VON FREEMAN 1923-2012

Von Freeman, Chicago jazz legend, dead at 88

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Von Freeman

Von Freeman (August 13, 2012)

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 Great Lakes Naval Station near 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 backyard.

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