Fred Anderson, Chicago jazz hero, appreciated

As a teenager in pursuit of the avant garde, I took tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, who died June 24 at age 81, as a hero upon first hearing him in 1966. It was at a Unitarian Church-run coffee house in downtown Evanston near Northwestern U., and attention clearly had to be paid to the long, fierce, unreeling, knotty improvisations Anderson delivered in an ever-more hunkered-down posture as the evening went on.1000001295.1.jpg

There was an unremitting sense of urgency, sincerity and humility to what he was saying on his horn, spelled by startling outbursts from his pained-looking trumpeter, Billy Brimfield, and support from some rhythmically free-flowing bass and drummer (I forget who).  There was nothing showy about Fred, though he was a large man who wore a skullcap. He was old to me then — 36 or 37. I bought Song For, Joseph Jarman’s album brilliantly employing Anderson’s standing band as soon as Delmark released it that year, too. I heard him many times in the 15 years that followed, at various concerts produced by the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) of which he was a co-founder along with another of my musical heroes, Muhal Richard Abrams. Fred was never less than totally involved in what he was doing, which was forcing air through a bent tube to shake the earth we walked on and the culture we breathed. (Photo left by Jim Newberry, thanks to Thrill Jockey records.)

I was told that Fred stooped that way because he had worked as a carpet-tacker; I imagined he swung a tack hammer like John Henry. He played all over town at clubs I could get into though I was underage, and he always seemed to be playing — with musicians who had a lot of soulful chops but were given to fervid, far-out modal excursions, rather like John Coltrane. Anderson didn’t sound like Trane — his phrases came in knotty nuggets rather than a liquid flow, though keeping his head down as if bucking the breeze he’d huff and puff ’til he blew out resistance, then he’d blow some more.

Maybe more important than enthralling a few young listeners, Anderson served as an early bandleader, father figure or model nice guy to immediate and subsequent generations of Chicago musicians. I remember Amina Claudine Myers, Ajaramu, Douglas Ewart, Chico Freeman, George E. Lewis, Steve and Iqua Colson, Steve Berry, Reggie Willis and Hamid Drake, among others, in his bands. If these musicians aren’t all familiar even to well-versed connoisseurs, no matter: their playing resonated throughout local and global creative music circles, always encouraging more serious improvisation.
Anderson took a chance and won when he took on my high school jam buddy pianist Jim Baker, and he also featured brilliant flutist Nicole Mitchell. He didn’t dictate style, he offered opportunities — and he always liked to run his own place, though it might be off the beaten track, like Birdhouse in a Swedish neighborhood which didn’t know what to make of a musical venue serving up brawny, roaring sounds but no liquor.
As for Fred’s legacy — you can check it out on 21st Century Chase, the dvd of his 80th birthday bash live at the Velvet Lounge, the last joint he ran. Now a quibble: the current Velvet, on a scrappy block between McCormick Place and Chinatown, is an important station on the world-wide map of ultra-expressive, spontaneous jazz. But for the romance of low-down jazz, it doesn’t touch his first Velvet Lounge, the kind of tavern that makes Chicago great. I really must amended that statement, and apply it to Fred Anderson himself — because he’s the kind of tenorist who’s made Chicago great, the kind of musician who has made sure generations of players and listeners alike follow in his giant steps. I am so grateful to have heard him.
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  1. says

    Fred Anderson was in a sense guided by Charlie Parker. As long as I knew him personally, he was always talking about his latest discovery in the history of Charlie Parker.
    In my article,, several of his younger colleagues talk about his importance on the Chicago scene and the improvisation scene in general. I should have interviewed Kidd Jordan for that article for those two were close musical brothers.
    The Chicago Tribune reported before he died that he said that maybe people will remember him from his records.
    People have to remember him, not only for his discography, but from the influence he had on the development of improvisational music. His music attracted listening attention. He was not out to the change the world of music; he had already changed it.
    Fred was also one of the kindest people I have ever known. I will miss him so much.

  2. says

    Having returned to Chicago in 2008 after being away for almost 20 years, it was one of my truly signature pleasures to be able to regularly frequent the Velvet Lounge. The “new” one reminds me of a place that could be stuck somewhere in Manhattan. The old one, as Mandel notes, was pure Chitown. It was called the Velvet, appropriately I would think, because of the place’s extensive use of velvet (seating, wall, etc.). Old and funky, but what atmosphere.
    Fred I only got to really know (as in a few brief conversations) these last two years or so. Although very nice and approachable, to me he always seemed somewhat deep in thought. I remember well when he volunteered to autograph a poster of himself that I had bought. I’m more grateful for that now. The last CD I purchased there was also one fronting Fred.
    I attended several of those 80th birthday concerts and the tribute to Fred last summer in Millennium Park. What wonderful, powerful music happened those nights. Perhaps my greatest appreciation of Fred’s playing came with his duets with Kidd Jordan, an avant-garde player from New Orleans. The two had a kind of chemistry like Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. Their commanding, energetic blowing complemented each other so well. What a thing to hear. I will miss those duets. I will miss Fred.
    Thank you, Mr. Mandel, for the memories.
    HM: The first time Fred Anderson and Kidd Jordan played together was at a Chicago Jazz Festival after-fest set — and it was in trio with Douglas Ewart. The multiple saxophones, polyphonic, is one of the things that attracted me to Song For, come to think of it — and it was also an attribute of much of the writing or arrangements for the various AACM big bands, which with reeds musicians including Anderson, Jarman, Ewart, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Wallace McMillan, Vandy Harris, Kalaparusha, John Stubblefield and Ari Brown at hand made good use of bountiful resources.