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”]