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On Von Freeman

From an interview with Danny Meyer:

VON FREEMAN. BG: Yes, I guess that’s my hero. Some people talk about Coltrane. Some people talk about Bird … these are the icons of jazz. But to me and to some other people in Chicago, THAT’s who Von Freeman was to US. His way of playing was unique or, as I’m saying, it’s unique within the expectations and standards of the tradition. Red Rodney said that when he came to Chicago with Charlie Parker, Charlie Parker was obsessed with Von Freeman, fascinated with him. Von had been playing like that since the ‘40s. They used to do sax battles after hours when Bird was in town. You can hear Von’s brothers on some Bird recordings live, but there’s no known recording of Von and Bird, which I would love to hear. Years ago, we tried to make this case to Harvey Pekar. You know who Harvey was? Remember American Splendor, the cartoon? The graphic novels? Paul Giamatti played Harvey in the movie. Harvey was also a jazz critic. Harvey wrote the liner notes to my album, Hypnotic Suggestion. We were trying to make the case to him that Von was as influential and as unique and original early as John Coltrane was, because that case had not really been made. I think I successfully made that case and Harvey did a lot of research, found a lot of recordings.

The earliest things he could find were some mid ‘50s records with Andrew Hill, where Von is playing the way he played for the rest of his life. That’s the earliest example but certainly that predates Trane and Dolphy by quite a bit. He was … Harvey wrote an article about it for this magazine called “Jazz Times”. I may still have that article somewhere. [I found the article. You can read it here: Harvey Pekar on Von Freeman.] Von never left home, literally. I think he got married for a number of years but then he and his wife lived in the house with Mama, with his Mama where he grew up and then they got divorced. His two sons left home and Von never left the house again and never got remarried. The story they told at Von’s funeral, I think Chico told the story, or maybe - a number of people told the same story - was about Miles asking Von to join his band. It’s in Miles’ autobiography, but errantly Miles says he asked Bud Freeman from Chicago to be his sax player. We know it’s not Bud Freeman; he asked Von to play with him in his band. DM: All right. I see. BG: Right. Von should have been the guy to replace Trane , that’s who Miles wanted. The true story which was told and retold at the funeral was: Miles called and Von’s mother answered. Miles said, “Have Von call me, I want him to come join my band and meet me on the road.” Von’s mother said, ‘Von can’t go on the road. Von’s got a family to raise!,” and she hung up on him! When she told Von that , Von said, “Yeah, you’re right ,I can’t go,” and he never went anywhere. Instead of going somewhere, what he did was stay in the same clubs his whole life for the same money, playing for the same people and developing this thing that was … this ever expanding way of playing solos that kept expanding and expanding and abstracting and abstracting. What I always tell people is the time I was playing with Von in a pretty regular basis was … I was between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-four and he was between the ages of sixty-four and seventy-four. He was getting better faster than I was and remember, I already told you that I did nothing BUT practice. Later I heard from Chico, “Oh yeah, Von didn’t do anything but practice either.” Well, of course! I knew that! That was another thing I could think about when I was in my apartment, practicing. DM: Um-hmm. Von is practicing? BG: Yeah, and I have to play with HIM too. Very inspirational people … types of people to be around. I think several things about Von stand out. First, is that his playing was obviously … to use a cliché, ahead of its time. The Avant-garde movement took steam in the late ‘50s early ‘60s but you could make a case that a lot of these people including Sun Ra and Muhal Richard Abrams and Jodie and all these people who were fathers of the avant-garde movement got a lot of their aesthetic from Von, from being around Von. You could also see a lot of virtuoso sax players who came out of Chicago, who got their chops together by playing on Von’s jam sessions. Not in the least is Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Johnny Griffin, Eddie Harris, Clifford Jordan, Steve Coleman, Ron Blake. These are people who were impacted by listening to Von, sitting-in with Von or learning at Von’s jam session. DM: You, BG:Well, yeah, but look at just the list of sax players, alone. DM: There are ten or more... BG: Look at the pianists who came out of his band. John Young, Ahmad Jamal, Chris Anderson, Jodie Christian, Jack DeJohnette was his piano player for a while, also Andrew Hill; but you see Von didn’t make records and didn’t leave Chicago. So Von lived in obscurity. I remember that when he was around seventy-five somebody called him about appearing on some festival in Europe where they were putting together … I don’t know what it was called, but something (he found) demeaning