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New Constellation in city's entertainment galaxy

Howard Reich

1:02 AM EDT, March 11, 2013

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In less than a month, a new performing arts center will open its doors in Chicago.

Or perhaps it's best to call it a new/old venue, its novel concept taking root in a familiar building.

Come April 1, the noted Chicago jazz drummer and impresario Mike Reed will launch Constellation in the site of the former Viaduct Theatre, at 3111 N. Western Ave. Reed — an internationally touring bandleader who also produces the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park and programs other significant events across the city — last week became the new owner of the Viaduct Theatre building.

But Constellation will stretch far beyond jazz, says Reed. In addition to featuring a wide range of music — with upcoming performances by the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra, Roscoe Mitchell and Craig Taborn — Constellation will serve as the new home of Links Hall, which for more than three decades has been a nexus for local and visiting dance artists at 3435 N. Sheffield Ave.

In essence, Reed has conceived a performance complex in which music and dance will interact, with film and other media to be nurtured there as well.

"It's not a jazz club, although from my standpoint, that's the ground source," Reed says. "It's a place that will be open to progressive performance, with jazz and improvisation being key, from the musical standpoint.

"Links (Hall) will continue their work and also increase it."

Indeed, when Links leaves its longtime home March 31 and makes its bow at Constellation the next day, it will leap from running a single studio space of approximately 2,000 square feet to two self-contained spaces. Studio A will have about 1,800 square feet and seat 50 to 75; Studio B will hold about 2,800 square feet and seat 100 to 150, says Links board president and architect Aaron Greven.

In addition, Constellation will have a lobby/bar area of about 1,000 square feet, this space serving as an impromptu meeting place during the day and a bar/cabaret at night.

"For Links Hall, in some ways, the sky is the limit here," says Roell Schmidt, the organization's director.

"We've been a single-studio space for 35 years, on a second floor in Wrigleyville. We were often dark in July because there are so many Cubs games. … Now we can expand."

Added Links board president Greven, "It's a transformative opportunity. … We can galvanize this group of artists (dancers), providing them with a social space that Links has never had before."

In addition, Links will be able to rent out both studio spaces for dancers whenever music or dance performances are not under way.

That musician Reed should have taken on this challenge will not come as a surprise to those who have been following his activities behind the scenes. In addition to his work with Pitchfork, he has been an important player in programming the Chicago Jazz Festival, Umbrella Music Festival, events in Millennium Park and the long-running Sunday-night series at the Hungry Brain on West Belmont Avenue.

But he has been wrestling for years, he says, with the idea of enhancing performance opportunities for musicians and others.

"From the jazz side of things, as a musician and facilitator, one thing really struck me," says Reed. "I go out to Andy's, I go to the Jazz Showcase, I go to the Green Mill. And for a city like this, we have three (full-time jazz) venues, and that's ridiculous. Andy's is more of a supper club; the Showcase is more of your old, traditional jazz concert club; and the Mill is this really powerful, amazing club. … The thing is that, especially with the Mill, it can't service the demand of (musicians) nationally or locally. It's hard to get a gig there. And one of the challenges for progressive music, progressive jazz, is there's no place to play on weekends. … Even for local folks, like (saxophonist) Dave Rempis or even (vibist) Jason Adasiewicz, where do you play on Saturday nights?

"There are very small-niche loft gigs, but that's not what you're supposed to have in a town like this."

Too many great jazz musicians from Chicago and beyond, in other words, are chasing too few performance spaces in a sprawling city with a century-long tradition of jazz performance. The loss of venues such as HotHouse, which closed in the South Loop in 2007, and the Velvet Lounge, which shuttered on the South Side in 2010 (after owner-saxophonist Fred Anderson's death) has left an enormous void.

And though experimental jazz bubbles up in places such as Elastic, on North Milwaukee Avenue, the Hideout on West Wabansia Avenue and the aforementioned Hungry Brain, none presents the music on the scale of the sorely missed Velvet and HotHouse.

Considering Reed's busy schedule of performances in Chicago and around the world leading various groups — including Living by Lanterns, Loose Assembly, and People, Places & Things — he did not necessarily need another Everest to climb. Yet a confluence of circumstances inspired him to act, he says.

