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.
AAJ: Rather than leave for New York, you remained in Chicago.
VF: It was just happenstance really. But you know, speaking of that, there is a bunch of musicians around here that probably would be better known and might have become stars had they gone on to New York. New York had a lot of the record companies, most of the record companies, especially main record companies and they would push their clients and that made all the difference in the world. So a lot of guys went on to New York and made big names and perhaps I could have done that also, but it was just happenstance that I stayed around Chicago.
VF: No, not really. I've become very popular in the last couple of years (laughing). I guess it all evens out, if you look at it that way. Now that I am eighty, I can look back and I've been through many trials and tribulations that the average musicians go through. For instance, both Fred Anderson and I, I think what caused us to survive was both of us have been what they call outside players. Fred is much more than myself. I just think everything sort of evens itself out. Like I said, if you happen to stay around long enough. Of course, even if you don't, the people that like you will come. I think for years and years and years, a lot of New York stars were pushed more harder than Chicago people. And then a lot of people from here went to New York. So we lost a lot of people. New York is still the leading capital of jazz music.
AAJ: The Apartment Lounge, where a portion of the new record was recorded live, has been a regular night.
VF: Well, this time, I've been at The Apartment three or four times, but this time, in 1982, I started there. I was just going in there because the lady who booked me, she was booking The Apartment at the time, different little combos, duets and things. She asked me if I would come because one of her stars couldn't make it and I went in and I went in on a Tuesday and I played on Tuesday and she said if I could come back next week and I went back and it has been about twenty-one years.
AAJ: The Improvisor, befitting title.
VF: Well, it is so kind of you to say. I've done it all my life really.
AAJ: Jason Moran plays piano on a couple of tunes and a guitarist is featured on another handful.
VF: Actually, I went into The Apartment about twenty-one years ago with a piano group, piano, bass and drums. I had piano for maybe fifteen years and I lost a lot of piano players. I lost about seven during that tenure and I said that maybe I should try going in a different direction because I never could get a real piano, not that an electric piano is not real, but I'm speaking of an acoustic piano. I always did miss that and finally, I said that maybe I will just go with an electric guitar because it was so hard to find somebody for the kind of money I was playing to bring their own piano. The guitar is a little easier to carry than an electric piano and it sounded OK to me and so that is the way I ended up. I finally found a good one in Michael Allemana and a very good bassist named Jack Zara and a very good drummer named Michael Raynor (all on the album). They have all been with me for quite a while now.
AAJ: You play solo on the opening "If I Should Lose You."
VF: Well, playing solo, I will tell you, Fred, because on this latest recording, I did this tune and most of the things to me happen very, very weirdly. Most of the time when I play solo and I've done that on a few of my recordings, it is done accidently. I remember one record I did that and the pianist didn't come back in time. He went somewhere, I guess out to eat or something and I started playing and it was recorded (laughing). On this last recording, the way that happened was Jason Moran and I were playing a duet. I didn't even know that we were going to do this because I never play duets. I featured him and I went to the mike and said that it is time to introduce this wonderful pianist from New York and I said that I am going to take the walk and Jason played and the moment he got done playing, he said that he was going to feature this wonderful saxophonist and he was going to take a walk and he was gone and left me standing out on the stage, me and this saxophone. He was walking off the stage (laughing) and I just told the crowd that I would do the best that I could do and that's when I played this tune that happens to be on this recording. It was just happenstance and I was so fortunate that it turned out OK because you play by yourself, you are really taking a big risk because you may lose track of the melody and there is really no time, so you may start faltering with the time and you may forget some of the chords. You have to have it all yourself.
AAJ: Turned out to be the best tune on the album.
VF: Well, I was very fortunate. Thank you very much.
AAJ: Rahsaan Roland Kirk produced your first album.
