In her memoir of the great US jazz drummer, educator and pharmacist, Val Wilmer recalls her visit to Alvin Fielder’s hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, where he introduced her to leading Civil Rights activists for her project to photograph the lives of black women
Alvin Fielder Jr, who has died aged 83, was the first drummer with the Roscoe Mitchell group that became The Art Ensemble Of Chicago. Throughout a career that embraced study with Sun Ra and immersion in free jazz improvisation, he was associated with every aspect of what the AACM called Great Black Music. In Texas he played gospel and blues sessions for Don Robey's Duke Records and did gigs with Bluesmen Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Big Joe Turner and Amos Milburn before joining funky saxophonist Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson and going on the road. Despite this background, he spent half his professional life running a pharmacy business in a small Mississippi town.
Born in Meridian, Mississippi, on 23 November 1935, Fielder attended universities in three major cities. While studying in New Orleans he met pioneer R&B session drummer Earl Palmer, who introduced him to Edward Blackwell. When Fielder asked shyly for lessons, Blackwell told him: “I have all the time in the world.” In 1957 he moved to Chicago where he worked with pianist Richard Abrams and saxophonist Kalaparusha and spent two years under the Sun Ra umbrella.
In 1968, four years after his home town made international headlines for its brutality, Fielder returned to Meridian to take over the family pharmacy. This was on Fifth Street, the central thoroughfare of the black community where, in 1964, an ugly and intransigent white police force led a campaign of hatred and violence against people, both black and white, demonstrating in support of Civil Rights. Not far away, three activists were kidnapped and shot at the height of the struggle. When their bodies were found buried in a dam on a pig farm, it attracted the attention of the world's media, eventually to inspire a book and the film Mississippi's Burning.
In 1974, I received an Arts Council grant to photograph the lives of black women in Mississippi. I contacted Alvin for his help and he found me a place to stay with a redoubtable social worker who was trying to pick up the pieces after the mayhem. Callie Cole's was one of many black homes I visited where the welcome was far warmer than I might have reasonably anticipated in the light of the town's recent history; nevertheless, the events of ten years earlier remained at the back of my mind as I moved around in what was still, in effect, a segregated society. It was not until I met an NAACP official and was asked to explain my intentions, that I was brought down to earth with a bang. I swiftly realised that any ‘it'll be alright on the night’ type of obfuscation did not go down well in Mississippi. The deceptively slow pace of life there masked the fact that making a wrong move could land you in trouble and a wrong word could still be a matter of life and death.
In between photograph assignments, Callie took me fishing, and I interviewed Alvin. As a founder member of the AACM, he was determined that the people of his home state be exposed to the best that African America had to offer, and while busily securing grants to bring new music artists to Mississippi, he found time to re-evaluate his early activities. His remarks about Sun Ra and the AACM formed an important part of my book, As Serious As Your Life, just as staying in Meridian contributed to my fast-growing recognition of the continuum between the old and the new in the music.
Alvin introduced me to women who had played a role in Meridian's voter registration campaign at a time when their actions were fraught with danger. Among these unsung heroines was one who had welcomed the Freedom Riders into her home and, through their help, successfully conquered the illiteracy of a lifetime. And then there was the wonderful septuagenarian Jennie Ruth Crump, whose self-imposed daily task was driving around the isolated homes of working mothers, collecting children to ensure they got to school, an essential act in a state where education was still not yet compulsory. Thanks to these women and the man from the NAACP, I left Mississippi a changed person. And thanks to Alvin Fielder for making it possible.
Alvin Fielder Jr, drummer, educator and pharmacist, born Meridian, Mississippi, 23 November 1935, died 5 January 2019.