CHICAGO — Revered around the world but never a major star, worshipped by critics and connoisseurs but perpetually strapped for cash, the towering Chicago tenor saxophonist Von Freeman practically went out of his way to avoid commercial success.
When trumpeter Miles Davis phoned Freeman, in the 1950s, looking for a replacement for John Coltrane, Freeman never returned the call.
When various bandleaders — from Davis to Billy Eckstine to King Kolax — tried to take him on the road, where his talents could be heard coast to coast, Freeman regularly turned them down.
His refusal to leave Chicago during most of his career, except for the briefest out-of-town engagements, cost him incalculable fame and fortune but also enabled him to create some of the most distinctive, innovative work ever played or recorded on a tenor saxophone.
And his devotion to the city where he was born, 88 years ago, made him a Chicago jazz icon honored with major tributes in Symphony Center, Millennium and Grant Parks, as well as standing-room-only crowds for his weekly gig at a remote bar on East 75th Street, the New Apartment Lounge. Earlier this year, he became one of the few Chicago-based musicians ever to receive a Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, regarded as the nation’s highest jazz honor.
Freeman died Saturday at Kindred Chicago Lakeshore care center of heart failure, said his son, Mark Freeman.
Von Freeman always considered his relative obscurity — which lasted nearly until the final years of his career, when the world started to recognize his genius — a blessing. It enabled him to forge an extremely unusual but instantly recognizable sound, to pursue off-center musical ideas that were not likely to be welcomed in the commercial marketplace.
“They said I played out of tune, played a lot of wrong notes, a lot of weird ideas,” Freeman told the Chicago Tribune, in 1992.
“But it didn’t matter, because I didn’t have to worry about the money — I wasn’t making (hardly) any. I didn’t have to worry about fame — I didn’t have any.
“I was free.”
Freeman used that freedom from commercial pressures to pursue a music that was as unorthodox as it was intellectually demanding, as idiosyncratic as it was deeply autobiographical. In this sense, he represented the quintessential jazz musician, forging a musical voice that was unique to him, an art that was influential but ultimately inimitable.
“You hear one note, you know that’s his sound,” Fred Anderson, another iconic Chicago tenor saxophonist, once said of his colleague.
“It’s a personal sound. You can tell he listened to all the guys — he listened to Lester Young and Charlie Parker, he took a lot from a whole lot of people and created Von Freeman.”
That sound seduced some listeners and puzzled others, but no one could mistake it for anything but that of the great Vonski, as he was affectionately called by friends and admirers. Sharply acidic in the top register of the instrument but full and throaty down below, whinnying and squealing in some passages, whispering tenderly in others, Freeman’s tenor work utterly defied categorization. Every sweet-sour note, every intricately etched phrase, it seemed, was crafted to sound as unexpected and as intensely expressive as possible.
If Freeman’s widely idolized contemporaries — tenor gods such as the mighty Sonny Rollins, the charismatic James Moody and the stylistically restless Coltrane — epitomized the classic image of the modern saxophonist, Freeman stood as the perennial outsider, working on the fringes of the jazz mainstream. He consistently staked out an exotic but alluring artistic territory, merging elements of down-home blues, R&B honking, brazenly avant-garde techniques and an utter mastery of the predominant jazz language of the 20th century, bebop.
He came to this startling breadth of musical resources through remarkable good fortune, for his father was a Chicago cop detailed at the Grand Terrace Ballroom, a fabled jazz club near 35th and Calumet. An amateur jazz trombonist, Freeman’s father admired the masters and invited them over to the house, where young Earle Lavon Freeman — who was born Oct. 3, 1923, according to his birth certificate — routinely brushed up against them.
“I got all this music by osmosis,” said Freeman in the Tribune interview.
“Louis Armstrong used to come by from the time I was about 3 years old, and he’d always say to me, ‘Hi Pops,’” recalled Freeman, pointing to the era when Satchmo was enjoying his first blush of success as a Chicago bandleader and emerging recording artist.
“Earl Hines came over,” continued Freeman, “and Fats Waller played this (Starck) piano of mine.”
In effect, Freeman was a living, breathing link to the first generation of jazz stars that emerged in Roaring ‘20s Chicago. With his father constantly playing jazz records at home and his mother entertaining him and his two brothers by playing guitar and singing, Freeman early on realized music was his calling.
So he pulled the arm off of his dad’s Victrola, bore holes into it and began blowing, producing a ghastly sound, he said.
His father immediately bought him a C-melody saxophone, which Von quickly taught himself to play.
“Von was always a natural,” Freeman’s younger brother, guitarist George Freeman, once told the Tribune.
“He always was able to catch on and hear things, he could pick up piano or horn or anything so fast, it was amazing.”