VF: Rahsaan Roland Kirk, oh, that was sort of interesting because I was traveling. I have done a little traveling, but it was always mostly overnight or on the weekends and then I would be right back home. I happen to go to Toledo if I remember it and I know it was somewhere in Ohio, where he is from I think. His dad or somebody, uncle or some grown up brought him to see me and he was a little guy. He must have been eleven or twelve, but he was already great because somebody had taken me around to see him (laughing) that I had to see this little genius and he was with some band that was jamming and he was playing two or three horns at once and doing circular breathing and all that stuff at his age and he really had it together. Later on, he looked me up. He heard I had been by to see him and he said that his uncle brought him by and he listened to me and where was I from. I told him Chicago and he asked me my name and he said that he had been taken to see most of the great horn players, but he had never heard of me and he made the staunchest statement that one day he was going to be famous and he was going to look me up and see that I got recorded. Well, he was rather precocious of course, but I said, "Oh, sure," and everybody in the band laughed a little bit. But you know, that guy, years later, looked me up right here in Chicago and actually asked me if I remembered him. He was a big star at that time and he had this big hit record, Three for the Festival, where he is on there playing three instruments, four, five instruments at once and he was like a whole band up there. He said he wanted to take me on to New York because he was leaving and do you know that he asked me who I wanted and I told him a couple of guys and he said that he had to have two from New York and so I told him and I had a pianist, John Young. We worked on and off for fifty years or so. We went off to New York because he called me the next morning and he fulfilled what he said and I went to New York and that is where I made this recording. Of course, it didn't do anything, but they tell me now that it is doing very well.
AAJ: KOCH reissued Doin' It Right Now.
VF: Yeah, that's right.
AAJ: You did a live record with your son, Chico at the Blue Note in New York (Half Note Records).
VF: Yeah, it is always a pleasure and thrill to work with my son. We made one or two other things for different labels. He was a very smart kid and he had moved onto college as a mathematician. He won a scholarship for it to Northwestern, here in Chicago, which is a big time school. I thought surely, although he was playing trumpet, I didn't think he was really serious. I thought maybe he would put it down. I used to play trumpet for years and he went down in the basement and found one of my old trumpets. The thing was all beat up and battered, but he actually got it in the band there at school and changed his curriculum around. It was mathematics and now he was playing the trumpet, but I had another surprise coming because after he had been in the band for about two months, which I was very surprised that he made that band. He was fourth trumpet, but still he made the band. The next thing I know, he came home with a big case and I asked him that that wasn't a saxophone and he said, "Oh, yeah, daddy. I think this is where I really belong." I just looked at him and the next thing I know, the band went to Brazil and they won honors and he won honors as the best soloist. He went onto New York and that is where he has been ever since. That was 1971. I just kind of tipped my hat to him and said, "Go ahead Chico."
AAJ: Do you get many age references being equated with your playing?
VF: Oh, sure, I run into it all the time. The only thing is, I have been really blessed and really, just really, really lucky that my health is as well as it is. A lot of young guys are stunned I blow like this and I say, "I think I blow harder." It also has to do with I think I play more instead of just blowing now, along with the knowledge of how to conserve your energy. It is much easier to play now than at one time. For one thing, I didn't know much about mouthpieces or reeds or horns or anything and as you get older, Fred, you learn a lot of things that makes the playing much, much easier. So I can blow pretty strong and long and loud and I can still dance if I want to and I can still move around. I think a lot of people come to see if I'm going to faint or something (laughing).
AAJ: Your latest sounds better than your first.
VF: (Laughing) Well, thank you very much, Fred.
AAJ: And in the end?
VF: Well, truthfully, that I tried to be a nice guy and I tried to help the younger guys and gals. I do it all the time, but it is by osmosis really because I don't claim to have taught anybody anything. I came up with great saxophone players and nobody ever told me anything. If you respect what they are doing, you do pick up things. A lot of kids come around me now and if I know the answer, I tell them. When they ask how they are going to sound like me, I tell them I could sound like them if I tried. I am just telling them the truth. It is a singular music, jazz music is. You must find yourself. That is the only way you are really playing jazz. You want to enlighten the world with the touch that you have.
AAJ: And Von Freeman has done his part.
VF: Oh, thank you. And tell your audience, I love them.