Fred Anderson the day before his 80th birthday, in March 2009, with Tatsu Aoki on bass
Fred Anderson the day before his 80th birthday, in March 2009, with Tatsu Aoki on bass Credit: Marc Monaghan

It’s a black-and-white photograph, slightly weathered from years of being handled, carried from place to place, packed away, and rediscovered: A small child, maybe five years old, sits on the stoop of a house in Monroe, Louisiana, in the mid-1930s, the dirt yard spilling out in front of him. He’s wearing a striped summer shirt and shorts and a big, beaming, gentle smile. He looks like a sweet kid.

I saw that picture at the original Velvet Lounge, 2128½ S. Indiana, some years before the club was forced to move by encroaching condos. The kid was the Velvet’s owner, primary barkeep, and sometimes headlining act, tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson—scene caretaker, underground booster, indefatigable cultural worker, quiet force for good. He and I were looking through folders and boxes of vintage images, preparing the art for one of the few records I was fortunate enough to work on with him. We both sat looking at the photograph, Fred staring at himself nearly seven decades earlier. “Man,” he said, “that’s a long time ago.”

But Fred had a lot more left to do. He continued running the Velvet, ramping it up rather than down, turning it from the most open-minded jam session in the city to an international venue presenting top-shelf players like soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, who, unasked, inscribed a promotional poster on the wall of the club: “This place is a temple!” Early one morning Fred called, animatedly describing how the small bar would soon be transformed into a 300-seat theater complete with a restaurant. That ambition never came to pass, but all the same, by the time the Velvet moved to expanded digs at 67 E. Cermak in 2006, it had a small army of supporters—devotees who understood the power of Fred’s music and helped him get the message out.

Anderson also still had, unexpectedly, a career to build. Starting in the early 90s and reaching full steam a few years later, he released dozens of recordings in all sorts of creative contexts, from duets with his musical soulmate, drummer Hamid Drake, to a festival gig as a guest with Tortoise. This was unexpected not because it was undeserved—quite the contrary, because Anderson had been working just as hard, week in and out, and playing with just as much originality, since the late 50s. But it was only as he hit his mid-60s that the world—beginning with Chicago—started to catch on.

My fondest memories of Fred include his big, projecting sound—a tone he honed practicing outdoors as a young player, bouncing notes off buildings—as well as his epic solos, which could stretch as endlessly as the midwestern horizon. Perhaps that’s how he earned the nickname the “Lone Prophet of the Prairie.” In the 1970s, left behind by most of his AACM cohorts, he was nearly alone here, holding down the free-music fort, but as his profile rose, so did that of Chicago’s creative-music scene, in no small part due to his attention and care. It certainly wouldn’t have the depth of character that it does now without Fred.

As paternal and inspirational as he was, he never lost his humility. He was quiet but principled; I saw him turn down high-profile gigs when the terms weren’t to his liking.

Another favorite scene: Anderson is onstage at the Velvet with Drake and German bassist Peter Kowald, playing one of the most ferocious and startling sets I’ve ever heard from him, plying fat multiphonic smears and daubs of harmonics that depart radically from his usual direct linearity. Then Drake takes the reins, and Fred, horn still dangling from its harness, descends from the stage, nimbly moves through the capacity crowd, and proceeds to refill the cigarette machine.

So many memorable concerts, such a wealth of bold impressions and new sounds. Eighties duets at the Velvet with drummer Ajaramu, one or two folks grooving in the audience. The early-90s gigs at Lounge Ax with the Vandermark Quartet opening, which in my mind signal the beginning of an era. That first meeting with pianist Marilyn Crispell at HotHouse (back in ’94, when it was on Milwaukee Avenue) and the studio encounter that preceded it. There were the yearly aftersets during the Chicago Jazz Festival, Anderson and Kidd Jordan improvising together, birds of a feather. There was the closing night of the first Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz & Improvised Music in 1997, which I’d helped book: Fred took the stage with Hamid and bassist Fred Hopkins (who, like Kowald, passed away far too early) and played a set of such unrestrained strength that the crowd, still holding its collective breath at gig’s end, took a long moment to thunder forth whooping and hollering.

Those are my touchstones. Ask someone else and you’ll hear about a 60s trio playing an all-Ornette Coleman program; the immortal 70s front line with trombonist George Lewis, trumpeter Bill Brimfield, and reedist Douglas Ewart at the Foundation Church Coffee House; sessions at the Birdhouse, the Velvet’s late-70s precursor; celebratory blowing at the new Velvet; or triumphant sets at New York’s Vision Festival, where Fred was a regular.

In the studio, I often saw Fred during playbacks slumped in what I first assumed was slumber. But it wasn’t—it was a very unusual kind of listening, the intensity of which was almost trancelike. A cut would end, the engineer would stop the machine, and after a long pause, Anderson would comment, emerging from someplace very remote. He attended other musicians’ concerts that way too, listening carefully, thoughtfully, always listening. He lived for the music, for the community that was formed around the making of that music.

Last time I saw Fred, it’d been quite a while. Peter Brötzmann and Hamid Drake were playing at the Hideout, and there he was, in the audience, listening in his hard-core way. He’d lost weight, and I almost didn’t recognize him—his cheeks were hollow and his eyes set deep in their sockets, giving him a slightly ghostly appearance. At the end of the gig, he spotted me up in the DJ booth and caught my eye, and suddenly he was all Fred again, that big, warm, generous smile breaking on his face as he waved and nodded and headed out.