Ken Vandermark is one of the brightest lights on the contemporary music scene. By the time he reached the age of 35, he had played tenor, clarinet and bass clarinet on a prodigious number of recordings, 60 or more, including collaborations and guest appearances. He’s been part of more than 18 different ongoing performing groups. Not only is he extremely active, he is a musical democrat, playing in musical styles ranging from free jazz, to soul, to funk, to avant-punk. He has performed with the elder statesmen of new jazz such as Joe McPhee, Fred Anderson, Sun Ra, drummer Robert Barry, and Peter Brötzmann. “Ken is constantly looking to find new sides of his talent,” saxophonist Mars Williams told Lloyd Sachs of the Chicago Sun-Times, “There is no on who is more open-minded to different styles of music.” All these attributes have made him one of the key forces energizing the Chicago music scene and turning it into one of the most vibrant and successful in the country.
Ken Vandermark was born in 1964 in Warwick, Rhode Island, and raised in the Boston area. He started playing tenor sax in high school, switching from trumpet which he’d been studying since elementary scool. Growing up, Ken heard a steady stream of music on the family stereo. “I grew up in a family where my parents, particularly my father, were listening to jazz all the time,” Vandermark told Downbeat’s John Corbett. “My father never categorized things at all. We’d listen to Stravinsky, then Duke Ellington, then Monk, then Sly and the Family Stone. It was all music, just music in the house. That made me hear Ellington and Stravinsky on the same level, not to listen to Ellington as a ‘jazz’ musician and somehow, subconsciously, look down on him.”
That may explain why Vandermark’s music frequently blurs the lines that divide musical genres and makes him slippery when it come to categorizing what he does. For example, he calls himself a jazz musician but acknowledges that a lot of jazz purists—for whom history ended in the early sixties—hate his music. Young rock fans often make up the lion’s share of the crowds at his live shows. The bands he’s played with have been just as unclassifiable: He described the Waste Kings, one of his early Chicago groups, to Chum’s Dan Kelly as “a garage rock band” that transmogrified itself into “a soul/R&B instrumental group.” Carbon 14 noted “an almost metal/hardcore level of intensity” in Utility Hitter, by Vandermark’s Barrage Double Trio. And more than one critic has noted how the Vandermark 5 seamlessly integrate rock vocabulary into the language of jazz.
All Vandermark’s musical activity has one thing in common though: he’s blowing free, improvising. His personal involvement in free music dates back to when
Led group Fourth Stream, Montreal, Canada, 1983-1986; led group Lombard Street in Boston MA, began studying bass clarinet, 1986-89; moved to Chicago, fall 1989; formed Ken Vandermark Quarter, added Bb clarinet to instrumental arsenal, 1992; performed with Caffeine, Steelwool Trio, Waste Kings, Flying Luttenbachers, 1992-1994; forms DKV Trio, 1994; forms Vandermark 5, 1996; Empty Bottle performance series, co-organized by Vandermark and John Corbett began, 1996; performed with Joe McPhee, 1996; formed Steam, 1997; the Vandermark 5 selected for inclusion in the sound aspect of exhibition Art In Chicago: 1945-1995, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL, Nov. 16, 1996 - Mar. 23, 1997; first recorded with Fred Anderson, 1997; receiveed MacArthur Grant, 1999.
Awards: Named one of “Chicagoans of the Year in the Arts: 1994” by the Chicago Tribune, January 1995; Vandermark and John Corbet named Best Underground Music Promoters by New City, Chicago, IL September 1997. Named one of “25 For The Future”, Downbeat, 1998. MacArthur Grant, 1999.
Addresses: Home —Chicago, Illinois, phone & fax: (773)549-8132; e-mail —[email protected]; U.S. Booking —Billions Corporation, phone (312)997-9999, fax (312)997-2287, [email protected]; European booking —[email protected]; Record company —Atavistic Worldwide, P.O. Box 578266 Chicago, IL 60657.
he was a teenager. One day his father put an album on, saying “You gotta hear this.” It was Joe McPhee’s Tenor, an album’s worth of free improv on the tenor sax. His ears were opened to free playing for the first time. “I’d heard some free stuff and it sounded to me like people just squonking around,” he told Option’s John Corbett. “Here’s McPhee, making just as much noise, but all the concept of melody and structure was totally there. It was like: ‘That’s it! That’s what I want to do!’ It totally floored me.” McPhee’s musical example continues to guide Vandermark approach to music-making. In 1993 he met McPhee for the first time and in 1997 the two cut a CD together, Meeting in Chicago.
