Fred Anderson Finally Gets His Due: And His Records Back In Print
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."
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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."