May 23, 2024

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Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis builds an intentional community in jazz: Video, Sounds

By organizing concerts, mentoring young musicians, and connecting players from across the States and abroad, he models the commitment and generosity that keep the scene viable.

Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis grew up outside Boston in Wellesley, Massachusetts, son of a Greek father and a mother he describes as an “American mutt from Indianapolis.” He absorbed traditional Greek music at weddings and church functions, as well as through an AM radio show his father liked that featured a family friend on clarinet. He knew his family was different from his classmates’, but at that age he didn’t realize how rare it was for a native-born white American to belong to a minority community held together by that sort of social and cultural glue.

Rempis arrived at a new appreciation of his upbringing at Northwestern University, where he started in 1993. He’d picked up the saxophone at age eight, the same year his older brother began playing clarinet, and by high school he’d fallen in love with jazz via the likes of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and Yusef Lateef (whose experiments with Indian, African, and Middle Eastern traditional music set him to exploring further afield). At Northwestern he’d planned to double major in classical saxophone and something in the liberal arts, but within three months he’d soured on the regimentation of the classical program—the syllabus laid out exactly what he’d be playing for four years, right down to the mouthpiece he’d be using. He switched his focus to anthropology, inspired by an ethnomusicology class taught by Paul Berliner—an influential scholar who’d helped introduce the West to the Shona mbira music of Zimbabwe in the 1970s. That class led Rempis to reflect on his childhood in Boston’s Greek-American community—it clicked for him that he’d been part of a group that worked to keep its culture alive in a country that didn’t share it. He began to understand the creation and maintenance of community as a good in and of itself, worth any time and energy he devoted to it. In his subsequent musical career, few things have distinguished him as much as his commitment to community building.

For two decades, Rempis has been one of the most exciting and powerful improvising saxophonists in Chicago, and his contributions to the scene’s infrastructure are at least as important. Since landing his first big gig—replacing Mars Williams in the Vandermark 5 in 1998—he’s led or co-led a long string of bands, including Triage, the Engines, the Rempis Percussion Quartet, and Ballister. For nearly that whole time, he’s also been an active concert programmer: beginning in 2002, he’s curated a weekly improvised-music series, first at Humboldt Park venue 3030 and now at Elastic Arts. In Chicago only the Hungry Brain’s Sunday series, launched in 2001, has run longer.

Rempis has served as a community connector well beyond Chicago, facilitating musical relationships around the States and abroad. Last year he embarked on a U.S. solo tour whose 31 dates took him from one end of the country to the other, and at each stop he’d play solo and then team up with local improvisers, many of whom organize concerts in their own towns. Last fall he released an album of live solo recordings from the road called Lattice, and next week another fruit of that cross-country trip will arrive: several of Rempis’s far-flung tour collaborators convene in Chicago for the third iteration of his Exposure Series, which runs March 22 through 26 and includes rehearsals, hangout time with local players, a panel discussion, and collaborative performances at Elastic, the Hungry Brain, Experimental Sound Studio, and May Chapel at Rosehill Cemetery. It’s likely to include at least one off-the-books celebration too, since Rempis turns 43 on the third day of the festival.

When Rempis enrolled at Northwestern, he didn’t know much about Chicago’s burgeoning improvised-music scene. He focused mainly on his coursework, and though he continued to play after dropping out of the music program, he didn’t yet consider it a potential career path—he participated in informal jams, maintained a regular quartet for a jazz-combo class, and gave concerts on campus with fellow students such as pianist Paul Giallorenzo, future Wandelweiser Group composer Craig Shepard, and experimentalist C. Spencer Yeh. He and Giallorenzo, who’s now a director at Elastic Arts, continue to work together today. “Dave is a natural leader,” Giallorenzo says. “He’s super organized, and he has one of the coolest and clearest-headed temperaments of anyone I know. He’s great at building consensus.”