like… “Grand Old Men of Jazz.” He was so upset that the reason he was getting this call to perform at a big festival was because he was old, not because he was good. I remember that pretty well. I also remember another time when he referred to himself as a “trial horse”. You know what a trial horse is? That’s the horse they have at the racetrack that they only use in training, to run with the real horses they’re going to put in the races. DM: He was a trial horse. BG: He wasn’t a trial horse. That was in his mind; (He felt) that it was his lot to stay there (in Chicago) and everybody else was going to sharpen their shit up playing with and listening to him and then go on to New York, or go on to wherever and become famous. He was just going to stay there in his corner bar and do his thing. DM: Um-hmm. That’s what he did? BG: That’s how he was thinking, in a way, which made me sad. I believe that his concept was so extraordinary that you’d really have to be very musically astute to realize how much better he was than all these other guys who went on (to New York). How much deeper he went and how much more he was doing. DM: That’s incredible. It took me many times of going back to listening to hear what he was doing. There are many players that play interestingly or abstractly in the way that Von plays, but these are all people that came after Charlie Parker. So, even though they are playing abstractly, you often can hear an element of Charlie Parker’s playing. BG: Then you must question this (popular academic) idea of Jazz as a language. Maybe a guy like Von or a guy like me, I hope, calls that idea into question. If it’s a language, then we’re all playing the same clichés and the same phrases. We’re not really in the club unless we all speak the language. But what if it’s not a language? DM: Well, that’s what I think is interesting about jazz as a language. That music is a language, but it’s an interesting language because it’s not rooted in practicality - It’s not a good language for expressing things like, “I’m hungry, I want a sandwich.” This idea that if it’s not rooted in practicality, then perhaps it is a language … I kind of think of it as a language of integrity. We’re talking about Von and that his conception is so deep. It’s about the depth of the integrity of his language. BG: Well, I think Von was looking for a similar thing in a different way than Trane was looking … which was in a different way than Dolphy was looking … a different way than Woody Shaw was looking, but they were all looking for the same type of thing. They were searching for a way to express themselves more dramatically. To say new things all the time, not to just keep refining and saying the same things and honing them, but to change the way you say things constantly to evolve a way of expressing yourself that is ever-growing and renewing and discarding and changing. A guy like Eric Dolphy forgot more music than you and I will ever know – on his way to trying to say what he was trying to say. The thing about Charlie Parker and the hero worship around Charlie Parker … because he … he must have had this effect on people, even greater maybe than what I’m saying I experienced in hearing Eddie Harris or Von or Chris Potter –( people I thought were doing something greater than I would ever be capable of doing) -when people heard Charlie Parker, they thought, “Oh, that’s how you say that! The way to do it must be to play his phrases,” which brings in that language aspect. Well, a person like Von or Dolphy or Trane, they have an understanding of what’s been done before them; they’re not ignorant of it. It’s been something they’ve interpolated, but they avoid doing it or imitating it, in favor of finding their own material and their own thing, which is less easily accepted by masses of people. I started out by talking about traditions and standards. Aesthetics that I learned by trying to hang out in the black community with experienced musicians. What is considered to be important is that you really know the song, that you know lots of songs, that you swing, that you’re expressive, that you are unique. These are the important things. What are the highly valued things in jazz education today? Language, vocabulary, harmony, technique, time signatures, etc. Where are these values coming from? DM: I think that there’s a way of dealing with learning jazz as vocabulary and I think that’s something with which we both get frustrated. When you deal with someone like Von Freeman, I think of Von as somebody that dealt with jazz as language. BG: I understand what you’re saying. We’re using a different definition of that word but … Von is taking care of business. He can swing. He has his own style. He has personality in his playing. He feels the blues. He can really play a ballad. He can interpret a song. He’s in complete control of the time and the form and the changes to the point where he can mess with them to such a severe degree, with control, and not step outside of the boundaries of the standard. Whereas; you can’t always say the same thing of the Free Form players, because if you avoid that tradition and you avoid those expectations, it might seem that greater freedom would be had