Chicago jazz saxophone legend Fred Anderson passed away in June at the age of 81. He’s been eulogized beautifully by those in his community, but he truly had a life worthy of further renown. And what better way to do that than to combine the glories of a video of Anderson’s amazing horn work and a written account of some of the highlights of his career.
Fred Anderson carved out his own niche in Chicago’s jazz landscape in the mid-60s. Along with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, Anderson founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Besides being an incubator for so many talented musicians and performers, the nonprofit foundation also hosts free music classes for inner-city youth. Around the same time, he was lighting up recordings, sitting in with Delmark Records mainstay/Art Ensemble of Chicago member Joseph Jarman for his seminal 1966 Song For and 1968’s As If It Were the Seasons.
In the 70s, Anderson, his son Eugene on drums, and percussionist Hamid Drake formed a group that became one of the cornerstones of the city, playing with a rotating cast of musicians. Anderson’s avant-garde, hard-bop playing latched on, finding a larger audience as the years went by. In 1982, Anderson bought a south side bar and renamed it the Velvet Lounge, a venue that remains a hotbed of experimental jazz to this day. There, Anderson would wail on his tenor sax regularly, sitting in with both his old pals and the young bucks. A condo development pushed the original Velvet Lounge out in 2006, but fundraisers found Anderson a new home quickly.
Over the past 30 years, Anderson became somewhat of a godfather to an entire scene of musicians. Bassist Josh Abrams, drummer Nori Tanaka, and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, all Chicago staples, recorded a cover of Anderson’s “Ballad For Rita”, a fitting tribute. Trombonist Jeb Bishop and cornettist Josh Berman, along with Malian kora player Toumani Diabate and a large, talented ensemble, paid their respects by covering Anderson at an outstanding, highly attended Millennium Park concert a month or so after his passing. New legend Ken Vandermark called working with Anderson “a career highlight” on his blog.
Influence and positive community outlook aside, the only true way to get a feel for the power and depth of Anderson’s work is to hear it, to see his fingers flash like lightning over the keys of his saxophone. Even in his seventies and the two years we were allowed to have him in his eighties, bent over low to the ground, Anderson’s sound burst forth, roaring at times like a proud lion, flittering above the fields like a happy bird at others.
In 2008, Anderson took the stage of Chicago’s Hideout as a part of its weekly Immediate Sound Series, this time with aforementioned collaborators and friends Vandermark, Drake, and bassist Kent Kessler. Luckily, part of it was caught on camera for posterity. Kessler and Drake ratchet out a sharp, rapid beat as Anderson twirls out a solo over the top, hitting notes all over the register, notes between notes. There’s no question that this solo is improvised, but there’s no sense of temerity, no uncertainty in any tone, any sound. Vandermark occasionally pops into the field, adding his two cents here and there.
Three and a half minutes in, the young master and the legend face each other, melding musically. Kessler and Drake fall away, leaving Vandermark and Anderson to fuse together, their lines overlapping and flowing into each other. It’s less a battle between young and old than it is the perfect example of music fueling friendship and joy, which would be my assessment of Anderson’s truest greatness.