One of the last of the original hipsters and a icon of old school values that embraced the concept of stentorian individual expression (somewhat devalued in today’s overcrowded era of internet-fed egalitarianism), tenor saxophonist Earl Lavon Freeman left us early last Sunday morning, 12 August for the cosmic jam session beyond the clouds. Born into a musical family on 3 October 1923 in Chicago, his mother a guitarist and church singer, his father a cop and amateur trombonist; brothers George, also a guitarist and “Bruz” a drummer, Von started early, playing one of his first gigs with bluesman Sunnyland Slim.
Another storied Chicago tenorman, Gene Ammons, was Freeman’s classmate at Du Sable High School under feared and revered bandleader Captain Walter Dyett. During the 1940s Freeman worked with the big band of Horace Henderson, the US Navy Hellcats and, for a short spell, with Sun Ra after four years fronting the house band at the Pershing Hotel with his siblings between 1946 and 1950. During this time he performed with such greats as Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. The Freeman band included at various times such distinctive, distinguished pianists as Chris Anderson, Ahmad Jamal, Muhal Richard Abrams and Andrew Hill.
In the 1960s Freeman performed rhythm and blues with Gene Chandler, Jimmy Reed and Otis Rush and then began to refocus on jazz, recording his debut for Atlantic Doing It Right Now at the behest of Rahsaan Roland Kirk in 1972. Freeman’s recording career has been much less prolific than his regular appearances at Southside haunts, The Enterprise, The El Matador and The Apartment Lounge might warrant, not to mention his occasional jaunts to Paris, New York and Berlin. But thanks to the attention of such faithful local labels as Nessa, Southport, Premonition and Delmark, his voice lives on. In recent years he garnered an honorary masters degree from Northwestern University, the Rosenberg medal from the University of Chicago and, earlier this year, a coveted Jazz Masters Award, picked up on his behalf at NYC’s Lincoln Center by sons Mark and Chico Freeman, due to his failing health.
Freeman’s last live appearance playing saxophone was at Andy’s on Hubbard Street, Chicago last November. A month or so prior at the end of September, he presided over six sets of music at the Green Mill. For the final set, rather than blow tenor, he embarked on an episodic narrative, almost as long as one of his Herculean saxophone solos, about, pointedly, his rivalry with better known school pal Ammons from years earlier. “I would play all these superfast notes and thought I had it,” recalled Freeman, “and then Jug (Ammons) would play just one note and silence the room.” To those of us who were won over time and again by a myriad of spectacular, wildly unpredictable, hyper expressive pronouncements from Freeman, including some nonpareil balladry, the point was moot and the hole now left by his departure too huge to quantify.
– Michael Jackson (photo of Von Freeman courtesy of Michael Jackson)