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NEA Jazz Master Von Freeman Dies at 88

Heart failure takes the Chicago saxophone great

Von Freeman
Von Freeman

Von Freeman, the saxophone legend intrinsically tied to the city of Chicago, died Aug. 13 of heart failure in his beloved hometown, according to published obituaries in Chicago. He was 88.

Freeman, the father of fellow tenorist Chico Freeman, was named an NEA Jazz Master this year.

Although he was known worldwide, Freeman largely remained in the Chicago area throughout most of his career, regularly turning down offers to join with better known musicians who might have boosted his public profile. His music was similarly uncompromising, flirting with free jazz and other elements of the avant-garde but owing much to bop convention. His bio for the Jazz Masters website quotes a Chicago Tribune tribute: “For technical brilliance, musical intellect, harmonic sophistication, and improvisatory freedom, Von Freeman has few bebop-era peers.”

Born Earle Lavon Freeman Sr. in Chicago on Oct. 3, 1923, Von Freeman began playing saxophone as a child, encouraged by family friend Louis Armstrong. His professional career began at age 16 but was interrupted by a stint in the Navy, during which he played with the Navy band. Upon returning to Chicago he continued with a band including his brothers George and Bruz, backing the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Von Freeman played with Sun Ra in the early 1950s and recorded for the first time in 1954-he also played with Andrew Hill and Jimmy Witherspoon during those years-although he did not record as a leader until 1972. That album, Doin’ It Right Now, was released by Atlantic Records and included Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who also produced it, among its personnel.

He continued to record regularly throughout the ’70s and beyond, his most recent release being 2009’s Vonski Speaks, playing off of his popular nickname. Because he chose to rarely leave Chicago, most jazz fans outside of that region never got a chance to watch him perform, but he was revered locally and made enough of an impact internationally to build his reputation as an individualist. According to the >i>Tribune obituary, Freeman kept up a local weekly gig at a bar called the New Apartment Lounge, but was also the subject of tributes at Symphony Center and Grant Park. Freeman treasured his lack of commercial success because it allowed him the freedom to take his music where he wanted without outside pressure. “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,” he told that newspaper in 1992.

Originally Published