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America's real artists are hiding out at Betty Lou's

The 1973 article that 'discovered' jazz master Von Freeman

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HERB NOLAN
  • Herb Nolan

This story is being republished as part of the Reader's 40th anniversary issue. Don't miss former Reader jazz critic Neil Tesser's 2011 reminiscence on his 38-year-old story.

"It's not easy."

Von Freeman is standing at the bar that lines one wall of Betty Lou's, which is pretty much the same as standing in the middle of the room. The husky smoothness of his voice replaces the smoothed-out huskiness of the post-bop, past-bop saxophone lines that have just burned out in a pyre of applause, while John Young's electric piano picks up the musical embers and fans them into new flames. Von approves vocally: "Young John Young!" he blurts, with the sound rising and falling like it was a Sunday hosanna. Then he pumps a few hands, orders up another scotch and milk, and turns, glowing with life and a laid-back and sublime sense of strength, to face the combo not two yards away.

"It's not easy." He says it with the knowing shake of the head that accompanies self-evident truths when they are verbalized.

It is a phrase that Von repeats often, whether standing at the bar with friends, or acting as the genial emcee for the pool of musicians who gather to play in varying combinations at Betty Lou's on a Wednesday or Thursday night; musicians, nameless to most of the most dedicated jazz buffs, gathering in an unobtrusive little south-side bar to unobtrusively put down some of the damn cookingest sounds around. One of those whose name is starting to get known is a young bassist named Tias Palmer, who comes over to say hello to Von, and is promptly embraced by the man's arms and smile as he exclaims, "See this boy? I raised him from infancy. He's seven now. Yes sir, he just like all my raisin's; they act a little crazy, but they do all right."

A young man maybe 18 or 19 (another "raisin'?") approaches the saxophonist, receiving the effusive and ebullient greeting seemingly reserved for only the immediate world, and attempts to pay off a small debt by stuffing a few bills into Von's hand. No luck; Von won't hear of it, would rather consider it a gift, and, when the young man tries again, says the cat can buy him a taste sometime. The young man smiles in resignation, thanks him, and drifts back to his table.

"It's not easy," Von says as he returns to the playing area.

But it is, or at least it seems to be, as he raises the 30-year-old Martin tenor sax to his flexible jaw, which clambers about acrobatically, under and around the mouthpiece, as he varies the volume on seemingly every successive note of the incredible lines he's ripping off. He's so freaking fast on that thing, but all the notes add up to a highly individualistic statement, not just a random selection from the Carl Fischer exercise books. His hyperexpressive tone, though, is the thing that catches you first, and it doesn't sound easy: a weird sound, maybe scrunged up from the garbage cans of the ghetto, a thinned out, maybe constricted sound that nevertheless embodies a certain strength, that unmistakable quality of having survived (through Lord knows what); a tone at times as tortured as the melodies it carries are tortuous. Hell, at times, it sounds like there's some semihuman creature hiding in the saxophone bell, crying out to anyone who will hear in a voice from that twilight zone between intelligible human speech and animal ravings. No, that tone is anything but easy.

But it isn't even the sound of the sax that Von refers to when he comments on the difficulty of it all. In fact, he's not talking about anything that's going on right then at the bar, on the bandstand, or at the tables; he's talking about what's going on in the streets outside, every minute of every day, he's talking about a way of life. He's talking about being out there, playing, for over 30 years. Von Freeman happens to be a jazzman of the highest caliber, and a saxophonist possessed of the most original conception of the instrument to be heard since Coltrane, but he is only one of scores of musicians playing in lots of little clubs dotting the south side, and lots of little south sides dotting the country. Von Freeman is a creative musical artist in America.

In the 30s, in Kansas City, before the music was discovered and exploited—I mean, packaged—by the eastern record companies, they were playing the freest, most wide-open jazz anyone had ever heard. But one of its main characteristics was that hardly anyone had ever heard it. "The District" was honeycombed with music clubs and cabarets, but it was a secret to almost everyone outside of KC, except the musicians. The greatest pianist Art Tatum once said, "Kansas City is a cellar, a dark place where the best wines are kept. And the music is different there, too."

Sometimes you might get the feeling that the cellar has been moved to the south side. It's not the same, of course: the level of activity isn't as high, and the music isn't that different in style from a lot of other places, because the south side isn't as isolated as was KC. But spread out all over the lower city are the little bars, like Betty Lou's, too small even for a bandstand, just a few tables cleared away from the center of the room and replaced by a trap set and electric piano and a few mikes and amps, and the musicians, playing with a warmth and sincerity that come only from playing among friends. A dark place where the musical wine flows freely.

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