Chicago and New York have been major hubs for jazz and creative music for decades. Each city has a distinctive history where various communities have overlapped, and the music has had real support from institutions and activists in the press and broadcast media. Sure, each city has perennial problems such as gentrification, and in recent years there has been something of a flooded labor market, where the surplus of musicians have pushed down fees and limited opportunities. What assets and challenges were key factors when you established yourself on your city’s scene?
I think that when I first came to Chicago from Boston in the autumn of 1989, the scene here was in a transitional phase. Though the AACM was still busy, the concert programming on the north side of town was a bit scattered, though most of the concerts I saw at that time were at a club called Lower Links. Michael Zerang had been organizing shows for many years before I arrived in town, but that activity had stopped. Two venues that would prove to be very important to the scene, the HotHouse location in Wicker Park and Southend Musicworks in the south Loop, had not yet established themselves. Various collections of musicians, including those centered around Hal Russell, Liof Munimula, and Damon Short, were perhaps performing on a monthly basis, but were working in parallel and not really interacting with each other.
By the time I had found like-minded musicians to work in 1992, possibilities on the north side seemed to shift. Soon after the Vandermark Quartet formed, the group began a weekly series at HotHouse on Tuesday nights. Most everybody involved thought the run would last about a month, but it became a residency that continued for about two years.
At that point, major changes had occurred for the new Jazz and Improvised Music scene in Chicago that I believe no one in town could have anticipated or controlled. A number of journalists began covering the current of non-commercial Jazz in newspapers on a regular basis, writers with different interests and backgrounds like Peter Margasak, John Corbett, Lloyd Sachs, and Greg Kot. College radio, particularly the stations WNUR and WHPK, amped up their support. In addition, a number of independent record labels devoted to the scene sprung up- Platypus, Quinnah, Eighth Day Music- now all defunct, but their documentation indicated to listeners outside of town that something different was starting to happen in Chicago.
Not long after the series at HotHouse began we understood that most of the audience that came to our shows, comprised of the artists, writers, and musicians who lived at that time in Wicker Park, were fans of other cutting edge music that was happening in the city, particularly underground Rock. It quickly made sense to try and program concerts in the Rock clubs that these listeners went to on a regular basis, places that might also be open to the kind of music we were playing. Lounge Ax was the most important of these (by 1996 the performances had moved to the Empty Bottle, where concerts of this type happened twice a week for nearly a decade). A pivotal show indicating the shift in listener attention to the new Jazz happening on Chicago’s north side took place at Lounge Ax in 1994, when a bill featuring the NRG Ensemble (led by Mars Williams), the Vandermark Quartet, and Fred Anderson’s ensemble played to a packed house on a Thursday night. In addition to a change the Chicago media’s perception and activity, the audience had also become primed to hear a group of cooperating musicians who shared many of their aesthetic interests. As I remember it, Bruno Johnson (who started and runs the Okka Disk label) met Fred Anderson that evening. Not long afterward, Okka released its first album, “Fred Anderson – Steve McCall, Vintage Duets.”
My only explanation as to how and why this set of changes occurred in such a relatively short time is that almost all of the key players involved, whether the musicians, listeners, writers, label owners, or presenters, were all essentially the same age (mid 20’s to mid 30’s) and had nearly the same set of musical interests or curiosity. By the mid 1990’s, about five years after my activities had really begun in Chicago, the concerts on the north side, whether of local, national, or international improvising musicians, had gone from a few a month to many times each week. Performances by artists on the international scene had gone from a few each year to many each season, largely due to the connections and assistance of John Corbett, who helped organized the Jazz series at the Empty Bottle. Certain record labels, like Okka Disk and Atavistic, maintained a steady series of releases that illustrated the wide variety of musical perspectives that were developing on the scene over many years. And the audiences in town could make their own judgments about the quality of the music they were hearing, whether it was from Chicago or Stockholm, based on their direct listening experiences.
In regards to the idea of a “flooded labor market,” as it pertains to Chicago I would have to say that this isn’t the case. There are more than two venues presenting cutting edge Improvised Music and Jazz every night of the week, and there are festivals scattered throughout the year (there will have been four in the last two months). Any musician who makes a real effort can find a way to present their ideas to audiences on a regular basis in this town. Yes, almost all the concerts pay the musicians from the door and without a guarantee; since Jazz left the mainstream public radar, this has pretty much been the case. Unfortunately, the issue (as it has always been for the arts) is the potential for creative indifference and scene complacency. But what is the percentage of the Jazz musicians that became influential and inspirational? Ten percent? The truth is that any real artist will find a way to develop their work, no matter what kind of challenges or circumstances they are faced with.
– Ken Vandermark