"I didn't want to own a venue, to run a venue, to be tied down to that," says Reed. "(But) a few things started me to move on it: the absence of the Velvet and these other places. And there's a drop in the amount of programming that the city is doing.

"I started thinking about Fred (Anderson) and the Velvet, and I was like: There should be that tradition of artist-run venues," adds Reed, citing the model of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). That artists' collective emerged in Chicago in the mid-1960s, when jazz venues were disappearing, and enabled musicians to present their work themselves.

"Last summer, when Von (Freeman) passed away, I went to the memorial," says Reed, referencing a legendary Chicago saxophonist who trained generations of musicians during his Tuesday-night sessions at the New Apartment Lounge on East 75th Street. "I used to go to the Apartment, and for a few years he ran sessions at the Mill on Sundays. I'd go there all the time. When I went to the memorial, I saw all those people from those years I went down there, and then some. It was such an amazing thing. … It struck me that this memorial is really about all these lives that are interwoven through what he was doing. And I said, 'I want to go forward with this. Let's make this happen.'"

Along the way, Reed had met Links Hall director Schmidt and learned that her organization had been looking for a new, bigger space for years. The more Reed and Schmidt conferred, the more common ground and mutual need they found.

"Every time we met," says Schmidt, "we thought: 'Yeah!' Because so much of the work that happens at Links is interdisciplinary and collaborative."

Including the "Collision Theory" series that Links ran monthly during the 2009-2010 season that featured improvising dancers performing with improvising musicians. The series was so successful that Links revived it the following year, and Reed has been one of its many admirers.

When Reed found the Viaduct Theatre, which had been home to noteworthy productions by the House Theatre and others, he and his Links Hall partners saw potential.

"We (had) looked at over 150 spaces over two-plus years," says Links board president Greven, referring to the organization's long search. "We've had ups and downs, the rug pulled out from under us. It was really serendipity in terms of how Roell met Mike and how they formed a relationship and got this idea taken to the next steps. It all kind of worked together in a really lucky way."

The build-out of the old space for new uses began over the weekend. Links Hall is spending approximately $130,000 for the first phase of renovating the place. This includes a $100,000 grant from the Weasel Fund designated for the construction and installation of a sprung-wood floor that's needed by dancers, says Greven.

"And that's not including what Mike is spending on the bar and lobby area," adds Greven.

Reed declined to get into specifics of his investment.

Why the name Constellation? Several reasons, explains Reed, who says he has drawn inspiration from eclectic, genre-crossing venues around the world, such as Bimhuis in Amsterdam and Roulette in New York.

"For us and Links, it's about the way you relate things: the constellation of stuff," says Reed. "It's also in the constellation of places in Chicago, like Andy's, the Showcase. This is a piece of the constellation. And it's also an ode to Chicago because of the old Constellation record label of the 1960s. So there's a lot of Chicagoness that I want to maintain in the place."

Reed acknowledges the tension involved in launching a venture of this magnitude because "it's tricky. It's kind of like being up on a tight wire. I feel like everybody's watching."

And, one hopes, listening.

Tribune special contributor Sid Smith contributed.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Coming soon to Constellation

Following are highlights of shows that will play Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; for further information visit linkshall.org, or phone 773-281-0824.

"Fraction": Dance-in-progress, with choreographers showing excerpts from new works and soliciting audience feedback; April 1.

"Braiding Rivers": Featuring Chicago's Silk Road Rising and Los Angeles-based Post Natyam Collective; April 5-7.

Instant Composers Pool Orchestra: Dutch improvisers return to Chicago on April 6; the musicians improvise with Chicago dancers, April 7.

"Mix With Six": Concert of new short dances made and performed by members of The Seldoms; April 12-14.

"Poonie's Cabaret": Curated by Carole McCurdy; April 15.

CIMMfest: The Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, April 18, 20 and 21, including Melvin Van Peebles on April 20.

Roscoe Mitchell and Mike Reed: Multi-instrumentalist Mitchell with drummer Reed; April 19.

Craig Taborn Trio: Innovative pianist with drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan; April 28.

— H.R.