RIP Von Freeman, a Very Chicago Jazz Great

Von Freeman could have been a household name in jazz, if he’d followed one of the many bandleaders who courted him on the road. But he stayed in Chicago, where he remained a cult favorite well into his 50s, while playing a vital role in the city’s jazz scene.

One of the old themes of Chicago music, and much of the arts in Chicago, is that once an artist’s career arc hits escape velocity, they’re off to New York or Los Angeles (or, in the case of some jazz musicians, Scandinavia). Von Freeman, who died today at 88, hit that point years ago. Instead of leaving, he played weekly gigs at the New Apartment Lounge on the South Side, inspiring decades of Chicago jazz musicians, and nurturing the city’s still-strong scene, as Howard Reich recalls in his excellent obituary:

Revered around the world but never a major star, worshiped by critics and connoisseurs but perpetually strapped for cash, the towering Chicago tenor saxophonist Von Freeman practically went out of his way to avoid commercial success.

[snip]

When various bandleaders – from Davis to Billy Eckstine to King Kolax – tried to take him on the road, where his talents could be heard coast to coast, Freeman regularly turned them down.

His refusal to leave Chicago during most of his career, except for the briefest out-of-town engagements, cost him incalculable fame and fortune but also enabled him to create some of the most distinctive, innovative work ever played or recorded on a tenor saxophone.

Put it this way: in 1973, Freeman was almost 50 years old, and had worked as a sideman—in Chicago, of course—for some of the biggest names in jazz. Longtime Chicago music writer Neil Tesser was in college, and the 40-something Reader was still new. And Tesser’s piece for the Reader that year was the first interview ever published with Freeman (Tesser’s initial, brief obit is here.) Had he replaced John Coltrane (!) in Miles Davis’s band, he’d have been a legend. Instead, at middle age, he wasn’t yet a legend in his own city.

How much of a natural was Freeman? His first saxophone was the arm of his dad’s Victrola, which he modded into a horn. Here’s an early recording of the sort that caught Davis’s ear, with Freeman playing along side Charlie Parker at the Pershing Hotel in 1950:

And Freeman with his son Chico in 1988 at Jazzfest Wiesen:

Last February, Freeman performed at the University of Chicago, and sat down for an interview with Reich:

Here’s a little Spotify mix of Freeman’s recordings, though it’s worth keeping in mind that his first album, Doin’ It Right Now, wasn’t recorded until the 1970s, about 30 years into his career (if the embed doesn’t work, and you have Spotify, click here.)

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