For the 91st birth anniversary of the master tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, one of the most singular individual stylists ever to play his instrument, here’s the proceedings of a Musician’s show that he did with me on WKCR in 1987. It was the first of what I believe were 4, maybe 5 encounters that I was fortunate to be able to put together with the maestro during my years at the station. Three years ago, when his NEA Jazz Mastership was announced, I posted this 1994 interview. A transcript of a 1991 encounter with Mr. Freeman and John Young has been posted on the Jazz Journalist Association website for more than a decade; maybe next year, I’ll post it here.
How did you get into music?
Well, actually I began very, very early by taking my father’s Victrola . . . See, that’s a little bit before your time. A Victrola had an arm shaped like a saxophone that the needle was in that played the record. And I had been banging on the piano. They had bought me a piano when I was about one year old, and I’d been banging on that thing all my life. So finally, I took up the saxophone at about five, primarily through my dad’s Victrola. I actually took it off, man, and carved holes in it and made a mouthpiece. He thought I was crazy, of course, because that’s what he played his sounds — his Wallers and his Rudy Vallees and his Louis Armstrongs (those were three of his favorites), his Earl Hines and things — on. He said, “Boy, you’re not serious, are you?” Of course, I was running around; I was making noise with this thing. So he bought me a C-melody saxophone, and I’ll never forget it.
How old were you?
Oh, I was about 7 at that time. The guy sold it to us for a tenor. Well, it is a tenor, but it’s a C-tenor, a tenor in C. And of course, I was running around playing that thing. Gradually I grew and I grew and I grew and I grew. Finally I ended up in DuSable High School, where I was tutored by Captain Walter Dyett, like so many Chicagoans were.
Were you in the first class of DuSable High School?
Well, see, DuSable actually began in Wendell Phillips. That was another high school in Chicago, and Captain Walter Dyett was teaching there, where he taught such guys as Nat “King” Cole and that line, who were a little bit older than I was.
Ray Nance, Milt Hinton, a whole line of people.
Oh, there’s quite a few.
The band program at Wendell Phillips was initially established by Major Clark Smith.VF:Right.Q:By the way, did you ever come in contact with him?
No, I never did, but I heard a lot of things about him! I heard Captain Walter Dyett mention Major Smith, but I was so young at the time. And I was so taken up with him, because he was such a great, great disciplinarian, as I would call him — besides being a great teacher and whatnot. He put that discipline in you from the time you walked into his class. And it has been with me the rest of my life, actually.
You were in high school with a lot of people who eventually became eminent musicians. Let’s mention a few of them.
Well, of course, everyone knows about the late and great Gene Ammons, and of course Bennie Green was there, Johnny Griffin . . .
Griff was after you, though.
Well, I’m just naming them, because there were so many of them . . .
But in your class were Dorothy Donegan . . .
Dorothy Donegan, right.
. . John Young, Bennie Green and people like that.
Augustus Chapell, who was a great trombonist. Listen, there’s so many guys that we could spend the program just naming them.
Tell me about how Captain Dyett organized the music situation at DuSable. He had several different types of bands for different functions, did he not?
Yes, he did. Well, it was standard during that era, actually. He had a concert band, he had a swing band, and he had a marching band, and then he had a choral band. Like, you played all types of music there, and he made you play every one of them well. No scamming. And he had his ruler, he had his baton, and he didn’t mind bopping you. See, that was his thing to get you interested. Like, you could fool around until you came to the music class, which usually would be where you would fool around — but not with him.
Then they had a chorus teacher there who taught voice, and her name was Mrs. Mildred Bryant-Jones. She was very important. I haven’t heard her name mentioned too much, but I studied with her also. She taught harmony and vocalizing.
Actually, I never saw Captain Walter Dyett play an instrument, but I heard he was a very good violinist and pianist. I never saw him play saxophone or trumpet or anything, but he knew the fingering to everything, and he saw that you played it correctly — which of course I thought was very, very great. And he stood for no tomfoolery.
He provided a situation that was sort of a bridge from school into the professional world, didn’t he?
Well, that was later on. In fact, that was just about when I was about to graduate in ’41. He formed what he called the DuSableites. It was a jazz band. Originally Gene Ammons and quite a few of us were in that band. He had a great trumpet player who was living at that time named Jesse Miller, and he was one of the leading trumpet players in Chicago at that time. But Dorothy Donegan was in that band, playing the piano. A very good band. And we would play little jobs. He made us all join the union . . . That band lasted until ’46. I had come out of the service. I was in that band when it folded, actually, and that’s when I began playing professionally in, shall we say, sextets and quintets and things like that.
What kind of repertoire would those bands have?
Oh, it was standard. It was waltzes and jazz. He would buy the charts from the big bands, all the standard big band charts.
Were you playing for dancers?
Dancers and celebrations and bar mitzvahs, the standard thing.
While you were in high school did you go out to hear music? Did you hear Earl Hines?
Yes. Well, you see, Earl Hines, I’m privileged to say, was a personal friend of my dad’s. There’s three I remember that came by the house, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.
Was your dad a musician?
No, but he loved musicians. My father was a policeman. But he loved music and he loved musicians. And he would always have on the radio playing, and he played the whole gamut. That’s another thing that helped me. He liked waltzes. He liked Guy Lombardo’s orchestra. And he always had the jazz orchestras on. At that time, of course, the jazz orchestras did a whole lot of remotes, you know, from different clubs. Like, Earl Hines was coming from the Grand Terrace, and Earl was coming on sometimes nightly. Of course, he had a great band. And Earl would come by the house maybe once a year or so, and I’d see him talking with my dad, and I formed a friendship with him. Great man. And Fats Waller even played my piano!
Amazing you even touched it.
Oh, yes, he was a beautiful man. And of course, Louis Armstrong was . . . I don’t know, he was just like you’ve always seen him — he was Pops. Those three men I just fell in love with.
He was Pops off the stage, huh?
Well, he was Pops on and off. Everybody was Pops. He called me Pops. I think I was about five or six years old. “Hi, Pops!”
Who were some of the other bands around Chicago that you heard? Or some of the other players, for that matter?
Well, listen, there were so many great bands. In fact, when Earl Hines left the Grand Terrace, King Kolax replaced that band. And let me tell you something I think is interesting. When I was in the last year, I think I was in the senior year at DuSable, he approached both Gene Ammons and I, and tried to get us to go on the road with him. Jug went, and of course Jug never looked back. I stayed in school. But Jug went with that band until it folded, and then he joined Billy Eckstine — and of course, the rest is history with Jug. He cut “Red Top” in 1947, and he never looked back.Q:I’ve heard mention from you of a tenor player named Johnny Thompson who you said would have been one of the best had he lived.VF:Oh, listen, man, he was a beautiful cat, and he played almost identically to Prez without copying Prez. He held his horn like Prez, his head like Prez, and very soft-spoken, and then he was tall like Prez. Johnny came to an unseemly end, unfortunately.
Well, Prez had that effect on a lot of people, I would imagine. You, too, I think.
Oh, I was running around there trying to play everything that Prez played. See, Prez was like this. Everybody loved Coleman Hawkins, but he was so advanced harmonically you could hardly sing anything he played. But Prez had that thing where we could sing all of his solos. We’d go to the Regal Theatre and stand out front and (now I know) heckle Prez. Because he’d come out and play, we’d be singing his solos — and Prez never played the same solo, you know! He’d look at us as if to say “I wish those dummies would hush.” We’d be down in the front row, “Hold that horn up there, Prez! Do it, baby!” So all those little nuts were running around trying to hold those tenors at that 45-degree thing like him. Needless to say, Prez must have had the strongest wrists in the world, because today I can’t hold a tenor up in the air, not longer than for four or five seconds. And he had that horn, boy, up in the air, and could execute with it like that. Simply amazing.
Prez with the Basie band, huh?
Where did they play in Chicago?
Well, the Regal Theatre mostly. Most of the big bands played the Regal. Then they had another place called the White City out at South 63rd Street, and a lot of bands played there, too.
Let’s review the geography of the South Side venues, so we can establish where people were playing, and in what types of situations.
Well, the Regal Theatre was, of course, at 47th and South Parkway, which is now King Drive. Now, the Grand Terrace was down at 39th Street, and Club DeLisa was over at 55th Street. But the center where all the big bands really came was at the Regal Theatre. See, Earl Hines was at the old Grand Terrace, and Red Saunders, who had a great local band, was at the Club De Lisa.
They had the Monday morning jam session there, too.
Oh yes. It was famous throughout the world.
The famous show band there . . .
Yeah, Red Saunders. He was known as the World’s Greatest Show Drummer. That’s the way that they billed him.
How did you first come into contact with Coleman Hawkins?
Well, Coleman Hawkins used to play at a club called the Golden Lily, right down at 55th Street, next door to the El. Of course, we would go down there until the police ran us away from in front of the place, and listen to Hawk blowing. You could hear that big, beautiful sound; you could hear him for half-a-block. And he played at another club called the Rhumboogie quite frequently. I got to talk with him a few times, and he was always . . . He was just like Prez. He was gracious and beautiful.
Well, you’ve been quoted as saying that your style is really a composite of Hawk and Prez, with your own embouchure.
Yes. Well, at that time I didn’t really understand, but they used two entirely different embouchures — for people who are into embouchures, you know. I was fooling around trying to play like both of them, and I was using the same embouchure. Hawk had more of a classical embouchure, and Prez had more of what I would call a jazz embouchure, an embouchure that enabled him to get his feeling out the way he wanted it. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other; it’s just that they both had two different embouchures. Of course, when I came along, I didn’t really know what I was doing; I was just trying to sound like both of them at the same time.
But of course, I liked all of the saxophone players. I had a few local saxophone players I was crazy about. There was a fellow named Roy Grant, one named Dave Young, another named James Scales.
James Scales played with Sun Ra at one point.
Yes. Yes, he did! Very good. And he’s still around. He’s a very good saxophonist. He never left Chicago. None of those three did.
[Music: Charlie Parker, “Scrapple From The Apple,” “Anthropology,” “These Foolish Things,” “Moose The Mooche,” “Confirmation”]
When did you first hear Charlie Parker in the flesh, Von?
Well, actually, it was at different clubs around Chicago. The Beehive was one, and he worked numerous little clubs.Q:Do you remember the first time?VF:Well, at the Pershing. That was back in the ’40s.
