The first time I stepped into the Velvet Lounge, on July 28, 1997, it was like walking into the beginning of my life. Before that, I thought I was playing music and I thought I knew what love and community was. My big brother Hamid Drake had been playing with the Velvet’s proprietor and spiritual leader, Fred Anderson, since his teens. He had told me, time and again, “You’ve got to meet and hear Fred.” Fred was a father to Hamid, and began taking him to Europe in the ’70s. I got off the L train at Cermak and strutted past the Ickes projects to a brick shack: 2128 1/2 S. Indiana.
The Velvet. I had walked through a portal. Wall-to-wall people, some even on the floor, sitting in prayer to the stage. The room was full of magic. I looked around at the peeling kente wallpaper and the mesmerized audience and was instantly captivated by the smoky electric sounds. I wondered if the drooping lamp, dangling by a string from the ceiling, would fall onto the musicians. Anderson was all bent over, weaving energetic lines macramed with Charlie Parker’s essence and his own rugged determination. Fred’s ornate sounds were tinged with the blues poetry, strength, Black history and a golden edge that only honesty can bring. Hamid, in trance, whipped rhythmic questions beckoning us to the core of life itself. I quickly scrawled down my visions, dreams and doodles when I noticed two humongous feet before me. My eyes rolled up to discover saxophonist David Boykin, my avant-garde partner-in-crime to be. That night began my envelopment into a new world. I was home.
Like a superhero disguised in a plaid shirt and a kufi hat, Fred worked the door of the Velvet almost every night as guardian gatekeeper. If you hadn’t known, you might not have recognized this cautious elderly man as the international beloved star that he was. Humble, confident, independent, original, tenacious and generous, Fred singlehandedly built a mecca that kept Chicago fresh on the jazz map for over 25 years. First the Birdhouse, then the Velvet. An early AACM member, Fred maintained a crucial stage on which creative music could flourish, a forum for veterans including Ari Brown, Ernest Dawkins and Dee Alexander.
Fred spent many years off the road, caring for his family and building his ark for Chicago’s innovative jazz spirit. Then, while in his 60s, he rose again to fame. With the help of Delmark, Asian Improv Records and Thrill Jockey, Fred regained international acclaim and brought bread home to fund the club. There were jam sessions led by Ajaramu and Billy Brimfield, who pulled the coats on any horn player who didn’t know how to stop after three choruses. Dennis Winslett and then Isaiah Spencer carried the sessions further. I started with the David Boykin Trio and later debuted the Black Earth Ensemble. Corey Wilkes, Maurice Brown, Josh Abrams, Justin Dillard and many others began their careers there. Fred gave the musicians a chance to “do our thang.” Mentor to George Lewis and countless others, he encouraged with simple, straightforward commentary: “I heard you,” he’d say. “Keep at it.”
Fred never complained, and it was easy to overlook the daily hardship he faced to keep the Velvet open. City ordinances, licenses, permits, taxes, inspections: What do musicians know about this? One night, he said under his breath, “I don’t know what we are going to do, Nicole.”
“The Velvet’s moving, right?” I asked. Silence. “You mean the Velvet might end?”
“If nobody does anything!” he said with a gentle force in his tone. This was Fred’s almost imperceptible request for help. The Velvet was about to be torn down, and he needed over $100,000 to make the move and relaunch at a new location. That subtle hint, finally heard, sent a wave through Chicago’s jazz community, which flew us into a whirlwind of fundraising concerts, news articles, institution building and volunteer work. A community once segregated and unaware of its power brought $130,000 to the feet of this humble giant, Fred Anderson, and built the new Velvet on 67 E. Cermak. Few people on the planet—but clearly a person like Fred—could have inspired the love, work and the faith to make that happen.
Fred made it clear to us as musicians that our road wasn’t going to be easy. “You’ve got to stay focused,” he’d say while playing interviews and rare recordings of Bird before the club opened. “Listen to that. People are drawn to the rhythm, the swing. Don’t forget where the music comes from—nothing new under the sun.” Fred didn’t consider himself a teacher, but he was a father to us all. He was a pillar, an anchor, helping many wandering souls in this difficult life in music. Fred showed us that we can be independent and live true to our dreams.
In December 2010, the new Velvet Lounge stood dark with closed doors. I can hear Fred saying, “We’ve got to keep this thing going.” We struggle to fill his huge shoes, but we know we must find a way to keep his legacy alive. By the time this article is published, I hope we will have succeeded. Happy birthday, Fred! (He would have turned 82 on March 22.) We love you and we are committed to making original music and having a place in Chicago for new jazz.