Corey Wilkes and the Velvet Lounge All-Stars are standing in front of three tall mirrors in the South Loop Hotel’s L26 Restaurant and Lounge, getting ready to kick off the first show of the Velvet Birdhouse Concert Series. “We’re gonna fly on with some new music,” Wilkes says into the microphone. “This first set we’re gonna dedicate to Fred Anderson”–the crowd starts to laugh a little bit–“as well as the second set,” he adds with a smile. “The first set is gonna contain the music of Mr. Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker, because that was Fred’s main man; he always would talk about Bird. Every time I would rap with him he would say, you know, ‘Man check out this recording of Bird,’ so he would lock us in the Velvet and we had to listen to these old tunes.”
L26 is full, every table smiling along with Wilkes and the rest of the Velvet Lounge All-Stars. A few have come in looking for a bite to eat but most everyone is there to honor the legacy of Fred Anderson, tenor saxophonist and owner of the Velvet Lounge, who died last June after a heart attack at the age of 81. “A lot of us here standing on stage right now started our careers at the Velvet in Chicago,” says Nicole Mitchell before the show starts.
Mitchell, a flutist and composer, is the co-president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a non-profit organization of Chicago musicians and composers that Anderson helped establish in 1965. The AACM is a part of the Velvet Birdhouse Coalition, a newly formed group looking to maintain the musical innovation and sense of community Anderson fostered at the Velvet Lounge. The Coalition, which according to Mitchell also includes members from the Jazz Institute of Chicago, Asian Improv Arts Midwest, Umbrella Music, “and other longtime supporters of Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge,” is presenting the Birdhouse Concert Series. Named after Anderson’s two clubs, the two-part series begins with tonight’s performance. “His first club years ago was called the Birdhouse, named for Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, the great saxophonist.”
Opened in the ’70s on Lincoln Avenue, the Birdhouse was soon closed due to city zoning ordinances, according to the Velvet Lounge’s website. “It was a space where there was no alcohol, just music,” said Anderson in a 2001 interview with Fred Jung of Jazz Weekly. “I had trouble trying to get some license–a ‘public place for amusement’ license. I never took the time. This was back in ’79. In the neighborhood I was in, I wasn’t really welcome, so we had a lot of problems.”
In 1982 Anderson took over the Velvet Lounge after the death of its previous owner, a long-time friend. “The Velvet was all about making opportunities for musicians in Chicago to hone their craft,” says Mitchell, whose group, Black Earth Ensemble, started at the Lounge. “It was one of very few clubs that you could try out new music, not just play jazz standards. And it was one of very few jazz venues left on the South Side of Chicago.”
After the death of Anderson in June, ownership transferred to his sons, Michael and Eugene. Anderson’s granddaughters, Jasmine Sebaggala and Rasminee’ Harris, were allowed to run the Velvet until late November. “They decided they no longer wanted us to run it,” says Harris. On December 1st the Velvet Lounge was shuttered. “They said they were going to do a good job and keep it the way it was; put money in it, a shrine of granddaddy and everything.” But since December the sign outside the Velvet has read “closed until further notice.”
“We’re going to reopen. We should have everything straightened out in a few days or so,” said Michael Anderson in a December 13th Chicago Tribune article.
While the future of the Velvet Lounge remains uncertain, the Birdhouse Concert Series is an attempt at holding together the Velvet Lounge community. “With these concerts we want to continue making the music happen in the spirit of innovation and on Chicago’s South Side, as this was Fred Anderson’s legacy. It’s so important to Chicago’s jazz community that this legacy lives on,” says Mitchell. “Fred Anderson’s legacy of making a space for this innovation in jazz is really important. That’s why people have been up in arms about the Velvet closing, and why some of us have come together to find a way to continue this legacy in Chicago even if it means finding another location to do the music.”
Four blocks south of the Lounge’s Cermak and Wabash location, L26 has become the new Velvet Lounge. “Word got out about my venue being available, I had heard what was happening through the newspapers, and I got in touch with Nicole Mitchell,” says owner Tony Glenn.
Friday night and the place is full for the ten o’clock show, everyone seated close or standing up by the bar. The crowd’s mixed but most everyone is there to support Fred: journalists (jazz critics and freelancers, photographers starting to line up at the front of the room), jazz fans, musicians, diners and hotel guests who just happened by. All of them are waiting for Nicole Mitchell to step to the front of the room and introduce the All-Stars behind her: Corey Wilkes on the trumpet, who recorded with her Black Earth Ensemble on 2003’s “Afrika Rising”; Kevin Nabors on the saxophone; Justin Dillard, “Dr. Funky Fingers, Dr. Rev. Pastor Funky Fingers on the keys,” as Wilkes calls him at the end of the first set; Christian Dilingham on the bass; and Isaiah Spencer on the drums.
“The Velvet Lounge, it lives in our hearts. It’s a spirit Fred gave to us and I know Fred is right here with us tonight,” says Mitchell to applause and amens from the audience. It’s the most somber moment of the evening–and then Wilkes tells the audience, “We’re gonna fly” and the first set begins with Charlie Parker’s “Segment.” Sax, trumpet, keyboard, and drum solos. Lean-back music. Tap-your-foot music. Most everyone closing their eyes at some point in the set of Parker tunes that included “Groovin’ High,” “Now’s the Time” (reworked and renamed “Now’s That Time”), and what Wilkes calls “a jazz kumbaya,” a medley of three Charlie Parker ballads. Nabors groans and shouts in between sax riffs and Wilkes calls out adjustments–“Hey, take down the tempo,” he says to Isaiah, and the piece flows into a trumpet solo that has Wilkes leaning back and the room growing silent.
The second set of the night features modern pieces composed by members of the group or by Anderson himself, the first piece fittingly titled “Fred’s Hungry Brain.”Â Anderson’s performances were generally of his own compositions–his book, “ Exercises for the Creative Musician” (co-authored with Paul Steinbeck), features three Anderson compositions and a transcription of one of his improv sessions. “[Improvisation is] just like a thought, like telling a story,” said Anderson in the book’s introduction.
“My role in the city is to keep young musicians playing,” said Anderson in a 2005 interview with Jeff Stockton. “I will always have a place for them to play. Under his ownership the Velvet Lounge hosted Sunday jam sessions where young musicians could perform and improvise with Anderson and other established Chicago musicians. “This is my life. This is the way I’ll probably go out. Duke [Ellington] and them were traveling on the road all the way until they died. Everybody’s got some kind of destiny. This is the way I’m going. We all dedicate ourselves to something and we do it. Whatever legacy you leave, you leave. You gotta keep doing something. Keep on moving.”
Birdhouse Concert Series presents the Nicole Mitchell Quartet. L26 Restaurant in the South Loop Hotel, 2600 S State St. February 25. Friday, 10pm; doors 9pm. $15.(312)225-7000. chicagosouthloophotel.com