What were the circumstances? You were in the house band.
Yes. Now, a lot of people don’t know whether it was Claude McLin on “These Foolish Things” or myself. There were several tenor players that were on these different jobs, and they were mostly using my rhythm section. And I really can’t tell whether it’s myself either, because almost all of us were trying to play like Lester Young at the time, because that was the thing to do if you were able at all. You were either playing like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, so you took your pick. And I was trying to play like a combination, of course, of both of them. That made me a sound a little bit different. But we were all in either a Hawk bag or a Prez bag, or between the two somewhere. Of course, I admired both of them equally. And along with Don Byas and Ben Webster . . . Well, you name all the great saxophone players, I loved them all.
Well, obviously, you had listened to a lot of records, and had heard everybody.
Oh, yes. I still do.
You and your two brothers were the house band at the Pershing for several years. How did that happen?
Just a blessing. Just a blessing. There was a great producer around town, or promoter you could call him, named McKie Fitzhugh, and he took a liking to us. He thought we had a nice sound and were capable of playing with these men. We had the great Chris Anderson at the piano, who could play anything, anywhere, and my brother Bruz was an up-and-coming new drummer with plenty of fire, and either Leroy Jackson or another fellow named Alfred White on bass. We were using several men then who were top local men around Chicago, and they were all young and able to play. Bird played very fast, and boy, you had to have men that were capable of keeping up with him. See, he would play these records at one tempo, but when he played in person, oh, you know, Bird could articulate those tunes. Diz and Fat Girl [Fats Navarro] and Howard McGhee and all the cats, they played very, very fast, and you had to keep up with them, see.
So it was more a blessing than anything else. There were many musicians around Chicago that could have done the same thing, but we were called. And we answered the call.
You were in a Navy band for four years before that, stationed in Hawaii.
Let’s talk about those very important years.
Oh, that was a blessing. That’s where I got my first real training. See, I was with the Horace Henderson band just for a while. Of course, when I went in that band, I thought I was a hot shot, you know.
That was your first professional job?
Yes. And when I went in that big band, boy, I found out just how much I didn’t know. And he had all of the star cats in the band, and of course . . .
Who was in the band?
Well, Johnny Boyd was seated right next to me, and a fellow named Lipman(?) was playing trumpet, Gail Brockman was in that band . . . Listen, some of the guys I can’t name now, because this was back in ’39, and I was like about 16 or something. So I was the new hot-shot in town in this big band. I could read. That’s about it! And they took me in hand . . . Because I was very humble. See, during that era, the young guys looked up to the older guys, and well that they should have. A lot of the older guys would pass a lot of their information and knowledge down to you if you were humble. And of course, I was. Still try to be.
Were you playing exclusively tenor sax?
Well, during school we all played a zillion instruments, probably most of them badly. But I was playing trumpet and trombone, drums, bass. If there was anything that you could get your hands on, Walter Dyett wanted you to learn it. But I ended up mostly playing tenor.
After working with Horace Henderson, you enlisted in the Navy and joined the band.
Oh, that’s where I really learned, boy. That’s where I ran into all the great musicians from around the world. Willie Smith and Clark Terry . . .
You were in a band with them?
Oh, no-no. See, Great Lakes had three bands, an A band, a B band, and a C band. I was in the C band. But all the big stars were mostly in the A band, and then the lesser players were in the C band.
Great Lakes is a Naval base north of Chicago near Lake Michigan, right?
Yes. So Clark Terry and I used to jam, and that cat, man, he could blow the horn to death, even back at that time, and this is like 1941 or ’42. Then of course, the bands were all split up, and I was shipped overseas. Now, a lot of people say that I have an original sound, but that’s not true at all. Where I got that sound and that conception of playing was from a saxophone player named Dave Young.
Yes. Dave Young used to play with Roy Eldridge and quite a few other guys. To me he was one of the greatest saxophone players I’d ever heard, bar none. He took me under his wing when I was in the Navy, when we were stationed in Hawaii. I said, “Man, how are you getting that tone you get? You have so much projection.” And I started using his mouthpiece and his reeds, and he corrected my embouchure a lot. In fact, I would say that most of my formative training on a saxophone was from Dave Young. I had been trying my best to play like Prez and Hawk and whatnot, and his style was what I’d say I was looking for between those two great saxophone players, Prez and Hawk, but it was his own thing and his own way of executing it, and I tried to copy it. I don’t think Dave Young plays any more. I think he’s still around Chicago, but I don’t think he plays any more. He was a few years older than I am. So the sound that I am getting I think is primarily the sound that he was getting. Maybe I’ve refined it a little bit more in all these years I’ve been doing it. But the idea for getting that sound came from Dave Young. Great saxophone player.
And he was with the band you were in when you were stationed in Hawaii called the Navy Hellcats?
You were in the Navy until 1946?
Yes, from ’42 until ’46.
What type of engagements did you play in the Navy? For the enlisted men, social functions and so forth?
Yes, and the officers. And we traveled all over the island. I was about the only one who had never been in a big band, other than Horace Henderson. All these men came out of Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway’s band, Count Basie’s band and what have you. That’s where I learned how to arrange; they taught me a lot about arranging. Because I used to take my little arrangements in, and everybody said, “Man, you got to get hip, baby. You got to tighten up some.” And they would show me different things.
The next music we’ll hear is by Gene Ammons, who was pretty much the main man in Chicago during this time.
Oh, Gene was echelons above the rest of us. He had already established himself, he had cut hit records, and of course, the rest of us were more or less using him as a guide post. At the time, Gene was working a lot with Tom Archia. Tom was like a vagabond type of musician; he was in and out of everything. He was a great player. And Gene mostly played with his bands.
What we’re going to hear now is Jug with drummer Ike Day. What did he sound like, as best as you can describe it?
Well, he had a very smooth sound; he was very, very smooth. He was ambidextrous, so he could do like four rhythms at once, and make it fit jazz — and a great soloist. But he was also a great listener. Like, he and I used to go out and jam, drums and saxophone, you know, and you didn’t miss anything. His time was very, very even, but he could do anything he wanted to do. Truly, I think, one of the few geniuses I’ve really heard.
Who were his influences? We were mentioning Baby Dodds before . . .
Oh, I would imagine those type. Sid Catlett and those type of fellows.
Was he originally from the Chicago area? Is that where he was raised?
You know, when I first saw him, he was around Chicago. I really never asked him where he was from. I know he loved the great Max Roach, he loved Klook [Kenny Clarke] — he loved all the fellows from New York, of course. And I would like to think that they dug his playing.
We’ll hear a Gene Ammons date with Christine Chapman on piano, Leo Blevins on guitar, Lowell Pointer on bass, and Ike Day on drums.
[Music: Gene Ammons, “Stuffy,” “Close Your Eyes” (1960)”; Ammons and Sonny Stitt, “Red Sails In The Sunset” (1961),” Stitt, “Cherokee” (1950)]
I’d like to go a little more into what the musical life in Chicago was like in the late ’40s and early ’50s. There was so much happening.
Man, it was one of the greatest eras of my life. You could go from one club to another, and you could catch Dexter in one club, you could catch the great Sonny Rollins in another club, you could catch Coltrane down the street, you could catch the great Johnny Griffin down the street, you could catch [Eddie] Lockjaw [Davis] when he’d come in town — all these cats were some of the greatest saxophone players ever heard of. Lucky Thompson, Don Byas.
Ben Webster, man, I used to hang out with! It was beautiful. I used to ask him, I said, “Mister Ben, how do you get that great sound, baby? Tell me, please!” He said, “Listen. Just blow with a stiff reed.” So I was running around buying fives, man! I wasn’t getting anything but air, you know, but it was cool, because Ben said, “Blow a five,” you know.
But all of the great saxophone players . . . Wardell Gray would come to the Beehive. If you name a great saxophone player or a trumpeter or pianist (well, a great musician), they were around 63rd Street during the late ’40s and early ’50s. And you could go from the Cotton Club, which was a great club there, the Crown Propeller, Harry’s — there were so many clubs there.
And all the clubs would be full. The community was into it.
Oh, listen! And people were patting their feet and their booties were shaking and clapping hands. When you walk into a club and see that, man, you know people are into that thing, see, because they can’t be still. You had drummers at that time, man, like Blakey and the cats would come in town; these cats were rhythm masters. When they played a solo on the drums even, you could keep time with it. Max would come in there and you could hear the song; you know, when Roach would play, you could still hear the song.
So it was just a singing, swinging era. And of course, I was running around there trying to get all of it I could get, get it together and try to piece it together. The cats who actually lived in Chicago didn’t have too much of a name at the time, but we were mixing with all of the stars from around the world. And it helped us. See, it helped us greatly. At that time you could do a lot of jamming, unlike today. Of course, it just helped you to get up and rub shoulders. You could talk with the cats. It was beautiful.
Were you able to make a living playing just jazz, or did you also deal with blues and other types of music?
Well, see, at that time, in my opinion, it was almost all the same. Like, they had this rhythm-and-blues, but it was very similar to Jazz. Now, you had the down-and-out blues cats, you know, who were playing just strictly three changes. But you had a bunch of the rhythm-and-blues cats who were actually playing jazz. And it swung. Maybe it was a shuffle beat, but you’ve got to remember, some of Duke’s greatest tunes, if you listen, the drummer is playing the backbeat or the shuffle, or stop time, or something — and that’s in some of his greatest tunes. Like, if you hear Buhaina play a shuffle or something, man, it swings, because he’s hip and he knows how to do it so it’s still jazz. It’s just a matter of having that taste and knowing where to put those beats. See? Because jazz musicians are always very hip, always very hip dudes, because they spend their life learning these things and practicing these things, see. And a lot of the jazz cats are in it to further the music. Of course, they want money, they need money like everybody else. But their primary thing is to further this music — I like to think.
Von Freeman is certainly one who has contributed to the cause.
Oh, well, don’t look at it like that, Ted! No, it’s just that if I’m not famous and make a lot of money, I can blame nobody but Von Freeman. Because I stayed right there in Chicago, see. And no one is going to stay in Chicago or anywhere else, unless it’s New York, and get a big name, because there are not recording outlets. Well, I know all of this. And I’m not sacrificing anything! Hey, I’m happy where I am. It’s just happenstance I’m in Chicago.
