When saxophonist Fred Anderson performed, famously leaning forward a bit, torrents of sound rushed from his horn. The deep-amber tones and craggy lines at the heart of his music summed up a vast swath of jazz history, from the ricocheting bebop tunes of his youth to the experimental sounds of the future.
Audiences from across Chicago and around the world journeyed to Anderson's South Side club, the Velvet Lounge, to soak up this music, knowing they would hear nothing quite like that tenor saxophone anywhere else.
Had he lived, Anderson would have turned 85 last Saturday, and to mark the occasion, several of his most prominent acolytes will play in tribute to him, with Chicago saxophonist Ernest Dawkins convening colleagues Wednesday night at the Water Hole and a Fred Anderson Legacy Band performing Saturday evening at Elastic.
Though Anderson died in 2010, at age 81, his alluring art and outsized influence on jazz in Chicago — and beyond — still resonate in our musical lives.
"He was kind of like Ornette (Coleman) to me," says Dawkins, referring to the iconoclastic saxophonist-composer who envisioned new ways of creating jazz in the second half of the 20th century.
"No one sounds like Fred. … Even though he was 'free,'" adds Dawkins, referring to "free jazz" experiments of the 1960s and thereafter, "he still had that African-American method about what he was doing. … It was the esthetic that he came from — Louisiana, and you could hear that in his sound. If you really listened, you could hear that underneath everything he was doing."
Indeed, Anderson himself rejected the "free jazz" label that critics and others glibly applied to him, his music transcending specific musical styles and languages. Or perhaps it's more precise to observe that Anderson created a musical syntax of his own.
"Even in those (early) days, everyone said I was playing far out, but I never could see it," Anderson told me in 1997, as a recording of Charlie Parker played in the background one afternoon at the Velvet Lounge. "I was just trying to play some good, serious music, trying to have my own sound.
"I don't just hear music in one key. I hear all these 12 tones together, they all relate, and you've got to deal with all their possibilities.
"And, anyway," added Anderson, preparing to discuss Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), "no matter what they say about how far out the AACM music was, it was really all about blues, when you came down to it. It was playing blues in new ways."
That's what Anderson did, building on the blues sensibility of his native Louisiana — which he and his mother left when he was 8 — with the harmonic innovations of Parker and other bebop-era inventors. The music that Anderson came up with, largely by studying recordings of Parker and Lester Young, served as a kind of bridge between bebop and "free" idioms. Anderson spoke to both worlds in distinct and immensely attractive ways.
"Fred meant so much to me and the other guys going all the way back to the early AACM days" of the mid-1960s, multi-instrumentalist Joseph Jarman told me in '97. "He would always be showing me things about the saxophone — how to get certain sounds, how to express certain ideas.
"His own music was very strange and beautiful, like nothing else, really. That's why so many musicians hung around Fred. They wanted to figure out what it was he was doing and how they could learn from it."
But it wasn't only Anderson's unorthodox musical vocabulary and sometimes plush, sometimes acidic tones that drew generations of musicians to him. Equally important was Anderson's role as educator and advocate. The sessions he put on at the Birdhouse, on North Lincoln Avenue, in the 1970s, and at the Velvet Lounge, which he bought in 1982, nurtured artists who had few other places in which to test and refine daring musical ideas that would not be welcomed in more commercial, mainstream jazz rooms.
Jazz musicians who are widely admired today — such as flutist Nicole Mitchell, percussionist Hamid Drake, trumpeters Corey Wilkes and Maurice Brown and scores more — developed their ideas in the hothouse of the Velvet Lounge, effectively launching their international careers under Anderson's tutelage.
"He's one of the important people who taught me it's OK to be the way you are in the music — you don't need to customize yourself or cater yourself to do things, but play the music the way you feel," says bassist Tatsu Aoki, who collaborated with Anderson prolifically.
"For all these shows that we did, he never told me what to play. … He taught me to understand what you end up playing."
The Velvet Lounge, adds Aoki, "was one of the monumental clubs," not withstanding its cramped, somewhat battered original home on South Indiana Avenue between a barbecue chicken joint and a currency exchange. "His contribution was to have the castle that everybody wants to come into."
For those not fortunate enough to have heard Anderson live, his recordings capture some of the majesty of his solos, and the intuitiveness of his collaborations with colleagues. Late 1990s albums such as "Fred" (a two-CD set on Southport Records) and "Fred Anderson/DKV Trio" (Okka Disk) and reissues such as "The Missing Link" (Nessa) and "Fred Anderson and Steve McCall: Vintage Duets" (Okka Disk) document Anderson in prime form. The CD and DVD "21st Century Chase" (Delmark), released for his 80th birthday in 2009, showed that the volcanic spirit of his work never flagged, Anderson partnering with New Orleans saxophonist Kidd Jordan and younger innovators, including guitarist Jeff Parker, drummer Chad Taylor and bassist Harrison Bankhead.
"He was always trying to grow," says tenor saxophonist Edward Wilkerson, Jr., who will be playing in the Fred Anderson Legacy Band on Saturday night. "Even when he was in his 80s, he never said: 'I've made it' or 'I'm done.' Every time I saw him, he'd tell me about a new horn he'd gotten."
Anderson pursued his quest until the end.
"I'm trying to figure out how these great musicians, like Charlie Parker, could play for a week and never play the same thing twice," he told me on the eve of his 81st birthday show at the last location of the Velvet Lounge, on East Cermak Road.
"Improvisation is really vast. It's just like life — you learn in life, but you just have to stay on top of it."
And he did.
Saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Isaiah Spencer will pay tribute to Anderson at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Water Hole, 1400 S. Western Ave.; $10; 312-243-7988. The Fred Anderson Legacy Band — with bassist Tatsu Aoki, percussionist Dushun Mosley and reedists Edward Wilkerson, Jr., Francis Wong, Mwata Bowden and Hanah Jon Taylor will perform at 9 p.m. Saturday at Elastic, 2830 N. Milwaukee Ave., second floor; $10 at 773-772-3616 and elasticarts.org.
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