Von Freeman, 1922-2012

Von Freeman had everything it took to be a world-famous tenor saxophonist. He chose, instead, to remain in his native Chicago for his entire career. Appearances at a few jazz festivals in the US and abroad were the main exceptions. Freeman’s death on August 11 was announced today. He would have been 89 on October 3.

Freeman shared many of the influences that affected such contemporary Chicago tenor artists as Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Eddie Harris and Fred Anderson. Like theirs, his playing had grit and toughness, particularly in the lower register. It also had wily humor, bent notes and idiosyncratic turns that made his work unlike that of any other saxophonist.

“They said I played out of tune, played a lot of wrong notes, a lot of weird ideas,” Freeman told The Chicago Tribune in 1992. “But it didn’t matter, because I didn’t have to worry about the money—I wasn’t making (hardly) any. I didn’t have to worry about fame— I didn’t have any. I was free.”

Freeman may have been unknown to the general public, but musicians and dedicated listeners admired him extravagantly. His reputation among the cognoscenti resulted in his being named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master this year. Though he could work subtle and sophisticated magic on standard songs, the blues tinged nearly everything Freeman played. Here he is with his young Chicago rhythm section at the 2002 Berlin Jazz Festival in an E-flat blues that goes deeper than tinges.

Freeman’s colleagues in the New Apartment Lounge Quintet were guitarist Mike Allemana (who uploaded that video to YouTube);
 Jack Zarra, bass; and Michael Raynor, drums. “Blues for Sunnyland Slim” was included in the album Vonski Speaks, recorded at the Berlin concert.

For a comprehensive Freeman obituary, see Howard Reich in The Chicago Tribune.

Von Freeman, RIP.

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  1. Doug Stewart says

    Vonski gone….a loss to jazz and humanity.
    Perhaps not a tenor player high in the echelons of fame,
    but a swinging cat with individual ideas and total
    empathy with his audience.
    Surely somewhere in Chicago we should see
    “Vonski Lives”

      • T.M. Scruggs says

        Thanks. The dean at U. Iowa actually criticized my accessible writing in her denial of my tenure (overturned immediately by the Provost.)