with less structure. I feel that the greater freedom comes with more control and more discipline, more knowledge, so that you can say more, not less. It’s also that playing within structures requires and then produces more unity. How can you reach the other musicians? How can you reach the audience without the unifying factor of the structure? Von never played free-form because he was looking for … DM: The freedom in the structure? BG: Yes. You heard the recording of Eric Dolphy and Clifford Brown? _____ 1954, To me, early Eric Dolphy sounds more like Bird than Sonny Stitt does; cleaner, more accurate, more in tune, better technique, more fluent. He didn’t play the way he did later because he couldn’t play inside. He became abstract because that’s where he wanted to go. That’s also what Von did. If you said to Von, if you we’re putting him on the spot, “play like Lester Young” or “play like Coleman Hawkins” or the other people who came before him, he could do that. He was perfectly capable of it. I remember going to Von’s house. He only had about ten albums. He had a very small record collection. DM: Wow, now that’s very interesting. BG: I mean obviously when he was a kid he must have had some 78 rpm records, but who knows what happened to them; he didn’t need them anymore, because he had already learned from them, right? Later in his career, he wasn’t sitting at home listening to other people play on recordings. No, he was sitting at home figuring out what HE wanted to play. We were talking about mentoring. I’ve come to realize that none of my mentors ever told me what to play. I didn’t have somebody telling me, “Oh, just play patterns in twelve-keys and when you get to a two-five-one…” I didn’t even know what that meant. I first heard about that stuff when I started teaching at colleges. “Aren’t you breaking it up this way? It’s ii-V-I’s.” Well, that IS teaching, but it may not be as instructive as understanding how an improviser conducts himself. How he practices. How he lives. How he plays. How he deals with a song. Observing that over time. Having a person allow you into that experience so that you can gain insight from his process is very different than teaching. _____

Danny Meyer: Can you talk about Von's playing? Brad Goode: Yes. First of all, there are different value systems, and depending on where you learn or where you get your inspiration or your training, you may be subscribing to different ideas. I think that, - I hate to be a guy who says this - but I always get mad at people who say that, “Jazz Education is the problem,” as if there's one thing that happens in Jazz Education. It's simply not true. But I think in general, Jazz Education has gravitated toward the idea of vocabulary or imitation, and when you used the word “language,” I thought you were saying something other than what you were actually saying, because when most people use that word in Jazz Education, they're telling you, “You need more language and you need more vocabulary.” They're telling you, “You need to play more things that the Jazz greats played so that you can understand how your phrases are supposed to sound like Jazz.” That's a value system that I personally don't subscribe to, and that's pretty important because it's at the basis of a lot of what's being taught. I see the result of that value system. Everybody doesn't sound identical, but what somebody said, I think it was Dexter Gordon who said this, that all the saxophone players he heard in the '70s and '80s who were coming out of the schools, “All sounded like they’d studied with the same teacher.” That was his way of describing the phenomenon, because they were all playing the same phrases based on the material of the same group of players that they had deemed to be the most important players. Von is, to me, the example of the opposite value system, because he grew up in a time where Jazz wasn't being taught and you had to figure things out for yourself. It was always possible that you could go the route of stealing licks and transcribing and enter the genre that way, playing what Bird played, or playing what the people who were popular at the time played, but during the era where Von was a teenager, and I guess I'm probably talking about the 1930s and the 1940s, he was in a community where it was important NOT to play what other people played. That was the beginning of the change of the world view, from being functional dance musicians who played occasional solos to being people who were known by their unique artistry; the end of the Swing Era, the beginning of the real Combo Era in Jazz, when combos were more common. What would make you interesting to an audience is if you were saying something different, so just having that as an idea, Von might be one of the first people that posed these questions: If it was okay to say something different and your goal was to say different things all the time, what direction might you pursue in your development, instead of learning what everybody else was doing. How unique could it be and still be sensible, understandable, and compelling? He was a pioneer in this way of thinking, which is why I say he predates, or maybe even foreshadows, the Avant-Garde