Life-changing albums: Von Freeman's 'Doin' It Right Now'

Saxophonist Steve Coleman talks about the album that changed his life, 'Doin’ It Right Now', by Von Freeman. Interview by Brian Glasser

For me, it’s not really about records so much as live gigs. There was a guy called Von Freeman – not everyone’s heard of him! – in Chicago where I grew up. He didn’t formally give me lessons, but he was kind of like a mentor. Watching him year after year definitely changed my life. I would make private recordings and listen to them. I started off with stereo reel-to-reel, later on cassettes. I’d be in the audience, these were nightclubs so it wasn’t so much of a stage. I’d just be there recording, because I was trying to learn the music. I was 18, 19 – that’s when I started learning what the music was about.

When I played them back later, there was so much to get: the rhythm, the way it flowed, melody, harmony, saxophone stuff like fingering and breathing – there’s so much that you’re getting all at once when you see somebody live. The earliest album I heard of his was Doin’ It Right Now, but it’s different on record. I listened to records of course, but for me the much more important thing was seeing people live.

With the tapes, I had to work it all out myself – I didn’t understand anything at the beginning. These guys were older professionals in my father’s generation and they wouldn’t tell you anything – it wasn’t like a school situation where they’re telling you what the chords are and so on. They learned the same way – so I figured if they could do it, so could I. For me, it’s way better than going to jazz school – it’s not even close. Actually, it’s not even a matter of ‘better’ – it’s not the same thing. It’s a whole different kind of learning.

I’ve never taken one improvisation lesson in my life. I won’t say that I didn’t try to study with Von – but he said, ‘No – I don’t teach’. I asked another guy in Chicago for lessons – Bunky Green. And he told me ‘No’ too! They were my two favourite saxophone players in Chicago at the time; so, I thought, if these guys aren’t going to teach me, then forget it – I’ll just get it like they got it.

Primarily, what I did was this: there were people like Charlie Parker who I’d found out about; and I wanted to know how they learned how to play; and I wanted to copy it. Not mimicking what they were playing but how they learned how to play – their process. I knew that that process produced great musicians, so I wanted to know what it was. That’s what they’d done in their time – they didn’t go to schools like Berklee. I thought: ‘These guys didn’t learn to play in school – so I’m not going to learn how to play in school’. To me, that was kind of obvious.

Initially, I went to a particular concert to see Sonny Stitt, because he sounded like Bird to me, so I had that sound in my head. Von Freeman, who I didn’t know at the time, was the other saxophonist on the concert. But Sonny Stitt didn’t live in Chicago; whereas Von did. When I talked to Von afterwards he said, ‘I have these sessions that happen every week on the South Side’; and gave me the address. It wasn’t far from where I lived, so I started going. That’s how I hooked up with him. It wasn’t because I thought he was amazing – I couldn’t hear that in the beginning. I only heard that later, after I started hanging around. Even that took a while, because my ears weren’t developed.

I was always aware of death – I knew everyone wasn’t going to be around for ever; so I tried to get as much as I could from people while they were still around. Whether it was Thad Jones, Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson – I tried to see them as much as I could. If you want to be a master shoemaker, you hang around master shoemakers! It’s osmosis.

Having said that, when I listened back to the tapes of Von when I was young, I did try and emulate him – I tried to play the notes and transcribe them. You have to do that to know what they’re doing – you have to get into the detail. I listened to Von from 1975 – when I was 18 – till when he died. I only played professionally on a gig with him two or three times, and I made a couple of recordings with him. Usually he was playing with his group and I was playing with mine.

The learning part never stops – I’m still trying to figure out what people are doing! For me, ‘doing my own thing’ and ‘learning’ is the same thing, it’s not separate – learning is my own thing …

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