a little run of storefronts, surrounded by empty lots in a nearly
deserted part of Indiana Avenue on Chicago’s near-South Side, you
have to look hard to spot the hand-painted sign that announces:
VELVET LOUNGE. It’s Sunday and you’ve come in to sip a cold one,
trying to take the edge off a sweaty, muggy summer day on Lake Michigan.
Stepping into the dark, long, narrow bar, you’re immediately greeted
by a gentle, slightly lumbering bartender wearing a round African
hat. He takes your order, wipes any grunge off the top of your beer
can, pops the top, and pours the frothy first half into a glass.
On the wall behind the bar you notice a few photos of this very
server; he’s wearing the same cap, but his eyes are closed and he
has a tenor saxophone protruding from his mouth.
man breathlessly swings open the Velvet Lounge’s flop-back doors,
dragging behind him an upright bass and crying out: "Sorry I’m late,
Fred! My other gig went long." The bartender-saxophonist takes off
his apron, folds it, and glances at a woman who will, for the afternoon,
relieve him of his drink-serving job. He walks to an open room that
the bar empties into, past a still-blaring TV. Reaching into an
open case, he pulls out and puts together his immaculately shiny
black tenor sax. On the temporary stage that is assembled every
other week for this jam session, the rhythm section begins to chug.
Climbing on board at an appropriate moment, Fred Anderson bends
down as if digging a trench with his dangling horn. He puts the
reed between his teeth and starts to blow lines as thick and solid
as a porterhouse steak. Sit back on your squeaky barstool, you’ve
come on the right Sunday.
Anderson is the sort of living-legend jazz musician that too often
goes completely unrewarded, incommensurately unrecognized, and tragically
underdocumented, despite the fact that his music is still every
bit as alive as he is. As a member of the original team that chartered
Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians,
Anderson helped create the burgeoning-with-life musical ecosystem
that flourished in the Windy City in the afterglow of free jazz’s
initial half-decade. Joseph Jarman’s Song For (Delmark Records),
one of the earliest records to take the AACM’s private experimentation
public, included playing by Anderson as well as a composition of
his called "Little Fox Run." He was a mainstay of the scene throughout
its halcyon days, leading bands and further honing his singular
approach to the music. Unlike the multi-instrumentalism advocated
by the Art Ensemble and Muhal Richard Abrams, Anderson played a
lean, post-Sonny Rollins style of free jazz — often in conjunction
with sidekick trumpeter Billy Brimfield (equally legendary; equally
overlooked) — with minimal heads and heavy emphasis on lengthy linear
soloing and warmth of group interplay.
the 1970’s, when most of the first group of AACM musicians moved
from Chi-town’s familiar stomping grounds to the greener groves
of New York, Anderson remained in Chicago, opening a bar in Evanston,
and finally relocating to the Velvet Lounge’s current spot. He’s
made a handful of records with different bands — in the late-70s,
with increased European recognition and record deals, Anderson even
looked like he might get the notice due him. At that time he began
playing with drummer Hamid Drake, with whom he continues to work,
and he also forged alliances with AACM-elder Ajaramu, who now serves
as house drummer at the Velvet Lounge jam sessions. Anderson’s never
sought great fame; he is leery of extended travel, and he always
cites family responsibilities and community sensibilities as factors
that keep him anchored in his hometown. Indeed, with his bi-weekly
free jazz open jam session probably the only such gig ongoing in
the U.S. — Anderson has upheld the AACM’s initial commitment to
nurture and develop the creative music clan.
Vintage Duets, Anderson is joined by Steve McCall, a drummer who
touched many listeners with his style and sensitivity, especially
as a member of the group Air. McCall worked with Anderson at various
points from early in his career, playing alongside the tenorman
and percussionist Thurman Barker in the unusual two-drum lineup
on Jarman’s Song For. Twenty years later, McCall and Barker
worked together again as members of the Cecil Taylor Unit (hear
Taylor’s Olu Iwa on Soul Note). Playing jazz is not an occupation
known for its job security; I traveled to a cemetery on the far
South Side of the city to pay last respects when McCall died in
1989, only to discover that this master of time, tempo, and the
timeless had gone to an unmarked grave — his estate couldn’t afford
Corbett: Steve McCall was in one of the earliest groups you
formed with the AACM, wasn’t he?
Anderson: Yeah. SongFor came about in ’66. Steve went
to Detroit with us , and when he came bask he was playing
with other people, so we got Thurman Barker. And that was after
Arthur Reed, who played the first AACM tour with us. After that
we hooked up until he decided to hook up with Henry Threadgill.
Him and Thread had somethin’ going cause then Air came in to being
asked him to work in my group, but I didn’t have any work overseas
or anything. So he said him and Thread had gotten really tight.
I said: "Cool!"
there was a long hiatus when you two didn’t play together?
didn’t play with him until we made that recording [Vintage Duets],
and then we played the Chicago Jazz Festival. Somebody heard this
tape, and the Jazz Institute decided they wanted to do the duet.
