When bassist Fred Hopkins moved to New York back in 1975, an early emigrant in the mass exodus of Chicago’s vibrant free-jazz community, he was propelled by an ambitious hunger that he hadn’t always possessed. He didn’t pick up his instrument until high school, after watching Pablo Casals on TV inspired him to play cello. The only stringed instrument DuSable High School offered was bass, so he studied that instead, under Walter Dyett, the man famous for instructing Chicago musicians, from Nat “King” Cole to Johnny Griffin.

“When I finished high school I didn’t think I had what it took to make it,” admits Hopkins, and so for a time he stocked shelves in an A & P. But with prodding from his peers and mentors, particularly Dyett, he decided to pursue music full-time. He attacked his new career from three directions: He gigged in nightclubs playing standards, he experimented with free-jazz versions of Scott Joplin tunes for a theater piece with reedist-composer Henry Threadgill and drummer Steve McCall in a configuration that would eventually become the influential group Air, and he joined the Civic Orchestra after receiving the CSO’s Charles Clark Memorial Scholarship. Then, convinced by his wife that New York was the place to be, he headed east.

Now, after two decades of establishing himself as one of the greatest and most versatile bassists in jazz, Hopkins has come home to Chicago. Sitting in the living room of the south-side house where he was born on the kitchen table 49 years ago, amid dozens of family photos stretching back as many years, he explains that despite his success and a steady flow of prestigious work–including recent stints in the David Murray Big Band and a trio with Oliver Lake and Andrew Cyrille–he’s burnt out on New York.

Even before he moved there, Hopkins says, the city spooked him. “All the stories I heard about jazz musicians in New York is that you go there and play and then you get on drugs and die. I was afraid to go there because I wasn’t ready to die.” Work was hard to find during his first two years there, but Air, which recorded its first album just before Hopkins left, was gaining international recognition, and before Threadgill and McCall followed him to New York, Hopkins commuted to Chicago for regional tours. He points to a pickup gig with the great drummer Roy Haynes at a New York club frequented by musicians as the turning point. “I haven’t stopped working since,” he says.

Since then Hopkins has performed and recorded with major figures like Murray, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Don Pullen, and Hamiet Bluiett, but his work with Threadgill in both Air and the Henry Threadgill Sextett remains his most significant contribution. In these groups Hopkins helped free the bass from its strict rhythmic and harmonic function and brought it up to a more prominent role both rhythmically and melodically. Both ensembles picked up Ornette Coleman’s notion that all instruments in a group are equals, and applied to it a more compositional approach. While Hopkins stopped working regularly with Threadgill in the late 80s, he continues to work with cellist Diedre Murray, also from the Sextett; the duo has made a beautiful pair of recordings that further expand the possibilities for stringed instruments.

Still, Hopkins says, New York was dragging on him. “I got tired of the stress,” he says. “I consider myself to be a very strong person, but it piles up over the years. It’s like if you lift weights every day, working hard, and then you wake up the next day and you never get any stronger. For me the stress never went away.” He also says that watching the all-consuming competition and excitement of the city erode the focus of countless promising musicians became more and more disconcerting. “They get stuck and they lose sight of why they’re there in the first place,” he says. “It’s really hard to watch. It got to the point where I started getting depressed despite my own success. I figured I had to regroup, and Chicago’s much less stressful for me.”

With ten brothers and sisters and 35 nieces and nephews here, family was another impetus for returning. Hopkins’s mother suffered a stroke recently, and he takes care of her when his schedule permits. But while he’s consciously withdrawn from New York’s spotlight, Hopkins hasn’t altered his work ethic. “I realized that I can conduct my business anywhere in the world,” he says. “After 20 professional years, I’m now able to work from Chicago.” His interest in collaborating with diverse artists continues: In two weeks he’ll play solo in upstate New York while performance artist-painter Nancy Ostrovsky reacts to the music, and then he’ll head to Europe for a monthlong tour with the David Murray Big Band. In addition, he’s working on a bass method book to be augmented by his philosophical insight on the instrument’s role.

Hopkins says he also hopes to play locally on a regular basis. “There’s more latitude [in Chicago] for creative decisions, especially for younger artists, and it’s the young artists that keep you on your toes.” Hopkins will join some of them in Rob Mazurek’s Chicago Underground Orchestra at Lounge Ax on Thursday, January 16; Mazurek and CUO guitarist Jeff Parker will also perform in the new jazz-funk ensemble Isotope, which features Tortoise percussionists John Herndon and Dan Bitney.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Fred Hopkins photo by Nathan Mandell.