Remember the old circus act in which a Volkswagen Beetle came to a stop in the ring and dozens of folks—tall, short, fat, thin—climbed out of the tiny car? There are nights when the Velvet Lounge, in Chicago, is like that.
The club looks small, squeezed between larger fast-food shops, and on certain occasions—like the nights of tenorman Fred Anderson’s special appearances, or when guest stars like Edward “Kidd” Jordan, Steve Lacy, Peter Kowald, Douglas Ewart, Tim Berne, Jemeel Moondoc take the stage—viewers outside wonder how so many people can fit in. The atmosphere is friendly, the audience is often young and, when all chairs and stools are taken, listeners stand against a wall or sit on the floor in front of the bandstand, enraptured by glorious music.
The club is about a mile and a half south of Chicago’s Loop, at 21281/2 Indiana Avenue, a few doors north of Cermak Road and just a couple of blocks from the historic Chess recording studios. Of course, it usually isn’t so crowded; nevertheless, it’s one of Chicago’s leading jazz spas, one of the few with an international reputation.
Fred Anderson is the owner and host of the Velvet Lounge, as well as the finest tenor saxophonist in free jazz/underground jazz/outside jazz today. I don’t say this lightly, in a time when estimable tenorists like Pharoah Sanders, David Murray, Evan Parker, Archie Shepp, Peter Brötzmann and others are active on the scene. The reason they’re well known and Anderson still has a low profile is simply that he’s chosen to spend most of his career in the Chicago area, where he raised a family, spent years making a living at nonmusical jobs, nurtured younger musicians—some of whom are now much better known than Anderson himself—and lived a normal life devoted to music but detached from the jazz wars.
As recently as eight years ago Anderson had no recordings available in the stores, but the current Chicago jazz renaissance has changed that. A younger generation has discovered him. Several independent CD labels, like Eremite and Asian Improv, most of them relatively new, have issued or reissued 13 of his 14 albums as leader or co-leader. Okka-Disk has released five of them so far, and this autumn has brought three more CDs: Robert Barry/Fred Anderson Duets 2001 (Thrill Jockey), with ex-Arkestra drummer and fellow Chicagoan Barry; Dark Day + Live in Verona (Atavistic/Unheard Music Series), a two-CD set of 1979 concerts, one of which first appeared on LP; and On the Run: Live at the Velvet Lounge (Delmark).
Although the Velvet Lounge is closed on a recent Thursday afternoon, Anderson is there anyway; he likes to practice his tenor sax undisturbed, and later on a band is coming in to rehearse, too. Usually the tavern is only open for a couple of hours each weekday afternoon, to serve construction workers from nearby projects—the Velvet is in a changing district of the city—who like a beer during their lunch hour. It reopens five nights a week, when jazz bands take the stage.
“Our primary objective is to present music; it’s not for somebody to come in and get drunk and curse,” Anderson says. “After I took over the Velvet Lounge in 1981, we started out with jam sessions every other week. Then we started a jam session every week. Later on, around ’93, we started having the after-the-festival festival”—after each night of the annual Chicago Jazz Festival, the Velvet presents very popular jam sessions. “From then on we decided to have music on Friday, Saturday, Sunday. [Tenor saxophonist] Ari Brown was the one who started playing on Thursdays—he stayed here three years. Later on, I think [pianist] Jodie Christian was the one who started Wednesdays—it’s been a little over a year.”
Anderson and a handful of part-time volunteers and employees keep the Velvet going: “We can’t really afford a big payroll. We run it for the music, and these are people who love the music and want to be part of it. It’s not so much how much money they make, ’cause most of them are working someplace else anyway.”
It’s devotion to the music that sustained Fred Anderson, a husky, friendly, quiet man, for so many years of struggle and obscurity. He played a little piano in his boyhood in Monroe, La., where he was born March 22, 1929; when he was 10 his parents separated and he moved with his mother to Evanston, Ill., the suburb immediately north of Chicago. There, he says, “A friend told me of Charlie Parker. I started collecting his records and I started playing saxophone after I heard ‘Now’s the Time.’”