Well, I wasn’t thinking of it like that; I was thinking of it in terms of your advancing the cause. But you’re painting a picture of Chicago that was veritable beehive of musical activity.
Oh, it was. Everybody was coming there. And the whole town was swinging. Like I said, you could go from club to club and find a star — and he might not even be working; he just might be in there jamming. You know, that type of thing. Because the music had such a beautiful aura to it at that time. I like to think that it’s coming right back to that now. I can see it happening again.
In Chicago now.
Oh, yes, Chicago is really opening up.
It was pretty dry in Chicago for a while.
Oh, for a while we went through a dry spell that was mean. At one time I was on 75th Street, and I was the only guy playing Jazz on 75th Street, as famous as that street is! And I was jamming mostly, and all the cats would come by and help me by jamming. Like my brother George, with Gene Ammons, and Gene Ammons would come by when they were here — “Jug is down the street, man, with Vonski!” They’d all run down there, you know, and my brother George would bring Jug along with him. And of course, Jug had this big name and this big, beautiful sound, and he would take out his horn . . . In fact, he would blow my horn, and just knock everybody out. I loved Jug.
[Music: Johnny Griffin, “Chicago Calling” (1956)” Wardell Gray, “Easy Living” & “South Side” (1949), Dexter Gordon, “Strollin’” (1974)]
During the break we had a call from somebody who noted that we had been playing Sonny Stitt before, and noted Sonny Stitt’s propensity to try to take over jam sessions, cutting contests, so to speak, which certainly is popularly identified with Chicago tenor playing. He wondered if you had anything to say about that renowned institution in Chicago life, the cutting contest.
Well, now, Sonny Stitt was one of my running partners, boy. But nobody, nobody fooled with Sonny Stitt when it came to jamming. Sonny was extra mean. Because Sonny could play so fast, see. And Sonny would bring both his horns. See, we would all be jamming, and of course, Sonny would tell his story on, say, alto. It’s very hard to even follow that. And then after everyone had got through struggling behind Sonny, then Sonny would pick up the tenor. So the best thing to do with Sonny Stitt was make friends with him. [Laughs] That was the best thing. Because I loved him.
See, I have a lot of Sonny Stitt in my style. I used to kid him all the time. I used to tell him that he was one of the world’s greatest saxophone players. He’d say, “Aw, shucks, do you really mean it?” But I really meant it. Sonny used to come to Chicago . . .
In fact, you know, when you think about Chicago (this is my opinion, of course), and you think of the saxophone players . . . Man, I don’t know. But I can run down a list and the styles . . . Now, for instance, you had that style of Willis Jackson, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, and you had Fathead Newman, and of course, Ike Quebec (everybody called him Q), and Joe Thomas, Dick Wilson, and of course, the cat who is still the man, Stanley Turrentine. Now, that’s just one style of tenor that’s hard to master, because all these cats played hard, man, and they hit a lot of high notes, and they played a very exciting instrument.
Then, on the other hand, you had cats around Chicago like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Allen Eager would come through. Now they were playing . . .
That serious Prez bag.
Yeah, that serious Prez bag, which is that softer thing. Then you had cats like Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, and Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons bootin’ — that other type of tenor. And of course, don’t leave out Jaws, and the fellow that you just played used to hang around Chicago and wiped everybody out, Dexter Gordon, Long-Long Tall — he and Wardell.
Now, there’s three definite different schools of tenor, and when you pick up a tenor, unlike most instruments, you’ve got to master all three of those styles. And I can tell when a cat has missed one of them. I don’t care which one of these styles it is. I can tell when I listen to him a set which one of these styles he missed.
I think that’s what made Coltrane so great, was Coltrane was a composition of all these styles. Because see, when Trane first came to town, man, he was playing alto with Earl Bostic, and Earl Bostic, we considered not rock-and- roll, but rhythm-and-blues. Of course, Earl started on high-F and went beyond; that was his style; and then he growled on the tenor. And Trane was there with him. So Trane was getting all this stuff together.
And of course, nowadays . . . That’s one reason why I admire Chico Freeman so much. Because he has, and he’s trying to get Sonny Rollins and Trane, and then all the cats I named into his bag. Which is what you’ve got to do today. See, you can’t just have one style and say, “Hey, I’m going with that.” Like all these cats started with Trane in his later years, which is a beautiful thing, but they don’t know what Trane came through. And of course, it’s hard for them to get that feeling, because he had the whole thing. And nowadays, you have to try to get all that there, because all of these saxophone players are great saxophone players. Some of them are still living, see.
So to me, that’s what makes the tenor the mystery instrument. And I remember, like, in the ’50s, we were all trying to get Gene Ammons, because he was cutting all the hit records and he had this big beautiful sound. Then Johnny Griffin came along with all that speed; he’s another genius. So then everybody shifted over to his bag. Sonny Rollins used to come to town, into the DJ Lounge, and of course, Sonny had it all, everybody was trying to get between Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins — everybody was trying to get that thing together. Then before they could get that thing together, here comes Trane. And of course, Trane just kind of drowned everybody, because he had all of that stuff together, and he left a lot of wounded soldiers along the way. See, cats are still trying to recover from that Trane explosion. And of course, they shouldn’t look at it that way. I think they should look at it that Trane assimilated everything; they’ve got to assimilate everything up to Trane and then move on.
Of course, that’s hard. You see, it’s pretty easy, maybe much easier to take one of those styles and then go for it. But the tenor is such that when you play now, you’ve got to be exciting, you’ve got to be melodic, you’ve got to be soulful, cheerful, you know, and all these other adjectives. So the tenor, when they see you with a tenor in your hand, you’ve got all these styles. Like Willis Jackson again. Man, I went on a trip with that cat. Man, if you are not together, he’ll blow you off that bandstand, because he’s got such a big, robust style, and he can play forty different ways. And he’s just one of the cats.
So you have to try to get your discography together, and you have to listen. And of course, a lot of these fellows are gone, but their records are still here. So I challenge every saxophone player that . . . And I’m just speaking now of tenor players. Now, don’t let me get into the alto players.
Oh, you could get into a couple of altos.
Well, I really don’t like to get into them, because you know, Bird and Johnny Hodges and all those cats, man . . . There’s a bunch of them. If you get into them, a saxophone player says, “Aw shucks, I’ll play the piano, ha- ha, or the trumpet.”
Well, then you’ve got to deal with some other people if you do that.
Yes. See, there’s so many ways to deal with things. But I think everybody is so blessed nowadays that they have the records here, and they can listen and listen, and try to get these different styles into their head. And of course, they don’t have to worry about sounding like anybody else, because once you get all that stuff together, you’re going to sound like yourself — unless you just go and play somebody else just note for note and try to get their tone. And I don’t see much sense in that! I think eventually you’re going to find your own thing. I think that’s what it’s all about.
We’ll start the next set with a piece by bassist Wilbur Ware, a bassist who has to be classed in a niche by himself. And Von knew Wilbur Ware quite well.
Oh, he used to work with me. Well, Wilbur Ware, when I first met him, he was a street-corner musician. Man, he was playing a tub with a 2-by-4 and a string on it when I first heard him. I said, “Man, do you have a real bass?” He said, “Well . . . ” I said, “Do you play acoustic bass?” He said, “I’ve got a baby bass.” I didn’t know what he meant, but he had a bass that was about a quarter-size bass. It was a real bass, but it was very small. I said, “Well, man, come and work with me.” He said, “Well, where?” I said, “Well, I’m playing a duo on the weekends. I’ve got two gigs, man.” I felt great to have these two gigs. And we were playing in a place up on the second floor in the Elks Hall. He said, “With two pieces?” I said, “Yeah, man, that’s all the man can afford to hire.”
So this cat made this gig with me, man, and honest to goodness, just bass and tenor. And this cat was playing . . . See, Wilbur’s conception was that he played the bass like maybe he’s playing two basses, like he’s walking and he’s playing another line. That’s just his natural style! And the cat at the time didn’t read, he didn’t know F from G, he didn’t know nothin’. But he had this great ear. You know, formally! But he was great, man.
So he said, “Well, listen, man, how many more gigs you got?” I said, “Well, I’ve got a few more little old gigs” — because then if you had ten gigs a year, you were lucky. So I was telling him, “Man, I got a couple of other little gigs, but you’ve got to read some arrangements.” He said, “Do you think I could learn to read?” I said, “Sure, man!” So he started coming by my house, and I started showing him a few things about counting. And the cat picked it up so quickly! He was just a natural genius on bass. And he always played down in the bass fiddle. And I used to try to get him to smile, and I’d say, “Wilbur, smile some, baby. Come on, get with me!” Because I was I was doing the five-step and everything else, trying to feed this family and all. So he got to the point where he could just read anything you put in front of him. And I said, “Man, how in the world can you learn to read that quickly?” He said, “You know, I feel like I always could read.” But that’s when I found out that some people don’t really need to read, man. It’s great if you can. But that man could hear anything you . . . He was a natural musician.
As he proved with Monk when he went out with him.
Yeah, really. And a great cat. And he used to be so cool and so suave, until one night I heard him play the drums. He got on a cat’s drums, and he goes crazy. So I found out, now, that’s where his personality was. Because he kept great time on the drums. But he went nuts. He would start giggling and laughing! I said, “Man, get up off those drums and get back on the bass” — and he was very cool again! Wilbur Ware, man, he’s a great cat.
Do you think different instruments have different personalities?
Oh yeah. Because I’m pretty cool playing the tenor, but man, get me on a piano and I start jumping up and down. I think that’s where my natural personality is! I play something like . . . I’ll tell you who my style is like. It’s something like a mixture between Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. Really, just naturally.
[Music: Wilbur Ware, “Mama, Daddy” (1957), Cliff Jordan, “Quasimodo” (1978), F. Strozier, C. Anderson, “The Man Who Got Away” (1960)]
Von, you and Chris Anderson were associates for quite some time.
Oh, man, he was with me a long time. He was the cat who hipped me to harmony, man. I thought I knew a little something about harmony, boy, but when I went around to Chris Anderson, that little genius was in this . . . Now, you’ve got to understand, this was back in the ’40s. Man, that cat could play some things; he and Bill Lee, a bass player that’s around. Man, those cats had such an advanced knowledge of harmony! Chris used to take me aside, and I’d sit there and listen to him just play, and the different variations that he could and would play, man — I’m still astounded. And I heard that record; he’s still doing it.
