But What About This?!: Remembering Von Freeman


I turned the radio on this afternoon and heard, sadly, Richard Steele, Frank Catalano and Howard Reich on WBEZ’s The Afternoon Shift (Flash required) reflecting on the life of celebrated Chicago saxophonist Von Freeman, who died on Saturday. Reich’s long obituary in the Chicago Tribune does a thorough job of summarizing Freeman’s career and arguing for his importance—particularly as a musician who saw fit to remain in Chicago for most of his career rather than take the numerous opportunities that convinced many other musicians to leave. Likewise, George E. Lewis’s Power Stronger than Itself emphasizes, as part of a much more complicated story, Freeman’s importance for improvising musicians outside of Chicago as well as inside. Having done my own small part to ensure that he received recognition from my employer, I am still saddened by his passing.

Indeed, one of the first things I did upon settling in Chicago back in 2003 was to start heading, as often as I could, down to 75th Street on Tuesday nights for the Freeman-led jam session at the New Apartment Lounge. For the musicians performing as well as anyone listening intently from the audience, each of those nights was instructive. Freeman’s playing was an object lesson on how to negotiate the harmonic, performative and interactive hurdles of jazz repertory with creativity, skill and invention. I had been primed to expect such brilliance from Freeman from the first time I saw him, performing in a “Battle Royale” at Lincoln Center in April 1996. On stage with Joe Lovano, Johnny Griffin (another Chicago native) and Teddy Edwards, Freeman was the evening’s revelation for the way he schooled this listener (and his better-known compatriots) in the intricacies of his art. As I’ve told the story to friends over the years, every tune proceeded with each saxophonist trying to outdo the others, almost as if he were saying, musically, to those whose solos had come earlier, “Yeah, that was cool, but what about this?!” Then that soloist would proceed to erase all memory of what was good in the prior solos. Von Freeman Live at the Dakota CD CoverIt was a thrilling evening that, as the review linked previously makes clear, was less about competition or technical display than it was about musical inventiveness. By the time the concert ended, there were, so to speak, only two saxophonists standing: Freeman and Edwards, and of them the former had a slight edge. Since that evening, Freeman’s playing has never been a disappointment to me. Although there are a few recordings that showcase his particular kind of brilliance (like the Live at the Dakota disc), the give-and-take and multi-sensory punch of his live performances (as well as his generosity of spirit) are much more memorable for me. I’ll cherish those live experiences all the more now that the last set has ended. His music and his influence, however, have never been and will never be so easily contained…

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