January/February 2001

Von Freeman

Since the 1960s I’ve been hearing stories about what a great tenor sax player Von Freeman is; how he influenced guys like Johnny Griffin, John Gilmore and Clifford Jordan; how his stature equaled that of Gene Ammons. But there weren’t any records around containing Freeman’s playing during the 1940s and 1950s—or so I thought. He didn’t cut an album under his own name until 1972, when he was 50—Doin’ It Right Now (Atlantic, recently reissued by Koch). It’s an impressive one, admittedly, and demonstrates that he was an advanced thinker, especially for his age, and that he might’ve been among the most innovative bop and postbop tenormen. But it was also possible that he’d picked up ideas popularized by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane rather than anticipating them or being a parallel figure. Was there any proof, either way?

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Jack Vartoogian

Von Freeman

Fortunately a Von Freeman discography had been put on the Internet, http://members.tripod.com/go54321/vf/vonfreeman.html, by a fan of his, Ken Waxman. It listed a 1956 Andrew Hill single containing “After Dark” and “Down Patrick,” on which Freeman appears on tenor, Pat Patrick on baritone, Malachi Favors on bass and Wilbur Campbell on drums. Hill plays organ on “After Dark,” piano on “Down Patrick.”

After searching all over the place I found that producer Chuck Nessa, who’d recorded Freeman, had a copy of the material, which he kindly put on cassette for me. Von doesn’t have a lot of solo room on the two titles, but it’s enough to convince me that he was one of the most original and creative tenormen of the 1950s and, in light of other work I’ve heard by him, a great tenor player by any standards.

A Chicago jazzman to the bone, Freeman was born there in 1922, one of three brothers, including guitarist George and drummer Bruz, all laudable jazzmen. Von’s always found work in the Windy City plentiful, and has been satisfied with living conditions there. In addition, Von’s always had a strong family attachment there; his mother passed away recently at the age of 100. “Chicago is a hard city to leave,” admits Freeman. “I found more great musicians around here. They lived and died here and no one ever heard of them on the outside. And there were more here than anywhere.” Freeman is a modest guy, and as long as he was earning a decent living gigging around town, often playing in his neighborhood, he saw no reason to go out of his way to record: “I still feel that if you have nothing special to say, what’s the point of recording?”

Even as a teenager, Freeman ran with fast musical company. He went to DuSable High School with Ammons and early bop trombonist Bennie Green, and studied under Captain Walter Dyett, who tutored so many outstanding jazz artists. When I asked Freeman about his influence on younger Chicago tenormen, such as Griffin, Gilmore and Jordan, he mentioned that their similarity probably had to do with all studying under Dyett. “Captain Dyett was one of a kind. He was everyone’s surrogate father. His heart and soul was in his students. He didn’t get any credit for it, really, and didn’t look for any. He taught me discipline. It’s easy to be depressed if things don’t go your way, and sometimes in jazz, which is a tough business, they don’t. When that happens, you have to stay disciplined.”

As a teen Freeman was already playing with Horace Henderson’s band, Fletcher’s brother and a gifted pianist and writer himself, in 1940 and 1941, but spent 1941 through 1945 in the Navy. After returning to Chicago, he often led the house band at the Pershing Hotel, accompanying visiting stars like Charlie Parker and Lester Young.

Von Freeman’s earliest recorded jazz appearance may be the 1956 Hill date. At this time Hill was a sideman in Freeman’s band—and his piano predecessors were Ahmad Jamal and Chris Anderson. “After Dark,” a blues, was composed by Freeman and was his theme song. “Down Patrick” was Patrick’s piece. On “After Dark” Freeman only plays a chorus, but it’s a superb one, packed with ideas, which he opens with a muezzinlike cry that’s reminiscent of Coltrane’s work. But this was too early for Coltrane to have been influencing anyone outside his hometown, Philadelphia; the similarity is coincidental. Freeman also displays a sophisticated sense of rhythmic displacement during his “After Dark” solo, and a pleasingly full, broad tone, derived from Coleman Hawkins through a Chicago tenor man, Dave Young. About his influences Von says, “From Hawk I got power and tone; from Prez I got lyricism and I got Bird’s brain. Everybody else played at bebop; Bird was bebop.” Continuing about Young and his horizontally oriented concept, Freeman went on: “I purposely play like Prez [as an antidote] when I get too hung up on chords.”

On both “After Dark” and “Down Patrick” Freeman’s playing is relatively angular and staccato. He says he dug the staccato work of altoist Tab Smith, but before that he’d played trumpet, which got him thinking about staccato articulation: “Even when I play piano I try to get a staccato sound.”

The Hill selections prove that Freeman was an outstanding, original and forward-looking postbop tenorman who, by the mid-1950s, if not earlier, was evolving along his own lines and employing ideas that were similar to those used by Coltrane and Rollins—and doing it independently of them.

During the 1950s and ’60s Freeman worked in R&B and pop as well as jazz contexts, but there’s not enough of his jazz work around to draw conclusions about his evolution. But Freeman’s playing on brother George’s 1969 Delmark album, Birth Sign, and on “Billie’s Bounce,” from Charlie Parker Memorial Concert (Chess), a two-LP set, deserves much praise and is consistent with his 1956 work with some evolution. On “Hoss,” which is based on the chord changes of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” Von gets some room to stretch out, and builds powerfully; he displays tough lyricism on “My Ship” and “My Scenery.” Von’s 1969 and 1970 playing is thorny and more angular than ever. His style was still evolving, and would continue to do so.

