If I would’ve known these would be my last words to Fred Anderson, I might’ve said something better than, “See you in a couple of weeks when I get back in town, Fred.” But we don’t usually know those things.
I left the Velvet Lounge in Chicago that night in early June of 2010 without realizing that a lot of things were about to change. Fred Anderson, the “lone prophet of the Prairie,” tenor-titan, owner of the Velvet Lounge, mentor to hundreds, died three weeks later.
Shortly after moving to Chicago in December of 2004, I was introduced to Fred (and the Velvet Lounge) by Greg Ward. My first thoughts were, “THIS is the Velvet Lounge?? THAT’S Fred Anderson??” The original Velvet Lounge on S. Indiana was definitely an interesting sight. To say it wasn’t fancy would be an understatement. Set on a dark street between a dry cleaners to the right and Fitzees Ribs & Chicken to the left, was, believe it or not, one of the Meccas of creative music in the world.
The first thing you’d see walking in to the Velvet was Fred sitting on a bar stool at the door waiting to greet you and take your money for the cover charge. He was a quiet and unassuming presence. I never understood how Fred could be so quiet when he spoke and so ferocious and intense when he played. He was definitely one of those people who let the music do the speaking for him. As a matter of fact, I don’t think Fred and I said more than two words to each other for the first six months I came around. But one night after a gig, we sat at the bar and started talking about Bird. Two hours later, I went home astounded at the discourse I’d just been given from this quiet Master.
Walking further into the Velvet you’d see a long bar on the right with several stools around it and Donna and Ulli keeping the patrons happy. On the wall, opposite the bar, were a multitude of pictures of historical figures in jazz, past musicians who worked at the Velvet, and pictures and posters of Fred from his performances around the world. It was a funny shrine: all these great musicians tacked up on fake wood paneling, set right by an old cigarette machine probably from the late 60’s or early 70’s.
A few more feet forward took you to the performance area with the stage on the right. Having probably played well over 100 gigs at the original Velvet Lounge, I’ve got to say I can’t believe that stage didn’t collapse during someone’s performance. It was rickety and seemed, in places, to be made of cardboard. Duct tape held some of its worn carpet in place so no one would trip getting onto the stage. Man, if you ever dropped something behind the stage, forget it…it was gone for good!
Hanging from the ceiling above the stage was a chandelier low enough to catch the headstock of more than a few upright basses (and a forehead or two!). And, of course, the funky orange-red/blue/yellow flowered wallpaper that lined the wall behind the stage became the backdrop for many sounds over the original Velvet’s nearly 25-year run.
I loved that old place.But what I will always remember most about the Velvet Lounge is the sense of community and family among the regulars. The grand patriarch, Fred, always opened the door to his house for those willing to enter. From all walks of life, woven together in a colorful tapestry of Sound, were the many brothers and sisters of this community.
The Velvet, with all its eccentricity, was like a gym. It was a place where musicians went to get strong and develop themselves. We could bring any kind of project there--from infancy to maturity. That was the gift of the Velvet, the gift of Fred…it was opportunity. The crowds that would gather there came to expect the unexpected as well, and they liked it. I can’t really think of too many places I’ve been where that’s true. There was a real communion between performer and audience.
It’s been a year now since Fred died, and six months since the Velvet Lounge (in its second incarnation on E. Cermak) closed. Things have changed (as they always do) in the music scene. What endures, however, is the spirit behind an idea. That same spirit is present in countless musicians, here in Chicago and around the world, because Fred Anderson opened the door.
To Fred--a beautiful example of love, humility, dedication, and creativity--and to my Velvet Lounge family, I thank you from the deepest place of my being for Opportunity.