Next door to the Velvet Lounge in Chicago's Near South Side neighborhood is Fitzee's Bar-B-Que, a chicken joint whose counter sports a bullet-proof window separating the kitchen and dining room. Across the street is a recently constructed LaSalle Bank branch, complete with ritzy landscaping. Walking down the street on a recent Saturday night, you might not even notice that the club, which in 2002 celebrates its 20th anniversary, is open.
But inside the Velvet, about 70 patrons pay rapt attention to Fred Anderson, 73, veteran jazz tenor saxophonist, co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the club's owner, as he leads his quartet through a set of edgy yet soulful numbers.
In the center of the small stage, Anderson hunches over his gleaming ax, wrenching out a thoughtful, sinewy solo over the rest of his quartet's cacophonous swirl of melodious sound. He seems to drive his upper body toward the floor, wringing notes from his instrument with intense physical effort.
Eventually the music shifts from a squealing crescendo to a relaxed, moody groove. Anderson's playing slows, then stops. He retrieves a handkerchief from his back pocket, takes off his glasses and mops the perspiration from his face. Then he listens to the rest of the group build back into another sonic curio. Staccato guitar chords slash over rhythmic pulses of bass and drums. The faintest smile creeps across Anderson's mouth.
Bassist Malachi Favors, another veteran musician and charter member of the seminal Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC), takes a solo, then Anderson joins in to form a bluesy duet. Finally drummer and guitarist reenter the fray and the song wraps up with the tune's head, a lick Anderson wrote decades ago yet still manages to imbue with vigorous feeling.
The crowd is mostly white 20- and 30-somethings, seekers of exceptional sounds from outside the infamously segregated southern part of the city, though there are several older black men and women in attendance. Also among the audience are a few musicians, one in a tuxedo, who've brought their instruments, either from gigs earlier in the night or in hopes of sitting in with the band.
It's a bigger crowd than usual at the club, perhaps because Anderson recently traveled to Europe for a couple performances, including at the Jazz in August festival in Lisbon, Portugal, and hasn't played in town for in a while. But Karen Bates, who handles publicity for the Velvet, says, "Fred always draws like this."
On the club's walls are portraits of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, as well as laudatory articles about Anderson and posters advertising various engagements in Europe and America over the years? They seem to connect the club, often considered a free jazz haven, to the classic jazz tradition begun by the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and continued by their bebop descendants. What happened next, whether it's called free jazz, jazz-rock, world jazz or "something else" entirely, is still debated in jazz circles.
"There's no such thing as freedom," Anderson said at his club one particularly hot summer afternoon. "Not in the sense of, you can just do anything you want to, and do it without any kind of structure or guidance. Music is about telling some kind of story, and listening to the music that's going on and figuring [out] how can you communicate what you're doing."
Anderson, sporting a leopard-print, West African kufi hat that allowed his curly, white sideburns to peek out from underneath, said he doesn't care for such frequently used terms as "free jazz" or "outside" playing to describe his music, though critics have tended to align him with avant-garde musicians who appear more interested in challenging rather than embracing the swing-to-bop jazz canon.
Anderson's playing, which comprises a blend of bluesy, post-bop licks and angular, improvised runs, is reminiscent of John Coltrane, Archie Shepp and fellow AACM-er Anthony Braxton's off-kilter, searching sounds of the 1960s that extended Charlie Parker's vocabulary. But Anderson's music, rather than mimicking the style of those jazz giants, embodies their challenging, probing philosophy of going further, of creating anew while adhering to a distinct harmonic tradition.
"I try to play music from the root position, from what happened before," Anderson said. "You can do a lot of abstract things, but I believe that you have to respect the way music is flowing. Scales and chords are the tools. Everybody makes melodies off of scales and chords; that's how compositions come about."
Lately Anderson's compositional craft which bears something in common with the '60s songwriting of alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, whom Anderson counts as a contemporary rather than an influence has received a good deal of attention, both from record labels and from young fans and musicians keen to get a handle on the evolution of jazz from the hard bop of the 1950s into the "free jazz" of Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and Coleman during the '60s.
Since 2000, Chicago record labels have put out a half-dozen CDs of original music by Anderson, including a duet recording with avant bandleader Sun Ra's drummer Robert Barry and a re-release of "Dark Day," originally an LP of a concert taped at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art in 1979 and long out of print until last year.
On September 1, the 2002 Chicago Jazz Festival honored Anderson as a featured soloist during a rendition of his tune "Saxoon" from "Dark Day." The performance by Canada's NOW Orchestra reunited Anderson with "free" trombonist and AACM-er George Lewis, who conducted the ensemble, and trumpeter Billy Brimfield. Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, another AEC founding member, also played with the group. Anderson waxed his 1978 LP, "Another Place," in Germany with Lewis, Brimfield and longtime Anderson percussionist Hamid [then Hank] Drake.
Atavistic Worldwide is one label that has begun putting out previously unreleased or out-of-print music by Anderson. "The Milwaukee Tapes Vol.1," culled from Anderson's private tape archives of his performances over the years, is part of a 1980 concert featuring Brimfield and Drake. The CD appeared in 2000 as part of the label's fledgling Unheard Music Series, which releases rare recordings by obscure improvising musicians; "Dark Day" was also reissued for the series.
