Last week the jazz world lost a mystical force on the horn, Von Freeman, a serious unsung hero of the music and school of tenors. The 2012 NEA Inducted Jazz Master hails from Chicago and came up in the last real school of legendary Chicagoan saxophonists like Clifford Jordan, Gene Ammons, and Johnny Griffin. Although he really never left his Chicago roots and got the notoriety like many of his contemporaries, Von lived his long and illustrious career drug and alcohol-free throughout his life, and was a major staple on the Chicago music scene.
Earle Lavon Freeman was born on October 3, 1923 in Chicago, Illinois. His father, George Freeman, was a police officer and was dear friends with the legendary Louis Armstrong. He and his brothers were exposed and played jazz music growing up as kids. While he was barely in this teens, Von took up the saxophone. His parents allowed to play bars and clubs under the strict guidelines of roles enforced to keep Von focused and out of trouble. Von’s first professional job was playing in the famed Horace Henderson Orchestra. Upon graduating from DuSable High School in Chicago, he enlisted in the Navy and played in their jazz band. Soon after he was discharged, Von returned to his hometown of Chicago where he became a fixture on the local scene for close to 70 years. He and his brothers played as the backing band at the famous Pershing Hotel Ballroom playing with the likes Dinah Washington, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and a slew of jazz legends.Von even played in bandleader Sun Ra’s band before he moved to New York City and made a name for himself.
The Chicago Tribune once wrote of his playing style as “For technical brilliance, musical intellect, harmonic sophistication, and improvisatory freedom, Von Freeman has few bebop-era peers.” Von hails Lester Young as one of his main musical influences. “Because I loved Prez (Lester Young), but he didn’t have that power. He had a relatively soft tone, though beautiful. And Coleman Hawkins had all this power — man, he could blow. You could hear him around the block, but he didn’t have this floating thing of Prez’s. But when I heard Dave Young, he had the power and floating sound, like Lester, and that’s what I wanted to try to get.”
For that, many outside of the Chicago have never heard of this legendary saxophonist. The reason being is that Von choose to keep in musical roots based in his hometown. After his father was killed while on duty, Von and his brothers took care of their beloved mother up until his death. He also had a family and wife to support. He made records throughout his career including “Doin’ It Right Now” produced by the saxophonist and jazz icon Roland Kirk and the landmark “Father and Sons,” which featured the musical Marsalis family and Von’s son Chico playing sax. Von also took part in fellow Chicagoan Muhal Richard Abrams Association of Creative Musicians, a non-profit organization that is still on the front-lines “nurturing, performing, and recording serious, original music.”
Von had turned down many offers to play with some the legendary musicians of his day including Miles Davis, Billy Eckstine, and Max Roach.
It was his local residency at the famed New Apartment Lounge where Von played with up-and-coming jazz musicians in the Windy City. Von played at the New Apartment Lounge and Andy’s Jazz Club right up until his death.
Von died at the age of 88 of heart failure at the Kindred Chicago Lakeshore care center on August 11, 2012.
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