Von Freeman

Portrait of Von Freeman

Photo by Jimmy Katz


"I consider the music I play/create as "hard core modern jazz." However, jazz is an exact science. The more you study, the more you uncover to express yourself. The more technical knowledge you have, the more prepared you are. With more preparation, the more you dream. Your ability opens your dreams and if you ever get over into the creating part of it you join a handful of artists. As such I feel so very humbled and honored to receive such a prestigious award in recognition of my life's work."

Although not as well-known outside the Windy City as he should have been, Earle Lavon "Von" Freeman, Sr. was considered a founder of the "Chicago School" of jazz tenorists, a distinction shared with Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, and Clifford Jordan. With his individual sound, at once husky and melodic, he made every song his own. As the Chicago Tribune had written of him, "For technical brilliance, musical intellect, harmonic sophistication, and improvisatory freedom, Von Freeman has few bebop-era peers."

Freeman was surrounded by music in his childhood: his mother sang in the church choir, his father played jazz albums on an early Victrola - on which Freeman first heard the tenor sax - and his maternal grandfather and uncle were guitarists. Initially self-taught, he played saxophone at DuSable High School, landing his first gig with Horace Henderson's Orchestra at the age of 16. Drafted during WWII, he performed with a Navy band while in service. Once back in Chicago, he played with his brothers George (guitar) and Eldridge "Bruz" (drums) in the house band at the Pershing Hotel Ballroom, where jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie would stop and sit in when passing through.

In the 1950s, Freeman associated himself with various artists, mostly in the Chicago region, including Sun Ra, Andrew Hill, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Al Smith. In the 1960s, he played with Milt Trenier. But it wasn't until 1972 that Freeman recorded an album under his own name, Doin' It Right Now, produced by jazz great Roland Kirk.

Freeman continued to record, occasionally alongside Chicago artists such as saxophonist Frank Catalano, as well as with his own son Chico, who has himself achieved acclaim as a jazz musician. In 1982, he and Chico teamed up to record the Columbia album, Fathers and Sons, with pianist Ellis Marsalis and his sons Wynton and Branford. Later recordings, such as The Great Divide and Good Forever, featured drummer Jimmy Cobb, pianist Richard Wyands, and bassist John Webber. Freeman had a regular Tuesday night set and jam session at the New Apartment Lounge on Chicago's South Side, and could be heard on select weekends at Andy's Jazz Club. During his later years, Freeman received acclaim in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands.

In June 2010, the University of Chicago awarded Freeman the Rosenberger Medal to "recognize achievement through research, in authorship, in invention, for discovery, for unusual public service or for anything deemed to be on great benefit to humanity."

Selected Discography:
Doin' It Right Now, Koch, 1972
Live at the Blue Note: 75th Birthday Celebration, Half Note Records, 1998
Von Freeman/Frank Catalano, You Talkin' To Me?!, Delmark, 1999
Vonski Speaks, Nessa, 2002
The Great Divide, Premonition, 2003

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