In the segment we’ll hear the “avants,” as Von said, another generation of musicians who were taking the music in a different direction. And one of the key figures in that is Sun Ra.
Oh, man, yeah!
Tell us about your experiences with Sun Ra.
See, Sun Ra and I were more than just musicians. We were like friends. I have a few stories I could tell about Sun Ra, but really not on air at this time. But Sun Ra was and is an amazing man.
But before I get into Sun Ra, I would like to mention Frank Strozier. I met Frank when he first came to town with Harold Mabern and George Coleman, and of course, these cats are three of the greatest ever. You know, I didn’t mention alto players, but Frank Strozier and cats like McPherson, and Lou Donaldson (who is appearing at the Apartment in Chicago this weekend while I’m playing here — because you know, I love Lou), and of course, the great Phil Woods, and Jackie McLean! See, when you get into the alto players, then man, we could talk all day long about them, too — because that’s another bag.
See, I have often said that there are alto players, and there are tenor players, and there are a few baritone players — and a few soprano players. I think that Sonny Stitt was a rarity, he and Ira Sullivan, that they doubled. But I think more saxophone players either hear B-flat or E-flat, or hear that high horn, which is soprano, or hear that low horn, which is baritone. Of course, we could get into the baritone players, too! We could be here until tomorrow!
But I love all of them, because I know the problems that face a saxophone player.
But speaking about Sun Ra, Sun Ra was a man who I think had envisioned a lot of things that are happening today, with the synthesizers and whatnot. Sun Ra was really actually doing that back in the ’40s. And he was living a dual life, man!
Well, this cat was writing a straight show at a big club called the Club De Lisa; I mean, dah-da-duh-da-da-data–boom. And then he was writing all these other things for his band. His music encompassed so many different varieties of things, until I think Sun Ra is finally getting his due. Whether you like him or whether you don’t like him, you have to understand that the man was a seer of the future. Because people are doing now what Sun Ra did 40 years ago. And John Gilmore was playing outside way back then. I mean, what they call outside now. John was playing like that then, he and Pat Patrick both.
John Gilmore has said he met Sun Ra in 1953; I know you were working with people even before that. Was he working at all?
Well, he was doing his thing . . .
Apart from the De Lisa gig?
Yeah. And he was playing then . . . He was so strong . . . He’d play a dance. If three people came, he’d thank them and keep right on writing and keep right on playing. The man is a strong man, physically and mentally and spiritually and psychologically. That’s why he was able to last. Because people used to say, “Aw, he’s spacey, he’s out there” — but now everybody’s doing it.
What did you think of the out-there music then?
Oh, I dug it. I love it. I love it right today. Listen, let’s get out! Let’s get out there!
But a lot of the cats you were coming up with playing bebop didn’t really share that feeling about it.
Well, I think what a lot of the people thought, and the musicians, because I talked with a lot of them, I came up with them . . . Well, nobody wants to hear anybody go out if he hasn’t learned in. You see, if you haven’t learned your basics and you didn’t come up through all these saxophone players and trumpet players and piano players and drummers, the people who were fundamental in creating this music, if you didn’t pay your dues in that, well, nobody wants to hear you play outside, because you don’t know in.
And I have often said that you should learn in. Not that you have to learn in, because some people are just geniuses. But I would say the majority of us have to learn in. Now, if a person comes along who is playing what he should play and he’s outside, well, I would just say he’s a genius — because a lot of people thought Bird was out. But Bird wasn’t really out. He was just advanced. But he wasn’t out.
So I think that a lot of people have to catch up with different artists. But I think as a rule, the average person should learn in, then go out. And if he goes out with taste, he’s not going to stay out there too long. What’s he’s doing that people can relate to, and he’s still using his dynamics correctly . . . And when you go outside and it’s still done with taste, you still have patterns, you have different things that you’re doing that people can relate to. That’s my opinion.
In this next set we’ll also hear something by John Gilmore with Andrew Hill, who came up in Chicago as a child virtuoso in the 1940’s, and made his recorded debut with Von in 1952, I think, with Pat Patrick and a very young Malachi Favors. And I wonder if you might say something about your relationship with Andrew Hill and Malachi Favors.
Well, when I first heard Andrew, Andrew was playing in a Bud Powell vein. This was after Chris and I had parted, and Andrew more or less took his place. He was a great player, but he was playing straight-ahead. Anyway, he eventually went on, and he crossed over into playing his own thing, which some people call avant-garde. I just say he just moved on.
Of course, Malachi Favors then was playing straight-ahead bass, which was great, and he was a good player and had a good tone, and then he went with the Art Ensemble and started his own thing — or their things.
But 1952, of course, was well before that. Does that record exist? Is there a copy of it?
[Laughs] It’s on a label called Ping, and the person who put this out passed, and so I imagine the record . . . well, I know the record is out of print.
But listen, you know one thing? Andrew was playing organ on that record. And no one back in Chicago at that time knew how to record organ. So if you’re listening to the record, you can hardly hear him. But he was an excellent organ player. And on that recording, that’s what he’s playing.
[Music: Sun Ra/Gilmore, “State Street,” “Sometimes I’m Happy”; A. Hill/Gilmore, “Duplicity”]
Now we’ll get into a short set on Muhal Richard Abrams, one of the guiding lights of the music in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s, and someone Von has known for a long time. Let’s talk about Muhal. And you have other things to say, too, I know.
Oh, listen, you just about said it all. The man is a great orchestrator and a great father to a whole lot of the cats, and he taught them all very, very well. Listen. I guess a man that was less than he would have sapped himself, because he’s really given of himself, and he’s helped the music so much. He’s something like Walter Dyett. He taught a lot of these guys discipline through just watching him. And Richard is a very dedicated man. And hey, man, what can I say about him? He’s a great musician, and I love him — plus, he taught my son. I got to love him! Taught him well, too.
You know, speaking of Muhal, another man here who has done so much for the young cats (and I know this personally) is the great Sam Rivers. You know, with his loft sessions he helped many a man pay his rent. And he’s another disciplinarian, you know. Sam doesn’t take any stuff. And of course, his great lady, that lady Bea, she’s a great patron of the arts. I couldn’t say too much about Sam and Bea Rivers.
You were talking before about how Sam Rivers had really developed a style of his own, and that’s something you appreciate.
That’s right, he has a style of his own. And I know how difficult it is in this music to arrive at that.
You were also talking about the difficulties of doubling, and Sam Rivers has developed a personal style on tenor, soprano, flute — and piano for that matter.
That’s the truth. He’s a master musician.
[Music: Muhal-Favors, “W.W.”]
Von, did you have any relationship with the AACM in the 1960’s?
Well, see, what happened, when they first formed, Muhal had come to me and wanted me to be one of the charter members. But I’m more or less a loner, and he understands that. I have my way with the fellows that come around me. I’m more of a guy that teaches by example, I guess, if I’m teaching at all. Osmosis, let’s just put it that way. Muhal was into the fact that he was tired of the jukeboxes dominating the scene. And this is what was really going on. If you had a job and you didn’t really play what was on the jukebox, or something similar to it, the proprietors did not hire you. So he went to a club, which was Transitions East, with a fellow who is gone now named Luba Rashik, who used to help him manage, and they were able to play just what they wanted to play, and they had a built-in crowd. So that’s where it began.
They also played at the Abraham Lincoln Center.
At the Lincoln Center. He did the same thing. And they were able to play their own music. And they had a crowd for it, a built-in audience for it. And of course, when he came to New York, he continued the same thing. And he’s done that all over the world. A very brave, strong, fearless man.
I never did mention that there were some more cats that influenced me heavily, man, like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Pharaoh, David Murray and the World Sax Quartet, all of those dudes are some of the baddest cats in the world. And Sam Rivers, of course. You know, I had asked earlier if you’d ever heard of Marion Brown, because Marion Brown is a beautiful player, man. And he plays avant-garde to a certain extent. But these are just some of the cats, man, that . . . Of course, when you do something like this, you should say “and a whole lot of others.” Because you really can’t name everybody. But these are some of the persons that come to mind by the way that some folks call avant-garde or whatever they want to call them. I just call them excellent players.
And playing the music of the times.
Really. I would include Chico Freeman in there. He tries to move on.
[Music: Von Freeman: “Catnap,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Tribute To Our Fathers”]
Von Freeman and John Young
November 20, 1991
copyright © 1991, 1999, Ted Panken
Q: Von Freeman and John Young were both born in 1922, and both went to DuSable High School. When did the two of you first meet?
VF: Well, I remember John from a long time ago. Let’s just put it that way. For a long time.
Q: Was it in school?
VF: Oh, I don’t know. I . . .
Q: Was it in a musical situation?
VF: Well, I knew about him long before I really knew him. I always admired his playing, way-way-way back.
JY: I remember, Von, when we first played together, when was it, 1971, at . . . What was the name of that place?
VF: The New Apartment Lounge?
JY: At the New Apartment Lounge, yes. The other piano player, Jodie Christian, couldn’t make it. So Von called me to work with him, and we’ve been working with each other on and off ever since that time.
Q: But you had known each other back in high school undoubtedly.
JY: Well, I knew him, but our paths didn’t cross. He had his family band, his brother on drums and another brother playing guitar, and he played tenor saxophone, and I think he had Chris [Anderson?] . . . Anyway, he was using other piano players at the time. I was working with a dude named Dick Davis.
Q: So this was in the 1940’s, after the War.
VF: After the War, uh-huh.
JY: Or the 1950’s, I think it was.
Q: Both of you studied under Walter Dyett, and I believe John Young was in one of the first classes at DuSable High School as well. Didn’t it open around that year?
JY: Well, I was in the second year. What happened was, in ’34 they attempted to extend the old Wendell Phillips High School. It was called the new Wendell Phillips High School. But then they decided not to tear down old Wendell Phillips; they decided to keep it, and changed the name to DuSable. So it started off in 1934 as the new Wendell Phillips High School. They had to go into that stone and change the name to DuSable.
Q: There were a number of very talented young piano players in your class at that time.
