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Chico Freeman Remembers Von Freeman

Oct. 3, 1923-Aug. 11, 2012

Von Freeman painted by vocalist Solitaire Miles

I first met Von Freeman on July 17, 1949 in Chicago. At first glance I didn’t know who he was, what he had accomplished or, more important, what he would eventually mean to so many people. In the years to come I would listen to him practice for hours upon hours, still not realizing how original his sound was or what great distance his artistry would travel. In fact, it wouldn’t be until August of 2012, listening to the testimonials at his memorial in Chicago, that I’d truly comprehend the scope of his influence on musicians and non-musicians alike.

Von Freeman was the architect of a sound that was at once a painful cry and a joyful shout. His sound reached deep inside one’s soul and attempted to communicate in the deep recesses of one’s spirit. It originated from the well of experiences, suffering and happiness that he lived and witnessed, and was inspired by the emotions and lives of his own heroes’ trials and tribulations. In his sound and phrasing you could hear the complete history of the saxophone in jazz. He took that complete expression to new heights and fashioned it into his own original exclamation.

I remember sitting around in our living room, listening to the rehearsals of the Freeman Brothers band with my father, his brothers George (guitar) and Bruz (drums) and additional members like Andrew Hill, Malachi Favors and Leroy Vinegar, to name just a few. Some of the other peers my father shared the bandstand with during those early years of my youth were Charlie Parker (there is a recording of that live session), Ahmad Jamal, Willie Pickens, Jodie Christian, Wilbur Ware, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, Don Byas, Maurice White and Gene Ammons.

Music began shaping his unique perspective at a very early age. In his home he grew up listening to the great Louis Armstrong play duets with his father, George Freeman Sr., on piano, and his mother play guitar and sing gospel music at home and in church with Clara Ward and Mahalia Jackson.

My father was very concerned with helping others, particularly young players who were looking for an outlet to express their newfound voice on their particular instrument. His jam sessions are legendary in Chicago, and he provided a venue where young musicians like Steve Coleman, Lonnie Plaxico, Mike Allemana and Michael Raynor were able to perfect their art. Those jam sessions featured many veteran players like Clifford Jordan, Muhal Richard Abrams and others who knew how this music was taught before the advent of the so-called “jazz schools.” These sessions were about the apprenticeship approach-the university of the streets, if you will. I learned many things working at those sessions as a bartender-listening, learning and then trying to execute what all of those great musicians were doing.

Von Freeman had a distinctive approach to imparting advice that reflected a great deal of wisdom. An example of how my father used music to solve life’s problems and to demonstrate how music and life reflect each other is inherent in the advice he once gave me when I was having problems with a woman in a romantic relationship. I called him to ask for his advice and began to express all of the frustrations I was feeling in this situation. I was quite distraught, and I’m sure my emotions were not lost on my father. He listened attentively until I finished, and I waited impatiently for his words of advice. To my surprise, he told me to take my horn and proceed to a corner and begin to play long tones. Needless to say, I was somewhat disappointed; I expected to hear advice that I perceived as more relevant to my situation. I expressed this concern.

He simply replied, “You have lost your center. Your sound is who you are; it is what makes you different from me and any other saxophonist. We all have the same 12 notes. The only thing that differentiates us, one from the other, is our tone. If you don’t have a sound you can play a thousand notes and no one will hear you, but if you have a sound you can play only one note and everyone will hear you.”

I followed his advice and I began to play long tones and rediscovered my center. Once that happened, everything else fell into its rightful place, as if I were the sun and all of those issues in my life were the planets in our galaxy, each one its proper distance from the sun. Priorities were re-established and order was restored. My saxophone sound improved, and I became closer to my instrument and to finding my voice. As I said, multiple levels.

For me personally, one of the greatest times in my life was spent on the road with my father when we traveled the globe in our group. The time spent listening to him night after night held more joy and insight than mere words can express. I learned more than just music.

Many things contributed to his unique style. His technique was flawless, his knowledge of harmony was complete, and he was also an accomplished pianist. He was one of two musicians I’ve experienced who seemed to know every song ever written. (Sam Rivers was the other.) He was a true original-dare I say, an innovator. His creativity was on the highest level, but what I think informed his music and his life most was that he was a great father and a wonderful human being.

Originally Published