an appreciation by
Kevin Whitehead

Von Freeman, 1997 Chicago Jazz Festival             ©Michael Wilderman 2012

It’s 9:15 on a Saturday night in 1999 at Andy’s, a noisy club in downtown Chicago that caters to fans and tourists, when a waitress standing behind a front table passes a chair to Von Freeman on stage.

“Aw, you shouldn’t be lifting that,” he says.

“That’s my job,” she deadpans. “All you have to do is honk.”

Von sets it down, steps over to the bar, takes a saxophone reed out of his mouth, says, “Shari, can I have a glass of water?” “I’m not your agent,” the barkeep says, looking so mean you know she’s joking. Von waits for his water, looking pretty fit for 75, despite his disheveled corona of white hair. He’s wearing a sleek pinstriped suit jacket with non-matching but aggressively creased brown pants, brown wingtip shoes, and a silk tie bedecked with images of autumn leaves. This is April.

Von fixes the reed to his horn, gives it a tentative tootle, and quietly eases into a ballad. His bassist and drummer aren’t set up yet, but the pianist discreetly joins in. The saxophone reed sounds dry and brittle, as they feel their way along the tune, but when the rhythm section is ready and the band starts playing it for real, he lets out that wet brown grotesque tone and slippery timing that make him more fun to listen to, and probably a better tenor player, than anyone you can think of. Including the person you’re thinking of.

Von Freeman’s saxophone lines flow like rainwater but somehow every note is cleanly articulated, even when he barely touches it, without slowing him down. He’s more apt to speed up, until the notes blur into an abstract scribble or screech that takes him temporarily off the screen. Sometimes he lags so far behind the beat you think he hasn’t come to work yet, but he’s got the drop on everybody on the bandstand.

The piano solos next, then Von bellows through cupped hands, “YOUNG JOHN YOUNG!!” They’re about the same age.

The drummer takes a solo, Von yells, “Michael Raynor! He’s worth a lot of money boy!” He turns to the bass player, says in a low voice, “You too.” After the bassist solos, Von says, “He’s with the Chicago Symphony!” – jerking his thumb at him, like, go figure.

“That was ‘Stella by Starlight’ jazz style ... which means, blow your brains out. Play as long as you want to, play as out-of-tune as you want to, and – Aw Shari I’m just kidding!”

He brings up singer Bettye Reynolds, who’s been sitting at the edge of the piano bench like a page-turner. She counts off John Young and begins a medium-groove “Canadian Sunset.” She sings two choruses and then Von starts his solo with one slow figure he keeps repeating even more slowly, so its relationship to the underlying beat grows ever more tenuous. Three bars in he sounds lost, then he rights it and off he goes. He brings that slow figure back once, just before his solo ends.

When the bassist or drummer has the spotlight, Von stands to one side, leaning toward the soloist ever so slightly, with a quizzical squint: Surprise? Skepticism? Eye-strain? When the bassist falters a second, Von leans in a little more, mutters, “Chicago Symphony?”

The singer does a slow “Time After Time,” and then gets off – “Bettye Reynolds! She’s got her own choir – at the Church of What’s Happening Now! And Daniel Anderson, from the Chicago Symphony! [quieter] (He plays the tuba.) And me, I’m Vonski! Some people think I’m Polish!”

Von acknowledges the applause and laughter with a jiggle of the head. It’s all timing for him. Already clapping out a fast tempo, he turns to the rhythm section. “All right, my darlings ... .”

* * * *

Von Freeman could give you the impression he could forget his own name. This is an illusion, a card shark’s rube routine. He didn’t leave his hometown very often – although he grandly demonstrated his skills in New York in 1990, at a Lincoln Center concert where he and Johnny Griffin locked horns in time-honored Chicago fashion. Griffin is quick, no less so in the jazz capital where he was an esteemed visitor. Von by contrast laid way back behind the beat, playing at half Griffin’s speed – and won the crowd by virtue of sheer relaxation.

“Johnny and I know that in jazz music you have good nights and many bad ones, and if someone’s having a good one, so be it. I’ve been on the other end of that too.” They had a rematch at the Bimhuis in June 1999. The first night was a draw. The second, Johnny finally paid him back.

Von liked to be pushed as well as push. For him jazz is about thinking on your feet. Hence the apparent chaos, in his crackpot timing and apparent wanderings into foreign keys. He forced musicians to be creative by throwing things at them the usual licks won’t fix. Freeman had the damnedest way of going so far out on a limb you figure this time he’s gotta fall. Yet his improvised tangents always relate to Charlie Parker’s rules of harmony. Von’s muted tone and flexible pitch give it an all air of flux, impermanence, smoke rings in the air. But that side of him is straight out of Lester Young.

