log  Boston Globe, 08/06/99: Sounding the Genius in Jazz by Bob Blumenthal

Saxophonist Ken Vandermark laughed as he recalled getting the momentous news in June. His quintet had just driven through a three-hour downpour, and were drenched after moving their instruments into a North Carolina concert hall. Then someone said that Vandermark had a phone call.

“Can’t it wait until after the sound check?” he asked.

“You might want to take it now,” he was told. “It’s the MacArthur Foundation.”

The caller informed Vandermark that he was among this year’s recipients of MacArthur grants, the multiyear “genius” awards with no strings attached given to exceptional individuals in various fields. Vandermark is not the first avant-garde improviser to be so honored, but at age 34 he is both the youngest and the first to be selected with a view toward what he might yet achieve.

A resident of Chicago for the last decade, Vandermark is a New England native, born in Warwick, R.I., and raised in Newton and Natick. Few of jazz’s newer voices play with as much command and spirit, or place themselves in so many challenging settings.

“I like to be active,” he said in a conversation from his Chicago home, “playing with as many different people as possible. I’m doing a ton of projects now, and playing on some kind of regular basis with probably a dozen different groups. The most active are my quintet, the Vandermark 5, and the DKV Trio with [bassist] Kent Kessler and [drummer] Hamid Drake. I’m playing with the AALY Trio from Sweden all of the time, too.”

Some of these bands have visited Boston, where Vandermark has sustained several of his earliest musical relationships. He performs in concert tomorrow at the Zeitgeist Gallery with the trio Tripleplay, which also includes bassist Nate McBride and drummer Curt Newton.

“I’ve probably been playing with Curt longer than anybody, since ’86,” Vandermark said. “I go home frequently to visit my family, and we always hook up. Curt also has family out here, so we end up playing together several times a year. His approach to the drums is so different from the people that I work with in Chicago, and it’s always exciting to get together with different musicians - especially drummers, because they force me to address the concept of time in different ways.”

This quest for variety, plus a power and imagination that have attracted like-minded musicians, have made Vandermark the focal point of a Chicago scene that now encompasses legendary foreign players who rarely appear elsewhere in the States. Centered around Vandermark’s various bands and a club called the Empty Bottle, it has returned Chicago to a vanguard position in jazz innovation that the city previously enjoyed when the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians was taking shape over 30 years ago. “Things have just exploded in the last five years,” Vandermark said. “I’ve been involved in a series at the Empty Bottle that has been running once a week for the past 3 1/2 years, and we’ve also held three international music festivals. I still play here three times a week, and could be playing more if I weren’t traveling so much. It’s pretty astounding.”

One sign of the scene’s power is the seriousness with which younger Chicago musicians are now viewed. “Within the past three or four months, I’ve played with [British drummer] Paul Lytton, [Dutch pianist] Misha Mengelberg, [New Jersey-based organist] John Patton, [Swedish saxophonist] Mats Gustafsson, and [Dutch trombonist] Wolter Weirbos, all in Chicago,” Vandermark noted. “That these guys come here to play with Chicago musicians says a lot about the respect they have for us, and that respect is also reflected when we travel to Europe. People over there used to just ask about the AACM; now they ask about the people I work with. “And this has all come from musicians working through independent labels, rather than having large labels define what we should and shouldn’t do. This makes the attention even more gratifying, because the music is on our own terms.”

In Vandermark’s view, there are several reasons why Chicago has nurtured this scene. “Since there are many opportunities to play here, and the city isn’t as expensive to live in as New York, musicians can make a living playing what they want. The media also cover Chicago musicians as serious musicians, and not just as ‘locals,’ so that people who don’t know that much about us will see us covered as constantly as the more familiar names. Labels here like Okkadisk and Quinnah are documenting the material and getting it around, and the college stations in the area are playing it. “As a result, the audience is incredible. When the Vandermark 5 came back from our June tour, there were 320 people at the club, and we drew 1,000 people over three days at our last festival. And this is not commercial music.”

Vandermark has long felt that the future for boundary-testing jazz lay with the alternative rock audience, a notion he has found confirmed by his recent experiences. “There has been a major shift in recent years,” he said. “Eighty percent of our audience is now between 20 and 35 and out of an alternative background, whether we’re playing in Philadelphia or Stockholm. If it were not for these listeners, we couldn’t sustain our activity. “Maybe the boundaries between our music and alternative rock have been blurred, or maybe the majority of mainstream music now is so terrible that people interested in music per se are just gravitating toward improvisers. They may not really know who Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor or Anthony Braxton are, but they can tell that we are playing this music because we love it, and they listen and respond to the excitement that they hear. It’s more fun to play for an audience like that than for people who have 3,000 records... and don’t bother to listen.”

When asked for a self-evaluation of his recent music, Vandermark noted one change in priorities. “I hope that the quality has improved, but I can say that I am putting greater emphasis on playing with older musicians. You learn so much from people like [saxophonist] Fred Anderson and [drummer] Robert Barry, guys who were the experimenters in Chicago 40 years ago. The information communicated when I perform with them is priceless, and I think I’ve reached a place where all of that information isn’t just flying over my head. Guys like that, who have been committed to the music for decades, show me how it’s possible to find new things to do every day.”

The MacArthur grant has put Vandermark in the position of providing his own inspirational example, and he has clear ideas of how to put the funds to best use. “I hope to invest half of the grant in ongoing projects, and use the other half for things that would otherwise be impossible. For example, I’m a member of [German saxophonist] Peter Brötzmann’s Tentet, which is playing the Vancouver Jazz Festival next June, and the MacArthur funds might make it possible to tour elsewhere in North America. It would be frightening what we could accomplish if we played seven to 10 dates on the road and then recorded, but without the grant there would be no way. I’d also like to get musicians like [German drummer] Paul Lovens over to the US and pay them better, give them a motel room to sleep in rather than just the floor in my apartment.

“I try not to think of the MacArthur in terms of who else has won. I can’t seriously say that it puts me on the same level as Cecil Taylor or Steve Lacy or George Russell. I can say that it will assist me in my efforts to reach that level.”