Rempis and his college friends frequented Chicago clubs, including the Green Mill, the HotHouse, the Velvet Lounge, and the Empty Bottle. “I heard about the Green Mill right away,” he says. “I started going there every Friday night when I was a freshman to see Ed Petersen with Willie Pickens, Brian Sandstrom, and Robert Shy, which was a great band. I really loved those shows and learned to drink gin at that bar. I would be there literally every Friday. They didn’t card at the time.”

Rempis spent his junior year at the University of Ghana in Accra, studying at the school’s new International Centre for African Music and Dance. Rempis learned about hand percussion as a way to better understand the music in which he’d immersed himself, especially the ensemble traditions of the Ewe and Akan people. He studied the xylophone-like gyil and picked up on relatively modern practices such as brass-band music and highlife. “A typical day for me would involve some classes in the morning. I’d then go to the library, and in the afternoon I’d go out and play a bit,” he says. The campus was a magnet for stellar Ghanaian musicians from all over the city, and many of them asked him to collaborate.

“I still was playing saxophone, but not much during my freshmen and sophomore years,” Rempis says. “Basically, just at jazz combo once a week, which I continued to do at school. It was really when I went to Ghana that I got reinspired to play a lot. There weren’t many horn players around, so all the musicians I met there would invite me to come and play. It made me remember how much I loved it, and it was nice to feel in demand. When I returned I just said, ‘OK, fuck it,’ and started practicing again as much as possible—usually two to four hours a day.”

Rempis says one of his most important experiences at Northwestern was a class on black gospel music in Chicago taught by Anthony Davis, a choir director in the city. “He was an incredible character—totally flamboyant, big rings on every finger, full-length fur coat. Academically, it was one of the most ass-kicking things I took,” Rempis says. “He was such a rigorous professor, but then he had us going out to churches regularly to see Sunday-morning services, Saturday-night concerts, deep on the south side, and that was incredible.” The class not only pushed him out of the white-dominated Northwestern bubble but also helped teach him the value of going to the source, to learn with deference and respect from the originators of the music he loved. That experience prepared him to fall in love with the community he encountered at the Velvet Lounge.

“Even in the 90s, there weren’t that many places in town where the history and the personality of the place felt that deep,” Rempis says. Fred Anderson’s long-gone South Loop club occupies a singularly exalted place in his imagination, as it does in the minds of many musicians and fans of a certain age. “Fred’s personality filled that room with character that was tangible from the first time I walked in the door in 1996. That place was something different always.”

Anderson’s selflessness and generosity impressed Rempis profoundly. “I guess what hit me so hard is that here’s a legendary musician in the world of jazz, and he’d be at the door, taking the $10 cover charge, answering the phone,” he says. “He could’ve focused on his own career, and probably should have! But instead, he spent all of his time running his bar. Taking the trash out, serving drinks, working the door, just so that all the different people he invited to play at the Velvet—from Steve Lacy and William Parker and Peter Brötzmann to myself and young people like me—could have a place to develop their thing. One night when I apologized for the low turnout, he shuffled by as he was cleaning up and said, ‘But the music was good, and that’s the important thing.'”

Rempis graduated in 1997, moved into Chicago, and began focusing on music full-time. He landed a bartending gig at the Bop Shop, which had relocated that year from Wicker Park to the South Loop and would soon close. There he met many of the young musicians who’d soon begin shaping the local scene, including drummers Tim Daisy and Mike Reed. He played pickup sessions, worked in some forgettable jam bands, and began forming projects of his own—including ferocious free-jazz trio Triage, launched in ’97 with Daisy and bassist Gordon Lewis (replaced in 2001 by Jason Ajemian). Then Rempis hit a major turning point: he asked Ken Vandermark about taking private lessons on extended techniques. Unbeknownst to him, saxophonist Mars Williams was about to leave the Vandermark 5—one of the most popular and galvanizing free-jazz bands in the city.

