When I started coming to Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge, I was in college studying music composition and performance and having a horrible time. It was a very creatively self-defeating atmosphere I seemed to have gotten myself ruggedly ensconced in. I was told by one of my professors that the only way I was "ever going to get a gig, was going to be if I married a musician." I was told by another that I really ought to think about finding something else "to do,” because I just wasn't "getting it." At the same time that all this was going on, I was trying to understand myself in the pretty limited context of what I assumed being an African American woman meant, or rather what I thought it meant. I represented a generation of African American women who had more choices about ways of being than any other generation preceding it: this was exciting, but also at times incredibly confusing, and in some ways it made my creative path quite harrowing. In retrospect, the only reason I really survived creatively, or at least found a pathway to keep working things out, was because of Chicago's musical elder tradition of passing on sounds by example to the next generations. Fred Anderson was one of the elder musicians who made himself readily available through the aural jazz tradition of the "jam session".
Mr. Anderson also gave me my very first respectable gig, and used the resources of his club to uplift me and so many of my friends. Many of us are still playing music today all because of one man's vision to provide opportunities for young musicians in his community. When I first stumbled into the Velvet Lounge, to play at Mr. Anderson’s storied Sunday night jam session, I had no idea what exactly I was getting myself into: somewhat confused about my life, this music, this craft, gave me something to anchor myself with. Mr. Anderson welcomed me and treated me just like he treated everyone else—as a seeker of sound, thirsty for knowledge, thirsty for sounds, wide open for new understanding, held up by his often silent but always incredibly positive encouragement. When he gave me that first gig, he didn’t know me at all really, but knew me by my sound; and though I was really struggling then, he heard something and gave me a platform to deal with it, offered me these gigs zero restrictions and told me to present whatever I liked. The Sunday night jam session, despite being at a respectable bar, was open to sound makers of all styles and ages. Many younger musicians stayed out of the common youthful trouble because Fred Anderson allowed us to stay on the stage, his stage. He also took the time to sit with me at the bar before gigs and talk about sound and tradition with such a fervency and reverence that at the time I didn't realize how important these talks would be to my own development. I can now say that these conversations remain at the core of my entire approach to my instrument, and in some ways my approach to improvisation as a communal social practice.
I am literally running around the world with a horn in my hand because of Mr. Anderson's kindness and encouraging foresight. It is amazing to me that he was able to make this kind of contribution so effortlessly, despite the fact that as a club owner he was also running a business. There were some nights I played at the Velvet Lounge when there was barely an audience for my band, but Mr. Anderson would make sure we all walked out of there with some money in our pockets, in some sense trying to insure us for some of the no-money hard-time gigs we would surely play at some other point. He was a business man, but a musician as well, and he understood the complexities of having to literally feed off of creativity.
No matter what this life has in store for me the ups and downs, the challenges I will always be eternally grateful to this extraordinary man. He is, in my eyes, a shining example of the possibilities of the power of one within an arts community. I only hope that I may get a chance to do the same for others through my own future work.