Von Freeman and John Young
November 20, 1991, WKCR
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.