JY: Well, I was in there with Dorothy Donegan and a fellow named Dempsey Travis, who wrote that book (he was playing the piano then, at that time), and Marbetha Davis. Nat Cole had just graduated not too long before that. Nat Cole and somebody else, I can’t think of him. Those were the piano players. We used to do what they called the Hi-Jinx at DuSable High School.
Q: The Hi-Jinx was a show band type . . .
JY: Yeah, it was a show to raise money. It was a fundraiser. And I was in the Hi-Jinx with these dudes, as a matter of fact, Redd Foxx was in one of those Hi-Jinx, a tramp band. But that was one of our fundraisers.
Q: So there was really tremendous musical talent all concentrated in this one high school, and there continued to be for many, many years.
JY: That’s right. Captain Dyett was at the root of it all. He’d cuss us out and make us do better than we did the previous time. He’d throw us out of the band, and if we came back the next day and didn’t make that same mistake, he’d pretend like he didn’t notice that we came back. He’d let us stay. [Von laughs]
Q: John Young, how long had you been playing piano at the time you entered high school? Had you already developed your musicality?
JY: Yes. I had my first lesson when I was about eight, I think it was. I had a private teacher for about ten years. Two, because I had one lady for five and then a gentleman for the other five. The lady didn’t want me to play jazz; she said, “That old devil jazz.” She wanted me to be a classical artiste. But I’d been listening to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Basie, and I said, “Well, that’s me.”
Q: You could be an artiste of another sort. But this was all music that was really part of the Chicago scene when you were a youngster coming up.
JY: Yes, that’s right.
Q: I don’t know how much first-hand exposure you were able to get as a teen and pre-teen. But give us a little flavor of what things were like in Chicago when your consciousness about music was starting to emerge.
JY: Well, if you want to know what things were like in Chicago, I’d better let Von . . .
Q: Von Freeman, I’ve been neglecting you.
VF: No, it’s fine. John is doing fine. [John laughs] But I really don’t remember.
Q: You don’t remember?
VF: No, man. Listen . . .
JY: It’s just like “Stardust,” huh?
VF: Yeah, listen.
JY: “Oh, but that was long ago . . . “
VF: See, because things were so groovy then that you had a tendency not to even realize how good it was. For instance, John was talking about Art Tatum before; of course, anybody with any musical sense at all loved that man’s piano playing. And I was lucky to have the fellow who first told me about him playing in a group of mine. His name was Prentice McCarey. Prentice was just like John. He loved him. He was a great piano player himself. Every time Coleman Hawkins would come through town . . . And this was way back, before I went to the War, so it was in the ’30s. See, I lived over Prentice McCarey. I used to listen to him practice on the piano. He was playing a place called the Golden Lily on 55th Street with one of my idols, which of course was Coleman Hawkins. And later on, I happened to have acquired a job at this same club on 55th Street on the south side of Chicago, upstairs. And it was funny . . . We were playing there, and Prentice said to me, “Man, guess who I’m gonna bring by your club tonight?” Well, I couldn’t guess. I thought he meant Prez, because he knew I loved Lester — Lester Young. But it was Art Tatum.
I’ll never forget that night, because when we got through playing, he went somewhere and picked up Art, and brought Art back. Let’s see, we got off at about one; it must have been about 2 o’clock in the morning. And Art played for about four or five hours just on the piano. And the piano wasn’t that great; a couple of keys were broken. He just missed them all night long. And that’s one of the high evenings of my lifetime. I had just gotten married, I think I was 23 years old or something like that. I didn’t realize how great that was.
The reason why I brought that up is that’s the way Chicago was. It was so good and there were so many big people in town . . . Like 63rd Street was full of musicians, full of clubs. 64th Street, the great Pershing Lounge up there. They would bring everybody in . . .
Q: But in the ’30s, when you were a teenager . . .
VF: Oh, that’s when it started. That’s when all that got started, and it really lasted until just about to the end of the ’40s . It started really dying out around 1950.
Q: For instance, as teenagers, were you able to go, say, to the Grand Terrace and hear Earl Hines, or was that off-limits to you?
VF: No, I never went. I was too young for that.
JY: Well, they broadcast from there, so we . . .
VF: But we heard that, though.
JY: We heard it on the radio.
Q: And was this what you were trying to come in under? Was Earl Hines the band that you admired? Von, when you were a young saxophonist, who were some of your models?
VF: Well, one of the persons is still living. What’s his name, John? He plays at Andy’s a lot now. On Mondays. He plays clarinet and tenor . . . Sort of a red looking fellow. He was on there with Budd Johnson. Oh, his name is Franz Jackson.
But see, during that era, Earl was just one of the many bands. Like, Count Basie was out here and all those big bands. Because that was the big band era. And of course, Earl had one of the better bands, and it just happened that he was based in Chicago. But then when Earl left, King Kolax brought a band in (do you remember that, John?) for a while.
VF: He was a great trumpet player around town. And of course, he had Bennie Green with him, Gene Ammons . . . In fact, Billy Eckstine took some guys out of his band. Gene Ammons was in the Kolax band.
It was so good, and there were so many different personalities coming in from around the country. Now when you look back, when there’s nobody coming in on the south side, hardly, you think about how good it really was. That’s the reason why it’s hard to remember, because you should have been writing down all that stuff, really, but you didn’t. You had a tendency to think to think it was going to last forever, and of course it didn’t.
[MUSIC: Von and Chico Freeman, “Mercy, Mercy Me”; Gene Ammons, “My Way”]
Q: John Young joined Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy as a pianist in the early 1940’s.
JY: That’s right.
Q: What was your progression from high school to the point where Andy Kirk was calling you to join his band?
JY: Andy Kirk was on the road and needed a piano player, so he called the Harry Gray, the President of the Musicians Union, to send him a piano player, and he recommended me for the gig. Harry Gray was the type of fellow that has a big voice and talks loud; he was one of those kind of guys that believes in talking loud on the phone to get his point over. He calls me up on the telephone, and he says: “Mister Young!” He scared me half to death because I was young; I was only 19 or 20 years old. “Young! We have a job for you. It’s with Andy Kirk. Can you make it?” Hey-hey! I didn’t know what to say, you know what I mean. I said, “Uh-unh-uh-unh . . . ” He said, “Well, I’ll call you back.” So he called me back . . . I had to talk about it with my mother because I wasn’t 21 years old yet, see. So I had to tell my mother about it, and beg her to let me go. So anyway, he called me back, and I said, “Yes, sir, Mr. Gray. I’ll make it.” So he said, “Yes, well, okay then, I’ll call Andy.” So that’s how I got with Andy Kirk.
Q: Were you familiar with the band from records before that?
JY: No. All this was completely new. Mary Lou Williams had left the band, and the piano player who replaced her had just recorded “The Boogie-Woogie Cocktail.” “The Boogie-Woogie Cocktail” was getting over. So I had to take the record home and learn it off the record. [sings theme] So I took it home and laid my ear on it, and got back and played it as close as I could to the way the record sounded.
Q: Were you working in Chicago after high school?
Q: What were you doing in the interim? Tell us a little about your activities, John Young.
JY: Well, after I left high school, a fellow called me up and he took me to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I worked with him. I forget his name. But my earliest recollection of working in Chicago was some striptease joints. So I enjoyed that.
VF: [laughs] Look out, John!
Q: Was it solo piano?
JY: No-no . . .
Q: Did they have a little band?
JY: No, no, they had a group. It was a striptease joint downtown on . . . I think it’s called Clark Street — at a striptease joint down there. And then I worked in a place called Calumet City. What they would do . . .
Q: The notorious Calumet City. [Von: loud laugh]
JY: They would hang some drapes, some see-through drapes in front of the band, because they didn’t want the customers to think that the musicians were too familiar with the striptease artists, you know what I mean? So we played . . . Some of these striptease artists had some very difficult music while they was out there taking clothes off. And you’d be mad, because they got you there, and you’re back there sweating, and all they’re doing is just walking, traipsing around and taking a piece off here and there. And you’re back there sweating, trying to play the “Rhapsody In Blue” while they’d be walking around. But that’s what they liked. That’s what the striptease person wanted. And they’d want you to play that music. So I did . . . [sings ‘Rhapsody In Blue’] . . . and they’d just walk around, taking a little piece off here and there.
So that was my first gig before I really made a living. You know, you always make gigs here and there. But the first gigs that I remember where I really made a living was them striptease joints.
Q: Were you playing a lot of blues then, too?
JY: Oh, yeah. Well, you had to play that.
Q: Just talk about the piano styles in Chicago that you’d have to be going through.
JY: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. You had to play a little boogie here and there, and a little . . . Anyway, you had to know a little bit about most styles. Play a little of what they called stride, and you had to play a little boogie, and you had to play a little oom-pah, oom-chunk, oom-chunk-chunk — “boom-chink,” you would call it. You had to do a little bit of everything in order to try to make a living at it — which is the same thing I’m doing now. In order to make a living, you’ve got know a little bit about all of this.
Q: Well, subsequently (and we’ll talk about this later), you played with quite a few singers.
Q: Von, what were your earliest gigs after high school? Or were you also working during high school, outside?
VF: Well, you know, it was just about the same.
Q: You worked in the same strip joints.
VF: Oh, yes! [John laughs] And in fact, one of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.
Q: Well, I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.
VF: Oh! Well, see, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody.
Q: No more, no less!
VF: And the melody. And man, when I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody. And I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old.
Q: Were you playing tenor then?
VF: Oh, C-melody.
Q: C-melody was your first instrument.
VF: Yeah, my first one. And that really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there! Like John said, you played a lot of hard music, and you essentially played the melody out there. You had to learn the melody to tunes.
And so right today, I try never to forget the melody. Because I’ve found out that the people don’t forget the melody. So no matter how carried away I get, I try to remember the melody. All this stuff that you learned early in your career, you come to find out most of the things . . . Like, I wasn’t that crazy about Walter Dyett’s teaching. He was . . .
Q: Too authoritarian?
VF: . . . a disciplinarian and whatnot. But see, as you go along, and especially when you start getting in those 60s and closer to 70, see, you learn . . . One lesson is that most of the people who patted you on the back all the time and said, “Blow!” didn’t really mean it. The folks that you really think about are the ones that said, “Hey, man, that doesn’t sound good” or “Hey, that’s wrong.” They don’t really mean that it’s wrong. It’s incorrect; let’s put it that way. But you learn and you look back, you say, “Hey, they were trying to help me.”
