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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"The lifestyle where I play is, you get up and you blow your brains out. The average guy, this is what he's got to do. Now, when you get on another level, you might even wear a tux. And you go there and you have the proper attitude, and the proper stance, and you do your thing . . . properly. And everything has a certain etiquette to it.

"But when you're over there in a place like Betty Lou's . . . it's just a different thing. My creativity is at its highest level, because I know I'm not goin' to make any money, so to speak, and I know just about what's goin' to happen, so you don't have anything to think about other than creating.

"I think the closest you can get to complete creativity in jazz music is at one of these dinky little places, where everybody's makin' a lot of noise, but it's controlled noise, 'cause they still wanna dig you, they still respect you; and you are playing for them, and for yourself. Now, say you go down to the London House or Mr. Kelly's and you hear a great musician or a great singer; they got a lot of things to be considering: how well they're dressed, who is there, maybe Kup is there, or somethin' . . . .

"But I could put this cat in Betty Lou's, and I'll bet you he gets a different sound altogether. Because Betty Lou's is gonna be mellow, and funky, and half the cats there are gonna be funky"—he even says it funky—"and it's got a different atmosphere that is conducive to jazz creativity. Nobody's gonna worry about money, or fame, or who's there, because nobody cares. There's not gonna be nobody there anyway, generally speaking. Nobody is tryin' to do somethin', nobody is tryin' to be nothin', everybody is just creatin'. Because you see, when you get into those bags, where you are tryin' to do other things, I think this lessens your creativity."

But it goes even deeper than that, even farther than what happens when the jazzman is on the stand. The spark that ignites a jazz performance, or a jazz musician—both of which realy so heavily on spontaneous composition—is creativity: "an elusive force," Von calls it. Von admits to having been truly creative only a few times throughout his life, but he has had enough run-ins with it to know how slippery it is, and to know that it doesn't restrict itself to hitting a musician only when he's ready to play.

Ideas come, explains Von, not only when you pick up your horn, but all the time. Creativity is a full-time, any-time thing, and Von feels that money, its attendant worries and the changes it brings, lessens the artist's receptivity to that "elusive force," wherever and whenever it might strike. Almost like the rites to some obscure reverse-exorcism, the artist needs free time to prepare himself and be ready to receive creativity; and if, as Von feels, having and worrying about money impinges on that free time—well, the line is drawn, and you can stand on whichever side you want. It's a choice that almost every creative musical artist in America goes up against at least once, and it's not easy.

A lot of cats—Von can tell you—never make it to that moment of choice. They get eaten up by the jungle of competition, of just plain survival at their profession, and get spewed out somewhere far away from questions of creativity. But if they do make it, you can bet there was some suffering, and it shows up in the music, and in the sound of the man as he sends his inner voices through a metal maze.

"Once you get proficient, and have paid the right amount of dues—and when I say the right amount, I mean, however many you paid, that's the right amount—you just get a sound, man. You see all the dope, all the whiskey, all the loose ladies, all the late hours, you go through all that stuff out here, man, you see it all happening. If you happen to survive, you gonna have something that's unique. It's gonna be a sound and a way of playin' that's you."

Von Freeman has survived, and he has the sound to prove it: the unmistakable quality of having survived, and suffered too, in the process. It's a kind of worldliness that you hear in that tone, a simple statement of the fact that yes, he's seen all that stuff and retained little bits and pieces of it in the strong, blunted throb of his tenor sax. He finishes off a number, with John Young's vibrating chords and the flurry of fireworks from Bucky Taylor's drums forming a pulsing cushion for his final notes. Then Von announces the next tune, a rarely played Charlie Parker ballad, in honor of Bird's birthday the night before. "You listening, Bird?" he shouts joyfully into the ceiling, joining in the laughter that fills Betty Lou's. And then, after the piano intro, he starts to play.

The performance is the perfect tribute to one of the greatest creative musicians, as it not only conjures up the memory of the man who inspired everyone since, but also provides a fresh and uncopied and decidedly Freeman-esque musical experience, a beautiful new creation. Every so often, after a lightning run or a carefully shaped phrase, Von takes the instrument from his mouth and shouts "Hear that, Bird?", almost, but not quite, breaking the mood he has established. And when the weird, strangely sensitive tones of the speeding, filigreed melodies have been swallowed up in the rolling wave of approval, Von Freeman smiles broadly, makes a circle with his thumb and first finger, and yells "That's for you, Bird!"

And then, as the rhythm section picks up the ebb and flow of the song, Von puts down his sax and begins to dance with a woman seated at a nearby table (they're all nearby), who he either knows or doesn't know. And as he glides around in front of the musicians, he shoots a glance and a grin and says, "It's easy, Neilly. It's easy."

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