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Anyone who regularly attended jazz and improvised-music concerts in Chicago during most of the past two decades certainly saw Ritscher, whether they knew it or not: he was usually seated anonymously just off the stage at the Empty Bottle or at the front of the Nervous Center, concentrating on recording one performance after another. When Ristcher committed suicide in 2006 as an act of political conscience, he left behind more than 4,000 recordings of live sets—early on he focused on underground rock, but the bulk of his work was devoted to jazz and improvised music. Along the way he became very good at taping on the fly; he upgraded his gear and made fuller-sounding recordings, some of which were eventually released commercially. And unlike some local tapers, Ritscher was generous. He asked permission first, and he'd give copies of the recording to the musicians the next time he saw them. As you can see from this spreadsheet of his collection, its range is staggering.
Ritscher recorded countless performances by ad hoc or one-off groupings, both with local musicians and with visiting players. Despite how well-documented the Chicago scene has been in the realm of commercial recordings, it's no exaggeration to say that Ritscher's collection probably provides the most detailed picture of what happened in the 90s and 00s in the more experimental reaches of the city's improvised-music community. It's an invaluable treasure that can fill out the history of Chicago music in a unique way. ESS, which operates the Creative Audio Archive, hopes to raise $5,000 to help stabilize and preserve the recordings, which seems like a pittance in relation to their value.
Below is the short video I mentioned above, which features some of Chicago's most recognizable musicians opining on the value of Ritscher's collection and legacy.