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An appreciation of Von Freeman, the patron saint of Chicago jazz musicians


The tenor saxophonist, who died in 2012, would have been 100 on Oct. 3. Freeman’s weekly jam session at the New Apartment Lounge on Chicago’s South Side became an international pilgrimage site.


This is FRESH AIR. Tenor saxophonist Von Freeman was born October 3, 1923, in Chicago, where he’s revered. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Freeman isn’t just the patron saint of Chicago jazz musicians, but also of late bloomers and of all great jazz musicians who resist moving to New York. Kevin has this appreciation.


THE MAPLES: (Singing) Ninety-nine guys with flips for floozy but floozy just flips for me. She likes my hooing (ph), wooing, a-skibblyabadooing (ph) just as simple as ABC.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Von Freeman’s band in 1954 backing The Maples, Freeman already giving young musicians a hand. Von got much of his early training on jam sessions. And to pay it forward, he hosted them in Chicago every week for decades, educating scores of musicians. He had studied with legendary high school music teacher Captain Walter Dyett. For a spell, Von had a band with his brothers, drummer Bruz and guitarist George Freeman, who’s still active and putting out records at 96. Von played in an early Sun Ra band, jammed with Charlie Parker and did countless blues gigs. He next recorded alongside pianist and sometime organist Andrew Hill on Von’s 1956 rarity “After Dark.”


WHITEHEAD: That’s getting closer to the mature Von Freeman, the lagging behind the beats sense of relaxation, the expressive uses of deviant pitch, the dyspeptic outbursts and clean articulation at high speed. But it’d be another 16 years before he made an album of his own at age 48, produced by longtime fan Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Now we hear Von Freeman in all his full-throated glory – confident, a little eccentric and bursting with energy and ideas.


WHITEHEAD: Von Freeman’s 1972 “Portrait Of John Young,” his pianist of choice. Von could burn, but he’d also linger over a slow ballad. It gave him time to plot his next surprise move. Here he is on the bridge to “Polka Dots And Moonbeams,” ostensibly playing the melody.


WHITEHEAD: Von Freeman did a few unaccompanied ballads, a nod to the Chicago avant-garde solo horn recitals. Von stayed loyal to the swing and bebop aesthetics of his younger years. But with his knowledge and keen ears, he could make any weird rhythm or wrong note fit anywhere. And his solos could be intense to the point of ecstasy, barely bridled and a little wild.


WHITEHEAD: That’s “Mr. Lucky,” 1975. As soon as Von Freeman’s records reached Europe, bookers started coaxing him over, if less often than they’d like. In Holland especially, he’d spar with other tenor players, including his son, Chico Freeman, who emerged in the late ’70s and is doing a bunch of gigs to honor his dad the centennial year.

Von Freeman didn’t even visit New York much, where musicians are supposed to go to get noticed. But there was a 1990 Lincoln Center gig when he bested the fiery Johnny Griffin in a tenor battle. And in ’94, he had a week at the Village Vanguard, where he sported with his New York rhythm trio calling old tunes they didn’t know and counting off insane tempos. But he did not like to travel. If you wanted to hear Von, it was just easier to go to Chicago, which is how South Side neighborhood bar the New Apartment Lounge became an international pilgrimage site Tuesday nights, when Von played a long set to kick off his weekly jam session.


WHITEHEAD: Von Freeman with his regular guitarist Mike Allemana, who, since the saxophonist’s death in 2012 at age 88, has become a serious Freeman scholar. He has an album called “Vonology.” He played with Von at the 2002 Berlin Jazz Festival. The following night, Freeman was home playing a West Chicago bar gig. That’s quintessential Von Freeman. Chicago was where his work was, educating the youngins and playing for his fans in his element. Beloved as he was locally, he had all the gigs he could wish for without ever leaving town.


MOSLEY: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the books “Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film,” “Why Jazz?” and “New Dutch Swing.” On tomorrow’s show, Cat Bohannon, author of the new book “Eve: How The Female Body Drove 200 Million Years Of Human Evolution.” It traces the evolution of women’s bodies, taking us through the Jurassic era to modern day, exploring everything from why we menstruate, are more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease and why we live longer. I hope you can join us. To keep up with what’s on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.

FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I’m Tonya Mosley.


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