Fred Anderson: Customizing Conviction

Lyn Horton By

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Carrying on tradition brings history through time without imitation. Not all musicians make it their job to ensure that the music of the past, while changeable as a result of the passage of cultural time, stays intact. It's all about new tunes and improvisation: the creation of music that upholds the tradition, with those to whom that tradition is handed down allowing it to continue. Saxophonist Fred Anderson has not relented in his intention to keep modern jazz alive. Anderson describes how the music, as he first began to listen to the Jay McShann band on record, captured him: "it was the concept of the music that was fascinating.

Chapter Index
  1. Anderson's Evolution
  2. The Velvet Lounge
  3. Younger Musicians
  4. Harrison Bankhead
  5. Chad Taylor
  6. Ken Vandermark
  7. Hamid Drake
  8. And thus...

Anderson's Evolution

Fred Anderwson In the mid-1940s, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie sprang out of the swing era, in Anderson's words, "thinking music should go their way, and revolutionized American jazz. It did not require much to do so. It was actually very simple. They concentrated on producing a melody and then improvising on it. The rhythmic aspect of that change quickened the pace so much that the music required a new label and that label was bebop.

Yet, for Anderson, what the beboppers did, particularly Charlie Parker, was open the gates to crystallizing an art form and establishing their own identity in a way that musicians had never tried before. Anderson stresses how he remains interested in finding out how "the music was traveling along, and discovering the musicians he never knew about. He aims to keep learning so that he can continue to embellish what he perceives as the technical aspects of the jazz music to which he is attracted. He aims to keep researching and learning about the music rather than simply copying licks that originated in that bygone, albeit radical, era. "The more you know, the more you understand.

In his playing, Anderson maintains the simplicity of the stark transition into bebop, and combines it with the fluency of the robust sound of tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons, who also rose out of the big band era. Anderson's invention of melody is unequaled as is his "sense of pulse, according to drummer Chad Taylor, with whom Anderson has often toured.


Much of the know-how that Anderson invests in his music he has learned on his own. It started at about age twenty-five, when living in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, "hanging out in the basement playing the saxophone with a friend. His friend gave him books on music theory from which Anderson absorbed as much as he could; he soaked up everything he needed to know in order to compose and most of all to understand what he heard. It was through those books that Anderson launched himself into figuring out how music works, even before he took formal sax lessons from a teacher later on at a music school in the city.

Acceptance of the straightforward characteristics of how Anderson creates his music and how he advances the "normal range of the saxophone is crucial to appreciating his significant and genuine contributions to the contemporary world of improvised music. To expect something other than what is heard would be ill-advised, because what is heard in Anderson's music is quintessential to the cultivation of listening, in general. His music cannot be compared to what has gone on in the past. He views what he does as it "reflects the past and goes into the future... He is always "playing for the moment in time, and is "interested in the now, not what he used to do.

Anderson is a soft-spoken man. He has internalized his experience and shapes it into the breath that he blows through his horn. He can talk endlessly about the history of the music that was a part of his maturation, but uses fewer words to talk about his art. He calls himself a storyteller. The act of "hooking up licks and blues patterns gives birth to the melody that explains how Anderson honestly feels. The progression of the story requires that he "keep the continuity hooked up within an improvisation, employing all the technical tools that he has mastered through as many as six hours of practice everyday, in the past. These days, though, at age 78, practicing two hours gives him a daily regimen of musical exercise.

The purpose of the musical story he unravels is "....to communicate with the audience...to reach the people...to know that what they hear is not necessarily technical...to give them something to hum... But, he likes his story to unfold with his fellow musicians, for the communication with them builds the intensity of the story, and communication with other players is generally valuable to the development of the music as a whole beyond one performance interaction. In addition, he finds it more economical to play in small groups, duets, trios and quartets. There is more conversation to be had. Playing solo remains in the future.


The Velvet Lounge

In the mid-sixties, when pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and Anderson talked about the formation of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music), a subject they also touched on was establishing a place where the musicians could play—a club. The Birdhouse was Anderson's initial attempt to establish a center in which musicians could convene. Although he was successful in attracting musicians to play, the music was not enough to attract audiences, especially since the club was located in a German neighborhood whose denizens could not understand Anderson's intent.


It wasn't until he inherited what would become the Velvet Lounge from Ford "Tip Manyweathers in 1981 that Anderson seized the opportunity to transform a basic tavern into an educational institution, a haven for young musicians to evolve their art in the same way that Minton's Playhouse in Harlem was the bastion for the showcasing of the then radical music of Monk, Parker, and Gillespie (the "velvet of Velvet Lounge is how someone once described Anderson's sound to him; he liked it, so he attached it to the place where it meant the most.). Many musicians who personify contemporary improvised music either started at the Velvet, including flutist Nicole Mitchell; trumpeters Maurice Brown and Corey Wilkes, or have consistently held a spot there as performers (e.g. drummer Hamid Drake and bassist Harrison Bankhead). Reedmen Von Freeman, Joseph Jarman, Kidd Jordan and Roscoe Mitchell have also played there.


Younger Musicians

Younger musicians who have worked with Anderson have nothing but admiration and affection for him. He opens his heart and mind to encourage and guide them in honing the music that is so much as part of who they are and how they impact the world. How deeply Anderson reaches his younger followers and collaborators will make certain that the creative tradition of the music that he holds dear, and has upheld with conviction, will be transferred to more practitioners. His legacy will not go unnoticed.


Harrison Bankhead

One of the musicians whom Anderson took under his wing is bassist Harrison Bankhead. He met Anderson through drummer and cover art artist Emilio Cruz in Chicago in 1980. Anderson had already heard Bankhead on a recording and was interested in his playing. After Anderson took over the Velvet, he wanted to secure musicians for the club. He chose Bankhead to become a regular at the Velvet in 1982.

Bankhead has described Anderson's approach to music as viable, absorptive of other forms, yet still remaining itself. In other words, Anderson, himself, "is a living form.


Although Bankhead has a background as an R&B electric bassist and is also classically trained as a cellist, he feels that he has received seminal guidance from Anderson that he would not have received anywhere else. He has been inspired to find his own voice, in how the bass expands the sound that would normally be produced by piano, in a group format. "You have to be able to keep moving and modulate...go into different keys...develop on the bandstand. His mantra is: "Develop...develop...develop.

Anderson has imparted to Bankhead the value of molding his self-esteem, to empower himself in order to vitalize the musical traditions of the African Diaspora that must not be ignored. That is: it is fine to be a dreamer, but always remember to stay grounded.

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