Chargé de Jazz

Composer and saxophonist

Ken Vandermark

After the Chicago jazz icon Ken Vandermark learned he would be getting a $25,000 stipend for serving as this year’s artist in residence at the city’s annual Jazz Festival, his first thought wasn’t about the shiny new sax he could buy. Instead, he calculated how many European musicians he could bring to town to entertain the late-summer crowds that would gather at the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park.

Vandermark made a similar decision in 1999 when he won a $265,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. Just about every penny went to bringing jazz artists from around the globe to his adopted hometown of Chicago, which he calls “one of the most extraordinary places on the planet. It’s a really special city for music, completely unique—not just nationwide but globally.”

Since moving here in 1989, Vandermark, 48, has been—and remains—one of the biggest reasons for that. This year, with the Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, he released a new CD, Letter to a Stranger (praised by one critic for “leaving no sonic stone unturned”). And he remains one of Chicago’s most distinguished cultural ambassadors, playing in clubs from London and Berlin to Tokyo before making his way back home to the city he loves. “Where else am I going to live to get the support I have for what I’m doing?” Vandermark asks. “It’s been amazing playing music [in Chicago] for two decades. And people still want to hear me!”



Photograph: Taylor Castle