America's real artists are hiding out at Betty Lou's | Music Sidebar | Chicago Reader

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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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Von Freeman is in his 50s, and he says he feels stronger than at any time in his life. He lives on the south side, with his mother, stepfather, and his son Von Jr., an emergent avant-garde saxophonist, in a modest—the writer's euphemism for poor—frame house on Calumet Boulevard. It has a small living room with a few chairs, a sofa, a table, and, of course, a piano. When he was little, his family bought him a saxophone after he had torn up his father's old Victrola and taken the arm, which was shaped roughly like a sax. He drilled holes in it and made a mouthpiece and was running around the house blowing the thing when his father came home and asked him what the hell he was playing. ("He couldn't play his sounds," Von says, "his Louis Armstrongs and Fats Wallers and things and man, he was disturbed. I thought he might kill me.")

"A lotta people say my sound is original, but it's really not," he says. "I got it from Dave Young, who used to be with Roy Eldridge. He's one of the very greatest horn players I ever heard, and I bet you there's not too many people who know anything about him. He's still here. He was on the staff of the Chicago"—pronounced Chikargo—"Defender, at least he was the last time I saw Dave, four or five years ago. And he's great." But Von doesn't know if Dave Young still plays.

He's pretty sure that Roy Grant doesn't play anymore. Roy and Von went to school together, jammed together, and Von says that "Roy could have been one of the world's great saxophone players, but I don't think today he even plays."

Why not? What would make any of these players, if they were really so great, drop their horns like they were suddenly radioactive and leave music?

"Well, it's that same story," says Von, "he just got lost in the shuffle and scuffle." It's not easy.

After the Navy, Von formed a house band at the Pershing Lounge with his brother George on guitar. They learned plenty as they backed up Bird, Diz, Lester Young, and others and, in a few years, when their drummer-brother Bruz joined them, the band was known simply as the Freeman Brothers. When that group broke up, about 1952, Von says he got "caught up—you know how you just get into something and you stick with it"—playing with rock 'n' roll and blues bands (including Otis Rush) for the next ten years. He played with various groups from then until 1969, when he returned from an international tour with Milt Trenier to form his own group, which he's led ever since.

And after rustling and hustling in the shuffle and scuffle, after being out there, playing, for over 30 years, Von Freeman recently cut his first album as a leader, on Atlantic. Downbeat rated it "very good," a description that unfortunately doesn't apply to the sales figures. It might seem a bit unusual that it took someone all that time to get around to putting Von's music on disc, that this truly individual saxophonist could remain unknown for so long, but Von is not surprised; after all, he can name "40 or 50 very good horn players around this town that no one knows anything about." It might also seem unusual that these players, musicians in the truest sense, are unknown to almost everyone, that these craftsmen of America's greatest musical tradition all live in modest homes in the ghetto, where they have gigs by day to make a living, so that at night they can blow their horns to make an art.

Von is one of those few who makes both living and art from the sound he produces; in fact, he's about the only local musician he knows who's never had a "day job" to tide things over. He won't deny it's been rough, but he won't put it down, either.

"You see, I don't think I could live any better. Like, to me, I'm rich. All my life, any time I ever really needed anything, the money was always there. And the love . . . Well, I can name four times in my life I was gonna quit playin'. I just had gotten defeated. And different persons would come to me—my son was the last one—and he said 'Man, I wouldn't quit playing.' My brother George has done it. I was on the road with Milt Trenier's great group, and every now and then I would get drugged, and want to quit, and some person would come out of the audience, just like the Master sent him, and tap me on the shoulder, and say, 'Hey: this is a great group. You certainly can play.' And it would just refuel you, regenerate you, and I think a lot of musicians haven't been fortunate enough to get this over the years. But I have." Survival tactics.

"I've been lucky," Von continues. "I've been able to just eke out a livin'; that's it. But I've been happy. I don't even know, if I had to do it over, if . . . well, I couldn't do it any differently anyway."

That's not just jive. Von has been happy: he believes that playing jazz is one of the most satisfying things in the world, and that the cats out there doing it are happy in a way that most people can only envy. And he probably wouldn't do it any differently: he holds on to a completely bohemian view of the freely creative artist, one in which money is not only unnecessary for, but actually at odds with, creativity. What it comes down to is money being at the root of something or other.

"The average jazz musician plays better poor than any way I've seen him. You give the average guy some money, man, he seems to change. It seems like he gets over into another bag, gets over into business, maybe starts thinking about his money and protectin' it, which of course is one of the forces of having money. I don't think he has time for that instrument like he had when he was poor. 'Cause when you poor, man, you express yourself through your instrument. You're hungry, you sit down, start bangin' at the piano, go get your horn and start tootin'. And brother, there is no rich man in the world that can play like some poor hungry cat, 'cause that's a different bag. You got a tortured sound . . . well, they call it soul. Maybe it is.

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