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Full circle: Bud Freeman, 1906-1991

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"There are four basic precepts you must observe if you wish to score with the world. One, use Wall St. Cologne--in this way you will score with women. Two, use Yardley's Shaving Cream--in this way, clean-shaven, you will score with the general public. Three, change your socks daily--here you score with earthworms and all the good people who work underground. Four, always walk into the sun--now you score with the Sun People."

--Bud Freeman

Bud Freeman didn't exactly smell of money. And since he spent his career playing tenor saxophone at jazz concerts and nightclubs, his opportunities to walk into the sun were limited. But everybody liked him anyway. He was a thoroughly charming man, full of opinions, enthusiasms, stories; he was the kind of person who could turn an introduction into a fond friendship within minutes, and he did it again and again during his life. He spent his last ten years back in Chicago, the city where he grew up and first made jazz history. He wasn't exactly the patriarch of Chicago jazz--he was too accessible, and his sense of humor was too active, to be a wise, aloof patriarch. But he'd played the music since its early days here, he knew and played with all the greats of his era, and he was a major jazz artist himself.

During the 1930s Freeman's importance was inescapable. If you were an aspiring young tenor player, you had two ways to go: you could learn to play like Coleman Hawkins, or like Bud Freeman. This was true until just before the bop era, when Lester Young came along. Hawkins was the dramatic one, with a flaring technique, while Freeman was the romantic one, the swingingest of hard swingers and, in calmer moods, the sweetest of lyric artists. Not until 1957, in the fine LP Cootie & Rex/the Big Challenge, did Freeman and Hawkins finally stretch out together, with plenty of chase choruses to emphasize their contrasts. Hawkins plays everything staccato and Freeman plays everything legato. Freeman's lines are sinuous melodies, Hawkins's are full of flair and dash. Both tenormen are full of blues, but Freeman's sound is big and smooth with a rough edge, while Hawkins's is big, ripe with overtones, and because his tuning is more erratic, bluer.

If Bud Freeman was important, so was the first Chicago school of jazz, of which he was a part. It was made up of intense white kids from the west side who heard the jazz emigres from New Orleans--and exploded. They wanted to play that kind of music, too; a group of Austin High students decided which instruments they liked and met at Jimmy McPartland's home to practice. "Bud Freeman was the only guy that had not had any training," McPartland later recalled, and added that clarinetist Frank Teschemacher "used to get disgusted with him and say, 'let's throw that bum out.'" Freeman bought a C-melody sax from McPartland's father, a music teacher; and McPartland, who took up the cornet, later recalled that the gang tried to copy, phrase by phrase, strain by strain, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings' recordings. Freeman's memory was slightly different. He recalled, "We played the so-called Chicago style, and that was started by the great Louis Armstrong. As young kids in school, when we first recorded our ideas, it was our impression of what we'd heard the great black musicians of that day play."

Eventually Freeman came to belittle the importance of New Orleans altogether. "It's been said that New Orleans is the cradle of jazz. I say that's nonsense," he told interviewer Dempsey J. Travis in An Autobiography of Black Jazz. Freeman maintained that it was after the great New Orleans musicians moved to Chicago in the 1920s that they formed their mature art, and his favorite example was the greatest of them: Armstrong. "Chicago is where jazz was developed and where it actually happened. I'm not making a Chicago Chamber of Commerce statement. I'm simply relating a fact." Is it true? Well, there's no recorded evidence from New Orleans to contradict Freeman. Certainly the Chicago school made this city one of the first regional outposts of jazz development.

The best of the Chicago school--Freeman, McPartland, Teschemacher, clarinetist Benny Goodman, guitarist Eddie Condon, drummers Dave Tough and Gene Krupa--made their reputations at a young age and soon left town. Freeman had switched to tenor sax, and during the 1930s he played it in a series of dance bands, only some of which played jazz. Meanwhile, he also appeared on a number of recordings with Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, Billie Holiday, and some pop singers, and he created a particularly popular long-lined solo in Condon's "The Eel." The one truly important friendship that endured beyond Freeman's early days in Chicago was the one he had with Tough, who was a poet as well as a drummer. Tough introduced Freeman to art by taking him to the Art Institute, and he'd gotten Freeman his first gig, in 1924. When Tough joined the Tommy Dorsey band, Freeman followed, stayed two years, and got to solo on most of Dorsey's recordings. Tough then quit and joined Benny Goodman; Freeman followed and almost never got to solo. Seven months later, in 1938, after Goodman fired Tough, Freeman quit.