Q: Von, let me get back to your career. When did you graduate from C-melody to the tenor?
VF: Well, I was playing dances. See, there was a famous lady named Sadie Bruce, and she gave me my first job. I must have been about . . . My first local job on the south side of Chicago was in her dance room. Because see, I used to tap dance.
VF: Yes. So she asked me one day, “Somebody told me that you play an instrument.” I said, “Well, yes, Mrs. Bruce, I do.” She said, “Well, have you got a little old band? Because I’m planning to start some socials in my basement.” I said, “Well, I don’t know whether we’re good enough to play for that.” She said, “Well, I heard you on one of these back porches; you sound pretty good to me.” We used to do a lot of back porch clowning and playing.
But the interesting thing about that was that I had James Craig with me. Now, you may have never heard of James Craig, but he’s the piano player on Gene Ammons’ “Red Top” that did that little thing that’s kind of got . . . When you play “Red Top,” you have to play that little thing that he put in that song. He was a very good pianist. I had a vibe player named Norris from out of DuSable, and then I had Marvin Cates on drums. And that was my little group. I guess I was about 15. And it was the first job I played on the south side of Chicago, although I had been working in Gary and working downtown in the strip places.
So you know, my history is similar to John’s and almost everybody around Chicago. Because most of the jobbing was done in strip places in Calumet City and Hammond . . .
Q: Did those gigs get set up through the union?
VF: No-no-no. In fact, the union didn’t know anything about it.
Q: So those were things to avoid . . .
VF: Well, you worked eight hours for ten dollars. The union would have had a fit.
JY: Yeah, they were strict about that.
VF: It was like . . . the mines, we used to call them. But you could earn a living.
JY: That’s right.
Q: And learn a lot of music.
VF: Oh, listen! Now, when I look back, what you learned was invaluable. Because you learned discipline. You’d sit there playing the melody of the songs all night long . . .
Q: And I guess ten dollars went a long way in 1937.
VF: Oh, man, you dig? And it helped my lung power a whole lot, too.
Q: Smoke-filled rooms and all.
VF: Listen, you learned how to put that air in that horn there. Piano players learned how to really get a touch.
Q: I know that later Captain Dyett would form bands of his students and join them in the union, and they’d play gigs around that town? Was he doing that when you were there?
VF: Well, that was the one band that he called . . . See, we were all out of school, our high school called DuSable, and he called his band the DuSableites. He kept it for a while. He started it about two years before I went into the service, and then I came out of the service, then went back into it and stayed until about ’46 — about two more years. So he had that group from about 1941 until maybe ’47 or ’48.
Q: The years after World War II, from 1945 and ’46, were thriving years musically in Chicago. Von Freeman, you and your brothers — George, the great guitar player, and Eldridge “Bruz” Freeman, a drummer — had the house band at one of the most prestigious rooms in Chicago, the Pershing Ballroom. What were the circumstances behind that? And talk a bit about the geography of the Jazz scene in Chicago in that particular time and around that area.
VF: Oh, man, that’s when it was buzzing. From 31st Street all the way on up to let’s say 64th Street — well, 66th — Chicago was the place to be. John Young was at the Q Lounge, Dick Davis — everybody was in town and had a gig. It was right after the War, and the town was booming . . . They had a great promoter around town named McKie Fitzhugh. This guy came out of DuSable, and he was promoting. And he called me one day and he said, “Would you be interested in maybe getting your two brothers . . . ” See, because my brother George was very popular around that time.
Q: Had he been in Chicago during the war?
VF: Yes. You see, he didn’t go to the war; he was too young. He stayed around Chicago, man, and his name was buzzing. So he said, “Hey, why don’t you get together with your two brothers and get a piano player and a bass player? I’ve got an idea; I want to book a lot of names into the Pershing.”
Q: He likes to pick with a silver dollar, your brother.
VF: Right. That’s what he does now, yeah. So I said, “Okay, that will be fine.” So there was a fellow named Chris Anderson, a little blind pianist, and I had Leroy Jackson on bass (Leroy has since passed), and Alfred . . . What was Alfred’s last name, John? Do you remember Alfred?
VF: Alfred White. I was using two bassists at the time, concurrently, you know. So we went in, man, and that’s where I met Diz and Bird, Billie Holiday — everybody came down there.
Q: What sort of room was that? That was part of a complex of clubs . . .
VF: Oh, that was the ballroom itself. See, but the Pershing Lounge was beautiful, too. I played that later on. But at that time I was playing the ballroom.
Q: How was it set up? The national musicians would come in, and there would be dances?
VF: Yeah, dances. Dances Fridays and Saturdays.
Q: So people would be dancing to Bird, dancing to Diz . . .
VF: That’s right.
Q: Dancing to the people who would come in with you.
VF: Well, around that time things had changed a lot. They would stand around the bandstand, and there wasn’t that much dancing going on any more. And we used to play, man. I used to have a ball just playing with the stars, listening to them or whatever. I’m very lucky to have gotten chosen for that particular job.
Q: So who came through? We’re talking about the major stars in music at that time?
VF: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge — you name them. He brought everybody to Chicago, man. And he was paying so nice for those times. What he’d do is, he’d bring them in, and they would come in with no music, no nothing, and you were expected to know the tunes. And I had this little genius at the piano who knew everybody’s tunes. So we were very fortunate. We were able to play behind them.
Q: You’re referring to Chris Anderson.
Q: Von said that you, John Young, were working at the Q Lounge during this time.
JY: The Quality Lounge.
Q: The Quality Lounge. A high-quality joint, was it?
JY: Ah-ha-ha . . .
Q: I see.
JY: I was only in two shootings.
VF: At least! [laughs]
Q: Where was it? Which street was it on?
JY: The Quality Lounge was on 43rd Street. So if you know anything about 43rd Street, you know it wasn’t on the uppity-uppity-uppity-up. The Quality Lounge, I was in there with a fellow named Dick Davis who played tenor saxophone. I was the piano player, the drummer’s name was Buddy Smith, Eddie Calhoun was on bass. And I was singing . . .
Q: Singing, too.
JY: But at that time I had laryngitis. When (?) asked me to sing, I suddenly developed a case of laryngitis. All three of them called it “lyingitis” — because it was a gitis that never left. But the Q was cool . . . Like I say, it was a relaxed joint. You could come in there with tennis shoes on if you wanted to. It wasn’t nothin’ uppity, you know. And it was on 43rd Street. We had a good time in there for a number of years, the Quality Lounge on 43rd Street. I lost my point . . .
Q: Oh, I was talking to you about working in Chicago in the late 1940’s and late ’50s. When did you start working with a lot of singers?
JY: Well, a piano player always has a hundred singers around, you know.
Q: But you later became an accompanist for some major singers.
JY: Well, I was with Nancy Wilson for a hot minute in the ’60s. See, John Levy, the booking agent, he was a bass player around Chicago, so he just about knew everybody that he thought would fit with this or that person. So he thought that I would be a perfect fit for Nancy Wilson. He didn’t know that I was really into jazz, and that I wanted to be a jazz piano player. I wanted to be out front. You know what I mean? I won’t say out front, but I wanted to receive some of the same recognition that soloists receive rather than accompanists. But anyway, he hooked me up with Nancy Wilson, and I stayed with Nancy for a short spell.
And I had to write him a letter to explain to him why I didn’t stay. He thought that I should have stayed with her, because he gone to the trouble of booking me with Nancy Wilson, he felt that we were a perfect match, some kind of match anyway — and Nancy had struggled with me to try to get me to play here things like she liked them. So he thought I was going to be with Nancy Wilson for life. And I explained to him that, no, that ain’t what I had in mind.
When the piano player is a singer’s right arm, as they say, there are certain limitations to what he can do and what he . . . I’ve seen piano players be accompanists for life with certain singers or performers, and they stay in a rut for a long time. There’s only so much you can do as an accompanist. When you get thrown out there where you have to play the melody or have to carry the load, you’re lost.
Q: Well, we can get back to that in a minute. But I’d like to return to someone Von was talking about: Chris Anderson, who had a great impact really on the piano players in Chicago.
VF: Oh, man, he’s unsung. When I first met him, I met him in a big arena that we used to play on the south side, on 63rd Street and King Drive. I forget who I had on piano this time, but whoever he was, wasn’t making it. Chris happened to be sitting there, and he walked up and whispered in my ear, “I think I could play that.” I kind of looked at him, because I’d had people at different times to do that, say things like “Hey, man, I think I can do it a little better than what so-and-so is doing; I think I’ll feed you a little more” and blah-blah-blah. I generally don’t even listen. But for some reason or another, I said, “Oh, really?” Because this cat didn’t know the tune. I had asked him if he knew it, and he said, “Yeah,” and then when I got to playing the tune, he didn’t really know the tune.
So meanwhile, I guess the piano player heard Chris, and he said, “Hey, man, if you can play it, play it.” So he played it. And I said, “Hey, man, what’s your name?” And I noticed he was a little short fellow, you know . . . I said, “Hey, man, you stay there. I’ll pay both of you.” I told the other guy, “I’ll pay you, man, not to play.” So that’s how we began.
Chris heard a lot of things, just naturally, that I was trying to hear. And he was a very nice person about his knowledge. So I’d ask him, “Chris, where did you go there?” And he’d say so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so. So I learned a lot from him. At the time, I had been using Ahmad Jamal. And then Ahmad . . . He had a guitar player, I forget where this fellow was from, I think from Pittsburgh, where Ahmad was from. [Ray Crawford] So Ahmad had told me that he was giving me a two-week notice, that he was going to form his own trio. He’d stayed with me, I think, about two years, and then he formed his own trio. And then he started hanging with Chris, too. And I really noticed a big difference in his playing after he had been around Chris. Almost anybody who had been around him, it kind of opened them up a little bit — because he was very advanced for those times. In fact, I still think he is.
Q: So do a lot of other musicians around New York.
Q: But his influence seems to go through a couple of generations in Chicago.
VF: Yeah, well, I think . . .
Q: Was Andrew Hill checking out Chris? Herbie Hancock?
VF: Well, Andrew worked with me a long time, too, you know. But Andrew was more or less into bebop at that time. But Chris to me wasn’t a bebop player, he wasn’t a swing player, he didn’t play like Art Tatum. To me, he was . . .
