Fred Anderson was born in Monroe, Louisiana on March 22, 1929. He started out on piano when he was around five. By the time he was ten, his father left the family and he and his mother moved to Evanston on the northern outskirts of Chicago to live with an aunt.
At the age of twelve, Fred found a tenor saxophone in the house and started practicing with it. Not long afterwards, his aunt sold the saxophone so Fred got a job and started saving his money. He eventually was able to buy his own saxophone out of his earnings at a cost of $45. Fred, being an only child, began spending a lot of time practicing with his horn
By the time Fred was 15 or 16 years old, he had been listening to tenor sax titans Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Gene Ammons. Around 1945, a friend in the Navy turned Fred on to Charlie Parker. Listening to Charlie Parker made Fred sit up and take notice. However, Fred learned at an early age that great musicians learned from other musicians, but rather than copy what other musicians played, they used what they had learned to incorporate a sound and style of their own. Parker became his main influence for speed and power; he liked Gene Ammons's sound and the way Lester Young told a story. Fred worked hard to just be himself in his playing. He talks about this in the liner notes of his Nessa Records recording, "The Missing Link": I've always tried to be myself; I wanted to play without copying cats. So I started practicing scales and exercises and just trying to put it together that particular way. I may take a little phrase here, a little something there or something might hit me unconsciously, but basically, it's from me - the way I see and hear and feel at that particular time."
Fred got married in 1950 and settled in an apartment in Chicago. By 1953, he was the father of three sons. There wasn't room in the apartment to practice, so Fred would spend as many as seven hours out in a nearby park practicing his tenor saxophone. Fred was unhappy with the exercise book he had been using for practicing. "It didn't do what I wanted it to do. So I created an exercise book of my own with the same priciples, but I wrote out exercises that took me through all of the keys all of the time; not just exercises through one key. I was thinking about the chromatics. I wanted to get myself in a position where I could play and not worry about being in a key and being off key and all that. You've got 12 tones- everything to me relates."
Around 1960, Fred and his family moved back to Evanston where he bought a home. Because of scarcity of work for playing the music he loved and believed in and the responsibility of raising a family, Fred had to work day jobs. He spent a great many years as a carpet installer and also as a waiter and bartender with earnings mostly on tips. Fred still found time to practice 2-4 hours a day and attend jam sessions. One time, at Fifth Jacks, Fred was put off the bandstand by musicians who didn't understand his concept. It was around this time that Fred met and began practicing with a muscially articulate trumpet player, Bill Brimfield, an association that has continued through the nineties.
Fred began working professionally in the early sixties. One of his first gigs as a leader took place in early 1960 when Sun Ra and his Arkestra left Chicago for Canada and John Gilmore asked Fred to take over a gig he had on Michigan Avenue.
In 1964, Fred met with Muhal Richard Abrams, Phil Corhan and a few other musicians, who organized and established the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). This organization has fostered and developed some of the finest among talented jazz musicians such as Anthony Brampton, Henry Threadgill, Edward Wilkerson, and the late Lester Bowie. With Fred on sax, he performed in the first AACM concert with a group consisting of Joseph Jarman on reeds, Bill Brimfield on trumpet, Char les Clark on bass, and Arthur Reed on drums.
In late 1966, Fred made his first recording, "Song For" on Delmark Records with a group led by Joseph Jarman. Fred's composition, "Little Fox Run" and Brimfield's "Adam's Rib," were among the four tunes recorded. It was around this time that Fred, playing with his own distinctive style, earned the title of "Lone Prophet on the Prairie." "Song For" was reissued on CD in 1991 with a second version of "Little Fox Run."
Around 1970, Fred began practicing with a number of younger musicians at his Evanston home. In addition, he would talk to them about some of the jazz giants who were important to learn from, such as Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, etc. From 1972-1975, he led a band of these musicians, which performed Friday and Saturday nights at the Foundation Church Coffee House, also known as J's place. The band consisted of (in addition to Fred on tenor sax) Bill Brimfield on trumpet, George Lewis on trombone, Douglas Ewart on reeds, Felix Blackman on bass, Hamid Drake on drums, and Iqua Colson on vocals. Band members were given every opportunity to play their own compositions. Some of Chicago's finest up and coming musicians such as Ray Anderson, Joseph Bowie, and Hamiet Bluiett would come and sit in. From 1976-78, Fred featured these same musicians at his club, The Birdhouse (named after his idol). Fred and Bill Brimfield made their first trip to Europe in 1977. The trip was brought by Austrian pianist Dieter Glawischnig who spent some time checking out musicians while touring the U.S.A. As a result, Dieter decided that Fred and saxophonist Oliver Lake were the two most outstanding musicians he heard and arranged for Fred and Bill to tour Europe with his trio, the Neighbors. During this tour, Fred and Bill made their first recording of the seventies with the Neighbors; an album entitled "Accents" on MRC Electoral label. Fred brought a quintet to Europe in 1978 and his recording as a leader resulted from three of Fred's compositions recorded live at the Seventh International New Jazz Festival in Moers, Germany. The recording entitled "Another Place" was issued on Moers Music label and featured Fred, Bill Brimfield, George Lewis, Brian Smith (on bass), and Hamid Drake.
