Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Tenor saxophonist Von Freeman can be described as an avant-gardist in mainstream garb. While the context for Freeman’s big-toned playing is hard bop theme-solos-theme, his solos often contain roughly vocalized passages, phrases that dance around the rhythm, artfully placed squawks and skronk, and more twists than an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Earl Lavon Freeman was born into a musical family on Chicago’s South on October 2, 1922. Both his mother and grandfather played guitar, and his policeman father moonlighted as a nightclub bouncer, and was a fan and friend of pianists Fats Waller and Earl Hines. Von’s brothers George and Bruz played guitar and drums, respectively.
Freeman's classmates at Chicago's DuSable High School, where the band director was the noted educator Captain Walter Dyett, included future tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons. Following school, Freeman held a position in Henderson's Orchestra from l940 to 1941. Drafted into the U.S. Navy, he played in a military combo, the Hellcats Jazz Band, until 1945. After leaving the service, Freeman and his brothers played in the house band at Chicago's Pershing Ballroom until 1950, and also played with Sun Ra from 1948 to 1949.
Freeman’s residency at the Pershing was important experience, as touring jazz stars frequently stopped there, ncluding no less than Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Two live recordings of Von Freeman with Parker have survived: Bird Seed, issued as Stash CD STB 2500, and One Night In Chicago, issued as Savoy SJL 1132.
Freeman’s recording debut was in 1956 with the iconoclastic pianist Andrew Hill as leader on the 45 RPM single “After Dark” on the local Ping label.
Von Freeman - or Vonski, a nickname bestowed on his by his mother that stuck—spent most of the 1950s and 1960s performing paycheck gigs. He played strip clubs, backed blues performers such as Jimmy Reed and Jimmy Witherspoon, with whom he recorded some sides for VeeJay Records in 1959.
Freeman was married and had no appetite to leave Chicago. It wasn’t until 1969 that Freeman brought a new conviction to his career as a jazz musician. He began leading his own groups on regular Chicago live gigs and mentoring younger musicians, including his son Chico, who also plays the tenor saxophone. The younger Freeman was encouraged from the start not to directly follow in his father’s footprints: Chico's tone is deeper, and as a “child” of the post-bop generation, his playing has more in common with avant-garde musicians like Don Pullen and Sam Rivers than it does with Lester Young.
In 1972, Freeman finally got to do a proper debut album, Doin’ It Right Now on Atlantic Records, which has since been reissued by Koch, produced by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It was a quartet session: fellow Chicagoan John Young on piano, Sam Jones on bass, and Jimmy Cobb, drums, a set of visceral, edgy hard bop.
On “Portrait Of John Young” from this album, Freeman’s solo begins with him caressing the melody in the middle registers of his horn—his tone is pinched, astringent, almost closer to an alto sax than a tenor. His sound is almost “bi-level” - the higher end of his tone is smooth and lyrical, song-like, and here the influences of Lester Young and Charlie Parker can be heard. On the lower end, there’s a raspy gruffness, evoking the deep gutsy approach of Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Don Byas. Freeman occasionally pushes into the higher register, letting loose with a few judicious vocalized cries. He slips into “riding the rhythm” with some terse, rough repeated riffs/figures like a rhythm 'n' blues honker. Throughout, Freeman sounds as if he’s holding something in reserve, all the while swinging mightily and joyfully, with just a touch of ebullient swagger.
Since the seventies, Freeman has recorded as leader on a regular basis for Chicago-based labels, including Nessa, Southport, Delmark, and Premonition, as well as European labels, such as Steeplechase and Affinity. He has also appeared on sessions led by brother George, trumpeter Louis Smith, and singers Joanie Pallatto and April Aloisio.
Freeman even ventured to New York City for some notable recording encounters for large domestic labels. In 1982, producer Dr. George Butler helmed a project for Columbia Records: Fathers And Sons, a split-album devoted to father-son groupings: Ellis Marsalis and sons Wynton and Branford on one side, Von and son Chico on the other.
On “Jug Ain’t Gone”/”Time Marches On” from this album, Von Freeman’s playing, tone-wise, is overall a bit fuller and smoother while still retaining his unique unpredictability. Von solos first, sounding more like a Swing Era tenor man. Chico, by contrast, is deeper and shinier, closer in spirit/tone to Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. When father and son play together, they sound like a garrulous, hard-swinging Kansas City sax section.
In 1991, there were two sessions set in motion by a younger Chicagoan who had been significantly impacted by the elder Freeman, alto saxophonist Steve Coleman. The first, Transmigration,was issued under the banner of the Strata Institute, a collective of edgy, eclectic New York players featuring Coleman and fellow altoist Greg Osby.
The other, Coleman’s Rhythm In Mind (The Carnegie Project),is a trans-generational all-star session featuring Kenny Wheeler, Tommy Flanagan, Dave Holland, and Kevin Eubanks.
More recently, 2004’s The Great Divide finds Freeman paying direct tribute to primary inspirations Hawkins, Young, and Parker. It’s a program of mostly, standards which is anything but routine—it’s a vibrant, thorny, exhilarating celebration of bebop and post-bop jazz, revering roots but not getting tangled in them.
Back home in Chicago, Von Freeman remains a local institution. On his 80th birthday, the city paid homage to him by naming a stretch of East 75th Street for him. As of 2009, Freeman performs regularly in the Windy city and leads jam sessions all over town. At could be heard at a New Year's Eve Battle of The Tenors held at Chicago's Green Mill, the octagenarian Freeman shows no signs of slowing down. Ask him, and he will remind you that his mother lived to the age of 103.
Doin’ It Right Now, 1972 Koch
Young and Foolish, 1977 Affinity
Fathers and Sons (with Chico Freeman), 1982 Columbia
Lester Leaps In, 1992 Steeplechase
Von & Ed (w/ Edward Petersen), 1999 Delmark
The Improvisor, 2002 Premonition
The Great Divide, 2004 Premonition
Good Forever, 2006 Premonition
The Best of Von Freeman on Premonition, 2007 Premonition [2 CDs + 1 DVD]
Contributor: Mark Keresman