He fronted a few bands after that, even led a big band based in Chicago in the early 1940s, but his musicians took advantage of his good nature. He said, "I found I never could be a leader, because in order to take over the custodianship of other people's lives, one has to be a boss. I never wanted to be that--I hate that." For the rest of his life he worked as a featured soloist, seldom staying with any band for long, though he toured from 1969 to 1971 with the World's Greatest Jazz Band. There were a few exceptions to this solo career: he led an Army dance band in Alaska during World War II; suffered a nervous breakdown after that and spent a month rehearsing with ex-Chicago pianist Lennie Tristano, founder of the cool jazz idiom, to restore his confidence; and lived in Chile in 1949 to be with a lady friend there.

Only the best musicians of his generation could sustain the kind of long, wandering career Bud Freeman had: there was real force and authority to his music. When Freeman was a teenager, McPartland reported, he "had a terrific beat. He still has. He began by just playing rhythm, getting on one note and holding it--I mean swinging on it, just that one note." Early in his career he evolved a flowing way of playing that remained essentially the same for the rest of his life. Many of his solos consisted entirely of rolling rhythmic figures, which he played with marvelous uplifting force. He also believed that "the only thing about [a jazz musician's] playing that would endure, and give the listener something to identify with, would be their sound." His robust, clean, smooth sound with its edge of danger was capped with a huge vibrato--and over the years, his vibrato widened steadily. The combination of rolling lines and rolling sound resulted in what critic Nat Hentoff called "the impression of a large latent reserve of power. It's as if he's doing his best not to explode."

Freeman also had the ability to create songlike melody, a talent especially evident at slower tempos and in ballad moods. Apart from the 1938 Bud Freeman Trio date, in most of his swing-era recordings, with Dorsey, Condon, and others, he got to solo for only a chorus or less--but those solos were often small gems. Even after LPs replaced three-minute platters and long solos became commonplace, Freeman's solos were only a few choruses long. But he had a rare capacity to make a complete statement within the available space: a single, complete, fulfilling line. One of his few currently available recordings is a near-masterpiece, The Bud Freeman All-Stars (Original Jazz Classics LP), which contrasts his melodic curves with Ellington trumpeter Shorty Baker's tart, staccato playing. Whether he was inventing paraphrases of themes or creating wholly new melodies, Freeman's improvising is lovely; only in the minor-key "March On, March On" does he present a nasty mood, with short, gruff phrases and a rough sound that reveal the fist beneath the velvet glove.

In the heyday of the first Chicago school, Freeman and his friends were an important bridge between early jazz and the swing era. Their influence was more than musical, for along with their slightly older friend, cornetist Beiderbecke, they were the source of many of their era's romantic attitudes about jazz: jazz is liberation, jazz is honesty, jazz is social protest, gangsters and flappers, bootleg booze and reefer, the Roaring 20s in general. Freeman wrote three slim books that are full of riotous stories about the days when jazz was new; but far too many of his friends--including Beiderbecke--led tragic lives and died prematurely. After they left Chicago, they went their separate ways and soon abandoned the early Chicago style, though it survived to some extent in Condon's New York nightclub and in staged re-creations at festivals and concerts.

For most of Freeman's career he was based in New York; from 1974 to 1980 he lived in London and toured throughout Western Europe. He returned in 1980 to play at the second Chicago Jazz Festival, and "I got to thinking," he said, "I was living my life in airports and train stations, so I thought I'd get a little taste of social life." He settled here the next year, and after that he traveled pretty rarely; for that matter, most of his Chicago dates in the 1980s were concerts or one-nighters, at the Green Mill and Andy's and at Jazz Institute of Chicago affairs and other special events. And now, for a change, he was usually accompanied by a first-class rhythm section (Bob Roberts, guitar; Stu Katz, piano; John Bany, bass; Barrett Deems, drums) whenever he played. In Europe, in the 70s, he had recorded prolifically; the only recording from his final Chicago period was The Real Bud Freeman 1984 (Principally Jazz CD and LP), which is full of buoyant up-tempo grooves. Five years later the University of Illinois Press published the best of his slim books, his autobiography Crazeology, as told to Robert Wolf.

It's ironic that Bud Freeman and Jimmy McPartland died the same week in March. As teenagers McPartland and his guitarist brother had been the leading spirits of the Austin High Gang; he was one of Beiderbecke's first disciples, perhaps the very first, and in time he developed Beiderbecke's ideas into a brash Dixieland style of trumpeting. Unfortunately the boom in CD reissues has not yet caught up with the first Chicago school, and now nearly all of its players have vanished--yet another chapter in the history of jazz has nearly closed. For 65 years Bud Freeman played jazz, and toward the end his soloing had in a sense come full circle: he dealt once again in unadorned melody statements and riffing, and he still played with that powerful swing and unmistakable sound, one of the most distinctive sounds in all of jazz, ever.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lauren Deutsch.

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