By age 12, Freeman was playing professionally. On the first night of his nightclub debut, he brought a note from his mother. It read: “Don’t let him drink, don’t let him smoke, don’t let him consort with those women, and make him stay in that dressing room.”
The club owner, remembered Freeman, told him to put on something to make himself look older, so he drew a mustache above his lip.
Thus initiated into the jazz life, Freeman soon was working seven nights a week and inevitably gravitated to DuSable High School, at 49th Street and Wabash Avenue, where the feared-but-venerated instructor Capt. Walter Dyett was training a new wave of jazz talent. Nat “King” Cole, Dinah Washington, Johnny Hartman, Johnny Griffin, Eddie Harris and other future legends passed through Dyett’s bands, as did two of Chicago’s most incendiary saxophonists: Freeman and Gene “Jug” Ammons.
The duo quickly became the most talked-about tenors at DuSable, no small feat, but when Kolax invited them to join him on the road, only Ammons said yes, quickly becoming one of the most famous tenor saxophonists in jazz.
Freeman declined, signing up instead for Horace Henderson’s local band in 1940, before being drafted into the Navy.
What might have seemed like a badly missed opportunity to most, however, was a godsend to Freeman. For starters, he began playing alongside Clark Terry and other major black musicians who broke the color barrier in the Navy, at the Great Lakes Naval Station, in Waukegan. Equally important, it was in the Navy band that Freeman met Dave Young, a long-forgotten saxophonist who altered the course of Freeman’s art.
“He had this sound that I had been looking for all my life,” said Freeman.
“Because I loved Prez (Lester Young), but he didn’t have that power. He had a relatively soft tone, though beautiful. And Coleman Hawkins had all this power, man, he could blow, you could hear him around the block, but he didn’t have this floating thing of Prez’s.
“But when I heard Dave Young, he had the power and floating sound, like Lester, and that’s what I wanted to try to get.”
He must have succeeded, for after he left the Navy, Freeman ascended as one of the busiest horn men on Chicago’s South Side, staffing the house band at the Pershing Hotel with his brothers, guitarist George and drummer Eldridge “Bruz” Freeman. In that setting, the saxophonist played with no less than Parker, Young, trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie, pianists Ahmad Jamal and Andrew Hill — the leading jazz innovators of the era.
Moreover, in the late ‘40s, Freeman collaborated with the Chicago jazz radical Sun Ra, who was on the verge of creating his genre-defying, multimedia Arkestra.
“(Sun Ra) said, ‘You’re as far out as I am,’” Freeman once remembered, on the stage of Steppenwolf Theatre, where he was interviewed by another legendary Chicago figure, Studs Terkel.
“Well, I considered myself strange, but not out.”
Yet by all contemporary accounts, Freeman already was concocting a stylistically far-flung idiom inspired by the remarkably wide variety of gigs he was taking. Playing behind a velvet curtain in Calumet City strip clubs and alongside blues stars such as Jimmy Reed, Gene Chandler and Otis Rush in South and West Side dives, Freeman became a tenor man for every occasion.
His reputation among musicians soared, with singer Eckstine — one of the biggest pop stars of the ‘40s — urging Freeman to come tour with him. The saxophonist declined.
By the ‘50s, trumpeter Davis was looking for someone to take Coltrane’s tenor chair, and Freeman again took a pass.
“Actually, my mother got the phone call, because I was in New York playing (a one-nighter) with a blues band,” recalled Freeman.
“And she said, ‘Well, he has four kids, and he’s got a wife,’ so Miles said he understood.
“That probably would have been my big break, but I missed it,” said Freeman, who added that he never bothered calling Davis back.
It’s not hard to guess why so many major names were trying to enlist Freeman. According to observers who heard him at the time, he was a fluid improviser, a brilliant technician and, as always, a singular voice.
What’s more, he played with a focused intensity that often caught listeners — even the cognoscenti — off guard.
“He played so hard, I saw him bite the neck off his horn once,” said veteran Chicago impresario Joe Segal, who presented Freeman in the ‘50s.
“He was biting down so hard, that the mouthpiece just plain broke off.”
Said Anderson, “Back then he sounded pretty much like we’ve heard him more recently, only not as polished.”
Like many comparably gifted musicians — such as the New Orleans pianist Ellis Marsalis, the Los Angeles pianist Horace Tapscott and Chicago pianist Willie Pickens — Freeman never felt the need to be validated by extensive travel or by moving to New York, in an era when major careers were made on the East Coast. He preferred, instead, to hone his art almost exclusively in town, on his own terms.
Or, as he put it, “I just think you try to get famous within yourself.”
Moreover, he always believed that Chicago mattered most.
