Happy birthday, Von Freeman!

Earle Lavon “Von” Freeman Sr. would have been 96 today, as hard as that is to believe. That’s because the great “Von-ski” (as many of his friends and fans called him) continued to be a key player on the Chicago jazz scene up until his death in August 2012.

Von was one of the founders of the post-war “Chicago school” of tenor sax – a school that included greats like Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons and Clifford Jordan. But while he came of age as a tenor sax force in the 1940s, he kept his ears open to any post-bop sounds that he heard, including the avant-garde jazz championed by Ornette Coleman and others.

The video above was produced 10 years before Freeman’s death, in 2002. The great Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich knew (and knows) everyone on the Chicago jazz scene by first name. And he arranged for an extremely rare on-camera interview with “Von-ski” at one of his favorite haunts at that time, the Green Mill Lounge in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.  I produced the video with my friend, the talented videographer Bradley Piper.

We would also get scenes of “Von-Ski” performing at another favorite spot of his, the now-shuttered New Apartment Lounge on 75th Street on Chicago’s South Side, where Von played every Tuesday night. And there are early interviews with future Grammy-winning vocalist Kurt Elling (before he exploded on the national scene) and the husband-and-wife jazz duo, Joanie Pallato and BradleyParker-Sparrow.

But Von’s the star of this show, just as he was on every stage that he graced. He got his first professional gig with the Horace Henderson Orchestra in 1933, and called Louis Armstrong a friend even before then, since Satchmo was a friend of the Freeman family.

“He called everybody ‘Pops’,” Von said in the video. “He even called my mother ‘Pops’”.
Freeman was a permanent Chicago resident. He bought his first house in Englewood in 1950 and stayed there until he died.

But he was truly an artist appreciated throughout the world. His son, tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman, continues to create important work – he was just in Chicago at the Jazz Showcase last week and talked with Howard Reich then in this excellent Tribune piece. And Von’s brother George is still great – his performance at the Chicago Jazz Festival this year was one of that event’s highlights.

But there was only one “Von-Ski”, as you can see from this video.


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