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Remembering Fred Anderson: Chicago salutes a fallen jazz giant

Howard Reich

12:23 PM CST, February 26, 2013

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On stage, he was a volcano, torrents of sound pouring from the bell of his tenor saxophone.

In person, he couldn't be gentler, a soft-spoken jazz giant who nurtured generations of musicians and, therefore, enhanced Chicago's stature as a nexus of experimental music.

Jazz devotees around the world sorely miss Fred Anderson, who died in June of 2010 at age 81 after suffering a heart attack. The majesty of Anderson's art, the generosity of his spirit and the vitality of his long-running club – the irreplaceable Velvet Lounge, on the South Side – significantly enriched music in this city.

Which is why a group of Anderson acolytes convenes each year around the anniversary of his birth (March 22, 1929) for a public concert and celebration of Anderson's life's work. They call themselves The Brotherhood of Fred, and their annual event reminds Chicagoans how much Anderson contributed – and how much we lost with his death and the subsequent demise of the Velvet Lounge.

"He taught us how the music relates to life," says Chicago bassist Tatsu Aoki, who toured the world with Anderson and will share the stage at the Jazz Showcase tribute March 5 with saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, bassist-cellist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Hamid Drake.

"He taught me, 'It's OK to be this way,'" adds Aoki. "Rather than conforming to some preconceived template, I think he was telling everybody, 'It's OK to be who you are.'"

Anderson conveyed this message in many ways, but first through music. Up on the stage of the Velvet – or anywhere, really – he hunched over his horn and produced great gales of sound. His was a deep, dark, craggy music that somehow embraced the swing-era soliloquies of Lester Young, the bebop eruptions of Charlie Parker and the forward-looking adventures of his own musical imagination.

Nobody sounded like Anderson, nobody could imitate him, nobody built a 20-minute solo with a more persuasive combination of expressive fervor and musical logic than he. When Anderson was in his element, as he was during a startling 81st birthday set at the Velvet a few months before his death, he held listeners transfixed.

But Anderson extended his influence and his legacy well beyond his own music through his efforts as club owner. By welcoming the city's most daring improvisers to the Birdhouse, on North Lincoln Avenue, in the late 1970s and to the Velvet Lounge from the '80s until his death, Anderson gave like-minded iconoclasts a place to play, to experiment, to be (artistically) liberated.

"Fred was just so open and unbiased toward people who played at his venues," says saxophonist Dawkins, who played some of his first engagements at the Birdhouse.

"He was just instrumental in my development because he always had a place for us to play. ... Guys could come in and work out ideas and experiment."

Anyone who played the Velvet will tell you that Anderson never told musicians what to play or how to play, which turned the place into a kind of musical laboratory.

"His stages had very few if any limitations, other than the unwritten yet accepted challenge to be original and to not repeat the past," said Andy Pierce, a friend of Anderson's and one of the volunteer organizers of the third annual homage, in an email.

Chicago artists would play the Velvet for little or no money, the room's freewheeling esthetic attracting – and developing – such future stars as flutist Nicole Mitchell, trumpeters Corey Wilkes and Maurice Brown, tenor saxophonist Edward Wilkerson, Jr. and scores more. Musicians from other continents would seek out the Velvet when they came to Chicago, hoping to catch the great Anderson in action and, if they were lucky, to share the stage with him as well.

Though Anderson's granddaughters and various figures in Chicago music tried to sustain the mostly volunteer, collectivist spirit of the Velvet following Anderson's death, the club closed a few months afterward. A family dispute doomed the effort, and without Anderson's grace bringing out the best in everyone, such a venture could not stand.

The loss to music in Chicago was great. For all the new work that continues to bubble up in far-flung venues across the city, no single room has come close to the being the fulcrum of new music that was the Velvet.

"The Velvet Lounge was just like a kitchen," says Aoki. "You go there and you cook. ... We were there almost every night doing this, and we don't have a place like that anymore."

But we do have the memory of Anderson, the recordings he made and echoes of his art in the work of uncounted musicians who were profoundly influenced by him.

And for that we are fortunate.

The Third Annual Fred Anderson Birthday Tribute will start at 8 p.m. March 5 at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $15-$20; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.

Rob Mazurek's latest experiment

Chicago cornetist and jazz visionary Rob Mazurek finds himself in steady demand around the world, but this weekend he'll bring something noteworthy to his hometown followers.

Mazurek will present the Chicago premiere of "The Space Between," a collaboration with choreographer and video artist Marianne M. Kim. The piece encompasses music, movement and visuals and was commissioned by Meet the Composer's Commissioning Music/USA program. Performance is at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Old Town School of Folk Music's Szold Concert Hall, 4545 N. Lincoln Ave.; $10; 773-728-6000 or oldtownschool.org.

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com
Twitter @howardreich