a little phrase from Max, another phrase from Vernell) as well as about their humanity and how they contributed to this music. For him, this drive for learning is both an aesthetic necessity and it ensures that the music he creates (or imparts) remains grounded in history.

Archiving might certainly be about letters, drum exercise books, cymbals, sticks, tapes and records, but in the case of something as ephemeral and personal as the history of this music, that information must be lived. Whenever Alvin Fielder plays the drums, he’s playing a mental and physical history lesson (ancient to the future) that is n the here and now. Not that one has to take disassemble it – one can take in, receive it, and learn from the whole.

Let me say a word, too, about community because that is what the Resounding Vision Award is all about. First, community is something that is tied to living history, built on the foundation of what came before and truly knowing that. Being able to experience history in real time can draw us together as we understand our place in it. Alvin brought creative music to Missisippi with Black Arts Music Design, and was a founding member of Chicago’s AACM, which also had a community and educational basis to it. He continues to teach and impart the music’s development from a drummer’s perspective, ensuring that those lesser-known musicians’ stories are told. He will be teaching while he is in Houston – he’s always passing knowledge down. Implicit is that his own story and archive become part of that information. Now, Alvin’s licks are part of the drums’ language.

Clifford Allen
January 19, 2012