Jazz Giant’s Modest Ambition

Fred Anderson slowly climbs up to the stage at his near-south-side tavern, the Velvet Lounge. He brings the mouthpiece of his gleaming black tenor saxophone to his lips, contemplating 20-some intent listeners and the muscular free bop rippling outward from the bandstand. As the first thick notes spill from his horn, he hunkers over the dangling instrument, seemingly pulled down by the sheer heft of his sound. His lines are complex and melodic, revealing irrefutable musical logic. He pulls a chunk of melody from the ongoing jam and dissects it, probing every possible angle, attack, and nuance, then reshapes and develops the melody before fitting it back into the puzzle.

Anderson, 67, lives much like he plays: modestly and in well-thought-out measures. Over the years, as many of Chicago’s finest jazzers have migrated to New York–the place you’ve got to go to “make it”–Anderson has worked at raising a family and running a bar. But almost in spite of himself, he’s easily one of the most important jazz musicians ever to come out of Chicago.

Anderson, who was born in Monroe, Louisiana, and at 12 moved to Chicago, began playing music seriously in the 50s, but spent most of the time developing his sound. He would see legends like Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, and Ornette Coleman and attend endless jam sessions, but he would only listen. “I respected them cats too much to play back then,” he says. “I would go listen to them and then I’d go home and practice. I didn’t play until I thought I was ready.” A cofounder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, he played the organization’s first concert in the early 60s, and he led a legendary band with Joseph Jarman, who went on to play in the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

But as groups like the AEC ascended, Anderson stayed home. “I never thought about being a star,” he says. “I just worked on making a living.” Anderson worked a series of day jobs–delivering room service, cleaning carpets–until 1979, when he left for a rare extended tour of Europe with trumpeter Billy Brimfield. Upon returning, he started working for a cousin who ran Tip’s Lounge on the south side. When Tip died in 1981 Anderson took over, and in January 1982 he reopened the bar as the Velvet Lounge.

Anderson has since hosted regular jam sessions, crucial forums in which jazz musicians work out new material. In recent years Anderson’s jam sessions have become the stuff of legend as early participants like George Lewis, Hamid Drake, and Douglas Ewart gain notoriety. In fact, there’s been something of an Anderson boom in recent years: The Velvet Lounge Sunday evening jam session has gone from bimonthly to weekly, and three years ago Bruno Johnson started the Okka Disk label largely to document Anderson’s music. The three albums released thus far have nearly doubled Anderson’s recorded output. The most recent of them, Birdhouse, might be the best Anderson recording yet, linking the harmonic freedom of Ornette Coleman, the endless linear melodic invention of Sonny Rollins, and the lyrical warmth of Coleman Hawkins. He’s been invited to important jazz festivals in Oakland and Vancouver, and he’ll play the Chicago Jazz Festival this Sunday as a guest of Jim Baker, the regular pianist at the Velvet Lounge’s Sunday jam.

Revival is on the agenda for the Velvet Lounge, too. Anderson will close the bar in late December for several months to add on a restaurant and a performance area that can accommodate as many as 300 patrons. Anderson is clearly thinking ahead to the gentrification of the area south of the Loop. “These old watering holes are dying out,” he says. “With the higher cost of living and higher rents you’ve got to have more going on in order to stay in this area, so we’re starting to change now before it starts booming.”

Following the festival in Grant Park Saturday and Sunday the Velvet Lounge will host its fourth annual “After Fest” jam sessions. Anderson’s old friend and fellow saxophonist Ed “Kidd” Jordan will make his yearly trek up from New Orleans, and local stalwarts like Ewart and Ernest Dawkins will join him. Musicians from the Jazz Fest often make their way down to 21281/2 S. Indiana to sit in, too. Anderson will play his horn, but it’s just as likely that he’ll be the guy serving you a drink from behind the bar.

Tesser Tossed as Jazz Fest Host

After a year MIA, WBEZ will again broadcast the Chicago Jazz Festival, but longtime station DJ (and Reader contributor) Neil Tesser won’t be your host–a role he’s filled for the broadcasts since they first began 15 years ago. Tesser says his absence is involuntary, and that he has yet to receive an explanation from music director Chris Heim. He was asked to contribute prerecorded performer-biography segments to be scattered throughout the presentation, but he’d planned to spend the month of August working on a book project and had to turn down the request. Heim didn’t provide me with any genuine explanation either, apart from insisting that the broadcast has employed a number of different hosts over the years. She stressed the inclusion of a greater number of pretaped elements this year, and said, “Anchor positions are increasingly acting like a welcoming committee.” Of course, with the variety of cohosts, Tesser, who in essence designed the format of the broadcast, has always been the anchor. In his place this year we’ll hear Richard Steele, a commentator who isn’t part of the station’s music staff and tends to put his foot in his mouth when discussing jazz. Tesser can certainly match Steele in broadcasting ability, and he also knows the music inside and out. Tesser says he’s taking at least two months’ leave of absence from WBEZ, at the end of which he’ll reassess his future at the station.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Fred Anderson by Nathan Mandell.