Wilfred "Mickey" Fields, a famed jazz musician who played mostly in Baltimore nightclubs for more than four decades, died of kidney disease Monday at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Mr. Fields, 62, played his last gig in October at Heritage Gardens in Parkville, retiring because of failing health. Fellow musicians marveled that he could play at all in later years.
"His hands were so severely swollen that he had to wrap them around the horn to play; it was incredible that he was able to keep on playing as long as he did," said fellow saxophonist Carlos Johnson, who played with him for 25 years.
"He could do anything with his sax -- he could make it talk or cryHe could do it all and he was one of the best in the business -- a legend.
"When he played 'Here's That Rainy Day,' which was one of his favorites, it just took me apart."
Mr. Fields played every major club in the city, among them the Left Bank Jazz Society, Club Tijuana, the Bird Cage and the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue, but resisted all invitations to go on the road with Lionel Hampton and Art Blakey and other jazz musicians because he was content playing in his hometown.
"He was the top horn player in the city and the most outstanding thing was how well he was known outside of Baltimore," said Bobby Ward, a drummer.
lTC "I was playing in Thunder Bay, Ontario, which is 1,500 miles south of the North Pole, when two members of the audience asked me if I knew Mickey Fields since I was from Baltimore. I was so far away from home and Mickey was the last person I ever expected to be asked about. . . . That in itself tells a lot about him and his influence."
"It broke my heart when I heard that he died," said jazz and classics singer Alfred McEwen, who will sing at Mr. Fields' funeral scheduled for noon today at the March Funeral Home East, 1101 E. North Ave.
Born and reared in Towson, Mr. Fields quit Towson High School in the 10th grade after his father's death and went to work.
He began playing the sax at 15, after his brother returned home with an instrument he had won on a bet while serving in the Army.
His first group was the Seven Tilters, formed during the early 1950s with his late sister, Shirley, a jazz and blues singer, as vocalist.
Later groups included Mickey and His Mice, Mickey & Co., Mickey and the Field Mice and finally Mickey and the Band.
Mr. Fields, who also played bass, piano, trombone and flute, was self-taught -- "never took a lesson," said his wife, the former Connie Wozniak, whom he married in 1956 after serving in the Army.
"We had to drive to Washington, D.C., to get married because he was black and I was white," Mrs. Fields said.
The problem was a law that for three centuries -- until 1967 -- had prevented interracial marriages from taking place in Maryland.
"But he loved Baltimore and its clubs and he said, 'We're staying. If they don't like us, they don't like us,' " Mrs. Fields said, recalling the times in the 1950s when her husband and other musicians would play in segregated establishments and "had to stay in the kitchen and not mingle with the white customers" off stage.
Bob Haynes, owner of the Sportsmen's Lounge on Gwynn Oak Avenue where Mr. Fields last played about four months ago, said, "He was the only musician I know of that no one has anything bad to say about.
"The main thing, he was a teacher.
"He would always look out for the little fellow. He brought them along. He gave of himself and he would show the newcomers what they were doing right or wrong."
"He helped and taught a lot of people -- black or white, it made no difference to him," said Chico Johnson, an organist.
Musicians such as Dexter Gordon, Wynton Marsalis and Sonny Stitt -- who once challenged Mr. Fields to a saxophone duel at the Famous Ballroom, and it was judged a draw -- would find him when playing or visiting Baltimore.
After the funeral, Mr. Fields' musician friends plan a jazz tribute to him this afternoon at the Sportsmen's Lounge, 4723 Gwynn Oak Ave.
It is open to the public.
Mr. Fields, who lived in Hamilton, is also survived by a son, Michael E. Fields of Plantation, Fla.; a daughter, Jacqueline Fields Haynes of Hamilton; three brothers, Warren Ware and Kenneth Fields of Baltimore and Alvin Fields of White Marsh; two sisters, Dorothy Westbrook and Dannette Adams, and his mother, Etta Fields, all of Baltimore; and a granddaughter.