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.
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 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. (Discrepancies on Freeman's age were widespread until the Tribune located official records in 2011.)
"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, 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 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, 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.