By Manny TheinerChicago
saxophonist Ken Vandermark
is one of the most persuasive, personified arguments for why every state’s liquor laws should be amended to allow minors to attend concerts if accompanied by a parent or guardian.
While still in his tweens, Ken was enjoying jazz clubs in his hometown of Boston at the side of his father Stu, who wrote for jazz/improv bible Cadence Magazine.
“I was out three nights a week at hundreds of shows like Art Blakey and Johnny Griffin. That’s where I fell in love with jazz, figuring out that they were playing the same pieces different ways every night. I was captivated by that.”
His epiphany arrived when his dad gave him free-jazz saxophonist Joe McPhee
album at the age of 17 from a stack of Cadence promos.
“It changed my life. I was on trumpet, but I switched to tenor. I went to college, but I became more interested in music and less in studying. By graduation, I was completely devoted to music and have been doing it ever since.”
Less than two decades later, following his establishment in the Chicago scene as a participant in many forward-thinking jazz ensembles (including the DKV Trio with bassist Kent Kessler
and Hamid Drake
, and the leadership of the Vandermark 5, who graced Pittsburgh’s Mellon Jazz Fest in 1997), Mr. Vandermark became one of the youngest recipients ever of the MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called “genius grant”).
He used the five-year grant to make music, combining musicians from the U.S. and Europe in large touring ensembles such as the Peter Brotzmann
Tentet (which stopped here in 2002) and the Territory Band.
“I figured that if I invested in these groups and put them on the road, when the money was gone it would give us momentum to keep touring [domestically]. It didn’t work. The U.S. audience size stayed consistent — say, 100 people at a show in Brooklyn — but never grew. To remain sustainable you have to go where the audiences are [in Europe].”