Aunique stylist and a hidden presence behind many of the greatest names in contemporary jazz, tenor saxophonist Von Freeman has spent his entire life in Chicago, living on the city's South Side not far from where he grew up. He might have gained more acclaim had he traveled earlier to the jazz center of New York, but in Chicago he found something equally important: he became the linchpin of a vital jazz community. At an age when most musicians are settling into retirement, he has enjoyed a late-life career renaissance, and has shared the spotlight with his more famous son, saxophonist Chico Freeman.
Earl Lavon Freeman was born in a South Side Chicago hospital on October 3, 1922. His mother and grandfather both played the guitar, and his father was a policeman who moonlighted as a nightclub bouncer and befriended jazz pianists Thomas "Fats" Waller and Earl Hines. When Freeman was seven years old, he constructed a saxophone of his own by punching holes in the amplification horn of the Victrola record player on which his father enjoyed listening to jazz. He made a mouthpiece out of wood and used toilet paper for the reed. "He picked me up, just kind of shook me, then hardly spoke to me for about a year," Freeman told Down Beat. "Later I overheard him discussing it. 'Kid wants to be a musician, that's a hard life.'"
As a student at DuSable High School, Freeman studied under band director Captain Walter Dyett. Freeman told the San Francisco Chronicle that Dyett had trained "literally hundreds of big names." Some of those, including fellow tenor sax player Gene Ammons, were Freeman's classmates. Freeman topped the whole group, however, and he was already attracting the attention of big-name players by the time he was in his mid-teens. He could replicate the solos of the leading sax players of the day, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, and he also tried to do something more unusual—combine them.
"It's Hawk's power and Prez's light airiness," Freeman told the Chicago Sun-Times as he tried to describe his style. "Charlie Parker had that, so did Trane [John Coltrane]. I tried to get that, too." Freeman signed on with Horace Henderson's Orchestra in 1940, at age 17. His career was interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Navy during World War II, but he performed with the Navy's Hellcats jazz band. After the war Freeman and his two jazz-playing brothers, guitarist George and percussionist Bruz, formed a band and took up residence at Chicago's Pershing Hotel.
Their band, playing in the new bebop style, backed many of the prominent musicians who came through town, including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and the most celebrated of them all, saxophonist Charlie Parker. Freeman, who often went by the nickname of Vonski— originally bestowed on him by his mother—also played with future free jazz pioneer Sun Ra around 1948 or 1949. A move to New York would have been the logical next step, and both of Freeman's brothers eventually left Chicago. But Freeman stayed on. He married and wasn't unduly disappointed when his son Chico at first showed an aptitude for math instead of music.
Freeman headed several small jazz combos in the early 1950s, but for much of the 1950s and 1960s he played whatever music would bring in a paycheck. His saxophone could be heard on many of the Vee Jay label's Chicago rhythm-and-blues hits of the period, and for two decades he played in the house band of a strip club in the Chicago suburb of Calumet City. Characteristically, Freeman saw even that low-quality club as a place where he could hone his skills. "That's how I got so strong, 'cause there wasn't a microphone, and you were playing behind a curtain," Freeman told Down Beat. Freeman also backed Jimmy Reed and some of Chicago's other leading blues musicians in the 1960s.
Around 1969, however, Freeman felt his own artistic gifts languishing. "I had a talk with myself," he recalled to John Corbett of Down Beat, saying, "Now Vonski, either you're going to stand flat-footed and play this horn, or you're not." So Freeman reactivated old contacts and began a steady stream of appearances around Chicago that were still continuing three decades later. He became a mentor, not only to his son but also to countless other young jazz musicians. "Just about anybody in jazz who's come through Chicago has come through Von," his son Chico Freeman told the New York Times.
