Saxophonist Fred Anderson passes away
06/25/2010 1:02 PM
The renowned jazz saxophonist Fred Anderson died the morning of June 24, his family reports.
Anderson operated the Velvet Lounge jazz club on the Near South Side for decades, most recently at 67 E. Cermak Road.
Check Chicago Journal next week for more about Anderson.
In 2005, former Chicago Journal editor Laura Putre profile Anderson, a story I've re-posted below.
The jewel of Indiana Avenue
Jazz great Fred Anderson keeps the tradition alive at the Velvet Lounge
Located on a deserted stretch of Indiana Avenue, in a glorified brick shack that looks like it might collapse into a dust cloud if you brush up against it too hard, the Velvet Lounge isn't a dressy joint. "Its homey, down to earth, come as you are," says Dennis Winslett, a promising 29-year-old soprano saxophonist. "It's not one of those places they have all these glass mirrors." Nor is the Velvet ideal for striking up a lively conversation with friends you haven't seen in awhile, unless those friends are on pressed vinyl and named Charlie Parker or Lester Young. It doesn't even have a proper address--it's at 2128 1/2 S. Indiana, as if the universe had to shift a little to make room for it.
No, for past 22 years, the Velvet has only been a haven for serious musicians and forward thinkers. "All you have to bring is your ears," says Winslett, who notes that patrons who insist on chatting are sometimes told to shut up and listen. The Velvet is an anomaly in the sense that it presents jazz as living music, created onstage in the fervor of the moment. A typical night brings crackling rhythms and piquant, unexpected combinations that take the intellect to uncharted places like other music takes feet to the dance floor.
Winslett has been coming to the club since he was 23, when he was a friendless nobody who'd just moved up from Kansas City. Now he hosts the club's Sunday night jam, where young musicians from across the city come to try out their best improvisations on a discerning crowd of their peers.
In one form or another, the Velvet has supposedly been around since Prohibition, when it was a "mistress club"--a speakeasy where wealthy men brought their mistresses, according to Winslett. But its legacy really began in 1982, when internationally reknowned tenor sax player Fred Anderson, who calls Chicago home, took ownership. Anderson had worked behind the bar for the previous owner off and on, enough to notice that the place had great acoustics.
Once he took over, Anderson didn't make too many changes. He kept the audacious orange, green, and yellow flowered wallpaper-reminiscent of some 1970s-era pill-popping housewife's kitchen--in the stage area and the rec-room paneling around the bar. "The only thing I did is put some pictures up," he says, including a large framed print of Billie Holiday and a smaller rendering of Miles Davis. Kente cloth curtains round out the decor, along with a crackpot pair of chandeliers, possibly salvaged from some eccentric millionaire's basement.
The bar had been solely a watering hole, but Anderson soon introduced a jam night where he and other musicians would get together and let loose with the music they really wanted to play-not the watered-down stuff they were paid to perform at other clubs. Friends from the AACM-the Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians-sometimes stopped by to play a set or two. (Along with the likes of Chicago musicians Joseph Jarman and Billy Brimfield, Anderson was one of the founders of the seminal collective of experimental black musicians in the 1960s.)
"It gave me something to do," Anderson, a soft-spoken, grandfatherly man who on big nights dresses in an African kufi hat and a nice sweater, says of the club. "It gave me something to keep myself visible. It gave me something to keep myself involved in music, and it gave me something to keep myself involved with other people so they could develop."
Over the years, as his star has caught fire around the world, Anderson's been grounded by the club, which, as he has aged, has evolved into an incubator for young musicians. To help them along, a few years back, Anderson and a University of Chicago music student put together his practice routine in a book called "Exercises for the Creative Musician," which he both sells at the Velvet and gives out free to advanced young players that really have a spark.
"Especially for my generation, Fred has been like our grandfather," says Winslett. "I can't think of another place like that where a young artist can play what they want to play. Most other clubs shut the door if you didn't know somebody, but Fred gives everybody the opportunity."
Winslett says he's spent many an afternoon talking music with Anderson, whose CD and record collection takes up almost as much shelf space behind the bar as the liquor bottles. "It became my little hangout spot," Winslett says. "I'd go over to the Velvet at lunchtime-he has a massive collection of Charlie Parker-and we'd talk about Charlie Parker and how people don't know what an institution he is.
"That's when I really got to know him, got to know his character. He'd tell me do this, do this, stay away from this. He really taught me to take my playing to to the next level."
An only child who grew up in Monroe, Louisiana and Evanston, Illinois, Anderson says his interest in music, combined with mentorship from older musicians, saved him from the streets as a young man. "I was involved with a lot of people that could steer me in a pretty good direction," he says. "And music was pretty much all I had."
From the time he first picked up the horn as a kid, he entertained vague notions of future greatness. But music didn't become an essential part of his consciousness until he reached his twenties and his first two sons were born.
"When you bring a person into the world, that kind of changes your whole view," he says thoughtfully. "You've got more than yourself to think about. That's when music really started speaking to me."
As a young father, Anderson studied music theory at percussion master Roy Knapp's storefront school on the South Side--under the tutelage of an especially hip teacher who taught his students exercises that were the foundation of a new music called bebop--and also made a conscious decision to make a living with ordinary day jobs rather than as a performer, so he could create his art on his own terms.
"It's remarkable the things he's done," says Winslett. "He's an independent African-American jazz club owner whose place has outlived every other jazz club in Chicago. It's not like what he's done is easy, doing his own thing and also being an outstanding artist in his own right."
For Anderson, "it's not about the money, it's about keeping on the tradition," says Winslett. "We've had very rough spells where he wouldn't get paid at all. For a long time, Fred would eat it, he wouldn't pay himself but he'd pay [the artists]."
But the past couple years, times have grown tougher. A few years back, the city hassled Anderson about a loophole in his entertainment license and he had to stop charging a cover for awhile. And earlier this year, the Velvet had to shut down for six weeks because of a water problem in the building. "That was probably one of the hardest things that I ever did in this place," Anderson says. "I'd never been closed for that long. But I tried to keep upbeat. There was a lot of times that I felt pretty bad about it, but again still, I couldn't keep cryin' always. 'Look man, we gonna be open, we gonna be open.' I kept saying that."
The crumbling building is expected to be demolished in the coming months. Anderson is cautiously optimistic about plans to move to a new space at 67 E. Cermak in the spring.
"This place, it'll take off maybe all at once, or maybe it'll take off slow and then start building," he says. "Because they building up around us all the time."
The beloved eye-straining wallpaper won't be in the new place, but the pictures of Billie and Miles and the duct-taped plastic skirt around the stage probably will. Anderson will be there too, listening to the wet-behind-the-ears musicians from a safe distance at the bar-close enough to take in every note, but not too close to smother.
"I can understand what they're going through," he says of the younger generation. "Some of them probably don't understand what they're going through right now. But they're doing it, and maybe later on they'll realize. Like now I realize a lot of things that I didn't when I started doing stuff.
"If I can keep them being consistent, coming over here making no money and doing it and dedicating themselves, that's going to mean a lot to them later on."