Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Earle Lavon Freeman, 3 October 1923, Chicago IL; d there 13 August 2012) Tenor sax, composer, leader; a giant of the instrument, to be mentioned in the same breath with Dexter Gordon, Lockjaw Davis, or any other you care to name. He attended DuSable High School with Bennie Green and Gene Ammons; studied there under Capt. Walter Dyett. His brothers were also musicians, George (guitarist), Bruz (Eldridge, drummer, d c.28 March 2006, Hawaii, aged 85). He played with Horace Henderson '40, then in a U.S. Navy band. He formed a band with his brothers '46, with David Shipp on bass (d '82). As the house band at the Pershing Room they backed Bird, Dizzy, Roy Eldridge, everybody. Andrew Hill was in the band '51; Von recorded with Hill '52 on the obscure Ping label with Hill on organ, Pat Patrick on baritone, Malachi Favors on bass, drummer Wilbur Campbell (d 30 December 1999). He played with Dexter Gordon in Chicago '70, etc. Von played on George Freeman's LPs Birth Sign '69 on Delmark and New Improved Funk c.'76 on People (reissued on LRC CD as All In The Game; George also made Man And Woman c.'74 on Groove Merchant).

Von's own albums began with Doin' It Right Now on Atlantic '72 with Sam Jones, Jimmy Cobb, John Young (b 16 March 1922, Little Rock AR; d 16 April 2008, Chicago) on piano, including Freeman's tunes 'Portrait Of Johnny Young', 'Brother George'. Then Have No Fear and Serenade And Blues on Nessa were both made mid-'75 in one marathon session with Young, Shipp and Campbell, including Freeman's 'After Dark', 'Von Freeman's Blues', 'Have No Fear, Soul Is Here'. The wonderfully relaxed Nessa session sounds 'just the way I'd play at the Enterprise Lounge,' according to Von, the superb rhythm section providing a jaunty lope even at slow tempos, bold humour and Freeman's unique tone the keynote throughout. Young And Foolish '77 with Shipp, Young, drummer Charles Walton on Daybreak was made live in Laren; return to Laren '78 resulted in Lockin' Horns with a Willis Jackson quartet on Muse. One side of Fathers And Sons '81 on Columbia, both sides of Freeman And Freeman on India Navigation (both '81) included his son Chico Freeman. Young And Foolish was reissued on Affinity '88 at the time of Von's first visit to the UK (in a two-tenor quintet with Chico).

Von had chosen not to pursue the big time, which would have meant moving to New York and constant travel, and finally more fame began to come his way. The CD era brought more discography: Serenade And Blues was reissued in England with an additional track, later both Nessa albums were on Bomba from Japan; Walkin' Tuff '89 on Chicago's Southport label presented two different trios; Tenor Conclave '92 live in Laren included Teddy Edwards and Buck Hill with the Rein De Graaf trio; Never Let Me Go and Lester Leaps In '92 and Dedicated To You '93 on Steeplechase were all made in Chicago with Jodie Christian, Eddie De Hass and Campbell. The collective improvisation of Fire With Von Freeman '95 on Southport with a trio plus vocalist Joanie Pallatto is decidedly mannered when Von is not upfront, but his generosity is unbounded: Tuesday nights around midnight wherever he is playing (at the South Side's New Apartment Lounge from '96) Freeman says, 'Did I see some horn players in the audience? ... Well, open those cases. Vonski's jam session is now in order.' Up to 20 or so musicians on a variety of instruments took turns soloing for the Master, who liked vanilla: 'No, no, just swing it, keep swinging.' He sat in with the best, and tried to pass it on.

He and Fred Anderson, another Chicago legend, agreed that the way to keep living was to keep playing. Chicago celebrated Von's 75th birthday by naming a street after him. Von Freeman's 75th Birthday Celebration on Half Note Records was recorded in April '98 at the Blue Note Jazz Club in NYC with Chico's quartet. He recorded for Premonition: Live At The Dakota 2001 was made in Minnesota with locals Bobby Peterson on piano, Terry Burns on bass and Phil Hey on drums; The Improvisor was one of his best later CDs, made in Chicago clubs in late 2001 and early 2002: four quintet tracks, a quartet track, a duet with pianist Jason Moran, and a magnificent solo track, 'If I Should Lose You'. The Great Divide '04 and Good Forever '06 had Richard Wyands on piano, John Webber on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. The Best of Von Freeman on Premonition '08 had two CDs of tracks from all four of these plus a souvenir DVD of interviews, and the ceremony of the street-naming.

In 2002 Von had appeared at the Jazzfest Berlin with his New Apartment Lounge Quartet (longtime drummer Michael Raynor, Jack Zara on bass, Mike Allemana on guitar). Recorded a few weeks after his 80th birthday, it was a blistering set, as good as anything he had ever done. The festival organizers had seen to it that the recordings belonged to the artists, Sender Freies Berlin provided Chuck Nessa with the master tape, and Vonski Speaks came out in late 2009, the first new Nessa release in years, and one of the most delightful releases of that or any other year.