Years of study and practice followed. In the 1950s and married, Anderson lived by Washington Park in the middle of Chicago’s South Side. “I had two kids; I couldn’t practice in the apartment. So I would go across the street and practice in the park. At first it was strange because everything was open, outdoors. I started playing louder, so I could hear it. That’s how I really started developing my sound.”
Other saxophone inspirations included Lester Young and the big, forceful yet subtle sound of Gene Ammons. Later, as Anderson was questioning the need for standard harmonic structure, he heard the free-jazz discoveries of Ornette Coleman. “See, I started out listening to myself instead of trying to copy other people. Hey, I don’t want to do it that way; let me figure out how I can do it.” Anderson began developing his own exercises, devising a multitude of chords, broken chords, scales, broken scales, combining them and transposing them all. He’s enthusiastic as he shows his manuscripts: “Scales and chords: This is where melodies come from. You just have to put it together in your mind. I play them in all the different keys, in very different variations. That means you don’t have to start in one particular place, you can start anywhere and you always have somewhere to go. You don’t want to get yourself in a corner. See, all of this came to me when I heard Charlie Parker. I said, ‘Here’s a man who can always move in any direction.’
“It’s really about life. Man always has to know, and you want to get to the place where your instincts tell you what to do. It’s just like anything else, you practice and you practice every day, and you deal with all these variations and you have all these different options.”
As to the great rhythmic variety in Anderson’s solos, he says, “You could play a lot of straight eighth notes up and down your horn. The hard part is putting the rhythm in there and making it hit, knowing how to play it.”
In the liner notes to his CD The Missing Link (Nessa), he told critic Neil Tesser, “Phrasing was the thing that took me the longest to get: to understand that four-bar and eight-bar phrasing, just the feel of it, you know? Then I started extendin’ my phrases; instead of playin’ four, I was playin’ five, and six, and seven, and nine. It’s all knowin’ where you are at all times, so everything will be together, it won’t be disjointed, it will just flow.”
By the 1960s, when Anderson was playing often in public, his music was controversial. There was a noted incident when he and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell went to a popular West Side club to sit in: “Back then me and Roscoe were playing sort of like the Ornette thing, and cats weren’t digging Ornette. When it got time to solo, the stuff hit the fan—they didn’t like what I was doing. The owner came up and told me, ‘They don’t want you on the bandstand.’ That was the beginning—cats knew I was playing different.” By then Anderson was playing with kindred spirits, most significantly trumpeter Bill Brimfield, with whom he practiced at length; Brimfield has played recurringly with Anderson for four decades.
When the AACM was formed in 1965, Anderson’s quintet with Brimfield and altoist Joseph Jarman played the very first concert. The group was also known as the Jarman Quintet, depending upon who booked what engagement. Anderson’s song “Little Fox Run” is on Jarman’s Song For (Delmark); his brief solos on that 1966 album definitely reveal an original style, with a big sound, dark, minor lines and brittle phrasing.
Over the years Anderson steadily became more fluent. An early highlight was “Causes Two,” a big-band work that Jarman composed to feature Anderson in 1967. For several years he played in a trio with trombonist-bassist Lester Lashley and a drummer: first Alvin Fielder, then Steve McCall. The early 1970s was an especially stimulating period, when Anderson led a sextet with Brimfield and young graduates of the AACM school, most notably altoist-flutist-clarinetist Douglas Ewart and trombonist George Lewis. They played weekly at the Foundation Church, in Chicago’s Old Town district, and the opportunity to stretch out and play Anderson’s themes was an important growing experience. The younger musicians discovered their own voices in this period and went on to become important free-jazz artists.
In the mid-’70s Anderson opened his own concert room, a no-food, no-booze venue named the Birdhouse. But it was in an old North Side German neighborhood, and some of the locals objected; after a number of stimulating musical events, harassment by officials led to the Birdhouse’s closing. An important turn in Anderson’s fortunes came in 1977, when he made his first European journey, to appear with Austrian pianist Dieter Glawischnig’s group Neighbors; with them he recorded his first LP, Accents, now a rare album indeed: “One guy said he bought it from an eBay auction for 80-some dollars.”
