Tenor saxophonist and co-founder of the “Chicago School” of jazz tenorists Von Freeman died at 88 on August 11 due to a heart failure. Earlier this year he was honored the National Endowment for the Arts jazz master – the highest honor that America bestows on jazz artists – due to his exceptional contribution to the advancement of jazz. We decided to remember him in our own way, by telling you the unique story of a great musician and man who did not care about fame, but cared a lot about people and music instead.
Earle Lavon Freeman was born in Chicago on October 3rd 1923. Since his childhood he was exposed to jazz music due to his father George’s friendship with trumpet icon Louis Armstrong (when he first arrived in Chicago he stood at the Freeman’s for some time). Von started learning to play the saxophone as a child and at DuSable High School, with Walter Dyett as musical director. At the age of 16 he began his professional career playing in Horace Henderson’s orchestra. After joining the Navy during World War II, Freeman went back to Chicago where he performed, alongside his brothers (George Freeman on guitar and drummer Bruz Freeman), as house band of the Pershing Hotel Ballroom, where they often also played as backing band of leading jazzmen such as Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie.
Von Freeman’s recording career includes a few appearances as backing musician (in the mid-’50s with vocal group The Maples and, a couple of years later, appearing in an Andrew Hill single), followed by a recorded performance at a Charle Parker tribute concert in 1970 and albums in his own name. His debut, in ’72, Doin’ It Right Now, was a marathon session and 2 albums released by Nessa, 3 recordings with his son – tenor sax player Chico Freeman – and You Talkin’ To Me with saxophonist Frank Catalano.
What was unique about ‘Vonski’, how his fans often called him, was his approach to music. “They said I played out of tune, played a lot of wrong notes, a lot of weird ideas” he told the Tribune in ’92. “But it didn’t matter, because I didn’t have to worry about money – I wasn’t making any. I didn’t have to worry about fame – I didn’t have any, I was free”. He created a distinctive – and somehow avant garde – sound and pursued his creative ideas, despite the fact that they were unlikely to be welcomed in the commercial music business.
Freeman was also extremely active socially: the Monday night performances of his quartet (at the Enterprise lounge in the ’70s and ’80s) were not just music exhibitions, but social and cultural events. African-Americans and European-Americans in particular were part of the warmth, joyful and community-like atmosphere he created.
For his music, personality and charisma, Von was a great influence – he mentored several young musicians – and, along with Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin and Clifford Jordan, he founded the “Chicago school” of jazz tenorists.
Early this year he was selected to receive America’s highest jazz honor, the NEA Jazz Master award, a life achievement. A celebration not only to his musical career, but to his life as well. He met and inspired a lot of people and became an icon of Chicago’s hardcore jazz (how he called it). Goodbye Von Freeman, master of hard bop jazz and one-of-a-kind musician.