"There's a misconception that free jazz meant 'no tunes,' that free jazz means not playing melodies," said John Corbett, curator of the Unheard Music Series. "There are very few pieces from the classic period of free jazz of the '60s with no compositions."
Corbett noted that, while some developments since the free jazz phenomenon, such as the guitar work of Derek Bailey, have diverged from jazz entirely, Anderson's music sits squarely within the jazz tradition. "I think the music that Fred and Hamid make has clear links to the music that's often described as 'free jazz,' but they may not like to categorize what they do," Corbett said. "Musicians see what they're doing as unique, personal, and if you want to be really clear about it you'd call it 'Fred Anderson music.'" He added that a second volume of Milwaukee tapes material is in the works but has no release date yet.
"There's certain elements within the tradition that we're utilizing the same element of rhythm, of melody and so forth but we're utilizing them in a different way," said Drake, relaxing in his Lincoln Square apartment on Chicago's North Side. "I used to go to jam sessions and we would play standards, and there was a definite repertoire 'Hot House,' 'Cherokee,' 'All the Things You Are' all the so-called standard tunes. The music with Fred and other people that I work with, it's something that is definitely based upon that tradition, but it's an extension upon it.
"There's more information regarding, let's say, drumming from different parts of the world that I might have, that a Baby Dodds or a Kenny Clarke might not have had. So there's been an extension upon the tradition, a progression to different understanding, but it's still a part of the tradition. It's not like, well there's the tradition, and there's us over here. It's a lineage."
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Anderson was born in 1929 in Monroe, La., about 70 miles south of the Arkansas state line. He moved to the Chicago area with his family during the 1940s. "I started listening to music really during the Charlie Parker period in his late part of his career," Anderson said. "When he came to Chicago in '39, I was too young, so I missed that part of his career. But I did catch the last part of his career, say from '46, '47.
"I listened to his records all the time when he was with [Kansas City big-band leader and pianist] Jay McShann, 'cause my parents used to play the records. I didn't know who he was at that particular time, until a friend of mine came from the service and he told me that he had played with Jay McShann. I said, 'Well, we got some Jay McShann records at home.'
"So I ran home and tried to find the records and I only found one the rest of 'em was broke."
But Anderson said he was able to see Parker play live on the South Side. "I remember one of the last times I seen Charlie Parker was at the Pershing Hotel Ballroom, and there was a group of people standing in front of the stage just [watching him]," he said. "There was a few people dancing, but most of the people was standing there listening to Bird."
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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Ken Vandermark, multi-reedist and leader of the Vandermark 5 and a multitude of other groups whose members span generations of jazz artists, said Anderson managed to stay unknown to most jazz listeners for a long time due to his regional isolation. "He's always been devoted to Chicago, and he sacrificed some of his opportunities to travel and tour," he noted.
Vandermark added, however, "Fred's profile internationally has grown, especially in the last five years." That happened after Anderson in 1993 began booking jazz shows in addition to his regular jam sessions. Today the jazz jam occurs every Sunday, and the club hosts regular concerts Thursday through Saturday nights.
"There's been a growing and renewed interest in improvised music," Vandermark said. "When that happens people working in the field who developed their own approaches end up becoming revered as masters people like Fred." Vandermark also defended Anderson's unique style of playing. "I've seen some people say, even in print, that he plays out of tune," he said. "That's completely absurd. He's a musician who has a very clear idea of what he wants to do and how he places those pitches."
Corbett noted that Anderson's background as a musician gives him an edge among club owners. "Fred provides a unique perspective on the music that he's bringing in and a certain empathy for the musicians that he brings in," he said. "Fred is always open to younger musicians who don't have a name yet, and he sees [the Velvet Lounge] as really a germination place, as well as presenting people who are much beloved and will draw a huge audience." The club hosted renowned New Orleans free jazz tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan for a couple of its Memorial Day weekend "After-Fest" shows, held at night after the Chicago Jazz Fest's programming.
The Velvet's neighborhood is still a mixed bag of segregated poverty and dramatic real estate development. Blighted housing projects on South State Street just a few blocks to the west are within walking distance of the towering Hyatt Regency hotel a quarter-mile to the east at McCormick Place a convention center that in August announced plans to expand by 800,000 square feet, bringing it virtually to the club's front door. But the venue still draws devoted fans undeterred by both blight and gentrification.
"Being a destination joint, you're only going to go there for a certain reason," said Dave Jemilo, owner of the Green Mill jazz club in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood on the city's North Side. "It's not for the yuppie butthead going to have a Bud Light, where you have to tell them to be quiet." Jemilo said it's a testament to Anderson's musical devotion that the club remains off the beaten path. "He stays true to what he likes, he does what he likes, not necessarily to make a lot of money."
Anderson said he's glad to attract a variety of people to the club. "I have everybody playing here, people from the North Side, white, black, anybody that plays," he said. "Everybody plays at the Velvet. I'm getting more people in the neighborhood coming, but not as many as I'd like to. But it's alright, this is for music, it's not for division."
