The only musician among the 32 Americans awarded this year's MacArthur Fellowships -- the six-figure "genius grants" to exceptional talents -- was Chicago saxophonist/clarinetist Ken Vandermark. (No, you're not supposed to have heard of him.) Vandermark doesn't have the name recognition of other musicians who've won MacArthurs, like Anthony Braxton and Ornette Coleman. In fact, he says he plans to use some of his $265,000 windfall to release some albums since the labels he deals with are so small that they can't always afford to keep up with his recording schedule.
The point of the grants, which were announced last week, isn't to reward fame. It's to reward gifted individuals, well-known or otherwise, by greasing whatever wheels they need greased. Vandermark is a solid composer and improviser, but more importantly, he's the linchpin of the Chicago music scene -- or, rather, the linchpin that holds a whole bunch of Chicago music scenes together. He's the center of a wide-ranging network, and he spreads the credit around. (All of his compositions for his group the Vandermark 5, which reinvents the idea of "fusion" by bringing prickly rock guitar into full-on jazz, are dedicated to other musicians: James Brown guitarist Phelps "Catfish" Collins, fellow MacArthur recipient Cecil Taylor, occasional Vandermark collaborator Mats Gustafsson.)
There are seemingly more improv shows in Chicago that include Vandermark than ones that don't. He works with four major groups these days: the Vandermark Five, which has just released a fine disc called "Simpatico" (Atavistic); the DKV Trio; Signal to Noise Unit; and an Albert Ayler homage project called the AALY Trio. He also plays more or less regularly with Peter Brvtzmann's 10-piece group, a trio with Chicago jazz elder statesman Robert Barry, a "gutter R&B" group called the Crown Royals, and seemingly everyone else in sight -- black-metal bands, free-improv projects, even the avant-gardist NRG Ensemble, where he replaced leader Hal Russell after his death. Even more projects spring up in his wake, from the musicians he's introduced to each other.
Even if Vandermark's rehearsal schedule is the size of the Chicago white pages, his versatility isn't his genius. The MacArthur is rewarding the way that his ceaseless cross-fertilization of the musical worlds around him makes them bloom.