It was broad daylight the first time I drove down to Chicago's South Loop, just to see where Fred Anderson's
legendary Velvet Lounge
was. I went right passed it. In the middle of the afternoon, there isn't much going on in the area that surrounds the city's mammoth convention center, McCormick Place. Squeezed in between an intimidating private parking lot and a weathered storefront rib joint, 2128 ' South Indiana is easy to miss.
At night, however, it's a slightly different story, with an assortment of seasoned jazzbos and college hipsters filing through the nondescript entry, marked only by modest signs that read "Velvet Lounge" and "Live Jazz". The neighborhood, if a bit remote and desolate to the uninitiated, has been gentrifying at a pretty steady pace. On the approach from the north going south on Indiana, rows and rows of red brick condominiums and townhouses suggest a pleasant side street in Boston or London. Around the corner from the club, a large mural of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf on the wall of a building next to a lot on South Michigan Avenue identifies the site of the old Chess Records.
My friend and I decided to go on a random Friday night, and we were met at the door by the proprietor himself, collecting cover charges for the evening. Now a slightly stooped elder statesman in his mid-seventies, Anderson is owlish behind plastic-framed eyeglasses and sporting a squared-off leather cap. As we entered, the narrow aisle stretched to the back, bounded on the right by the well-stocked, cluttered bar and a row of tables on the right, two-seats at each, the chairs metal-legged, their seats and backs padded and covered in dark red vinyl. The wall above the tables and chairs is covered with old photos and posters of heroes who have passed through. Steve Lacy, writing across his face, called the Velvet Lounge "a temple", and the atmosphere is palpable.
The aisle opens up into the back, with more chairs and tables on the left and the stage on the right, and the only velvet is on a few paintings: Miles, Coltrane, a nude. A relatively large rendering of a youngish Billie Holiday, flower in her hair, overlooks the musicians on stage. The lighting is supplied by two hanging fixtures that radiate six arms out from the center bulb - red over the crowd, and white over the stage, augmented by a row of spotlights. The fixture over the stage hangs low enough so that on that random Friday, the bassist for the band we saw kept bumping into it with his instrument. That band - an aggregation of bass, two drummers, alto sax and leader Bill Perry on tenor - was wonderful, joyous and exciting, inside enough to come out swinging, and outside enough to make it a little more dangerous than what you might hear at one of Chicago's more refined establishments.
Anderson opened his club in this spot in 1972, replacing his Birdhouse on the North Side. Anderson's joints have always been meccas for local places with few places to go. As he told writer John Corbett, "We used to get up on stage at 12:00 and play until 4:00 in the morning'.The young guys didn't have anywhere to go and play. When they play with me, they have a chance to really express themselves freely. That's what playing here every Sunday is about." Anderson doesn't play as frequently these days, but the jam sessions still take place every weekend. When he does play, the effect is galvanic. At a recent Saturday afternoon show, the Billy Brimfield Concert (featuring Anderson's longtime compadre on trumpet and advertising appearances by Anderson and Chicago's other tenor legend, Von Freeman) easily attracted three times the 50 people the club comfortably holds.
The club's success, however, has claimed itself as one of its victims. In the past few months, the club has become easier to find as the surrounding buildings have been torn down around it to make way, presumably, for more red-brick townhouses. October was a rough month, with failing plumbing shutting the club down until it reopened in November. The old place can't last forever. And word is that Anderson has a new place in preparation, around the corner and down the street a few blocks on South Michigan. When this Velvet Lounge is torn down, the musicians may move, but the ghosts probably won't, and Chicago will lose its most authentic jazz performance space. Get there while there is still time. And keep going back, wherever the Velvet Lounge is, to hear the best music in town.
Visit the Velvet Lounge on the web at www.velvetlounge.net .