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Because Anderson, a native of Monroe, Louisiana, was devoted to his family and concerned with earning a living, most of his performances were local, and he didn't have a truly international following until late in his career. Though a European tour in 1979 established his reputation as a brawny, thoughtful, and rigorous improviser, only in the mid-90s did his work reach the broader audience it deserved. Starting with the release of Vintage Duets: Chicago, January 11, 1980 with drummer Steve McCall (released by Okka Disk in 1994) Anderson produced a deluge of superlative recordings—more than 20 albums since—and developed an international profile that seemed to grow year by year.
Though Anderson was involved with the AACM in its earliest days—working closely with fellow saxophonist Joseph Jarman—he soon parted ways with the organization to carve out a unique sound on his own, becoming, as astute critic J.B. Figi put it, the "Lone Prophet of the Prairie." Anderson spent years in the late 50s to early 60s practicing in private before playing out, and his entire career was marked by steely determination and fierce independence—a strong sense of self that eventually attracted a devoted community, which drew sustenance and inspiration from his vision and commitment. Through fallow years and boom times in the local jazz scene, he was a rock, transcending fleeting trends and petty squabbles.
As Tribune critic Howard Reich discussed earlier in the week, the future of the Velvet is up in the air. Though the club will never be the same without Anderson—he was there most nights, collecting cover at the door when he wasn't onstage—it would certainly be a salute to his memory, and to his keen interest in fostering young talent, if the folks he's left behind could find a way to keep the venue thriving. But either way the local scene has suffered a great loss; in the mid-60s the AACM established a model for self-reliance that still animates the Chicago jazz community today, and no one embodied that drive better than Fred Anderson.