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."