New Constellation in city's entertainment galaxy

"I didn't want to own a venue, to run a venue, to be tied down to that," says Reed. "(But) a few things started me to move on it: the absence of the Velvet and these other places. And there's a drop in the amount of programming that the city is doing.

"I started thinking about Fred (Anderson) and the Velvet, and I was like: There should be that tradition of artist-run venues," adds Reed, citing the model of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). That artists' collective emerged in Chicago in the mid-1960s, when jazz venues were disappearing, and enabled musicians to present their work themselves.

"Last summer, when Von (Freeman) passed away, I went to the memorial," says Reed, referencing a legendary Chicago saxophonist who trained generations of musicians during his Tuesday-night sessions at the New Apartment Lounge on East 75th Street. "I used to go to the Apartment, and for a few years he ran sessions at the Mill on Sundays. I'd go there all the time. When I went to the memorial, I saw all those people from those years I went down there, and then some. It was such an amazing thing. … It struck me that this memorial is really about all these lives that are interwoven through what he was doing. And I said, 'I want to go forward with this. Let's make this happen.'"

Along the way, Reed had met Links Hall director Schmidt and learned that her organization had been looking for a new, bigger space for years. The more Reed and Schmidt conferred, the more common ground and mutual need they found.

"Every time we met," says Schmidt, "we thought: 'Yeah!' Because so much of the work that happens at Links is interdisciplinary and collaborative."

Including the "Collision Theory" series that Links ran monthly during the 2009-2010 season that featured improvising dancers performing with improvising musicians. The series was so successful that Links revived it the following year, and Reed has been one of its many admirers.

When Reed found the Viaduct Theatre, which had been home to noteworthy productions by the House Theatre and others, he and his Links Hall partners saw potential.

"We (had) looked at over 150 spaces over two-plus years," says Links board president Greven, referring to the organization's long search. "We've had ups and downs, the rug pulled out from under us. It was really serendipity in terms of how Roell met Mike and how they formed a relationship and got this idea taken to the next steps. It all kind of worked together in a really lucky way."

The build-out of the old space for new uses began over the weekend. Links Hall is spending approximately $130,000 for the first phase of renovating the place. This includes a $100,000 grant from the Weasel Fund designated for the construction and installation of a sprung-wood floor that's needed by dancers, says Greven.

"And that's not including what Mike is spending on the bar and lobby area," adds Greven.

Reed declined to get into specifics of his investment.

Why the name Constellation? Several reasons, explains Reed, who says he has drawn inspiration from eclectic, genre-crossing venues around the world, such as Bimhuis in Amsterdam and Roulette in New York.

"For us and Links, it's about the way you relate things: the constellation of stuff," says Reed. "It's also in the constellation of places in Chicago, like Andy's, the Showcase. This is a piece of the constellation. And it's also an ode to Chicago because of the old Constellation record label of the 1960s. So there's a lot of Chicagoness that I want to maintain in the place."

Reed acknowledges the tension involved in launching a venture of this magnitude because "it's tricky. It's kind of like being up on a tight wire. I feel like everybody's watching."

And, one hopes, listening.

Tribune special contributor Sid Smith contributed.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Coming soon to Constellation

Following are highlights of shows that will play Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; for further information visit linkshall.org, or phone 773-281-0824.

"Fraction": Dance-in-progress, with choreographers showing excerpts from new works and soliciting audience feedback; April 1.

"Braiding Rivers": Featuring Chicago's Silk Road Rising and Los Angeles-based Post Natyam Collective; April 5-7.

Instant Composers Pool Orchestra: Dutch improvisers return to Chicago on April 6; the musicians improvise with Chicago dancers, April 7.

"Mix With Six": Concert of new short dances made and performed by members of The Seldoms; April 12-14.

"Poonie's Cabaret": Curated by Carole McCurdy; April 15.

CIMMfest: The Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, April 18, 20 and 21, including Melvin Van Peebles on April 20.

Roscoe Mitchell and Mike Reed: Multi-instrumentalist Mitchell with drummer Reed; April 19.

Craig Taborn Trio: Innovative pianist with drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan; April 28.

— H.R.

CHICAGO

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