Von finally got a chance to cut his own album, Doin’ It Right Now, due to the efforts of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. “Rahsaan Roland Kirk had met me when he was a kid. He said I influenced him and he hung around Chicago and said, ‘You got all these guys here playing like you.’ He said to me, ‘If I ever make it I’m going to record you.’ And he came through. Later he heard me and asked what bass and drum players I wanted and I mentioned Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb. He went straight to the phone and called.” Jones and Cobb appear on the recording, along with his old associate John Young, who, on air shots with Andy Kirk, was among the first pianists to exhibit bop characteristics.

Freeman pours ideas out of his horn on Doin’ It Right Now. He swings powerfully and exhibits excellent chops, playing many-note runs that are his own version of “sheets of sound.” His explosive bursts of notes indicate that he may have been a strong influence on Griffin. His work on “Lost in a Fog,” which Hawkins had cut in 1934, is excellent; his huge tone, complex arpeggios and overall robustness recall the work of the older tenorman. On “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” he performs with tenderness and sensitivity. Those who haven’t heard Freeman’s playing should listen to this CD first, because it demonstrates the full range of his abilities and is accessible to fans who have difficulty with experimental music.

Beginning with his 1975 quartet albums on Nessa, Serenade and Blues and Have No Fear, Freeman, with Young, Campbell and bassist Dave Shipp, poses challenges for listeners. His solos on them are based on chord progressions—they can be broken down into choruses and the choruses into component sections—but his choice of notes is very unconventional. He deliberately does not hit some pitches squarely, playing what could be called microtones, and sometimes plays a half tone away from the pitch implied by the chord. This causes some fans of traditional bop and postbop music problems. “It’s just my personality to do that,” explains Freeman. “A concert saxophone player might say it’s out of tune, but an improviser would realize what I played was deliberate.”

Rhythmically, too, Von plays unpredictably. He gets into a swinging groove sometimes, but on other occasions does not emphasize swinging, floating over the beat or rushing ahead of it with a flurry of unsyncopated notes. He also employs effectively contrasts in volume, tone color and register, using extremely high and low notes. Despite playing so much pop and R&B, Von certainly wasn’t a stranger to outside music. He’d played with Sun Ra in the 1940s and 50s and spoke admiringly of him, saying, “He was always trying to improve his band. I learned a lot from him. But then I learned a lot from everyone I came up with.”

Since 1978 record producers have thought it was a great idea to hook up Freeman with other tenormen in a sort of battle of the tenors context. He’s recorded with Willis Jackson (32 Jazz), Clifford Jordan (Beehive), Teddy Edwards and Buck Hill (Timeless), Yusef Lateef (YAL), Ed Peterson (Delmark) and his son Chico (India Navigation, Black Saint, Half Note, Columbia). What these producers don’t realize is that Freeman’s far more modern than guys from his generation or even younger, so that putting him in the same band with a guy like Jackson, who often plays R&B, doesn’t make a lot of sense. More interesting are his collaborations with Chicago altoman Steve Coleman on DIW and Novus.

Freeman’s appeared more on Southport than any other label, and in more varied settings: he’s collaborated with the fine vocalists Joanie Pallato, April Aloisio and Martha Lorin; worked on a couple of CDs with George, playing piano on Rebellion; and made an excellent quartet disc, Walkin’ Tough. Freeman’s inspired a number of Chicago free players, and can be heard playing free himself on Fire, with Southport founder, producer, pianist Bradley Parker-Sparrow. “I had always [played free], even before I met Sun Ra,” reveals Freeman. He says he did free improvisation in Chicago clubs as a young guy playing unaccompanied.

In 1992 and 1993 Von played on four SteepleChase CDs with pianist Jodie Christian, bassist Eddie DeHaas and Campbell. He’s a leader on three and a sideman with trumpeter/flugelhornist Louis Smith on another. Despite being standards-based, these are very substantive sessions. SteepleChase also plans to issue a series of live early-to-mid 1990s Freeman performances recorded by the gifted trumpeter Brad Goode, who played for years with him. The performances are scintillating, in the top echelon of Freeman’s recorded material. Out now is a very good Delmark CD, You Talkin’ to Me?!, with another two-tenor frontline, Von and Frank Catalano. Cut recently, it demonstrates that Freeman, in his late 70s, has lost nothing that he had when he was 35—and has added plenty.

People that heard Von in the ’40s and ’50s talk about him in terms of guys like Sonny Stitt and Dexter Gordon. He was in their class and stylistically somewhat similar at that time. Stitt, who’s not generous with his praise, said, “[Freeman’s] music is warm, soulful, his technique is superb... Give a listen to this great saxophonist.” Freeman, however, kept evolving for far longer than Stitt and Gordon and currently is a far more modern stylist, whose playing since 1975 is generally better understood and appreciated by today’s young avant-garde stylists than most people in their 60s and 70s.

Freeman still plays gigs around Chicago and leads jam sessions, where he’s a strong influence. An exceptional artist, he belongs in jazz’s pantheon.

Listening Pleasures

“Anything by the great pianists, like Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner and Mulgrew Miller, and anything by the great saxophonists and trumpeters.”

Gearbox

Selmer Super Action 80 tenor sax. Reeds: Rico #3 or a Van Doren #3. Mouthpiece: Link 11 Star.

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