“It’s funny, (but) almost every great saxophone player — Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Johnny Griffin, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis — oh, I can name 20 of them, and they all made their name here,” Freeman said in 2002.
“Not New York, not New Orleans, not California, they got their names here.”
Certainly Freeman never lacked for artistic inspiration in his own back yard.
When the Chicago pianist-bandleader Muhal Richard Abrams was helping to establish the ground-breaking music collective known as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), in the early 1960s, Freeman plunged into that experimental scene, as well. His already unconventional approach to his instrument neatly dovetailed with the AACM penchant for the shocking, the new, the dissonant, the hitherto unheard.
It wasn’t until 1972, at the age of 49, however, that Freeman cut his first record as bandleader, “Doin’ It Right Now” (Atlantic), an LP produced by a more famous musician: saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Like Freeman’s other releases of the ‘70s and ‘80s — “Have No Fear” and “Serenade and Blues,” both recorded by local producer Chuck Nessa — “Doin’ It Right Now” captured the piquant quality of Freeman’s tone and the majesty of his soliloquies while making hardly a dent on the broader public consciousness.
His only taste of major-label exposure came in 1982, when Columbia Records released “Fathers and Sons,” featuring Ellis Marsalis with sons Wynton and Branford on Side A, Von and son Chico Freeman (a noted saxophonist based in New York) on Side B.
That recording likely introduced more listeners to Freeman’s work than all his live performances and scant recordings combined, yet the lone Columbia release could not lift him from the marginalia of jazz — not without the touring and promotional support that make international careers.
Yet Freeman at this point seemed to undergo a change in perspective, stripping from his schedule all the blues and R&B gigs and focusing purely on jazz. Just a couple of years earlier, he had launched his weekly sessions at the New Apartment Lounge, where young musicians from across the city and, eventually, across the country and around the world, queued up for a chance to sit in with him (those sessions ended in recent years).
“I think he decided he was just not going to play every type of music there is anymore,” said Mike Friedman, owner of Chicago-based Premonition Records, which released several Freeman CDs since 2001.
“I think he decided he was just going to struggle with the music, work through his ideas in jazz, no compromises, no distractions.”
From this point — the early 1980s — the cult of Freeman began to develop. Jazz devotees from New York to Paris traveled to the New Apartment to hear a vastly under-recorded jazz giant. New generations of jazz players — such as alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman and pianist Jason Moran — all made pilgrimages to hear Freeman play, all studied his work and incorporated aspects of it into their own.
“You wouldn’t believe how many waves of great musicians have come to the New Apartment to get that knowledge,” said trumpeter Maurice Brown, who as a teenager in Chicago played many Vonski sessions at the New Apartment and has since moved to New York.
When Freeman belatedly made his Manhattan debut as jazz headliner, in 1981, John S. Wilson raved in the New York Times that “Mr. Freeman gave some evidence of his roots in rhythm and blues both in his playing and in his jaunty attitude on stage” and that he “played ballads with the big-toned swagger of the descendants of Coleman Hawkins but he colored them with some of the musical vocabulary of contemporary saxophonists.”
Yet even such fine subsequent recordings as “Walkin’ Tuff” (1989, on Chicago-based Southport Records) and a series of releases on Steeplechase didn’t bring Freeman the wider recognition he deserved.
That happened quite belatedly, with a 75th birthday celebration in Grant Park during the Chicago Jazz Festival (1997, though Freeman was actually 73 at the time); a DownBeat cover story, his first on a major jazz magazine (2001); an 80th birthday celebration in Symphony Center, in which he told the audience “I feel like a king” (2002, though Freeman was 79); and two stunning recordings — the best of his career — on Premonition (“The Improviser,” of 2002, and “The Great Divide,” of 2004).
Though the gathering acclaim didn’t make Freeman a household name, except in some very sophisticated households, it brought him a measure of recognition he never sought and certainly never expected.
He had only one regret about his late-in-life accolades, he told NPR in 2004.
“I’m sorry that my mother didn’t live to see it,” he said. His mother died in 1998, at age 101.
“That makes me almost want to cry,” Freeman continued, because “she never really wanted us to play music, but after we behaved ourselves to a certain extent, she was proud of us.
“And she stuck it out with us, and she never saw any of us really make it, you know.
“And now ... I don’t think I’ve made it, but, I mean, at least I’m being sought after for this 15 minutes.”
Freeman is survived by his brother, George Freeman; his sons, Mark and Chico Freeman; and several grandchildren and great grandchildren, said his son Mark. He was preceded in death by his brother, Eldridge “Bruz” Freeman; and two daughters, Denise Jarrett and Brenda Jackson, said Mark Freeman.
A memorial service is being planned.