Vandermark went off to McGill University in Montreal to study film, but eventually changed his mind. “By the time I graduated I’d decided that I wanted to devote myself to music,” he told Brian Marley of Avant. “In the United States the options are to have a day job and play at night, or try to become a professional musician, which means you do weddings and things like that which really didn’t interest me at all. So I worked at a convenience store and a hardware store in Boston.” Back home he played for a while in the Lombard Street Trio, but frustrated with the limited opportunities Boston offered jazz musicians, he pulled up stakes and headed for Chicago in 1989.
The first couple years in the Windy City were difficult. Despite its history as a center for musical innovation—think only of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton and Sun Ra—he connected with few musicians in the city’s cliquish scene. By 1992 he was ready to pack it in. “It’s hard to essentially—for two years—sit in a room and practice and compose and have that be the gist of everything that you’re doing,” he told Chum’s Dan Kelly. “I’m not really a solo artist. If you don’t have people to play with, you just hear stuff in your head, and that’s it. That was incredibly frustrating.”
Drummer Michael Zerang persuaded Vandermark to stick it out for another year. He did, and almost immediately things started happening. Without his knowing it things had already started turning around for him. He had started his own band, the Ken Vandermark Quartet, with Zerang on percussion, Kent Kessler on bass, and Todd Colburnon guitar. The following year the Quartet released a critically well-received CD, Big Head Eddie, a record described by Downbeat’s Aaron Cohen as a “seamless blend of exploratory jazz tones, driving rock beats, and high-octane funk.” Soon he was performing regularly in a plethora of bands around town, including Caffeine, a trio with keyboardist Jim Baker and drummer Steve Hunt; the Flying Luttenbachers, a “punk-jazz trio” with saxist Chad Organ and pecussionist Weasel Walter; the Waste Kings; and, the NRG Ensemble, a free-improv group led by local jazz doyen, Hal Russell.
Vandermark was sometimes criticized for his involvement in so many musical groups and styles during much of the 1990s. His musical interests were broad though—and anyway who could blame him for diving in head-first after a two year performance drought? “I happen to play with a lot of people,” he admitted to Dan Kelly, “But I see all these different groups as representing different sides of myself, and different sides of my music that are really interesting; I want to participate in that. I want to be involved in that. Not to control it and decide what happens to it, but to participate in this really interesting stuff that’s happening, and interact with it. It’s hard for me to understand approaching it any other way.”
As the 1990s rolled on however the pace got to be a little stressful even for Vandermark, whom Kelly tagged “The Hardest Working Man in Chicago.” Not surprisingly either. Besides playing in all his various bands, the business side of things usually landed on Vandermark’s shoulders as well—organizing rehearsals, finding gigs, and the like. In the latter half of the 1990s, he cut back and eventually concentrated on two new groups, the DVK Trio with Vandermark stalwart Kent Kessler on bass and percussionist/drummer Hamid Drake, and the Vandermark 5, originally comprised of Vandermark on reeds, Kessler, Mars Williams on sax, Jeb Bishop on trombone and guitar, and Tim Mulvenna on drums.
Both groups are well-represented on CD. The DKV Trio released Baraka in 1997 and Live in Wels & Chicago, 1998 in 1999 both on Okkadisk. The first Vandermark 5 line-up released two CDs on Atavistic, Single Piece Flow, in 1997 and Target or Flag in 1998. Mars Williams left the group after the second CD was recorded, and was replaced by alto player Dave Rempis. The new group’s Atavistic release, Simpatico, was one of the most acclaimed jazz releases of 1999. The quintet is a perfect setting for Vandermark, both as a performer and as a composer. “Ideally the Vandermark 5 is the closest I’ve come to having a group that can do all the kinds of things I like to do—at least musically,” he told Wire’s Jon Morgan. “Some bands are better at doing certain kinds of things, and so if you want to do a wide variety of music it’s hard to come up with a band that can do them all.”
By 1999 he had added important priorities to his musical life. “I am putting greater emphasis on playing with older musicians,” he told Bob Blumenthal of the Boston Globe. “You learn so much from people like Fred Anderson and [ex-Sun Ra drummer] Robert Barry, guys who were the experimenters in Chicago 40 years ago. Guys like that, who have been committed to the music for decades show me how it’s possible to find new things to do every day.” For one thing, playing with older musicians puts Vandermark in touch with jazz traditions that differ from the ones he is used to. “Fred has a much more methodical sense of exposition. In most of the groups I play with there’s a lot of radical shifting and changing. Almost on a constant basis. We’re like really wired, coffee-drinking musicians,” Vandermark told Lazaro Vega of Blue Lake Public Radio. “Fred Anderson’s playing really comes out of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. When I’m playing with Fred, he takes, say, a 12 minute solo on one of his tunes. That’s longer than some of the songs I play in their entirety…. If he plays a great solo that lasts for 12 minutes and he plays all the tenor saxophone that you can on a tune, I follow that and it makes me radically rethink how I’m going to approach this.” The DKV Trio and Anderson made a record together on Okkadisk. Vandermark has also been performing regularly with Robert Barry, who played drums in Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and his old hero, Joe McPhee.