Fred recorded a quartet live, May 15, 1979 at the Museum of Contemporary Arts Chicago. The recording was entitled "Dark Day" and released on the Austrian Message label. Fred's next album was recorded, September 17, 1979, but was not released until 1984 when Nessa Records issued it as "The Missing Link." In 1982 Fred had been helping a sick friend operate his southside Chicago bar called the Velvet Lounge and when his friend died, Fred took over the bar. At that time, jazz gigs around Chicago were scarce and Fred had a hard time finding work for his band. In order to give his band and himself a chance to play before a live audience, Fred began to have jam sessions at the Velvet Lounge every other Sunday from 6-10 p.m.. Despite the fact that he didn't charge admission nor raise the price for the drinks at the bar, Fred paid his band and the money had to come out of his own pocket. The band consisted of Bill Brimfield on trumpet, Ajaramu on drums and one of a number of bass players such as Michael Cristol, Harrison Bankhead or Malachi Favors Maghostut. Being a jam session, this gave many a promising young musician a chance to play and learn from the masters. Many nights there were more musicians in the audience waiting to sit in than non musicians. In addition to the younger musicians, a number of well-known musicians such as E. Parker McDougal, Pat Patrick and Hanah Jon Taylor came to sit in. Fred talks about the importance of giving musicians a chance to play: "We used to get up on stage at the Birdhouse at 12:00 midnight and play till 4:00 am in the morning. That was important for those guys; give them a chance to c ome out and play. When they play with me they have a chance to express themselves freely. That's what playing here at the Velvet Lounge every other Sunday is about. I let them do pretty much what they want so they see what's really happening. Some come and play and I don't see them for a while-that's cool. They go home and woodshed and that's what I used to do!"
In 1990, Fred Anderson along with David Baker from Indiana and Harold McKinney from Michigan were the first three recipients of the Arts Midwest Jazz Masters award. Among the 24 subsequent winners were such well known jazz giants as J.J. Johnson, Richard Davis, and Von Freeman. In order to qualify for this award, musicians were required to be recognized for their outstanding artistry as performers and educators; for continuous contributions to jazz within their respective communities and have 25 years experience as a professional performer.
Fred has performed with his band in four of the 21 yearly Chicago Jazz Festivals and as a guest artist with bands of two Chicago Jazz Festivals. One of the most memorable performances ever witnessed at any of the Chicago Jazz Festivals was a reunion of Fred's band of the seventies at the 1994 Chicago Jazz Festival. In addition to Fred, the band included Bill Brimfield, George Lewis, Douglas Ewart, Harrison Bankhead, and Hamid Drake-plus guest artist tenor saxophonist Edward "Kidd" Jordan. Another special event for Fred occurred at the 1998 Chicago Jazz Festival. The Jazz Institute of Chicago commissioned a new composition by Edward Wilkerson honoring Fred and fellow tenor saxophonist, Von Freeman. Wilkerson arranged the composition to feature Fred and Von with Wilkerson's 27 piece Shadow Vignettes.
Fred had to wait until the nineties when he reached his sixties (he celebrated his seventieth birthday on March 22,1999) to finally gain some of the recognition he deserved for so long. He began to get much more exposure in performances and his Velvet Lounge gradually changed from a neighborhood bar to a full time jazz club.
During the nineties, Fred has performed throughout the U.S. and Europe to perform, with Kahil El'Zabar, Marily Crispell, Peter Kowald, and with his own groups. He also toured Japan with a trio in 1998.
Fred has had eight CDs (including "Missing Link" previously mentioned as an LP) released since 1991. One of these, a duet of Fred with the late drummer, Steve McCall, was recorded January 11,1980, but was not issued until 1994 when the Okka Disk label was formed making the recording, entitled Vintage Duet, the label's first CD issued. All of these CDs have been well reviewed in various magazines.
Up until 1993, the only live jazz heard at the Velvet Lounge was the jam sessions held every other Sunday. There had never been any charge for admission. Fred first began charging admission on Labor Day weekend 1993 when he featured his band plus guest artists in hope of attracting jazz fans and musicians attending the annual Chicago Jazz Festival.