Von was a different kind of jazz messenger: it don’t mean a thing if you don’t think. At the Village Vanguard during a very wintry week early in 1994, he led a crack New York pickup band, and kept them on their toes all night: calling tunes so old their parents would barely remember them, announcing a bass feature for Rodney Whitaker and then counting off an insanely fast tempo, advising pianist Michael Weiss (when he confessed he didn’t know one tune), “Look at it this way – feel free to express yourself.” At first the musicians – Greg Hutchinson was on drums – were sweating it, but they slowly began to relax, catching Von’s carefree air. It was a lovely evening: giddy entertainment that said something profound about how musicians can learn and enjoy themselves at once. The fun is in the struggle.

* * * *

His father, a jazz fan, brought home lots of the musicians who made Chicago the jazz hub when Von was a boy. He was born in 1923 (not ‘22 like he always thought), not long after one of those visitors, Louis Armstrong, moved to town: “He’d call you ‘Pops’ if you were six months old.” Von came up in what he called “the golden age, when the great innovators surfaced to give everyone direction. The players were always having a ball, trying to learn something, and willing to share it.”

There was always music in the neighborhood. His brothers Bruz (drums) and George (guitar) also became jazz musicians. (Later, so did Von’s son Chico; he and George put Von on a few of their own records.) Like Johnny Griffin and many other future jazz stars, Von studied with Chicago’s legendary Captain Walter Dyett: “In his jazz band everybody soloed, whether you could solo or not. You had to figure out something.” Freeman jammed with Charlie Parker and passed through a very early Sun Ra band.

“I came up at a funny time: it was the swing era, but then bebop came in, and I had to learn ‘em both. Some of the later guys never had to play swing music. It all still has to swing. If it doesn’t, you’re gonna have problems. The best avant-garde players have a swing thing.

“I learned primarily from going to jam sessions. Now you can go to college, have mom and dad take care of you, but it’s not like being on the road struggling. College is good for the fundamentals, but you could learn that in your basement, or from any good instructor. But now that jam sessions are coming back, a musician can play his heart out, find his or her own way again.

“What I miss when I see some guys out there play: it seems like they’re not having any fun. Like it’s gotten too hip or sophisticated.”

* * * *

Every Tuesday night, starting in 1982, Von led the famous jam session at the New Apartment Lounge on Chicago’s far south side, not far from his home. There was so little room for his quartet, squeezed into a niche by the front window, Von would lean his back against the side of a cigarette machine, playing in profile, trying to stay out of folks’ way as they walked past. “People come up talking to you or kiss you while you’re blowing.”

On a typical night that same pre-millennial spring, Von played the first hour (he’d go longer, sometimes, when inspiration was on him), then brought up a parade of guest soloists. Later in the evening it’d be young bebop instrumentalists who’d show up regularly to get a post-graduate education. “It’s the same way I came up. I look at them and see myself 60 years ago, struggling to get a hint about how it’s done.

“They ask me questions and I say, ‘I don’t know.’”

But first, he called up diverse singers who, taken together, represent a panorama of black show business history: a slick jazz chanteuse, a guy who warms up the audience with jokes about his own ample size before he begins singing in a deep baritone – and Stevie Trimble, once a member of the harmony group Cats and the Fiddle, who gets so far into the lyric of “Stardust,” he – and you – can see the night sky in the New Apartment’s low mirrored ceiling. He opens not just a window on the stars, but on another era, when jazz was the music of African American neighborhoods.

In this place, Von is so much at home in every sense, you understand why he never felt the urge to travel. That he stayed in Chicago is one reason he recorded so little, relative to his talents. For much of his career, he was overly casual about making records – personal bests including Doin’ It Right Now, Have No Fear, Young and Foolish, and The Great Divide aside.

Live performance was his medium, and if he could find everything that drew him to music right around the corner, why go around the globe? He was a natural homebody. He once told John Corbett, about his first trip abroad in 1977, “I thought Amsterdam was a country. And I have to admit that I didn’t know that they used different money over there.”

For years he turned down overseas offers, explaining he and brother George had to look after their 100-year-old mother. After she died, I asked Von if he’d be traveling more. “Well, I’ll tell ya – now we’ve got a sickly dog.”

© Kevin Whitehead 2012. (Some of this material appeared in Dutch translation in ‘de Volkskrant’ in 1999.)

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