Fred Anderson: A Mentor To Many

Fred Anderson i i

Fred Anderson was scheduled to perform the day he died. Jim Newberry hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Newberry
Fred Anderson

Fred Anderson was scheduled to perform the day he died.

Jim Newberry

The tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, a virtuoso free improviser and cornerstone of the Chicago jazz community, has died. He was 81.

I have seen Anderson perform at least twice. Unfortunately, I don't remember much about my first encounter with his music at the 2005 Vision Festival, the premier event in the U.S. dedicated to the "avantjazz" he helped create. But I do remember being enthralled by his trio performance at the 2009 Chicago Jazz Festival.

Anderson played the main stage, the cavernous Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park. The band played two discrete items. Ther first was an extended free improvisation where the group wove in and out of throbbing grooves, ebbing and flowing and building and demolishing in a most captivating way. The second was a cool-down, a peaceful meditation featuring drummer Hamid Drake's chanting and frame drum.

Between those two pieces, there were three standing ovations.

As Howard Reich wrote in a touching Chicago Tribune obituary, Anderson was a late bloomer who only started performing in public in his 30s. His 30s were our 1960s, and the jazz business was headed south. So he helped to found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective of African American musicians which organizes presentations of original works. (Among other functions.) Jazz at large is still trying to catch up with the methods of self-determination and the social and musical territory which the AACM pioneered.

All this makes Anderson first, a great musician, and two, an important community organizer. Last night, it was immediately apparent to me that there's at least a third crucial element to his life's work.

Since 1982, Anderson has owned a Chicago venue called the Velvet Lounge. Before it was a paid-admission club, it housed a weekly jam session. Before it is where it is now, musicians banded together to raise over $100,000 to help Anderson finance a new space. It has become the room in Chicago dedicated to avant-garde improvisation, and through it (and through his bands), Anderson has given performance opportunities to hundreds of musicians.

Last night, NPR Music recorded one of those musicians. "Fred Anderson gave me my first gig," reflected Matana Roberts, presenting her COIN COIN ensemble as part of the CareFusion Jazz Festival New York. Roberts has been around the world presenting her music; she recently returned from Banff, Alberta, where she was teaching in a workshop. Scores upon scores of people like her have gone on to international recognition, and workable careers in music, because Anderson gave them a place to play and the guidance to keep at it.

What Fred Anderson did for those musicians is one of the best things about jazz: mentorship. It's when older greats take an active interest in the careers of younger folks, providing them with advice, encouragement, resources, connections, bands, audiences. Anderson offered real-world experience from a seasoned perspective to those who were interested — a precious commodity in these days where jazz is largely mediated through conservatories. It's the direct transmission of lived experience, and in his later years, it's what Anderson did so well. He cared freely and deeply, and launched lifetimes of music.

We can learn a lot from Fred Anderson from his records and his biographical details. We can learn from what he did with his Velvet Lounge, and why it became what it is. But we'll really learn what Fred Anderson gave us when today's musicians pass his lessons on to the next generation.

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