That was ’86, I think. I went out to his house and had a rehearsal
for the gig. By the time of the Jazz Fest gig, I think him and Thread
had broke up. He was out of Air. So that’s when we hooked back up
again. Til the day that he passed, Steve would always come by the
club [the Velvet Lounge] to see me. Always.
you and Steve would rehearse, like when you rehearsed for this recording,
how did you work those tunes out?
we had been playing those tunes all around. The tunes were written
in the early ’60s. We would practice in Lester Lashley’s loft. It
was kinda rough, ’cause on those four bars on "With In" he had to
come out exactly like blaaam, exactly at the end of the phrase.
So we finally got it, he got it so he could play it really good.
plays sticks on "With In" and mallets on "Wandering"
the ballad, yeah. That was his choice.
from free jazz, what other styles of drumming do you hear in Steve?
Steve was playing with everybody. Played with Oscar Brown, Jr. You
know it surprised me when he did commit himself to the AACM. At
that time he was working with everybody. Then he went overseas.
you think he took some of that sensibility from playing with those
other styles into playing the free material?
he played that way but he wanted to be in the AACM. I think Muhal
was more influential in getting him into the AACM than anybody.
it difficult to become a member of the AACM at that time?
not really. All of the guys was in, like Jodie Christian, Phil Cohran.
A lot of guys who were in dropped out.
you play in groups with both Thurman Barker and Steve McCall?
Both of them played with Joseph [Jarman].
Thurman play just percussion sometimes?
they both played drums. There were two drummers.
that your group or Joseph’s?
happened is, man, Joseph came out to my house. I already had a group.
Me and Billy Brimfield had a drummer, a guy named Vernon Thomas,
a bass player named Billy Fletcher, and myself. And we played these
tunes. But half of the time the drummer and bass player didn’t know
what was goin’ on. They could never figure out what to play after
the line, you know? Then I met Joseph — somebody told Joseph about
me and he came out to visit me at my house in Evanston. We decided
to get a group. He said he knew a bass player named Charles Clark,
and "Butch" Davis...Arlington Davis I think was his name. So it
started out, Clark stayed with the group, Davis, he cut out. That’s
when we met Arthur Reed. Then it was Thurman Barker, then Steve.
It was really my group, but Joseph was out hustlin’ gigs and everything,
I’m livin’ way out in Evanston. And he’d get gigs under his name,
the Joseph Jarman Group, and then he got the record date from Bob
Koester, ’cause Roscoe [Mitchell] told him about him. I really didn’t
care, ’cause I had just got my house and I wasn’t really thinkin’
about leavin’ town. I did go to Detroit with ’em. I think that was
the only time I traveled with them. This was before the Art Ensemble.
there a big difference between how he played and others? Everybody
has their own style, but what was distinctive about his style? Like,
for instance, I always think of his cymbal work.
was always killed by the way he played the cymbals.
right. He knew the music and he was serious about the music. If
you got on stage with him, he played the music. Steve and I got
along good. He used to come over to my house with his wife and his
little kids, and I used to go over to his place in Hyde Park. We
had a good relationship that way. He was one of the only guys who
would always come over to see me at the club. I didn’t realize that
Steve was all that sick, I swear I didn’t. At the very end, he was
very angry. Not at me, but he was angry about what was happening.
He was angry at Joe Segal [of the Jazz Showcase].
had a friendship that went beyond the music
was respect, you know? We never had problems, no arguin’. And we
were tight, but he never did tell me what happened between him and
only time I had to really spend with him was the first time I met
him, back in about 1981. I was friends with the organizers of a
duet he did with Marion Brown in Providence, Rhode Island, so l
tagged along to dinner afterwards. I was young and very enthusiastic
about the music, and it was great because he was the most friendly,
creative musician that I’d met. Warm and responsive, wonderful.
Do you think your friendship made the music more intimate?
don’t know, maybe that’s what it is. How that tape [this record]
come to be, I went over to Europe and the guy at Message Records
said: "I would like you and Steve to make a record for me." Just
like that. So I called Steve when I came back and said this guy
wanted to make a record and we could make a little money. He said
cool, so l paid for studio time, we made the tape. Then later I
told him the company went out of business. And he didn’t say one
word about it, we never even talked about it. I asked Chuck Nessa,
offered him both tapes, and he took the quartet [The Missing
Link, Nessa Records].
hear a very intimate kind of playing on the record, but not an obvious
kind of intimacy. You’re playing together, but not in an obvious
way, and that’s something you can maybe only achieve with someone
you know really, really well.
I see what you mean. And he also knew me well enough to know that
whatever was going to happen with the tape, it was cool. So that’s
what it was. Me and him and Lester [Lashley], that was the trio
— and with Billy, we’d been playing for such a long time. We had
a guitar player named Sonny Garrett — we did some interesting things
with him. Steve had a way of doing things that was unique. I like
playing with all the drummers: Hamid Drake, Arthur Reed, Thurman.