JY: He had his own thing.
VF: Yeah, he had his own thing. He was a conglomeration of all of that. And he didn’t flaunt his knowledge or anything. Maybe being blind helped him a lot, I don’t know. But he could hear a lot of things that I had always heard, and that I think everybody eventually wanted to hear. He was advanced for that time. See, now I’m speaking about 40 years ago.
Q: I’d like to ask you about a couple of the other great musicians who were working around Chicago a lot at that time? I’d like to ask you both about Ike Day, and if you both came into contact with him, played with him?
VF: Well, we used to go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. And he was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.
Q: Did you know Ike well enough for him to tell you about the drummers he was paying attention to as a young drummer?
VF: I know he liked Chick Webb. He never really mentioned anyone to me other than Chick Webb. And he liked Bird’s drummer . . . .
Q: Oh, Max Roach.
Q: And I know Max Roach liked Ike Day, because he’s said so publicly on a number of occasions.
Q: He was also a very versatile drummer, is what I gather. He would play big- band, piano trio combos. He was a totally versatile drummer, with great ears, a great listening drummer and so forth. Does that jibe with your recollection?
VF: I never heard him play with a big band. But I know he played in the combos. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer.
Ike to me was well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time.
Q: It’s very valuable to know this, because there is only one recording of Ike Day I think that exists at all, and the drums are almost buried . . .
VF: Oh, with Gene Ammons?
Q: With Gene Ammons, a Chess date.
VF: Oh yeah, that’s the same band.
Q: John Young, what are your memories of Ike Day? Did you play with Ike Day? Did you work with him?
JY: I might have played one or two tunes with Ike, but I don’t remember playing very much with Ike. I liked his work.
Q: Who were the drummers you mostly used on your gigs in Chicago at that time?
JY: Well, a fellow named Phil Thomas. I used him more than I did anybody else. And I started off with a drummer named Larry Jackson. Larry Jackson, Phil Thomas, Vernell Fournier. Phil is the one I used most. Strong drummer. Oh, I’m sorry! I’m about to forget the one that I’m using now, and that’s George Hughes. George has worked around New York and a number of places with Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy Gillespie uses him. George Hughes is his name. He’s the last drummer that I’ve used to any extent, more than once. Some drummers you use on certain gigs, just for that one time — there’s a number of those. But the ones that I’ve used over a period of time have to be George Hughes, Phil Thomas, and somebody else and somebody else . . .
Q: Von, I’d like to ask you about Gene Ammons, who I know you were friends with. He came several years after you at DuSable High School.
VF: Oh, well, Jug, man . . . Of course, I called him Ams. But it’s really interesting. His mother taught me my first chorus. He had a beautiful mother. And she was like a classical pianist. There’s very few people who know that. And I used to go to Jug’s house, and we’d practice together, and things like that. He was always one of my favorites. In fact, my brother was in the band that . . . See, George played with Jug. Probably the last nine years of his life Jug formed a group, and George was in the group. One of Jug’s last hits was called “The Black Cat,” which my brother George wrote.
So Jug and I had . . . We were very close. During my formative years, when I came out of the service, Jug used to hire me in his place, because he was getting so popular. So when he’d work a club, and he’d have to go out of town, he’d always get me to take his place. And a lot of people say I play like Jug. Which I wish I did! But I don’t know, he’s just one of my favorites.
[MUSIC: “Lost In A Fog” and “No. 7”; John Young departs]
Q: On the last segment, Von, I was asking you about some of the great figures who were active in Chicago in the post-World War II era. I know you used to work with Sun Ra’s rehearsal bands and had some contact with Sun Ra in the late 1940s and 1950s.
VF: Oh yes!
Q: What was he into at that point? What was his music sounding like and what was he doing around Chicago at that time?
VF: Oh, his music was sounding beautiful. But you know, one of the things that’s really different about him, he had two different concepts altogether. See, he was playing all this new-sounding music and different-sounding music with his own group — and of course I was a part of that. And then, he was over at a famous club on the south side of Chicago, the Club De Lisa, and he was writing show music for that band, which was Red Saunders’ band.
Q: Tell us a little about that band, too. It was a major band at a major venue.
VF: Oh, yeah. Well, that’s the band that Sonny Cohn came out of. And of course, for those who don’t know Sonny Cohn, he was with Count Basie for years and years and years. A trumpeter, a great young trumpeter. And of course, Red Saunders was a premier drummer around Chicago for show bands, all . . .
Q: And he had that band for about 17-18 years.
VF: Well, actually I think it was about 27. And he was right there at the Club DeLisa. And all the younger drummers used to go around to see Red to learn how to play shows. Because that’s another art of drumming. You know, show drumming: how to catch the performers and catch the singers. Every time they move, the drummer does something. And he did it so tastefully.
Q: Of course, there’s a tradition of that in Chicago that really goes back to the silent movie days in the 1920s.
VF: It certainly does.
Q: The great black orchestras that performed at the different big movie theatres.
VF: That’s right.
Q: There was Erskine Tate and Doc Cooke and a couple of others.
VF: That’s right.
Q: A lot of great musicians got their real polish in those show bands.
VF: That’s very, very true.
Q: Do you remember hearing those bands as a little boy?
VF: Oh, surely. And then I ended up playing at the Regal Theatre in the pit for different things.
Q: Oh, when was that?
VF: Oh, that was way back. I was in high school.
Q: The Regal was perhaps the equivalent in Chicago to the Apollo in some ways. Is that accurate?
VF: Yes, it was. Of course, no place would be like the Apollo, naturally. But the Regal was Chicago’s Apollo, let’s put it that way.
Q: We’re juggling a number of different things at once. So let’s get back to what Sun Ra was doing.
VF: Well, Sun Ra . . .
Q: He was writing show music for Red Saunders at the Club De Lisa.
VF: And I found it very interesting that he could write this show music, which was essentially this do, du, do-du, do-du-do, and then his thing, where he had all these different voices going and his music was very complicated at the time. But it swung — in Sun Ra’s unique way. Because he had two great saxophone players with him. He had, of course, Pat Patrick, who is sort of ill these days around Chicago. And of course, he had John Gilmore. He kept great players in his group. And of course, I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot by being in his band.
Q: Now, when exactly were you in his band?
VF: I was in his band during let’s say ’48, ’49 . . .
Q: Was that a working band or a rehearsal band?
VF: Oh, yeah. He played.
Q: What type of gigs would he do?
VF: He played dances. He really did, yeah. And he had like his own ballroom. I can’t think of the name of the ballroom. It was on the east side of 63rd Street, and we played at this ballroom. And Sun Ra was never into whether there was anybody in the ballroom or not. He simply tried to play what he felt.
Q: Would that music be recognizable to people who know Sun Ra today? Did it . . . ?
VF: Yeah, I think so. I think so. Now, he went back in recent years, and was playing some of Fletcher Henderson’s type of music and whatnot. But he’s still playing with that unique Sun Ra thing.
Q: Well, he covers the whole spectrum, really.
VF: Yes, he does.
Q: He plays different things for different occasions.
VF: Yes, he does.
Q: Didn’t Red Holloway also work briefly with Sun Ra? Is that true or not?
VF: I know that Red took a band into the Club De Lisa for six months when Red Saunders took off. Because I was in that band, playing alto, and I know that Sun Ra was writing the show music at the time. But whether or not he ever played in one of Sun Ra’s original bands, I do not know. You’d have to ask Red.
Q: Who were some of the other people in that Sun Ra band from the late 1940’s?
VF: Well, Julian Priester for one.
Q: That early, in the late 1940’s?
VF: No, Julian came along later. But in the ’40s . . . I’m trying to think. Oh, man . . . See, he had different people, and I really can’t remember who was in those bands..
Q: Tell us a little bit about the Club De Lisa. They were famous for their breakfast dances . . .
Q: We played a selection before by your son dedicated to Andrew Hill, who was 15 years old when he made his first record with you.
VF: Oh, yes, Andrew is a beautiful pianist. Of course, his style has evolved. At that time he was more or less playing bebop, and as he got younger he went on into free-form and whatnot. But he did it honestly. He feels it. And I like what he’s doing.
Q: Von, we’re going to hear now something from a Groove Holmes’ 1967-’68 record The Groover, featuring your brother George on his composition, “The Walrus,” some variations on “Sweet Georgia Brown” . . .
VF: Well, I think that’s what that is. I’ll have to hear it. But that sounds right to me.
Q: We’ll make no commitments.
VF: Well, back during that era we all used to take standard tunes and then write little originals and whatnot.
[MUSIC: “The Walrus,” “How Deep Is The Ocean” (Von solo)]
Q: Von, you had said to me that “How Deep Is The Ocean” is one you particularly wanted to have presented on this show, that you were very proud of it.
VF: Oh, man, to me that’s one of my greatest moments. In fact, that is the greatest moment I have enjoyed recording. It just happened. The lady who has the label said, “Hey, why don’t you play something slow?” I said, “Oh, I don’t feel like.” But she’s so beautiful, she asked again, and she said, “Well, please play something.” So how can you refuse a lady? So just off the top of my head, she said, “We’re rolling,” and I didn’t even have any idea what I wanted to play — I just went into that tune. And that’s the way it happened. And to me it’s the greatest thing I have ever done on record. I really felt that I did the tune justice; you know, for the way I was feeling. As a rule, I don’t care much for my recordings.
Q: Do you do that during your performances, Von? Are you going to be doing any a cappella this week at Condon’s?
VF: Oh, you know, last night I played several tunes. Of course, I didn’t do it like I did on the album, but I have a tendency . . .
Q: You always do long cadenzas . . .
VF: Yeah. And I have a tendency sometimes just to cut the band and play for a chorus or two. I’ve always done that, though.
Q: Von, you’ve stated in print that Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young were really your two primary influences in terms of how to approach the saxophone, and you see your style as a melding of the two.
VF: That’s true.
Q: You mentioned hearing Coleman Hawkins in the 1930’s in Chicago. Did you study his records in the 1930’s? Did you study Prez’s records?
VF: Well, actually, yes. See, Hawk was a good friend of my father’s.
Q: How was that? Your father was a musician?