Freeman belatedly made his solo recording debut with Doin' It Right Now, released on the Atlantic label in 1972 and produced by progressive jazz stalwart Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He recorded several more albums in the 1970s; one of them, 1977's Young and Foolish, was recorded live in the Netherlands. It gave an accurate portrayal of the jam-session-like flavor of Freeman's playing, and for his way of dissecting a tune and building up its individual parts into something more than the sum of the whole.
As Chico Freeman's star rose, father and son recorded two albums together. Fathers and Sons was released in 1982 on the giant CBS label, as part of a series that showcased the music of father-son collaborations. Freeman's influence on his son was indirect but powerful. "He turned my ear toward the outer reaches, but he never formally taught me," Chico Freeman recalled to the New York Times. "He let me go my own way, and if he saw me falling into any kind of trap, then he would intervene.… He didn't want me to sound like him, and he didn't want me to sound like anyone else."
Freeman recorded several more albums for small labels and accompanied a select group of musicians on other recordings. You Talkin' To Me?!, recorded in 2000 with Chicago saxman Frank Catalano, was one of several duo projects that Freeman released; he also recorded another album with son Chico at New York's Blue Note club in 1999. Freeman has remained active as a performer into the 21st century, remaining close to Chicago even as national and international audiences have come to know and appreciate his work. In Chicago he became a fixture at the South Side's New Apartment Lounge, where young players gravitated in order to be in the presence of a master.
By the turn of the century it had become clear that Freeman possessed a jazz style like no other, one that encompassed much of the history of jazz. His playing was rooted in the music's classic traditions, yet it drew on bebop and the increasingly free-spirited innovations that followed. In 2002 Freeman was honored on the occasion of his 80th birthday, when his name was attached to a stretch of Chicago's East 75th Street. His album The Improvisor, released that year, documented several of his live Chicago performances.
For the Record …
Born Earl Lavon Freeman on October 3, 1922, in Chicago, IL; married; son Chico Freeman is a noted jazz musician.
Performed with Horace Henderson Orchestra, 1940-41; U.S. Navy, performed in jazz orchestra, 1941-45; performed in house band at Pershing Hotel, Chicago, 1946-50; varied musical jobs in Chicago, 1950s and 1960s; made solo recording debut with Doin' It Right Now, 1972; recording and performing career as jazz bandleader, 1970s–.
Addresses: Record company— Delmark Records, 4121 N. Rockwell, Chicago, IL 60618, website: http://www.delmark.com.
Freeman made a 2003 appearance at New York's TriBeCa Performing Arts Center, prompting the New York Times to praise the concert's "lovely, smeared, smoky sound, salted with a few passages of hard, fast bebop language." Freeman, whose mother lived to age 103, shrugged off his advancing years. "I don't look at the music as time," he told Down Beat. "I look at it as doing whatever goal you're reaching for."
Doin' It Right Now, Atlantic, 1972.
Have No Fear, Nessa, 1975.
Serenade and Blues, Nessa, 1975.
Dedicated to You, Steeplechase, 1975.
Young and Foolish, Affinity, 1977.
(With Chico Freeman) Freeman & Freeman, India Navigation, 1981.
(With Chico Freeman) Fathers and Sons, 1982.
Walkin' Tuff!, Southport, 1988.
Never Let Me Go, Steeplechase, 1992.
Lester Leaps In, Steeplechase, 1992.
(With Ed Petersen) Von and Ed, Delmark, 1999.
You Talkin' To Me?!, Delmark, 2000.
Live at the Dakota, Premonition, 2001.
The Improvisor, Premonition, 2002.
Feather, Leonard G., Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, Oxford, 1999.
Chicago Sun-Times, October 3, 2002, p. 39.
Down Beat, March 2001, p. 22.
New York Times, April 3, 1981, p. C26; May 22, 2003, p. E4.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 1, 1993, p. 36.
Times (London, England), February 17, 1988.
Variety, May 20, 2003, p. 11.
"Von Freeman," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 4, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
"Freeman, Von." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 26, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/freeman-von
"Freeman, Von." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved April 26, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/freeman-von
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