Remembering Alvin Fielder (1935-2019)

This is from a series of interviews I did with drummer Al Fielder in late 2010. I was working on “You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band.” Reggie Willis had told me that Al was one of the few AACM members to attend the Mwandishi Band shows at the London House in Chicago in 1970. What ensued was a series of wonderful conversations with Al. We talked about doing some playing, which unfortunately never happened. He was just a delight and I’ll miss him. The text is edited as a first-person narrative.


I was one of the original fifteen or seventeen members of the AACM. Most of the AACM guys came out of the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet. With the exception of me, Muhal Richard Abrams – and I worked with him a lot – Jodie Christian, Malachai Favors, and maybe my neighbor, Steve McCall, they were musicians who couldn’t play bebop; some couldn’t really swing in the 1920-1960s tradition. AACM members didn’t go to the London House because the music was too conservative for them, as they saw it, and the place was expensive.

I was the odd person in the AACM. I always wore Brooks Brothers suits – the blazers, the grey trousers; I was a pharmacist, too, plus I was in the stock market and I was a collector, so I had a little extra money and could take my wife to the London House and it wouldn’t hurt us too much. I was going around to London House and the other clubs, like the Pershing and the Rendezvous, two, three, four nights a week. If there was a good drummer, I would have gone, I knew the house drummer at London House, Leroy Williams, so I’d go hear him, as well as Marshall Thompson. [Even as a teenager] I would go to proms in school with no partner and just watch the drummer.

I’ve got a motto: if I play free music, I try to play it as tight as possible; if I play bebop, I try to play it as loose as possible. For me, the so-called free music is really an extension of bebop; Sonny Murray and his rhythmic concepts comes from Art Blakey and Elvin Jones. Andrew Cyrille comes from Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones.

Herbie [Hancock] and I met in 1960. He had just gotten home from college. I don’t remember how we met but we became friends. We put together a group that included my brother William, Reggie Willis and Reuben Cooper. We would audition for the owners of the clubs to get jobs. After a while that group broke up and we joined John Hine’s group. During that time or shortly afterwards, Herbie worked with Coleman Hawkins at a club when he came to Chicago for a week or two. After that I think Donald Byrd came to town and used Herbie and later took him to New York City.

Afterwards I had seen Herbie with Miles several times. Then I heard he had formed Mwandishi. I was in Chicago to visit my in-laws while Mwandishi was at the London House. I knew Billy Hart was with the group and Billy was a good friend. I had heard him with Jimmie Smith and West Montgomery and I was in admiration of his looseness and his conception. I first met Billy Hart at an AACM concert. I was working with Anthony Braxton and Kalaparusha and Charles Clark. He’d come by a concert and I’d let him play. He’d let me play at his gigs, too.

I went to see Mwandishi [at London House in Chicago] and sat on the bandstand near Billy to watch it. The music was special, different and right on the edge. The music covered many bases touching on bebop, post-bebop, avant-garde, Latin, colors, and so forth. What I heard from Mwandishi was new to me, and my ears. The music was everywhere and the flow was just phenomenal.

Everyone in the group was strong, precise and creative, which is what happens when all the musicians are in synch. I especially remember the sound of Billy and his floating feel, his touch and how he would stretch rhythms. His time was like a rubber band. In any musical situation, I knew I would love his swing, feel and conception. Also, he’s such a warm and humble person. I was fascinated with the rhythms they were playing. It was based on rhythms not necessarily being played by the beboppers. The rhythm was loose and so was the music, like stepping over stones, leaping over lakes, going from one mood to another, without any effort.

Billy Hart has a grasp of many styles of drumming. I heard a lot of hip Latin, I call it “U.S.” Latin because drummers in this country add another stacket to it; there’s still another type of swing to it. Billy was adding the bebop feel and the post-bebop feel with somewhat of a Latin feel, and the “Blue Note” funk, the way Billy Higgins’ but a little looser; somewhat Pete La Roca. Billy has a floating feel. He uses a lot of cymbals for colors and he gets many tones out of his drums. Every drummer comes from a combination of Max Roach, Roy Haynes and Kenny Clarke. Billy Hart is a combination of Roy Haynes and Tony Williams, who himself was a mix of Jimmie Cobb and Max Roach.

Bennie Maupin was a good friend of my friend, drummer Freddie Waits, and I was familiar with the album he did with Jack DeJohnette (The DeJohnette Complex, 1968). Julian Priester was one of my favorite trombonists. Eddie Henderson, one of my brother’s favorite trumpet players because of his abilities, was playing looser too. Buster Williams brought something else to the group, like the slurs (slides) on his bass and his conceptions.

They all came from the post-bebop thing, but when you put them all in the mix, it was like looser post-bebop on firm ground. Even though the music was somewhat a little post-bebop, rhythmically, Billy and Buster gave it a looser thrust. The front line was tight, although they were playing loose. The base on which they played was firm. I was really knocked out when I heard it. I wish Herbie had kept it together instead of going other places. It was one of my favorite bands.


~ by bobgluck on January 7, 2019.

3 Responses to “Remembering Alvin Fielder (1935-2019)”

  1. A fascinating interview! I love the way Alvin Fielder describes the music, and the appreciation and metaphors he uses especially when describing Billy Hart’s playing as well as elsewhere re other musicians. It sure sounds like he would be a delight to converse with, as you mention. Thank you, Bob, for sharing this with us.

  2. […] Source: Bob Gluck’s Blog. […]

  3. This is great! RIP Al. Thanks Bob.

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