A Fireside Chat With Ken Vandermark
AAJ: The tragic irony of improvised music is, nothing creative is done in a vacuum, yet there are elements within the music that have walled the music into a corner.
KV: Correct, I agree with you a hundred percent. And the responsibility at the end of the day has got to go to the musicians. What happens is musicians, all the time, blame people for their situation. They work in conditions that are ridiculous and they bitch about it, but then they continue to work there. You look at a place like the Knitting Factory. Every single person who plays improvised music in the world complains about that place and yet many, many hundreds of people continue to play there every year. Musicians are responsible for that place being sustained and their attitudes toward the music and the players. They are to blame, the musicians, not the writers, not the presenters. Musicians are people and like other people, they don't want to take responsibility for their actions. When it comes down to it, who is making the stuff? The musicians are. Like you said, put yourself in a vacuum is a perfect way to describe it. If they put themselves in a vacuum, who is to be blamed?
AAJ: I am admittedly selfish and being so, I am very envious of the momentum improvised music has gained in Chicago. Chicago is a paradigm for the possibilities that come with cooperative effort. But would the advancement in audience support been realistic without the critical endorsement from John Corbett and indie labels like Atavistic and Okkadisk championing the music?
KV: Well, I would say that the synergy of different things being in Chicago at the same time is something that no one could have been an architect for, but at the same time, there is no question that for some reason all these things happened in parallel and worked together. Without question, John's impact on the scene here has been huge. He has brought in a number of European players and convinced them to play here and once that started happening, once they started to see the response they were getting from musicians and audience members, that has been going for seven years now, the Bottle Series (Empty Bottle) and John has been instrumental in making that work. Coverage of the scene here by writers within Chicago itself, I mean Chicago is strange that it actually supports its own, for better or for worse. I know that when I first started playing here, there were people in Chicago who wrote about me and the people I played with as though, this is serious music you should see alongside whatever was coming through town. It wasn't like backhanded compliments like, 'This is pretty good for local guys,' and that was really important too because audiences don't see Chicago musicians as being lesser than someone from New York or someone from Stockholm. They see it as being part of a larger scene and I think that that has been really healthy.
The labels have been totally instrumental, particularly Atavistic and particularly Okkadisk. Thrill Jockey has been doing some stuff lately with people connected to the Tortoise axis with Isotope 217 and the Rob Mazurek Chicago Underground stuff. Their support of the local scene has been really crucial because, especially in the early stages of it because no one would have known anything about what was going on in Chicago without those record labels putting the records out. Those labels have been established for a while, but there were also a number of other small labels like Quinnah and Platypus that lasted for only a very, very short time, maybe a year and a half, two years tops, that got records out and those records got reviewed so we could actually get press from outside of Chicago and appear on the radar screen somewhere back in the early Nineties.
Since the middle Nineties, there has been more and more recognition coming to the musicians working here and right now, the scene actually is the healthiest it has been because there is a lot of younger players, guys like Tim Daisy, Dave Rempis, and people that they're connected with that are booking their own gigs in different venues and finding their own places to play, organizing their own bands, writing their own music. When I was their age, this sounds ridiculous to say, but it is true. When I was in my middle twenties in the beginning of the Nineties, that just was not happening. The people I was working with, we were an anomaly because we were among the first people to really be driven to try and find new venues to play in outside of the AACM and that was very connected to the South Side musicians in Chicago and the Black-American musicians here. The scene right now is very, very rich. You have these young players in their twenties and you have got people like Fred Anderson and Robert Barry around, who are in their seventies and everything in between. The audiences here have been unbelievably supportive.
The college radio stations have played a lot of the music, especially WNUR up at Northwestern University. There is a feeling of community here, which is hard to create by a whim. It is a long term cooperative feeling here where musicians are willing to work together and support each other without making a big deal out of it. It is just the way that people seem to work and I don't know if that is a Mid-Western thing.