Fred Anderson Finally Gets His Due: And His Records Back In Print
Like so many of his peers, Anderson quickly fell under the spell of the astonishing, young alto saxophonist from Kansas City. "I just listened to him and I tried to figure out how he was doing certain things not so much the notes that he was playing. He had a unique way about placing things," Anderson said, noting that while Parker and his fellow bebop pioneers worked with a standard repertoire night after night, they imbued each performance with fresh invention.
"The solos would be a little bit different, although they were playing the same songs," Anderson said. "There always would be some surprises because they were willing to take chances and take responsibility. This is what you've got to do, this is life."
Parker was also notoriously influential in his illegal drug use. Biographer Ross Russell described the ethos of the day among some of Parker's naive admirers in his book Bird Lives!, writing that the sentiment was, "To play like Bird, you had to go by Bird" meaning shooting heroin. Anderson didn't buy it. "I had enough sense at that age [to know] drugs did not make him play like that. That was my instinct," he said, adding that Parker's consistently brilliant playing over time further resolved in him that drug use was not the catalyst for Parker's musical skill. Besides, he said, "I was scared of needles."
Anderson studied harmony and theory during the '50s at Roy Knapp's music school, a small institution on the South Side. In 1964 Anderson teamed up with Chicago pianist Muhal Richard Abrams to create the AACM, a collective of avant-garde musicians who sought to dramatically broaden the concept of acoustic jazz by infusing their compositions with a melange of ethnic and folk music styles and incorporating performance art into their concerts. Anderson played in the group's initial concert in 1965; a year later he made his first appearance on record on reedist and AEC co-founder Joseph Jarman's debut album, "Song For."
In the late 1970s Anderson ran a nonprofit North Side club at 4512 N. Lincoln Ave. called the Birdhouse, named in honor of Charlie "Bird" Parker. But after harassment by the city and random vandalism "somebody didn't want us there," Anderson explained he closed it down and went to Europe, where he cut "Another Place."
When he returned to Chicago, Anderson found work tending bar at Tip's Lounge on Indiana Avenue near Cermak Road. After the bar's owner got sick, Anderson took over running the establishment, and when the owner died Anderson bought the club, reopening it as the Velvet Lounge in 1982, and started hosting jazz jam sessions there every other Sunday.
Many of Anderson's recent CDs derive from concert recordings made at the Velvet, considered by many to be a refuge for improvising musicians in a city dominated by dance clubs, sports bars and a smattering of rock venues.
Of the Sunday jams, Drake said: "A lot of the younger musicians that will come out it's like really a spot for them. [That's] because of Fred's energy pulling these different people together, bringing the younger musicians out, because he creates an environment where they feel welcome, where they feel they can work on their creative process."
Over time many of the AACM's members, including Jarman and Abrams, left Chicago for New York to seek international acclaim, but Anderson, who had begun a family, chose to stay in Chicago. "I like Chicago, you know," he said. "And I guess it doesn't really matter geographically where you are as long as you're still playing the music."
Anderson said that with 14 CDs now available in his name, people can hear his music regardless of where they live. "And then I got the Velvet here, you know, and I figured that would really belong here," he added.
Drake also happens to be from Monroe, La., and his family lived with Anderson's for a time during the '70s. "I started working with Fred in '74," he said. "When I joined the group at the time, Eugene [Anderson's eldest son] was in the group too. We had two drummers. And when Eugene was playing drum set sometimes I would play congas, and then there's times when we played together. But I guess Eugene, after a while I guess he couldn't cut the mustard."
Eugene, who was born in 1953, eventually moved to California. Michael, Anderson's middle son, born in 1955 "the same year Bird died," Anderson said still lives in Chicago. Kevin, Anderson's youngest son, born in 1958, died a few years ago in a motorcycle crash while not wearing a helmet. Bernice Anderson, Fred's wife whom he was divorced from, passed away in April. Anderson dedicated a song to her on his "Birdhouse" album, named after his old club.
So what else does he do? Anderson said he doesn't spend time on much outside his passion, listening to and playing music, and he hasn't seen his surviving children for quite a while. He said, though, "The Velvet Lounge is my past-time, and I've got a lot of kids in there."
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