in a certain way. _____ I think that, what Red Rodney said to me was, “Von Freeman was the first outside player.” That was the way Red said it, but is Von really outside? Not so much. He has control over the time and he has control over his lines. He has real control over the harmony, over the form of the tune, over the tradition of swinging. He has control over it. I don't know if in his 30s or 40s he had mastered that yet, but he knew it strongly enough. He had enough experience with playing inside the box to be able to use contrast. His solos, even from early on, the ones that were recorded in the 50s, (the few that we have, ) demonstrate this idea of inside versus outside, in that he sets up an expectation to play well within tonality or well within the time, very strongly. He disrupts that expectation with the surprise of playing outside the tonality or into other tonalities, or outside the time or against the time or abstracting the time. On the pitch or off the pitch. He seamlessly goes in and out, and in and out. Von never really wanted to play in a free format without structure. He was more interested in dealing with really structured music, traditional music. If the song stays the same ... if you play “Bye Bye Blackbird” for 60 years or 65 years, how much must YOU change in order to keep saying something different, to not become staid, to not become bored with yourself? Earlier, I said that Eric Dolphy probably forgot more music than you and I will ever learn. I think Von Freeman probably threw away many approaches and many types of lines and never played them again. He spent his hours of working out and practicing in favor of doing something else; moving onto the next thing. The progression of his playing was such that it became increasingly more abstract and increasingly more complex throughout his entire career. It didn't stop evolving.

It was incredible. It was inspiring, being around him and beginning to understand how he was dedicating his life to developing his playing. Early on, I realized, I don't want to BE Von Freeman. I don't want to play WHAT Von Freeman played.” That's actually not part of the aesthetic. I have never transcribed Von Freeman and I've never tried to play what he played. What’s inspiring is the example he provided, the philosophy. To play what I really hear, to keep changing what I do based on my own thoughts and my own influences and my own ideas. To keep trying to move beyond what I have become comfortable with, and to do it without dissolving the form, to do it within the tradition. Maybe it's like a science experiment. If everything is a variable, you don't have a valid experiment, but if there are constants, then you can work the variables and your experiment is more controlled. If you look at Miles, all those years through the 1960s, he recorded original music by the members of his band, but the only tunes of those things that he played in his performances were the simplest ones. He played “All Blues,” he played “Footprints,” he played “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “All of You,” “Stella by Starlight,” “Green Dolphin Street,” “So What,” “'Round Midnight”. This is most of his repertoire from 1958 to 1967, he didn't change the tunes. You hear the band play on, I think the original album is called Jazz Track, the original “Green Dolphin Street” recording with Trane. You hear the way they play that. It was actually a jukebox hit, the single of that one. Then, listen to Live at the Plugged Nickel. How far have they stretched the experiment, but the constant is “Green Dolphin Street.” I think Von was doing something like that. Von's thing in particular, required a really straight-ahead rhythm section. He didn't want the drummers to be really interactive with him. Very much like Tristano. Not that he didn't want them to be strong; he just didn't want them playing lots of fills, and he especially didn't want them playing fills in the turnbacks, in the ends of the eight-bar phrases, which is where most horn players would rest and most drummers would put a fill. DM: That's where he would play? BG: He didn't want that because it got in the way of his choices. What he wanted was maybe to go across the turnback, or through it, or do something with it. Michael Raynor, was Von's drummer for the last 20 years of his life. During Mike's early gigs with Von, Von was constantly turning around and telling him, "No, just swing, baby." Mike has tons of chops and he wanted to do all this stuff, but Von didn't want him to be too busy. It took Mike a little while to understand what Von was asking of him. You said there are different belief systems. Von's thing, maybe it's the antithesis, or an opposite belief system, of the philosophy that our friend Art Lande is into. Art is less interested in the soloist, more interested in the group sound and expression. That's a totally valid way to improvise, but it’s a completely different aesthetic. Von's approach highlights what the soloist is going to reveal about himself and about the music during the course of his solo. What kind of journey will he take you on, and then how will the next soloist proceed from there? “Now it's your turn to solo and then maybe