 “I remember coming home and there was a message on the answering machine,” Rempis says. “‘Yeah, this is Ken Vandermark. I was wondering if you might want to audition for my quintet?’ And I was like, holy shit, what?” After two months of intensive rehearsals, Rempis debuted with the group in March 1998. “I was still in school when Dave joined the Vandermark 5,” says Giallorenzo, “and seeing him become part of that band was awe-inspiring.”

Rempis has maintained a close connection with Vandermark ever since, playing in several of his other projects both before and after the Vandermark 5 called it quits in 2010, among them the Territory Band, the Resonance Ensemble, and Audio One. Vandermark set an example for Rempis by establishing residencies for the V5, teaching the younger player the importance of developing material via regular gigs. Vandermark also had a hand in organizing several concert series in the 90s at spots such as HotHouse, Lunar Cabaret, the Nervous Center, and most famously the Empty Bottle, where he worked with John Corbett to bring in top-tier musicians from the U.S. and Europe.

Around the same time Rempis joined the Vandermark 5, some of his friends from Northwestern, including Giallorenzo, began presenting concerts at a loft space at Cermak near the river. They called themselves Elastic Revolution Productions, which morphed into the Drastic Elastic Foundation—a nod to the collective’s interest in hip-hop and spoken word. Free jazz was part of the mix too, and Rempis got involved when the collective found itself in need of a new home—it was evicted in spring 2001. In the fall of that year, the group moved into an abandoned Humboldt Park church it named 3030, for its address on Cortland Avenue, and in April 2002 Rempis began his Thursday improvised-music series there. It helped soften the blow created by the closure of Lincoln Square space the Nervous Center, which ended an important weekly series Daisy had programmed.

“I think I’m pretty open about the fact that this was not just a selfless undertaking,” Rempis says. “I need a place to play, and that’s my prime motivation in a lot of ways. But I’m not going to play every week, and there’s a lot of other people looking for gigs—especially at that time, there were so many younger people in Chicago doing this music.” Unfortunately, 3030’s residential location caused trouble almost instantly, drawing complaints about noise and loitering from disgruntled neighbors, including a father with young children whose home was separated from the venue by nothing but a vacant lot.

“We were just stupid kids at the time,” Rempis says. “We weren’t sensible enough to realize how big of a problem that could be. We were just like, ‘Fuck this guy, we’re trying to do art.'” Eventually a barrage of complaints, many from that father, provoked the city to crack down, and 3030 shuttered in fall 2005. The Empty Bottle’s weekly series was already tapering off, and the original Velvet Lounge closed in spring 2006. Things suddenly looked bleak for the local improvised-music scene.

This unexpected drought of concert opportunities led Rempis and several colleagues to form Umbrella Music in spring 2006: he was joined by Vandermark (who was about to start a weekly series at the Hideout) and by Reed and cornetist Josh Berman (who’d together launched the Sunday series at the Hungry Brain). Rempis resumed his Thursday series at 3030’s new Avondale spot, where it renamed itself Elastic Arts. “After we moved to the Milwaukee Avenue location and became more of a serious venue,” Giallorenzo says, “Dave realized that what we were doing had value, and he started looking beyond his series, not only to help the organization survive but also to open his eyes to other types of creative music and art that were happening.”

The Hideout, Hungry Brain, and Elastic series operated independently, but they often collaborated to offer visiting artists several days of gigs at different spaces. Umbrella also created a website to list its concerts and presented an annual fall festival, which ran from 2006 till 2014 and immediately became a highlight of the jazz calendar—thanks largely to its European Jazz Meets Chicago event, inaugurated in 2007. In July 2006 the Velvet Lounge reemerged in new digs at 67 E. Cermak, and the scene grew stronger than ever, driven by musicians who refused to let it fall apart.

