For much of his early career, Fred Anderson was probably the most significant and yet nearly unknown saxophonist working in the United States. Although he was one of the founding members of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, in the 1970s and 1980s Anderson’s own advancement frequently seemed stalled beyond restarting. He recorded little and toured even less, preferring to limit himself to his Chicago base. However, his importance to jazz is undeniable. He has been called the “Missing Link,” the player who connects the music of John Coltrane’s late career with the explorations of free jazz musicians such as Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman. “Fred’s style on tenor is unique among new wave players for its big tone, reminiscent of the open-throated voices of swing era horn players,” Sharon Friedman and Larry Birnbaum wrote in Down Beat, “Contrasting markedly with the often pinched and nasal or raw and quavery tones of young players, Fred plays in the smoothly rounded fashion of a latter-day Lester Young on a speed jag.… [One] of the first Chicago players in the new post-Coltrane idiom.…”
Fred Anderson was born in Louisiana but has lived for most of his life in Evanston, a Chicago suburb. He got his start as a teenager when he began teaching himself to play a tenor saxophone that belonged to one of his cousins. His aunt sold the horn soon after. But Anderson was so infatuated with playing that he saved $45 and bought himself another one. His early influences were the great sax players of the swing and early bebop eras—Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Gene Ammons, and Lester Young.
He was particularly struck by the fact that all the great saxophonists had developed a signature sound on their instruments. When a record by Ammons or Young, for example, was played, one knew immediately, as soon as the first notes came out of the sax, who was playing. Anderson made up his mind to work on building a sound for himself and to combine it with other aspects of technique. “That was my concept. Instead of sacrificing sound for speed, I started trying to deal with sound and the speed, both of them,” Anderson told Friedman and Birnbaum. “The guy that really got me interested in listening to sound was Gene Ammons; he had that big sound. But Jug didn’t have a whole lot of speed. So what I thought about was how to combine Jug’s sound and Charlie Parker’s speed. I wondered if it was even possible!”
Anderson realized he had a lot to learn. He studied music theory and harmony for a while at the Roy Knapp Conservatory in Chicago and with a private teacher. He learned about the technical side of playing the saxophone through a minimal amount of formal training, but by and large, Anderson was self-taught, listening to the records of his masters and practicing constantly at home and in Evanston parks. He played jam sessions too, but always with a consciousness of his limitations. “Years ago I used to go to jam sessions and not play,” he told Down Beat’s John Corbett. “I could have, but I had so much respect for the guys, so I wouldn’t get up there until I felt like I could be effective. So what I would do is go home and practice.” It is an attitude he has tried to foster in the young players who come to the jam sessions at Anderson’s club, the Velvet Lounge.
By the early 1960s, Anderson had formed a group of his own, with Vernon Thomas on drums, Bill Fletcher on bass, and a musician who would collaborate closely with Anderson for the next forty years, trumpeter Billy Brimfield. By that time, Ornette Coleman had burst onto the scene and divided jazz into two camps, pro and con. Anderson’s group was soaking up the new thing Coleman’s band was playing, and like Omette they were consciously pushing the envelope with their music.
A key moment for Anderson occurred when he got in a conversation with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. Abrams was very active in the Chicago jazz scene as the leader of the Experimental Band, a shifting line-up that included much of the young jazz talent in the city. Abrams suggested to Anderson that they form their own organization to promote the music that they and other like-minded musicians in Chicago were making. The idea came at a time when venues for music were closing up; the ones that remained were hostile to the new kind of jazz beginning to emerge, while musicians were ready for something new. “The idea was to be able to approach the music in a different way, to write your own music,” Anderson told Cadences Arlee
Born on March 22, 1929, in Monroe, LA. Education: Roy Knapp Conservatory.
Began playing tenor sax, c. 1944; formed the first group of his own with trumpeter Billy Brimfield, around 1960; began writing his own compositions, 1961; took part in founding the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, 1964; played on Joseph Jarman’s album Song For, 1966; began playing with drummer Hamid Hank Drake, 1973; performed two tours in Europe, 1977-78; founded his own performance-workshop space, Birdhouse, 1977; opened Velvet Lounge, 1982; released The Missing Link, 1984; released a string of critically acclaimed CDs, late 1990s.
Member: Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
Addresses: Record company —Okka Disk, P.O. Box 146472, Chicago, IL 60614; website: http://www.okkadisk.com.
Frantz and Yorke Corbin. “I guess they had gotten tired of playing the same tunes at jam sessions.”
Anderson was receptive to the concept. He had been composing and performing pieces of his own since 1961. A short time later Anderson attended a meeting called by Abrams. There the charter for the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) was drawn up. Anderson was one of the AACM’s founding members. And because he had a band together already, Anderson also played the AACM’s inaugural concert. The AACM brought Fred Anderson into contact with a number of young Chicago musicians who were about to help push jazz to its next level, players such as drummer Steve McCall, Jack De-Johnette, Roscoe Mitchell, and Joseph Jarman.
Before long, Anderson was playing in a group that included Jarman and Billy Brimfield. In 1966, the band released an album, Song For, on the Delmark label. It appeared under Jarman’s name, but the record got Fred Anderson and the others noticed—in Europe at least. Before the ’60s were over, a number of jazz musicians—including Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, of which Joseph Jarman was a member—packed their bags and moved to Europe. It was a luxury Anderson could not afford. He had just bought a house and felt he couldn’t shirk his responsibilities to his wife and three small children. Some took this as a sign that he was not fully dedicated to his music. “I was serious about it from the beginning,” he told Frantz and Corbin.” I remember something I said to myself years ago when I first started playing.… I said to myself, ‘One of these days I’m going to be in the musical history books.’”
