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Chicago's greatest music innovators.

By Dave Chamberlain

MAY 18, 1998:  Popular music has been fooling the masses since the eighties. It's been fooling the masses into thinking that because it's popular, it must therefore be important. It's been able to do that because, at the dawn of mass-marketing and distribution, the biggest, the most popular acts were important: Hank Williams, Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones.

But how much music that is part of MTV's propaganda machine can be termed important? How much of it do you think you'll be hearing in twenty-five years described as seminal, or influential to the bands of the 2020s?

So often, the most important music goes unheard by those who do not seek it out. Important music exists, but not on any radio waves stronger than the strongest college radio station-and even there, not often.

There are many who would argue that music cannot be important (I know they exist, I come in contact with them every weekend). Certainly, in tangible terms, it is not important. You cannot eat music, you cannot drink or breathe music. Save for a very few, music does not pay the rent.

It boils down to the question that governments argue and philosophers have pondered for centuries: What is art? The answer I accept is that art is a reflection, an extension, of what is. The moment the art is completed, it becomes a bubble of unalterable history-perhaps the only kind of history that cannot be rewritten.

Important music exists right now, and important figures exist. And that music, those players, exist in Chicago, perhaps in greater quantity than any other city in the United States. The following are people who, while familiar to an extremely small segment of Chicago's general population, will-and I say this without even a hint of reservation-go down as important turn-of-the-century musical standouts.

First, and at present foremost, the members of Tortoise (above)-Dan Bitney, John Herndon, Douglas McCombs, John McEntire, David Pajo, Jeff Parker and the man Pajo replaced, Bundy K. Brown-will influence the music made by people who haven't even been conceived yet. And don't forget unofficial band member Casey Rice, Tortoise's traveling sound engineer. The band's self-titled release in 1994 explored the possibilities of multicultural music outside of rock.

Tortoise was inevitable. Global cross-pollination of information, mass-distribution of art from locations most Americans didn't know existed before 1990, and the gradual erosion of the domination of exclusively Western ideas present in the U.S.-all of this happened within a relatively short span of time. And the band was there to reflect those trends.

And it doesn't hurt that Chicago's music scene was willing to listen. Realistically, had a band tried the concept of textured music, of anti-rock, of instrumental no-guitar sound art twelve years ago, the crowds would have flocked elsewhere. But the crowds did, and still, come to see Tortoise create music, not reproduce music.

Another important figure is Andrew Bird. It's really too early to make a long-term call on his record sales , but when the swing revival becomes retrospect, when musical histories mention the rebirth of the big-band/jump blues sound, only one figure will stand out as adding, altering and expanding the growth of revival music: Bird. With a penchant for highly intelligent-definably pretentious-lyrics often fashioned after nineteenth-century German poetry, Bird melts together hot jazz, calypso, gypsy and Irish folk music. It's almost literary music, and it's a cross-section of America's hopeful slant towards multiculturalism. Additionally, Bird's prowess with bow and string, an ability which would easily place him among this era's finest concert violinists, gives Bird a credit line of immense value to those who would disdain his choice of genre.

To be proclaimed important in the world of jazz ranks in the difficult-at-best category, but in twenty years Ken Vandermark will have his place in jazz encyclopedias. A tireless worker, Vandermark's dedication to the growth of free jazz and improvised jazz has poised a new generation of musicians to take over the old guard. While so many jazz concerts rely on slightly modernized versions of John Coltrane's or Miles Davis' music, the Vandermark Five moves far beyond these history lessons. Unfortunately, whereas Tortoise and Bird will influence the mainstream, Vandermark's jazz immersion is a likely sentence to the fringe netherworld. Unless, of course, jazz again captures the world's imagination and replaces rock on the radio.


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