Since Anderson’s death in 2010, the Velvet has been shuttered and sold, and it’s no longer a jazz club. But Rempis’s Thursday series soldiers on, despite a break from September 2015 till March 2016 while Elastic relocated to its current location on Diversey, and it remains a reliable way to hear top-notch locals as well as touring players. Rempis has also come to take his responsibilities as a presenter more seriously. “When I started this, it was basically like, ‘I’m a young musician just trying to hustle gigs. And I’m here to field e-mails from people who are out there doing the same.’ But over the years, I’ve realized more and more that there is actually some sort of curatorial duty,” he says. “We need to reach out to certain people more who aren’t reaching out to us and try to bring them into the space, and that’s part of our duty as an organization.”

Rempis plays his baritone saxophone, a Selmer Mark VI from the mid-1950s. - CENGIZ YARAmong Rempis’s efforts is the Exposure Series. It began in 2016 with a week-long visit to Elastic by New York saxophonist Tony Malaby, and last year German reedist Silke Eberhard did a similar residency. “The idea was to bring in higher-profile musicians to attract more attention to this space, but also to create something for musicians working in Chicago regularly to meet somebody they haven’t really worked with before, who might provide some types of new perspective,” Rempis says. “Not just for one concert or one thing with their band, but for some workshops and rehearsals, so that it’s a four- or five-day thing where people really get to interact with them in a bunch of different ways.”

For this year’s installment, Rempis invited six lesser-known musicians from around the eastern U.S., most of whom likewise serve their own scenes by organizing concerts: saxophonist Steve Baczkowski (Buffalo), bassist Brandon Lopez (Brooklyn), bassist Luke Stewart (Washington, D.C.), saxophonist Michael Foster (Brooklyn), saxophonist Molly Jones (Detroit), and guitarist Tashi Dorji (Asheville, North Carolina). He’d played with everyone but Foster on last year’s Lattice tour, and he got to know Foster through Lopez at around the same time.

Rempis wanted to use the 2018 Exposure Series to bring back to Chicago the network building he’d done on the road. “The idea was really to bring people with a bunch of different perspectives, who have different interests, different modes of working,” he says. Stewart, for example, plays in fiery free-jazz group Irreversible Entanglements (fronted by spoken-word artist Moor Mother) and with deeply rooted but adventurous saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, among other contexts. He cofounded the influential Capital Bop concert series and now programs music at polystylistic venue Rhizome. “He’s doing some really amazing shows, as a musician but also as an organizer,” Rempis says. “He’s whipped a scene into shape.”

Stewart is likewise aware of Rempis’s work. “From the activities of Vandermark and Corbett, to Mike Reed, to Rempis, and of course the scene-setting historical legacy of the AACM, Chicago is one of the important cities in this music,” he says. “Dave is another in a long practice of community building—he has become part of the continuum of self-starting musicians, and does it with lots of integrity and respect.”

Rempis had been developing his solo practice for years before embarking on the Lattice tour—he wanted to make sure he was ready. In 2016 he quit his job as business manager of the Pitchfork Music Festival (a position he’d held since 2005), and the loss of that income gave him an extra nudge. Rempis manages his finances with the same discipline that he applies to all aspects of his life, and he was careful to structure the tour so that it would be profitable. He won a small Individual Artists Program grant from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events that defrayed some expenses, and he saved wherever he could: he traveled alone, with no driver or manager, and crashed on couches. He secured modest guarantees for each gig—usually between $150 and $200—and he sold loads of CDs released by his own Aerophonic label, founded in 2013. He’s appeared on all its releases, most of which exist in physical editions—and more important, every one has made money. Aerophonic also released the tour document Lattice, of course, but for Rempis the trip was all about bonding with kindred souls.

Rempis has a musician friend who’s nicknamed the horn’s red-velvet-lined case the “vampire coffin.” - CENGIZ YAR“There are communities all over the country doing this kind of stuff,” he says. “And the ones that are successful are the ones that are actually a community of people working together, where it’s not just one person but there’s some kind of network and infrastructure set up. In Chicago we’re lucky to have a much broader infrastructure of musicians, audience, writers, festivals, and venues. Other places are at different stages of that kind of development, in terms of finding an audience or finding people to write about it. I think the way people are thinking about this music and thinking about how to present it needs to continue to develop, in the same type of way that people consume their music differently now.”

