Freeman, Chico

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Chico Freeman

Saxophonist, trumpeter

Chico Freeman was born Earl Lavon Freeman Jr. on July 17, 1949, in Chicago, Illinois. His father was the legendary jazz tenor saxophonist Von Freeman. His uncle George Freeman played the guitar, and his uncle Bruz Freeman played the drums. Freeman took piano lessons as a child, but his introduction to the instrument he would later play came when he and his brother, Everett, came across some musical instruments in their basement, including a trumpet, and Freeman started playing the instrument. He was inspired by the work of Miles Davis, particularly Kind of Blue, an album that Davis recorded in 1959. His father gave him some early advice, encouraging him to be original, not to just copy the work of other artists.

Freeman was a good student and earned a mathematics scholarship to attend Northwestern University in 1967. He played his trumpet in the school jazz band, and on weekends he would sit in on his father's jam sessions at a Chicago jazz club called Betty Lou's. He developed an interest in the tenor saxophone while he was a junior in college, and began practicing on the instrument for eight to ten hours each day, until he became sure enough of his abilities to challenge for a chair in the saxophone section. Realizing that he truly belonged with the band, he switched his major from mathematics to music, graduating in 1972 with a degree in music, with proficiencies in saxophone, trumpet, and piano. He played with groups exploring blues, rhythm and blues, and pop, and also studied with the great pianist Muhal Richard Abrams.

Following graduation Freeman joined the faculty of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) School of Music in Chicago. The school helped young musicians present and promote their own music through non-traditional routes. He taught both elementary and intermediate classes and continued his own studies as well, enrolling as a graduate student at Governor's State University and earning a master's degree in composition and theory. While playing with the Governor's State Jazz Band at the Inter-collegiate Jazz Festival in South Bend, Indiana, he won awards as best soloist and best saxophonist. He also won the opportunity to tour Brazil in 1976 with the winning group.

Because of his family background, Freeman's first exposure to music was in the field of jazz, but many of his early professional jobs were at Chicago clubs with blues artists such as Memphis Slim and Lucky Carmichael. He also played with rhythm and blues and pop legends such as the Temptations, the Four Tops, Jackie Wilson, the Dells, the Isley Brothers, and the Eurythmics.

In 1976 Freeman released his first album as a leader, titled Morning Prayer. In 1977 he moved to New York City, where he had the opportunity to play with Elvin Jones, Sun Ra, Sam Rivers' Big Band, and Don Pullen. He also led his own groups and soon developed his own style. Between 1975 and 1982 he began to gain recognition, recording a dozen albums, including Spirit Sensitive, No Time Left, Peaceful Heart Gentle Spirit, Freeman & Freeman (with his father), Destiny's Dance, Tradition in Transition, and The Search. In 1979 he won the New York Jazz Award, and in 1981 he won the Stereo Review Record of the Year for The Outside Within.

Freeman lectured for Jazz in the Classroom from 1980-89, and served as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts from 1979-82. In June of 1982 he participated in a concert at Lincoln Center as part of The Young Lions. The group included many shining stars from the jazz culture of the 1980s, including Wynton Marsalis, Paquito D'Rivera, Kevin Eubanks, Anthony Davis, and others. The group produced an album for which Freeman composed a 14-minute piece called "Whatever Happened to the Dream Deferred," which gained him added recognition.

In the mid-1980s, many European promoters were organizing superstar bands. Freeman decided to pull together his own superstar band called The Leaders. The all-star sextet was made up of internationally recognized bandleaders, including Cecil McBee on bass, Kirk Lightsey on piano, Lester Bowie on trumpet, Arthur Blythe on alto saxophone, and Famadou Don Moye on drums and percussion. Freeman played tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, and bass clarinet. The group recorded several albums, including Out Here Like This and Unforeseen Blessings. In 1989 Freeman pulled together another group of musicians, this time creating an electric band called Brainstorm. The band recorded Sweet Explosion, Threshold, and The Mystical Dreamer.

The year 1991 marked the 150th anniversary celebration of the invention of the saxophone by Adolphe Sax. At the celebration the group Roots was formed, made up of internationally recognized saxophone players Nathan Davis, Benny Golson, Arthur Blythe, and Chico Freeman. The band added Buster Williams on bass and Winard Harper on drums.

In the early 1990s Freeman took part in several television commercials, including spots for Burger King and Polaroid. In 1998 he produced Arthur Blythe's album NightSong and worked on theater projects with playwright Ntozake Shange and tap dance star Savion Glover. In 1999 he began teaching improvisation in the jazz and contemporary music program at New School University.