In 1979 Anderson went to Europe with his own group, including Brimfield and Lewis; there, besides recording two more albums, he played Lewis’ big-band arrangements of two of his own songs. It was after his return that a relative who owned Tip’s Lounge invited Anderson to help run the business; upon the owner’s death, Anderson took over the tavern and renamed it the Velvet Lounge.
The Missing Link, recorded in 1979 and released in 1983, was Anderson’s first album for an American label. That CD, and three other CD albums from that period also document the growth in his style. Dark Day includes one of his very finest solos, “Saxoon”—it’s a medium-tempo swinger with an infectious theme that provokes him to delightful variations, in an excellently shaped, unified solo. Throughout these discs his tone is big, solid, a Chicago tenor sound; uniquely for this era, he seldom plays multiphonics, for pure lyric melody is the sole content of his improvising. And it’s a very personal kind of melody, often with an agonized blues cry that comes from accented fourths and fifths leaping out of minor phrases. The songs he composed were distinctive, such as the riff themes of “Saxoon” and “Little Fox Run”; “Dark Day,” with its vivid thunderhead opening phrase; and the sorrowing “Berenice” and “A Ballad for Rita.” Brimfield, too, is an artist whose soloing became more unified over time—his clear, biting trumpet tone and attack enhance the ironic edge in his broken, spaced phrases, and that edginess makes a great contrast with Anderson’s exploratory weight on two of these early CD albums, plus two LPs that haven’t yet been reissued, and on 1998’s Fred Anderson Quartet: Volume 1 (Asian Improv).
At his Sunday sessions at the Velvet Lounge, Anderson often played the bop-era repertoire with modernists like Von Freeman, another artist who created in obscurity for years, encouraged younger musicians and eventually became a father figure to the Chicago jazz scene. By then the Jazz Institute of Chicago was holding its annual Jazz Fair and programming the annual Chicago Jazz Festival; appearances at these events and at several clubs also raised Anderson’s profile during the 1980s. There were also occasions when Anderson played programs of Ornette Coleman songs, including a memorable trio concert with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Hamid Drake, who grew up musically in Anderson’s 1970s groups.
In 1990 Fred Anderson received the first Jazz Masters fellowship from Arts Midwest: “They told me I wouldn’t be the best-kept secret any more.” Thereafter the dynamic bassist Tatsu Aoki and charismatic drummer Drake formed extended, productive ties with him. A tour with pianist Marilyn Crispell in 1994 kicked off the most extensive awakening of interest in Anderson’s art, and all the CD releases and his frequent journeys to play concerts and festivals in North America and Europe followed. As success followed success, a highlight came at the 1999 Chicago Jazz Festival when Edward Wilkerson composed and conducted an extensive suite that showcased both Anderson and Freeman soloing with a 30-piece orchestra.
As for the new millennium, the Barry-Anderson Duets CD is beautifully recorded, so you can hear the saxophonist’s brawny sound move, hear his definition of notes in extended low-register passages (nobody else does this), hear the sharp edge that makes some of his rising phrases dramatic. These are wonderful tenor improvisations that flow, by way of vari-length phrases, through many tempo changes against the drummer’s steady time. Finally, each year the new Chicago Symphony season kicks off with a music marathon including the full orchestra, choirs, chamber groups, some jazz and pop musicians, too. Last night at Symphony
Lately Anderson’s been listening to Charlie Parker One Night in Washington (Elektra; reissued as The Washington Concerts by Blue Note earlier this year) and the Jazz at the Philharmonic recordings with Parker and Lester Young (Verve).
Fred Anderson has been playing a Selmer Mark VI since before he recorded with Joseph Jarman in 1966: “It was my first good saxophone.” He uses a 120/M Berg Larson mouthpiece (he used to play on a 140 model) with a number 3 Rico reed.