Chicago Jazzman Among ‘Genius Grant’ Winners


Considering that he plays in at least a dozen bands and on more than 40 recordings, Chicago avant-garde musician Ken Vandermark was bound to be in transit when he received the news: He has won a 1999 MacArthur “genius grant” worth $265,000.

Even so, the windfall in dollars and prestige, announced late Tuesday, carries unmistakable poignance, since Vandermark is in the midst of a characteristically low-budget, zero-frills tour – 16 cities in 16 nights, by car, with Vandermark and his band sleeping on the floors of friends’ apartments.

The man’s relentless, guerrilla-style approach to playing unabashedly radical music has made him one of the most talked-about jazz musicians to emerge in Chicago during the last decade. Down Beat, the pre-eminent jazz magazine, in January aptly referred to Vandermark as “a bright, articulate, unflinchingly committed tenor saxophonist, clarinetist, composer and bandleader whose presence has been a major defibrillator for the city since he set up shop here in 1989.”

And though Vandermark can’t say precisely how many ensembles count him as a member or exactly how many CDs he has cut — “It must be a few dozen by now,” he guesses — the 34-year-old artist clearly has thrived as an outsider.

But with his MacArthur Fellowship, Vandermark, one of 32 individuals honored this year, finds himself in an unexpected position. He’s a lifelong iconoclast suddenly embraced by the cultural establishment, or at least by one of its best funded outposts, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago.

Having flourished artistically, if not financially, as a revolutionary out to obliterate the stylistic boundaries that separate jazz, alternative rock, avant-garde classical and other genres, Vandermark now stands among several regal jazz figures who have won the same award. The honor roll includes such long-established artists as bebop drummer Max Roach, free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, piano titan Cecil Taylor and heavyweight composer-improviser Anthony Braxton.

Suddenly, Vandermark may no longer be on the outside looking in.

“To be honest, I’m kind of afraid,” says Vandermark, speaking by phone from his parents’ house, outside Boston, where he stopped briefly during an east-of-the-Mississippi tour. “When I look at the other winners who work in similar music, like Max Roach and Cecil Taylor and the rest of them, those are people I’m in awe of, and I’m really overwhelmed by even being put in the same sentence as those people.

“So I’m really floored by this news. These guys, by the time they were my age, they were changing the face of the music. I feel like I’m still really a student.”

Though it will takes years to know for certain if Vandermark’s often brazenly dissonant sounds also have redirected the course of jazz and related musical languages, there’s no question he has energized the improvised music scene in Chicago more than any other single figure of the ’90s.

“Ken has been a force in spearheading this music, that’s for sure,” says Chicago tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, an elder statesman of the avant-garde who collaborated with Vandermark on the recording “DKV Trio” (Okkadisk).

Adds Chicago drummer Hamid Drake, a longtime Vandermark partner on disc and on stage, “Just the amount of projects he works on has had a huge effect on music in Chicago, and even as far away as Europe, where he has played a lot.”

Anyone who frequents such Chicago clubs as Anderson’s Velvet Lounge on South Indiana Avenue or the Empty Bottle on North Western Avenue (where Vandermark regularly performs and helps curate a Wednesday night new-music series) will have heard his eruptions on tenor saxophone and clarinet.

Moreover, a small but devoted group of record buyers know Vandermark from the decidedly unorthodox musicmaking of bands such as the Vandermark 5 (currently the focal point of his work), the Aaly Trio (with saxophonist Mats Gustafsson), DKV Trio (with Chicagoans Kent Kessler on bass and Drake on drums), the Crown Royals (a funk-tinged outfit), Cinghiale (a duo with fellow reed madman Mars Williams) and others.

Yet Vandermark is the first to acknowledge that his artistic ascent in Chicago owes at least as much to the city’s burgeoning new-music scene as it does to his own drive and talent. In that regard, his MacArthur award could be considered an acknowledgment of the vibrancy of new music in Chicago at the turn of the century.

“I don’t have a good answer for why all this is happening in Chicago right now, but for some reason there’s this incredible confluence of a lot of different elements going on,” says Vandermark, who closes his current tour Friday night at the Empty Bottle. The performance will celebrate the release of the newest CD from the Vandermark 5, “Simpatico” (on Atavistic).

“You have a pool of musicians in roughly the same age group (their 30s) who have been working hard and communicating with each other,” continues Vandermark. “You have labels like Okkadisk and Atavistic documenting the work, you have radio stations like WNUR-FM 89.3 and WHPK-FM 88.5 playing the music, and, most important of all, you have people coming out to hear the music.

“All that activity has brought a lot of national and international musicians to Chicago to play and record, so there’s this influx of outside information feeding the local scene.”

But it’s important to remember that Chicago wasn’t always so welcoming to Vandermark, who arrived here in 1989, disenchanted with life in Boston.

“In the beginning, he couldn’t find anyone to play with, he couldn’t find many gigs, paid or unpaid, so for the first few years he just practiced like crazy and wrote music non-stop, because there wasn’t much else for him to do,” says Ellen Major, Vandermark’s wife since 1996 and a pediatrician at Children’s Memorial Hospital.

“I remember going to his occasional shows in these horrible dives, and no one would be in the audience but me and my friends.”

By spring of 1992, Vandermark was ready to move back to Boston in defeat. But Chicago musicians Kent Kessler and Michael Zerang persuaded him to stay, their partnership eventually forming the core of what would become the Vandermark Quartet.

Equally important, composer Braxton, another MacArthur winner, encouraged him to keep up the fight.