But Steve put something else with it than the orthodox things. He
knew. . .he knew what was happening ’cause we had played so much
together that he knew just pretty much what I was going to do and
how to deal with it. Like Ajaramu now, he knows the music. I think
Drake knows the music well, too. When we made that record we were
very, very close, you know? Into the music.
were a lot of drummers in the ’60’s coming along after timekeeping
was the sole domain of the drummer, where keeping the pulse was
the role of the drummer...
see what you’re saying, in the traditional way.
some, like Steve, somehow still had that older feel to them, like
you said. In the same way, I also hear your playing coming very
directly out of bebop, at least in terms of phrasing.
sometimes. I try to do a lot of different things. See, it’s like
a bag. You reach in the bag and you pull out what ever you want
to use. If you’ve got a lot of things in your bag, you never know
when you’re gonna use ’em. When the time comes, you just pull them
out. It’s a thing. All last week I was practicing just regular exercises,
no tunes, just exercises. Regular exercises that I write out for
myself. It’s on the bebop thing, scales and chords and things, but
I write ’em out a little different so they’ll sound a little different.
I’ll take five notes of one scale and run them into another scale,
so you’ve got two scales, like in fourths.
practiced a lot of Bird’s tunes. That’s how I developed a way of
moving, of phrasing. Bebop tunes had all these phrases — Bird’s
tunes were four-bar phrases and eight-bar phrases. "Donna Lee" had
that eight-bar run, you know? This is the thing that I always thought
about is putting it all together, and I never realized it was so
difficult until I listened to some of these young guys now [laughs].
It was just a way, but it’s very difficult for some guys to play
a four-bar phrase and know exactly where they are. Four or five
bars, you know? Or six. Whatever. Playing all those notes together
as a phrase and knowing exactly what’s happening and how you’re
gonna move to the next phrase. I had problems with it, but I worked
it out listening to bebop. I would sit down and analyze these tunes,
and it was all in phrases. The chord changes was laying right there,
and the phrases, and that was it. And once I figured it out...that
was freedom! [laughs] All the other stuff is cool. A lot of people
play other ways, and I’m not here to criticize. That’s just how
I hear it.
rhythm is very important to me, playing all sorts of different rhythms
all the time. And that’s how I learned how to play them, to dissect
them, to subdivide the notes, put them in there so they would fall
right in. But you’ve got to have the technique. If you don’t have
the technique, you can’t get to those things fast. By playing those
tunes, like "Confirmation," you’ve really got to work, ’cause it’s
got to fall right down on that beat, you dig? [starts speaking uncharacteristically
fast, to illustrate] Some of the stuff starts on the upbeat, and
it comes back, and all these notes are in there...and it all falls
into place. [slowly again] So I’m thinking about how I ran subdivide
things so I’m not always playing just straight eighth notes. I hear
some people, they solo and all they play is eighth notes. Lester
[Young], Lester was a master. He always was able to put these little
things in there and make it interesting. Coleman Hawkins was a master.
Don Byas, man, that guy! He was something else.
once made an interesting comparison between Chu Berry and John Coltrane.
yeah! I peeped that because, maybe this is just my opinion, but
Chu Berry had such command over the saxophone, such control, that
it sounds like he wasn’t subtoning. He was nailing them, but his
sound was kinda small, it wasn’t big. But he had control from the
bottom of the saxophone to the top. I didn’t get to see all those
guys. I did get to see Charlie Parker. But Chu Berry was the guy
who got me really dealing from the bottom of the saxophone.
think this recording, better than any previous release of yours,
demonstrates the way that you play the bottom of the saxophone.
had the freedom to do all that.
don’t have other instruments getting in the way, just the two of
you. And, like you say, you play the bottom of the horn like it’s
the mid-section of the horn.
important, because the bottom makes you able to hear the top. If
I play the bottom of the horn, I’ll play the same thing at the top
and it sounds different. It changes the whole color. Sometimes I’ll
play the top, then the bottom, and it sounds completely different.
But I just took it down an octave, octave-and-a-half, whatever.
E. Parker McDougal and I were talking about that. He said: "I really
like what you do in the bottom of the horn. That’s very difficult."
I said: "Man, it took me ten years to get that coordination." It
took me ten long years practicing down in my basement, work on that,
work on that. By the time I got to that recording, I had just worked
it out. [laughs warmly] Now I do it, I think I do it better. I’ve
got the whole range of the saxophone, now, instead of just down
there. I can take from the middle-C, or C-sharp. Or I can use that
D on the side, I use that instead of using the D down here. I got
that from Lester — Lester used to do that all the time.
guess I hear your phrasing coming out of bebop — shaping phrases
that way and making them relate to each other that way. But also,
more than most other people right now, I think you have a very distinctive
tone in a way that’s related to the swing era. A voice that would
be unmistakable for anyone else’s. I relate that back to Coleman
Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young.
man, I got that idea of having a sound from Jug [Gene Ammons]. Jug
was the sound man. Gettin’ down in the horn, Jug was the man, you
know! Charlie Parker was the man for technique and melodic things.
Monk for harmonic things. I think Trane did the same thing, from
Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, somebody said John Gilmore influenced
what Coltrane himself said.
believe it, ’cause John was doin’ some strange things. My whole
idea when I started, I wanted to be a contributing factor, I wanted
to contribute to the music. I didn’t want someone to come out and
say: "Oh, he sounds like all these others." I wanted to put all
these things together and see what I came up with. To play myself.
Chicago, March, 1994