* * *
Sitting in the Velvet Lounge, Anderson points to a book he recently put together, Exercises for the Creative Musician, consisting of transcriptions of a several original Anderson songs notated by a University of Chicago music-theory student. "I don't write with the pencil no more," he says. "These are some of the exercises that I played in order to create my particular style," Anderson says. "There's nothing 'free' about that." He noted that he runs through his practice exercises every day at 9:30 a.m., "when your mind is clear."
Anderson turns to watch a videotape of his performance last year at the Verona Jazz festival in Italy. He notes a Bird-ism in one of his solo lines. Pointing again to Exercises, he explains: "One of the reasons why I put this book together, I figured this is the best time for it to get out because there's so many young kids out there now, and they say, 'Well, I'm playing free.' But it's nothing. These young kids, they gonna have to study, and if they want to be creative musicians they gonna have to learn to take responsibility for what they do."
Drake said he's hopeful for the music's future, both in terms of the enthusiasm of fledgling players and their respect for such veterans as Anderson. "In this time now, there is more of an interest in this music, and there's a deep interest in people that have been pioneers in the music who are still living today living creators of this music especially [by] younger audiences who are really into a very energetic, expansive sort of music," he said. "There's a lot of folks that spent time in Fred's groups and they learned some invaluable lessons that I'm pretty sure have affected their view and their approach to music now."
Drake listed himself along with Jarman, Lewis, Brimfield, reedist Douglas Ewart, drummer Steve McCall, bassist Charles Clark, bassist and trombonist Lester Lashley, saxophonist William Perry and drummer Andy Potter as examples of musicians who've played with Anderson and soaked up some of his influence.
"If you're interested in the history of jazz and improvised music in Chicago, you have to check out Fred," said Jeb Bishop, trombonist in his own group, the Jeb Bishop Trio, and in the Vandermark 5, both of which occasionally play at the Velvet Lounge. "If you don't you're missing something. Fred is one of the essential figures in jazz in Chicago; there's no question about that."
Vandermark, who received in 1999 a six-figure MacArthur Foundation "genius award" that has helped him put together such grand projects as his 12-piece, electro-acoustic Territory-3 Band, agreed. Regarding Anderson's importance in nurturing improvised music in Chicago, from the litany of internationally renowned players who've performed in his ensembles to the venues he's run, Vandermark said, "Everybody is aware of it. Whether they live in Chicago or New York or Stockholm, he's known as a major player in this music with good reason."
Anderson said he's happy with his contribution and his legacy. "As a kid I said, 'One day I'll be in a history book, the same one Charlie Parker is' and I am," he said, referring to his inclusion in Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler's The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, published in 1999 by Oxford University Press (a revised edition of Feather's 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz ).
But it's been a long climb into the limelight. "I'd seen Fred play in Chicago with his various groups when I first moved here in '89," Vandermark said. "I was really impressed by his individual approach to creativity and playing improvised music." Yet he noted: "Aside from in Chicago, people who knew him were a rarity. Now that's really changed. He's going to Europe, he's had a real renaissance in his career not in terms of his playing but in terms of [people's] awareness of his music."
Vandermark made a 1997 record with his DKV Trio and Anderson on Bruno Johnson's Okka Disk label. He said Johnson is largely responsible for sparking the recent proliferation of Anderson CDs, beginning with the release of his "Vintage Duets" album, featuring drummer Steve McCall, in 1994. "He deserves a lot of credit for that," Vandermark said.
As for Anderson, he seems to continue to learn lessons from his forebears. Reminiscing again about Parker, he said, "Just imagine yourself being a jazz musician, and every night you come out 'nekkid' and you've got to perform, you've got to come up with something a little bit different every night. Now you can imagine how creative you've got to be. I mean, you out there taking a chance, as soon as you walk out on stage you can either bomb or ... every night."
The Velvet Lounge is located at 2128 1/2 S. Indiana Ave. (one block east of Michigan, just north of Cermak), Chicago. Call (312) 791-9050, (888) 644-8007 or check www.velvetlounge.net for hours and performance schedule.
Fred Anderson Discography (15 albums):
Asian Improv Records
Fred Anderson Quartet Vol. 1: Live at the Velvet Lounge - 1999
Fred Anderson Quartet Vol. 2: Live at the Velvet Lounge - 2000 *
Atavistic (Unheard Music Series)
Dark Day+Live in Verona (1979) - 2001
The Milwaukee Tapes Vol. 1 (1980) - 2000 *
On the Run: Live at the Velvet Lounge - 2001
2 Days in April (with Kidd Jordan) - 2000
Another Place (import LP) - 1978 *
The Missing Link (1984, rec. 1979) - 1997
Birdhouse - 1996 *
Destiny (with Marilyn Crispell) - 1995
Fred Anderson Trio: Live at the Velvet Lounge - 1999
Fred Anderson/DKV Trio - 1997
Vintage Duets (with Steve McCall, 1980) - 1994
FRED Chicago Chamber Music - 1997
Duets 2001 (with Robert Barry) - 2001 *