In 2002 Freeman was chosen from more than 200 applicants to be one of 20 artists to create a multi-channel sound installation at Engine 27, an experimental music venue in New York City. According to his official website, he was selected to "record and develop a 16-channel composition where the music is 'spatialized,' moving freely from speaker to speaker throughout the 80-foot gallery space."

Freeman also created a new Afro-Cuban ensemble called Guataca, which has played Latin rhythms, African heritage music, and hip-hop. The band features Hilton Ruiz on piano, Ruben Rodriguez on bass, Yoron Israel on drums, and Giovanni Hidalgo on congas and percussion. The group released Oh, By the Way in 2002. "What I did with this album is utilize elements of jazz, R&B, and hip-hop on an Afro-Cuban basis, with a flamenco and middle-eastern flavor," he stated on his official website.

Freeman has a long resume, with connections to a huge list of famous musicians. He has traveled throughout the world playing the saxophone in many different genres, from Latin to African American to jazz and the blues. On his website he stated, "My goal is to explore new worlds, and I don't want to be limited by categories. I don't want to be told that I can't go into other categories. The only limitations I place on myself are the limitations I place on my own imagination. And within that realm, there are none."

Selected discography

As leader

Morning Prayer, India Navigation, 1976.

Chico, India Navigation, 1977.

No Time Left, Black Saint, 1977.

Beyond the Rain, Contemporary, 1978.

Kings of Mali, India Navigation, 1978.

Spirit Sensitive, India Navigation, 1979.

Peaceful Heart/Gentle Spirit, Contemporay, 1980.

The Outside Within, India Navigation, 1981.

The Search, India Navigation, 1981.

Destiny's Dance, Contemporary, 1981.

Tradition in Transition, Electra/Musician, 1982.

Tangents, Electra/Musician, 1984.

Live at Ronnie Scotts, Wadham Films, 1986.

The Pied Piper, Blackhawk, 1987.

Tales of Ellington, Blackhawk, 1987.

Luminous, Jazzhouse, 1988.

You'll Know When You Get There, Black Saint, 1990.

The Unspoken Work, Jazzhouse, 1994.

Focus, Contemporary/Fantasy, 1995.

Still Sensitive, India Navigation, 1995.

The Emissary, Clarity, 1996.

Von and Chico Freeman Live at the Blue Note with Special Guest Dianne Reeves, Half Note, 1999.

With The Leaders

Mudfoot, Black Saint, 1986.

For the Record …

Born Earl Lavon Freeman, Jr., on July 17, 1949, in Chicago, IL. Education: Northwestern University, graduated 1972, with proficiencies in piano, trumpet, and saxophone; Governor's State University, master's degree in composition and theory.

Toured Brazil with winning Jazz Band from Intercollegiate Jazz Festival, 1976; released debut album, Morning Prayer, 1976; moved to New York City, 1977; organized The Leaders, mid-1980s; organized Brainstorm, 1989; artist-in-residence at Engine 27, 2002; released Oh, By the Way with Guataca, 2002.

Awards: Intercollegiate Band Festival, Best Soloist and Best Saxophonist awards, 1976; New York Jazz Award, 1979; Stereo Review, Record of the Year for The Outside Within, 1981.

Addresses: Record company—Double Moon Records, Crazy Jazz, 1 Hearn Rd., Romford, Essex RM1 2DP, England. Website—Chico Freeman Official Website:

Out Here Like This, Black Saint, 1986.

Unforeseen Blessing, Black Saint, 1989.

Slipping and Sliding, Sound Hills, 1994.

With Brainstorm

Mystical Dreamer, In & Out, 1989.

Sweet Explosion, In & Out, 1990.

Threshold, In & Out, 1993.

With Roots

Roots Salutes the Saxophone, In & Out, 1992.

Stablemates, In & Out, 1993.

Saying Something, In & Out, 1995.

With Guataca

Oh, By the Way, Double Moon, 2002.



Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 29, 1998, p. P3.


"Chico Freeman," Grove Dictionary of Music, (April 20, 2004).

"Chico Freeman," MSN Entertainment, (March 18, 2004).

"Chico Freeman," National Public Radio, (April 21, 2004).

"Chico Freeman," Northwestern University, (March 18, 2004).

Chico Freeman Official Website, (March 18, 2004).

—Sarah Parkin