“I played Braxton a cassette of a trio, and he was incredibly complimentary about what we were doing,” Vandermark says. “Braxton has had a major impact on me, and to hear him say, `I think you’re doing something interesting’ gave me license to think, OK, I’m not crazy, maybe there’s some merit here.”

Though it’s difficult for any musician to establish roots in a new city, Vandermark’s difficulties in part may have been because of the still nascent quality of his musicmaking. Granted, there was no denying the sheer size of his sound and the bravura of his technique during shows he played with Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble.

But the relentlessly loud, rhythmically repetitive nature of Vandermark’s work at the time pointed to a musician hungry to make a splash but seemingly less interested in developing a variety of ideas in sound. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that Vandermark began to show a more substantial expressive range.

“The early quartet material was interesting, but it didn’t have a fullness or depth I was looking for,” says Bruno Johnson, owner of the Okkadisk label, which has released several Vandermark recordings. “That first started to come through with (Vandermark) groups like Caffeine (in 1994). That’s when he started getting a sense of voicing for other instruments.

“Actually, the same thing happened with (past tenor saxophonists) Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, who realized, as they got older, that there’s beauty in playing ballads and other things with less energy and display.”

By 1996, a show Vandermark played at the Empty Bottle with such profound South Side musicians as tenor player Ari Brown, drummer Avreeayl Ra and bassist Harrison Bankhead affirmed the young musician was beginning to find a lyric voice to counterbalance the manic energy for which he was best known. In 1997, his writing for the Brotzmann Tentet proved at once idiosyncratic and masterful, and last month, during the Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, Vandermark’s playing opposite Gustafsson in the Aaly Trio established them as the most dynamic and musically versatile tenor pairing in cutting-edge jazz.

Nevertheless, financial concerns never have been far off for Vandermark, who didn’t leave his day job at the School of the Art Institute’s Video Data Bank until last year. Says Johnson: “I’ve seen Ken play five hours for $10.”

Yet Vandermark has steered clear of more lucrative jobs closer to the commercial mainstream, instead reveling in cutting-edge jazz, alternative rock, avant-funk and beyond.

“When I was growing up, music constantly was being played on the stereo at home all the time, and the attitude was wide open,” says Vandermark. “My parents would play Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, Sly and the Family Stone, whatever.

“And their attitude wasn’t: `Stravinsky is great European music, Ellington is a great American composer,’ and so on. Their approach basically was: `This is music, and there’s no separation at all among different kinds of music.’ ”

Vandermark nonetheless found himself drawn most intensely to his parents’ jazz recordings. He took up trumpet in 4th grade and “played it terribly until 11th grade,” when he switched to tenor sax and began writing original tunes.

As a film major at McGill University, in Montreal, Vandermark relished analyzing cinema, but his fascination with music inexorably took over. By the time he graduated in 1986, he was ready to plunge into the Boston music scene.

After 10 years in Chicago, this city still holds a spell on him, for in interviews with out-of-town media he consistently talks up the virtues of working in a town where minds are open, rent is cheaper than on the coasts and audiences thrive on new ideas.

Though he hasn’t yet decided what he’s going to do with more than a quarter-million dollars, a number of possibilities leap to mind.

“I’d like to do a tour with (multi-instrumentalist) Joe McPhee and Kent Kessler, I’d like to do an outing with (drummer) Paul Lovens, and I’d like to do a U.S. tour with the Brotzmann Tentet,” says Vandermark, who also hopes to help Johnson release recordings that are lingering in the can at tiny Okkadisk.

“And I’d like to be able to pay all these musicians to at least stay in a motel. That would be great. These guys have to put up with extreme conditions to work with me — this is not a commercial music, and it doesn’t generate a lot of money.

“But it really would be nice to give them what they deserve.”

Following are some of Ken Vandermark’s notable recordings, many available at his performances and at the Jazz Record Mart, 444 N. Wabash Ave.:

“Aaly Trio + Ken Vandermark: Stumble” (Wobbly Rail, 1998), “Aaly Trio + Ken Vandermark: Hidden in the Stomach” (Silkheart, 1998). Sublime interchange with reedist Mats Gustafsson, and others.

“Peter Brotzmann: The Chicago Octet/Tentet” (Okkadisk, 1998). Three-CD set with Brotzmann’s majestic ensemble.

“Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark, Kent Kessler: A Meeting in Chicago” (Eighth Day, 1997; reissued on Okkadisk, 1998). Ferocious improvisations.

“Fred Anderson/DKV Trio,” (Okkadisk, 1997). Anderson and Vandermark, with two distinct approaches, meet halfway.

“Vandermark 5: Single Piece Flow” (Atavistic, 1997). The quintet’s recording debut.

“Steam: Real Time” (Eighth Day, 1997). Vandermark with Jim Baker, Kessler and Tim Mulvenna.

“Cinghiale: Hoofbeats of the Snorting Swing” (Eighth Day, 1996). Duets with Mars Williams.

“Steelwool Trio: International Front” (Okkadisk, 1995). Vandermark, Kessler and Newton.

“Crown Royals: All Night Burner” (Estrus, 1997). Funk-tinged tunes.

“Caffeine” (Okkadisk, 1994). Breakthrough recording for Vandermark, with Baker and Hunt.

“Vandermark Quartet: Big Head Eddie” (Platypus, 1993). The quartet’s debut recording.

Source: Internet discography by Seth Tisue at and the recordings.

Originally published June 23rd 1999 on

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