VF: No, not really. Actually he was a Chicago policeman. But he loved music, and he loved to hang around the guys, you know. So my Dad, he always kept a record collection from as far back as I can remember. So naturally, I had an affinity for music from right him, actually.
But Lester Young, see, used to come to the Regal Theatre all the time with Count Basie’s band, and all us little guys loved Lester, and we used to go and sit down in the front, you know, and try to play his solos. I had some of his earliest records, like “Every Tub” and all those, and I used to practice those. In fact, I got so I could play those note for note. And I could play Hawk’s “Body and Soul” note for note. So those two . . . Well, just like probably all the rest of the Chicago saxophone players. We were a conglomeration of Hawk and Prez.
Q: Gene Ammons, certainly.
VF: Oh yeah. Well, of course. And Dex and me — almost all of them.
Q: What was your first reaction to Charlie Parker when you heard his music the first time?
VF: Now, that takes me back. Because my Dad gave me the first music I ever heard of Charlie Parker. He gave me “The Hootie Blues.” He brought it, and he said, “Hi, hot-shot, you think you’re so hot because you got Lester Young down.” He says, “Try out this guy.” I said, “Oh, what’s this, Pop. Who did you bring . . . ?” Man, he put that thing on, and it knocked me out. Because see, to me Bird was playing Prez on alto — to me. And it was just more advanced. It’s like when I first heard Trane; I heard Prez and Bird. And I guess whoever follows, whoever the next saxophone player will be, it will be, you know, Prez and Bird and Trane and Getz and Zoot. All the good saxophone players have a tendency to be on the same line. Like just some of them followed; they play more Hawkins than Prez. But I hear lately most people are getting the two together. Because that makes what you’d almost call the perfect saxophone player. Because Hawk had so many things . . . He had all that power and drive, and Prez could float and just sail along. I would say Hawk just played straight up and down, and Prez played sideways. So if you get them, you’ve got the whole thing together.
And I think it didn’t take saxophone players too long to learn this, especially tenor saxophone players. I think I was with you on the program a few years back, and I was telling you about that tenor. That tenor presents a different type of problem for the simple reason that the ladies like the sound of the saxophone. And ladies are very dominant in your crowd. So you’ve got to learn how to play sweet, and for the men you got to learn how to holler — you can’t just sit up and play ballads all night. So there’s so much to get together on that tenor. And I like to always think of a trombone . . .
Q: In your playing?
VF: Yeah, man. Because a trombone sounds . . . Like, I call great trombone players like tenor saxophone players. You’ve got two of them here. Curtis Fuller, who did all those records with the Jazz Messengers, he just sounded like one of the real good tenor players. And the other cat who’s the Indian, what’s his name, who plays shells . . . ?
Q: You’re talking about Steve Turre.
VF: Yeah, Turre! Man, to me, man, those two cats when I hear them, I say, “Oh, man, if I could get a sound like that!” Because see, the tenor and the trombone, with Dickie Wells, remember him . . . ? All these cats had that haunting quality that saxophone players get. And as strange as it may sound, to me Miles sounds something like a tenor player. Although I always think that the trumpet is the dominant instrument, because who can do it better than a great trumpet player? Because you’ve got everything coming right out of the bell of that horn. When I hear Wynton play I think of a saxophone player. Now, that’s coming at it from a saxophone player’s view, of course.
[MUSIC: Coleman Hawkins: “The Man I Love,” “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”; Lester Young, “These Foolish Things,” “I Got Rhythm”]
Q: “I Got Rhythm” is one of the basic bedrock tunes in all of Jazz.
VF: Man, listen. I can play a job playing “I Got Rhythm”! I’m telling you. Give me a few blues tunes and “I Got Rhythm” and I can make the gig. I’m telling you. Beautiful, man.
Q: “These Foolish Things” I can remember from my time living in Chicago as the most popular ballad in that town.
Q: That may or may not be true . . .
VF: It still is!
Q: People in Chicago have long memories about the music.
VF: Well, see, just about all the tenor players made their name around there. You know, whether they were from Chicago or not, during the late ’30s and the ’40s and the early ’50s, all the great saxophonists were around Chicago playing. So you’d sort of feel like they’re from Chicago, although of course they’re not.
I talk on shows, dropping names here, dropping names there, but I’d just like to go on the record saying how much I’ve gotten from some of the current cats, cats who are still living. Like Benny Golson, man. Benny Golson wouldn’t even remember me. I was working at the Pershing Ballroom, or actually I’d moved up to the lounge, and Benny came by and jammed with me all morning, all morning at the Pershing Lounge — and I just fell in love with Benny Golson. Now, this is back in ’53 or ’54.
Q: He would have been on the road with one of the rhythm-and-nlues bands.
VF: I forget when he came to town, but it was just shortly before. . . Bird passed in ’55. It was about ’53 or ’54 or something like that.
Well, Benny Golson, and I remember the first time I heard Wayne Shorter. And then [John] Stubblefield used to be around Chicago; he used to come around to me a lot. And of course, Joe Lovano, I’ve been listening to him lately. Of course, Junior Cook wouldn’t remember the first time I played with him, down in Miami. I was traveling with the Al Smith Band, and ran into Junior Cook down in Miami, and he knocked me out. And of course Jimmy Heath I’ve always loved. Because Jimmy, man . . . Who plays more horn than Jimmy Heath? He’s beautiful. And Clifford Jordan has been around with me at different times. In fact, I came up here once and worked a gig with Clifford Jordan . . .
Q: That was at the Irving Plaza on 15th Street, with Chris Anderson and Victor Sproles on that date.
VF: Right! Surely! Yeah! And then of course, Sonny Rollins. I’ve always loved Sonny. And I ran into him once, I had a group I think in Holland or something, and he was on the concert, and they gave him a birthday party — and we hung out and talked for hours. Of course, Dewey Redman. I’ve always loved Dewey Redman, because he’s a beautiful cat. And young Branford Marsalis. I remember when we first cut this concept album, he was beautiful. And of course, Mike Brecker. I ran into him once at the Montreux Festival over in Europe, in Switzerland. And of course, Illinois Jacquet, I saw him recently at I think it was . . . Well, he had this big band at this thing in Holland.
So man, it’s . . . Of course, when you name names you always leave out some names. But these are some of the cats I’ve always probably copied a lot of things that they’ve done. And I’m glad to see that all these cats are still living.
Q: Von, one thing that has always impressed me and many people who have heard you is your proclivity for going inside and outside, but always remaining within the framework of the piece — the freedom of your playing in some ways.
VF: Well, it comes from my hobby, I guess. See, my hobby is music, and of course, I sit up all day and all night long sometimes, studying progressions. It’s just something that I like to do. I’m not trying to prove anything by it. I don’t even know whether it helps my playing or hurts it. But it gives me an outlet to experiment with things that I like, that I’m hearing inside. And I practice so much, even today I practice a couple of hours, three to four hours a day . . . In fact, I run my Mom, who I fortunately still have with me, I run her nuts sometimes. She says, “Man, put that horn down.” And I’m just trying to hear things. It’s just an inside thing, which I’m trying to hear things that please me.
And of course sometimes I do get carried away. I admit that. Sometimes I say, “Hey, come back!” Because I’m running sometimes progressions that I’ve been practicing and hearing, and sometimes I lose track of where the melody is and everything because I’m so extended out there. So it works both ways. And sometimes I’m rather pleased with what I do. But as a rule, I say, “Ah, let me discard that.”
So it’s just something to keep me interested in what I’m doing. And it’s more or less a personal thing.
[MUSIC: Von Freeman-Sam Jones, “Sweet and Lovely,” Von, “I Remember You.”]
Q: I know Sonny Stitt is someone you were close to and had tremendous respect for, along with Gene Ammons.
VF: Oh, I loved him, yeah. We played a lot together.
Q: One of the amazing saxophonists, maybe a little under-appreciated in New York more so than in the Midwest and the South.
VF: Well, I’ll tell you what had to happen with Sonny Stitt, man. You had to get on the bandstand and play with him to really appreciate him. See, Sonny Stitt was mean, man. Sonny Stitt could play so many different things. And he was just as mean on tenor as he was on alto. In fact, he had another style altogether on tenor. And he played baritone! He played it proficiently. The man was a great saxophone player.
Q: And a much more creative player than I think people commonly gave him credit for.
VF: Oh, man. The man could just play anything he wanted to play. Sonny to me was amazing. I loved him. And we used to play a lot around in Gary and Evanston and things like that when he’d come in town. Because he loved to battle, you know, and he loved to get you up on that stage and wear you out. And if you wasn’t together, brother, he would wear you out! But he was a beautiful cat.
Q: Well, Chicago is famous for the tenor battles . . .
VF: Oh, man! You got to have plenty of wind back in those days, I’m telling you.
Q: Your son started out as a trumpet player.
VF: Yes. Well, see, I played trumpet for about 25 years.
Q: You played it on gigs, too?
VF: Yeah. But I had retired the trumpet, and Chico went down to the basement and found it when he was very young. And I thought he was going to be a trumpet player. Well, I had an alto that I had retired down in the basement, too. See, in the era I came up, you played everything you could get your hands on, whether it was the harmonica, I don’t care what it was — you tried to play it. And I had a number of these strange instruments down in the basement. And they went down there and found them. Chico was about 10 and my other son, Markm about 9. And one day I heard all this noise coming out of the basement, and I said, “What is that?” And they were down there playing. Out of the two, I really felt Mark would be the one who could play. But Chico has got one thing that is very important. He has durability! — and stick-to- itiveness. So he stuck with it.
But he actually began playing trumpet, and went to school playing trumpet. In fact, he went to Northwestern playing trumpet. But he ended up on saxophone. And every time I hear him, he’s trying to grow.
Q: We’ll hear “Lord Riff and Me.”
VF: Well, that’s the moniker I was given back in high school . . .
Q: By Captain Dyett.
Q: It sounds like a compliment.
VF: Well, actually, see, the way my career began, I used to riff all the time. [sings a riff] I could play any riff you ever heard on a horn. I was good at riffing, see. I didn’t know too much about progressions or harmonics, but I could riff. And that’s where that came from.
You know, Chico did some real strange . . . Like, I’ve always played at the piano. And at the end of one of those albums he has me playing the piano.
Q: Would you like us to end with that?
VF: Yes. Because a lot of people don’t know that actually I play the piano. I like to say play at the piano.