There are unsung heroes among us. In football, Emmitt got a lead-in from every major pre-game show, but it is a little known Priest Holmes (KC) and a practically unknown Deuce McAllister that are putting Marshall, Ricky, and Emmitt to shame. While Derek Jeter, Barry, and A Rod garnered much of the headlines, a little known shortstop (David Eckstein) from a small market team (Angels), in a practically unknown town (Anaheim), was one of the major league leaders in on base percentage. And until the aftermath of 9-11, giving a hand to firefighters and law enforcement was an afterthought. There are heroes among us and jazz is no exception. For years, Von Freeman was recognized primarily for being the father of Chico Freeman (or brother of George Freeman). Of Chicago tenors, the elder Freeman polls behind Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, and Fred Anderson. The Improvisor, the tenor's latest from Premonition, is one of the finest tenor albums I've heard in years (and any Roadshow passenger knows I like some heavy tenors). I spoke with Freeman from his home about his legacy, his new record, and his recent resurgence, as always, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Von Freeman: Oh, I was very young. I'm back from the victrola. You might be too young to remember that, Fred, the victrola. But a lot of homes had that where you played these old-fashioned, round records, the really kind of heavy ones and my father had a whole bunch of them. I used to be the winder. You see, Fred, you had to wind them up for each record and I remember that. I must have been about three years old and I'd climb up on the stool and get up there and wind it up. I listened to all these records and that is when I first became very interested in playing music. I listened to this music and I found out it was the saxophone and I asked my father because he had no idea that one day I'd be playing the saxophone. That's when I really started. It was just before I came out of grade school, like sixth grade. I really started playing on back porches and beating on garbage cans and that type of thing and just making sounds. But the neighborhood I was in, there was a bunch of those kinds of bands. We were always being run off somebody's back porch. My father had a lot of Louis Armstrong. He had quite a few Louis Armstrong records. Louis had just started recording when I was very young and he played them all the time. He had three or four people that he played all the time and I would be doing the spinning and that caught my attention. Of course, it could have been my father was so crazy about jazz music. Actually, he liked all type of music. Literally, I took the needle on the victrola, it is shaped almost just like a saxophone. It really is. Of course, my father loved this piece of furniture. It really was at that time. When he went to work, I would take the head off and make a mouthpiece out of tissue paper and I was running around the house playing that thing and when he did come home one day and catch me with that thing, I thought he was going to go off because my mother had warned me that he might throw me out the window or something if he discovered this thing (laughing). It was very disruptive. That is how it really started out and that is a true story. I actually put some holes in the head of this victrola that held the needle and was running around the house blowing on it. My father said that we better get him a horn.
AAJ: You are self-taught.
VF: You know, Fred, it was really a mistake that I started that way, but a lot of kids over in the ghetto started like that. You know, I started out without any lessons of any kind. I remember once, a fella gave me a piece of paper that had the fingerings to the saxophone to it and that is how I actually figured out the fingering. But I more or less started that way. I was just one of the many kids in the neighborhood that did that on different instruments. We all had something we were beating on without instructions, which of course is not that good to do. That's the way most of the kids in the neighborhood that I was running with, we all were heavily into music and most of us made instruments. It is very interesting how they made bass. They used to take a tub and a 2 X 4 and string and everybody knew how to make that one.
AAJ: Was a Chicago sound evident?
VF: Yeah, I guess if there is one, on the saxophone especially, it is a collaboration of Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins I would say. Those two were very popular in Chicago. I remember as a young kid, I used to go see Lester Young with Count Basie and Hawk would come through town and play with different trios with different clubs. In fact, he was a very good friend of my father's. I actually first met him. One day, my father told me about Hawkins working somewhere. It was near the house, actually, about two or three blocks from where we lived. My father was on duty and he used to go over. You see, Fred, he was a Chicago policeman. Sometimes he would make extra money by being a bouncer at a nigh club. That was very popular in that era. I had actually met Coleman Hawkins when I was very, very young. Of course, later on, I got to know him and even played with him a couple times.