Every once in a while I like to discuss a Chicago-related documentary not created by Kartemquin Films just to see what it feels like. 😉


Musician (2007)

Subject: Ken Vandermark

Produced by Jason Davis and Daniel Kraus. Cinematography and Editing by Daniel Kraus. Additional Crew: Joe Chellman, Amanda Kraus, Ryan Bartelmay. Released by Facets Multimedia Studios.




Musician is Part 2 of The Work Series, a documentary project conceived and created by Daniel Kraus; the other 3 being Sheriff (2005), Professor (2009), and Preacher (2011). The series is currently on hiatus while Kraus works on a series of writing projects, although he hopes to return to the series to profile several women at some point (fingers crossed on this!).


The Work Series is a documentary project inspired by the oral histories collected by Studs Terkel, most notably his volume entitled Working. Featuring no narrator or any typical documentary film drama-enhancing bells and whistles, the series uses the “fly-on-the-wall” technique to try and bring the viewer as far as possible into the work and life of the subject.


Tearin’ it up on Baritone. Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernandez



This technique is perfect for the subject of Musician, the Chicago-based musical genius (literally so, as he won a coveted MacArthur Fellowship in 1999) and Civic Treasure, Ken Vandermark. Musician opens with Vandermark composing a new tune in his basement workspace, worrying and fretting over each note as he tries to actualize the sounds he hears in his head, and then cuts to a segment of the finished composition being performed by an ensemble.


The film then follows him as he goes about the Herculean task of being a working original Jazz musician/composer in America (which unsurprisingly includes several trips to Europe and other foreign locales where quality musicianship is more readily accepted by the public). Musician doggedly chronicles the whole experience; talking on the phone with bookers and club owners, coordinating/rehearsing with other musicians, hauling gear to and from gigs, endless hours in airports or behind the wheel, and of course the performances themselves. The film also illustrates Vandermark’s struggle to maintain his relationship and home life in the face of constant travel and work, something he approaches with the same calm rationality and good humor he brings to his work.


Cookin’ with Ken. Dave Rempis on Sax and Tim Daisy on Drums. Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernandez



Vandermark was the perfect choice for the Work Series, because DAMN does he work! If he hadn’t won a MacArthur grant so early in his life this film would have been a perfect “audition” for the coveted Genius Grant; because you simply cannot watch this film without coming away thinking that the man is a genius. Even if you don’t enjoy/get his music (and I truly pity you if that is so) you still have to award him the moniker by the “99% Perspiration” benchmark (easily 110% in his case). The sequence that shows the CD covers of all the bands and projects he has either headed or participated in (over 100 albums with almost 40 ensembles) is an apt testament to this fact.


Musician is available for streaming (as is the entire WORK Series) and has several bonus segments of Vandermark and some of his various ensembles playing his music.


Solo improvisation is incredibly difficult, but Vandermark pulls it off with uncanny skill. Photo: Amanda Kraus

And let’s discuss the music! A multi-Reedist (tenor and baritone saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet), Vandermark has absorbed and embodies the style of Modern Jazz known as “Post Bop” but there are also echoes of Punk and Thrash in the mix. Those familiar with avant-garde Jazz will recognize several of his influences in the music; John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, John Gilmore (from The Sun Ra Arkestra), Roland Kirk, Ornette Coleman, Booker Ervin and several other Sax Giants are combined and augmented in a sound that is traditional yet original. His compositions are also stunning and powerful, by turns beautiful & blistering and always uniquely his own. Vandermark has a well-earned reputation for playing with the best musicians around and his various ensembles are always brilliant and tight.


Genius At Work. Photo: Amanda Kraus

So there you have it, Gentle Reader. Either stream this film or rent the DVD from Netflix (I’ve been hogging a copy for the last several weeks but I finally returned it over the weekend) and make a point to go see Ken Vandermark whenever you are able. Because like many cultural treasures of Chicago, he’s criminally under-appreciated by the mainstream.


And let’s hope that Daniel Kraus continues this series as soon as possible!