Still, as the 1960s ended, a long drought began for Fred Anderson. It would be the better part of a decade before he released any more records, and none would come out under his own name. He didn’t have a regular band again until 1972 when he put together the Fred Anderson Sextet, a group that played in and around Chicago. He had never worked as a full-time musician, believing, rightly or wrongly, that he could not support his family from sax alone. “Music’s always been like a hobby to me,” he explained to John Corbett. “I played the music because I loved it.” So he worked jobs as a waiter or carpet installer. Meanwhile he continued to practice religiously; he performed whenever he had a band together; and he composed, frequently inspired by people he knew and experiences he had.
Anderson did eventually get to Europe. Two tours were organized in the mid ’70s, and in 1978 the Fred Anderson Quintet played the Moers Festival in Germany. One result was an LP at long last, Accents, with the group Neighbors on ECM. When he returned to Chicago from Europe, Anderson was anxious to have a regular venue for performing and workshops. He found a storefront available in Chicago and opened Bird-house in May of 1977, named in honor of Charlie Parker. “I always wanted a place of my own to practice and play and a place for other musicians to come and sit in,” he told Friedman and Birnbaum. “The idea was to have the Birdhouse pay for itself. The weekend performances would pay the rent and during the week, we could have workshops.” Unfortunately Birdhouse encountered a good deal of political resistance. The police and alderman in the neighborhood were suspicious of the real purpose of the club. City building inspectors were called in who ruled that Anderson would be required to make costly renovations if he wanted Birdhouse to survive. Unable to afford the work, Anderson closed Birdhouse in June of 1978.
By 1980, Anderson had found two musicians who would be mainstays of his music for the rest of the century, Billy Brimfield, with whom he had worked since the early 1960s, and drummer Hamid Hank Drake, a remarkable drummer who was just as much at home playing rock or reggae as Anderson’s style of free jazz. Drake appeared on The Missing Link, recorded in September 1979 and released in 1984. It was Anderson’s most significant recording to date and it almost didn’t get made. Brimfield didn’t show up for the session and Anderson was ready to call it off. “Hank said, ‘Let’s just go and do it, ’” Anderson told Neil Tesser in the liner notes to the album. “I was happy with it; I’ve lived with that tape for four years listening to it.”
Almost from the beginning Anderson recorded his gigs and practice sessions. John Janowiak wrote in Coda “Many musicians are afraid to listen to themselves, [Anderson] says, but they must if they want to discern their weaknesses and grow musically.” A result of that was a vast archive of concert material. In 1992, he expressed an interest in seeing some of those tapes released on record. It finally came to pass in 2000 when Atavistic released The Milwaukee Tapes, Vol. 1, a recording of a performance given twenty years earlier in February 1980, just months after The Missing Link was cut. The record demonstrates beyond a doubt what an unbelievable band the Fred Anderson Quartet was.
In the 1990s, Fred Anderson’s star rose for the entire world to see. Early in the decade, he was named the recipient of Arts Midwest’s first Jazz Masters Award, which included a $5,000 fellowship. He began to release albums regularly, including work with artists like Steve McCall, Ken Vandermark, Peter Kowald, and Kidd Jordan. His club, the Velvet Lounge, which he has operated since 1982, has become a mecca for musicians and fans alike, as well as hosting regular jam sessions.
As the new millennium starts, Fred Anderson has become a kind of godfather to the burgeoning Chicago jazz scene. Throughout his career, he has been concerned with preserving the traditions of jazz while pushing them steadily forward into new territory. And he has tried to instill his love and respect for the music and its musicians in younger players. But he has taught by example, not by preaching. “If anybody learned anything from me, they learned it on the bandstand. I was out playing and giving cats a chance to play,” he told Coda’s John Janowiak. “It was a good proving ground for all of us, including me ’cause I was learning as much as they were learning.”
The Missing Link, Nessa, 1984.
(With Steve McCall) Vintage Duets Chicago, Okka Disk, 1994.
(With Marilyn Crispell and Hamid Drake) Destiny, Okka Disk, 1995.
Birdhouse, Okka Disk, 1996.
Fred Anderson & the DKV Trio, Okka Disk, 1997.
Fred, Southport Records, 1997.
(With Fred Anderson Trio) Live at the Velvet Lounge, Okka Disk, 1999.
Live at the Velvet Lounge, Vol. 1, Asian Improv, 1999.
(With Hamid Drake, Kidd Jordan, and William Parker) Two Days In April, Eremite, 2000.
The Milwaukee Tapes, Vol. 1, Atavistic, 2000.
Live from the Velvet Lounge, Vol. 2, Asian Improv, 2000.
(Joseph Jarman) Song For, Delmark, 1966.
(Muhal Richard Abrams) Levels and Degrees of Light, Del-mark, 1967.
(Neighbors) Accents, ECM, 1977.
Cadence, July 1992.
Coda, May-June 1991.
Down Beat, March 8, 1979; July 1996.
Additional information was obtained from The Missing Link liner notes.
—Gerald E. Brennan
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