It’s still a great time to be a fan of improvised music, but Rempis thinks the musicians themselves must overhaul their community if they want it to survive. A recent French tour with the Bridge project underlined some of the problems for him. “I had an incredible time with these musicians, but on some levels it was really disappointing. Like, everybody here is 65 years old; they’re not going to be here in ten years. Where are we going to play? Who are we going to be playing to?”

The whiteness and maleness of the contemporary scene also seem like dead ends to Rempis. “I led a two-day master class at this conservatory in Paris, and I walked into the room thinking, ‘It’s 2018, hopefully this will be a slightly diverse group of people,’ and it’s all white guys—in Paris, which is a very diverse city,” he says. “There’s not a single woman in the room and there’s not a single person of color in the room. And that’s fucked-up.” Rempis struggles with improving diversity in his Chicago programming—American structural inequalities already contribute to the underrepresentation of women and people of color among active improvisers—but he and his partners at Elastic want to find ways to change the landscape. Rempis suspects that the biggest transformation will need to happen in the schools, where a more diverse cohort of musicians can be nurtured from an early age.

Over the years Rempis has put these priorities forward in many of the workshops he’s led. For him the cultural setting of jazz matters more than its nuts and bolts. “How can I convey what the music is about, on a broader scale than just ‘Here’s the notes you should play and look at these chords’?” he says. “I don’t think the music or anything exists in a vacuum. All that stuff is important when you’re thinking about the music and how it’s made and what was the context it was made in.”

In Chicago’s scene, as in many others, audiences are small and pay is scarce. Even the nonmusicians who pitch in to keep the community viable often do so for little or no money. Rempis mentions Tushar Samant, who contributes free labor to maintain the invaluable gig calendar Now Is(following in the footsteps of committed scene boosters Seth Tisue and Malachi Ritscher), and Dave Zuchowski, a sound engineer who offers high-quality mobile recordings at far below market rates, enabling many musicians to make albums even when they can’t afford studio expenses.

Rempis in the Elastic office, with portraits of Chicago saxophonists Fred Anderson and Von Freeman on the wall behind him. Both photographs were shot by longtime Reader contributor Jim Newberry. - CENGIZ YARRempis has been moved by this kind of love and sacrifice for his whole career. “I came into this community at a time when things were so strong,” he says. “All the volunteer work that so many people were doing to make this scene something—and especially the vibe around the Velvet. For all of us of this generation working, presenting music, playing music, anybody who had that interaction with Fred [Anderson] I think has an almost religious respect for the meaning of that. You can’t have been a part of that without understanding how deep it really was and how deep his commitment was—and the commitment of so many of the other people around him.”

Rempis knows how vital it is to operate from a place of generosity and fellowship within such a fragile ecosystem. He’s humble and unselfish enough to praise the efforts of other people who’ve contributed in the same ways he has, rather than seeking credit for his own work. When he talks about what Vandermark has done for Chicago’s scene, he could be talking about himself. “The amount of volunteer work that Ken has done over the years to make stuff happen in Chicago is remarkable, and on some level I think people sort of take it for granted or just assume that it’s something which is always going to be there,” Rempis says. “No, it’s a special thing.”

Ask Vandermark about Rempis, though, and he doesn’t hold back. “Dave has booked more than 500 weekly concerts at Elastic Arts,” he says. “This would be a remarkable achievement even if that was all he’s worked on, but he’s also one of the most important musicians in this city—he’s in charge of ensembles, performs with an international set of collaborators, organizes tours for himself and other musicians in the States and Europe, runs Aerophonic Records, and does this work at the highest creative level. Dave leads by example—not by talking about trying to accomplish something, but by actually doing it.”  

Dave Rempis at Elastic Arts, where he programs a long-running Thursday improvised-music series - CENGIZ YAR

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