Like many other American jazz musicians, money has been a frustrating issue for Vandermark. And like others he sometimes looked with longing across the Atlantic at Europe where musicians have it better. “The money has been so pitifully bad,” he told Carbon 14. “That’s the biggest problem in the US; people want you to play, but they want you to play for next to free. In Europe there’s a lot more, mostly government, support, so a lot of clubs can bring people in.” That changed in a big way in summer 1999. The MacArthur Foundation selected Vandermark for one of their multi-year “genius award” grants, an award worth $265,000. He was the youngest musician ever selected for the grant, which the MacArthur Foundation gave with an unusually enlightened view that he was going to do even greater work in the future. “I hope to invest half the grant in ongoing projects,” he told Bob Blumenthal, “and use the other half for things that would otherwise be impossible. For example, I’m a member of Peter Brötzmann’s Tentet, which is playing the Vancouver Jazz Festival next June , and the MacArthur funds might make it possible to tour elsewhere in North America…. I’d also like to get musicians like Paul Lovens over to the US and pay them better, give them a motel room to sleep in rather than just the floor of my apartment.”
Receiving a “genius grant” is the kind of thing sure to go straight to some musicians’ heads. But Vandermark was strikingly modest about it. “I try not to think about the MacArthur in terms of who else has won,” he told Blumenthal. “I can’t seriously say that it puts me on the same level as Cecil Taylor or Steve Lacy or George Russell. I can say that it will assist me in my efforts to reach that level.” But it’s hard to imagine a musician who deserves such an award any more than Ken Vandermark. He persevered through the tough early days in Chicago, and his dedication to music helped build the Chicago music scene and to build bridges between the different musicians there. But through the time of the day job to support there was never any question of altering his music to make it more commercially viable. He always worked at attracting an audience on his own terms. “That’s the process that I have to figure out,” he explained to Dan Kelly. “How do you get them into the room? That’s business that has nothing to do with art. The ‘art’ is when you get ’em in the room, then you do you do. You should never compromise that.”
What’s also unusual for some jazz musicians, Vandermark has nearly complete confidence his audience; he trusts them to get what he’s doing. And he’s gratified that so many who attend his shows are open-minded music lovers who let themselves feel his music, let it move them. He reciprocates by giving his all every time he performs. “One of the best things I heard is what drummer Han Bennink said in an Eric Dolphy documentary,” Vandermark told John Corbett. “They asked him what it was like to play, and he said, ‘Every time I play I feel like I got my back against the wall, ‘cause I don’t know if it’s gonna be the last time.’ That’s the whole thing! When you step onstage to play in front of people, why be there if you’re not going to play your ass off?”
(With Vandermark Quartet) Big Head Eddie, Platypus, 1993.
(With NRG Ensemble) Calling All Mothers, Quinnah, 1994.
Caffeine, Okkadisk, 1994.
(With Steelwool Trio) International Front, Okkadisk, 1995.
(With Barrage Double Trio) Utility Hitter, Quinnah, 1996.
(With NRG Ensemble) This Is My House, Delmark, 1996.
(With Vandermark 5) Single Piece Flow, Atavistic, 1997.
Fred Anderson/DKV Trio, Okkadisk, 1997.
DKV Trio: Baraka, Okkadisk, 1997.
Steam, Real Time, Eighth Day, 1997.
Joe McPhee/Ken Vandermark, A Meeting in Chicago, Eighth Day, 1997; reissued on Okkadisk, 1998.
(With Vandermark 5) Target or Flag, Atavistic, 1998.
(With NRG Ensemble) Bejazzo Gets a Facelift, Atavistic, 1998.
AALY Trio + Ken Vandermark, Hidden in the Stomach, Silkheart, 1998.
Peter Brötzmann, The Chicago Octet/Tentet, Okkadisk, 1998.
DKV Trio: Live in Wels & Chicago, 1998, Okkadisk, 1999.
(With Vandermark 5) Simpatico, Atavistic, 1999.
The Joe Harriott Project, Atavistic, 1999.
Avant #8, Summer 1998.
Boston Globe, August 6, 1999.
Carbon 14, #11.
Chicago Sun-Times, May 11, 1997.
Chum #2, 1995.
Downbeat, April 1994; January 1999.
Option, September/October 1993.
Wire, July 1998.
“Ken Vandermark: Interview,” Okka Disk, http://www.okkadisk.com, (January 19, 2000).
—Gerald E. Brennan
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