Chicago-based tenor man Von Freeman is jazz' answer to baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson: talented, respected by his peers, but still inexplicably underrated. Freeman's youthful buoyancy belies his 83 years, a threshold he crossed last month. When offered belated birthday wishes, Freeman playfully requested "Listen, let's make it 39, revealing a subscription to the Jack Benny method of birthday counting. He didn't make his first recording as a leader until he was 49, has been a fixture on the Chicago jazz scene for his entire career, along with his brothersGeorge, a guitarist, and drummer Eldridge (nicknamed "Bruz )and is generally regarded as one of the prime movers of the Chicago style of tenor sax. For the past twenty years Freeman has held court at the New Apartment Lounge. During a recent phone interview, it was evident that the man affectionately known as "Vonski speaks the way that he plays: imaginative extended runs punctuated with lyrical lines.
"I've been with this thing since the beginning of my life, Freeman said. "I'm from an era where playing jazz music was very similar to playing baseball. Mostly you made your instruments. A bunch of noise mostly, tin cans, making instruments, putting toilet tissue in things and playing on it. And everybody had a horn or something. Most of [us] didn't have any kind of instruction but [we] had 'em.
Everybody was watching the big bands. All the big bands, white and black, came to the Regal Theater. They were swing bands, which most of the bands were at that time. It didn't cost but 10 cents to get in, so you could watch a whole show until they kicked you out of there. We'd just go early on Saturdays and Sundays and try to stay all day. [We] worried the bands to death because I know they got sick of us.
Freeman got his musical indoctrination by banging away at the piano as a child. "I'd been fooling around with the piano ever since my father's sister gave me this piano when I was one year old. She said 'That guy looks like he's gonna do something.' And my father used to tell me that I would climb up on that stool and be banging.
My mother played church guitar and sang in the choir and my mother's father was a guitarist. My father was a policeman and he loved music. [He] spent most of his spare money buying records and he really didn't want us to play music. He said it was a hard life and what not. And he had no idea that we were gonna get into music. He was crazy about Louis Armstrong, and he was crazy about the Royal Canadiens [led by Guy Lombardo]. He used to talk to me when I was very young and he said 'Try to get some harmony in your music.' Of course, I didn't know what he was talking about.
It was through his father's records that Freeman eventually discovered the tenor sax and this soon led to Freeman's first, and potentially most perilous, improvisation, when he broke off the horn of his father's old Victrola, made himself a mouthpiece and built his first saxophone, a moment which stirs up warm, if guarded, memories.
"Oh Lord! My father, I thought he was gonna wipe me out, but he didn't. The Victrola was a prized thing. A few of us had pianos but hardly anybody had a Victrola, so we were big stuff. We'd invite the kids in to watch us wind this thing up and all that kind of stuff. And of course, I really wasn't supposed to be fooling around with that machine except when my father or mother was around. Like I said, it was a prized instrument and that's how I really got into jazz.
After cutting his teeth in the New York scene for a bit, Freeman returned to the Windy City, where he has spent most of his playing time ever since.
"The first time I went to New York, Wilbur Ware and Wilbur Campbell were in New York and they said 'We're gonna take you down and let you audition.' I said 'What?' So I auditioned for Riverside, one of the big labels that was doing very well. And the man said 'Don't call me, I'll call you.' Of course, I never heard from him again.
"Finally, I happened to run into Rahsaan Roland Kirk when I was making a trip once through Ohio. And he wanted to know who I was. I [told him that] I was just a contemporary from around Chicago. He said 'Man, you can sure enough play. I thought I knew everybody that could play.' Then he said, 'I'm gonna get famous,' 'cause you know he had that go get 'em attitude. Although he was blind, man, he had complete faith in himself. And he said 'I'll come to Chicago and look you up.' And he did! And that's how I made that recording (Doin' It Right Now, produced by Rahsaan Roland Kirk on Atlantic Records) in 1972.
Freeman's age and experience has provided him with invaluable insights into life and music. He attributes his longevity not from avoiding the pitfalls of living in the jazz world, but from embracing their subsequent lessons. "I think it all comes from just going through the hard times, the hard life. Foolin' around with that juice and whatnot. And I was very fortunate that I missed dope. Very, very, very, very fortunate, 'cause it seems like that really takes cats out. But there were always women around, there were always many other ways to get your ego all messed up. So it's a beautiful life, but then again it can be another thing.
"Now a lot of kids, their parents bring them around to see me and I try to tell them just to keep on doing whatever you're doing and stay out of the wild life if you can, 'cause it's hard, boy. When you're young everything looks good. And people really look out for you when you're young, say nice things about you and put you in a lot of positions that you really shouldn't be in. You really should have training first before you get into that nightclub scene. That nightclub scene, a lot of soldiers did not come out without getting wounded. So I try to tell 'em to think of fame last. Try to master your instrument.
"That's always saved my sanity. I kept trying to play the best I could and even today I do. I sit around and practice all day long. I don't know what I'm practicing, probably nothing, but the whole thing is, if you play an instrument you got to keep it in your mouth all the time or else you lose your chops. Of course if you get famous I think it's beautiful. A hit helps tremendously. If you get one, two, three, beautiful! But if you don't you have to just bury your head and keep on trying. And I like to see an older guy keep on trying. I have a lot of veteran cats come around me and they're very disgusted with their careers. They say 'I keep the faith because of you.'
When playfully asked if he has any thoughts of retiring, Freeman laughed heartily with the joke. "I've gone places where people didn't know me at all and they come up to the bandstand and tell me beautiful things and that's better than [them] saying 'Boy, you ought to go put that thing up!' When I played at my birthday party they said 'Boy, you're playing as hard as ever.' When I lose that, I think it's time for me to wrap it up. But I don't think I'll ever lose it. Life is good, man. I'm like a kid at a circus. Recommended Listening:
Von Freeman, Doin' It Right Now
Von Freeman, Lester Leaps In
Von Freeman, Fire with Von Freeman
Chico Freeman/Von Freeman, Live at the Blue Note: 75th Birthday Celebration
(Half Note, 1998)
Von Freeman, The Improvisor
Von Freeman, The Great Divide
October 2002 Interview
Maarten van de Ven