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Fred Anderson: On the Run

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Tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson has seen it all in his 75-plus years. One of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in the '60s, Anderson has been tireless in his mission to nurture young jazz talent in his hometown of Chicago, Ill.. With his first club in the '70s, The Birdhouse and since 1982 at the legendary Velvet Lounge, his directive has been simply to give the next generation, and the generation after that, a place to play live jazz in front of an audience. This year Anderson is being honored at the Vision Festival for his lifetime accomplishments.

All About Jazz: Did you study music when you were young?

Fred Anderson: I studied a little bit, but I studied the masters listening to records, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, all of those guys were playing at the time. Everybody in the neighborhood would go around humming Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker solos. I got a chance to see Lester Young and Charlie Parker. It was amazing to watch them play.

AAJ: How did you get started with the AACM?

FA: We got together as a group and decided to form this organization. It was time, you know?

AAJ: Was jazz popular at that point?

FA: It was on the downswing in the '60s. After Charlie Parker died, things kind of disintegrated. He brought a lot to the table. A lot to the table...phew. But there were other people involved. Charlie Christian. Monk joined the revolution. Bud Powell joined the revolution. It was a thing that just happened, and it basically happened in New York.

AAJ: So how were you exposed to it in Chicago?

FA: Records, mainly. I didn't get the chance to see Ornette [then], but I had heard a lot of his records, so I pretty much knew what he had done. I figured Ornette was really coming out of Charlie Parker's thing, so I wasn't really surprised by Ornette. What Ornette did, in my opinion, was take a little step backward. You could hear the influence, but he had to create his own voice. Ornette freed the music up a little bit more.

AAJ: And that influenced you?

FA: Well, later on I found out that Charlie Parker was one of the freest musicians I had ever heard anyway, but that concept that Charlie Parker brought to the table was really so, so hip. Ornette's musicianship was good, but Charlie Parker's technique was superb. Each one of the notes would just come out and hit you. Gene Ammons would play one note and you could feel it right here [holds his stomach]. And that's the kind of thing that Charlie Parker did on the alto. His music was so involved. It was hard. It's still hard. Kids try to play it now, and they're all right playing the tune, but once they've played the tune, the concept is lost.

AAJ: How can you develop the concept?

FA: It takes a long time. Charlie Parker probably understood what everybody was doing. He took a job in New York washing dishes so he could listen to Art Tatum every night. I listen to him now and I hear some things...not so much what he was playing but how he was doing things. It was simple, but it was so logical. And that's the genius. Music is a mystery and you've got to keep exploring, just like anything else, if you want to find something.

AAJ: How do you see your role in the jazz community in the city of Chicago?

FA: My role in the city is to keep young musicians playing. I will always have a place for them to play. Even when I didn't have the Velvet Lounge, I had a workshop years ago where I met a lot of original musicians, a bunch of cats that started playing with me when they were real young. I'm still doing the same thing. I don't have a school, but the bandstand is where they can present their music.

AAJ: Why aren't all of the musicians who play there playing at other clubs around town?

FA: They are, but this is their home. They can't play in other places like they can play here. They can be themselves. It's like it was at Minton's in New York with Diz and all of them. He played a gig with Cab Calloway! He knew when he got off where he could go and really play.

AAJ: What is your relationship with Hamid Drake?

FA: We've been playing together ever since he was 18 years old. I took him with me on his first trip overseas, and now he's taking me. He and I are the ones that created this concept of playing together. Rhythm. We play off each other. If you listen to Back Together Again (Thrill Jockey), you'll hear it. We've got a bond. It's always been there.

AAJ: How do you think your playing has changed in the last 20 years?

FA: It's probably changed a lot. I've studied more, I've done more research and I've dedicated myself more to it. Since I've had the Velvet, I've continued to practice practice practice. I think I have more of an idea, a better direction for what I'm trying to do. I found out a long time ago you've got to be yourself, you've got to be original. And it's hard to create your own sound, because it's so easy to play other people's music.

AAJ: How did you keep yourself focused?

FA: I started listening to myself and trying to create things for myself and I put together a book called Exercises for the Creative Musician of things that I did before the AACM. I play those exercises all the time. That is my Bible.

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