we can have a dialogue.” “Can we inspire each other in this dialogue?” This was the motif of what Von and I did, when we had the trumpet and the tenor, to drive each other on, to give the other player ideas. Von’s brand of improvising was never about the group sound, or the denial of the ego, to be certain... that's not Von's thing. Von's thing is, “It's about a solo that tells a story.” DM: It's about the individual? BG: It's not so much about the individual. It's about the solo, it’s about the art of the solo and it's about the ability to really move and express and take the listener on a journey though building and developing the solo. Of course his solos were long. Often, incredibly long. He was doing this years before others starting doing it. Again, I can't say, definitively that the idea for the extended solo also comes from Von, but I know that Von played long solos all the way back to the '40s. When I was playing with him, he would play for 10 minutes, 15 minutes. I would play for three minutes because I'm a trumpet player! I couldn't play 10 or 15 minutes, so after a few, I would stop. He would look at me and he would say, "No. Don't stop!" You can actually hear this on one of our live records. You can hear him say it. I stop, and the people applaud and he says, "No, go on! Express yourself!" I put my horn back up, start playing and play another three or four choruses. That was pretty typical. In this way, he was trying to show me something. (As an aside,: here's where I had to change my trumpet technique, because I just couldn't physically keep up with him. I had to find a way to make it possible.) Finally after about two or three years of experiencing this, one night I was driving him home after the gig and I said, "Von, can I ask you something?" He says, "Sure." I said, " Why do you always ask me to keep playing after I have finished my solo? Why do you want me to play more?" His answer was, "You have to play past what you know to get to what you don't know." The long solo wasn't so much about grabbing your attention for a long time as a listener, although maybe it did that, if you knew what you were listening to, if you had that kind of brain to be able to pay attention to it. It was more about exhausting your routine until you got to the point where you had nothing left to play that was under your fingers, and then; what do you play? That's what you’re hearing, I believe, when you listen to Von’s long solos. In 1990, I bought a Digital Audio Tape recorder in Japan. I was the first kid on my block to have some kind of digital recorder. I got myself set up with mixers and pre-amps and mics, and started experimenting with live recording. I was using this stuff, and I was explaining to Von what I had bought, “It's digital so it can just become a CD, basically”. That was the simplest way I could put it. Von said, and this was in 1991, he said, "What we are doing right now," (meaning he and I and the gigs we were playing,) he said, "We should be capturing this on tape. You should tape every gig we play, if you can," Of course I couldn't tape every gig, because it involved a lot of set up and lots of microphone stands and wires running everywhere, and then I would have to put it somewhere unobtrusive. Over time, I figured out how to minimize the equipment and preset it to record a quintet, and so I would set it up when we were in a place where I could do that, and I would record the gig. I really think that what he was saying to me at that time was that he knew that HE was really playing at the top of his game, that this was the best he'd ever played in his life and he was aware of this. I would record these gigs, and the day after the gig, I'd transfer it to cassette and drive it to his house. He and I and his brother George (the guitarist), and his mother, who at that time was 100 years old, literally, (laughs) would sit in their living room and listen to the tape and we'd all discuss it. I think that George was really a bigger admirer of Von than anybody. I'd just leave him a pile of cassettes every time. Years later, after I had recorded 20 gigs or so like this, SteepleChase records wanted to come to Chicago to record Von. Von never enjoyed playing in a recording studio. I think he would get very conservative and feel like he needed to play really inside. In the studio, he never really opened up and stretched, the way he did on the gig. He just told Nils Winther, the owner of SteepleChase, "Brad has all these tapes. You should just buy the tapes from him. I don't want to go to the studio." I got the call from Nils Winther and we started discussing it, and it took a long time to work out all of the business details, but in the end, Von and I sold the whole collection of DAT tapes to Nils. I took a trip to Denmark with all of the tapes. We spent ten days editing, basically turning what were 40-minute tunes and 45-minute tunes into 15-minute and 20-minute tunes to prepare them for release. We prepared, I believe, 16 completed CDs. They're done. Right away, he released four volumes in the first year, (2001) and since then he has never released anything else. _____ DM: There's still 12 more and they're of Von playing at his very best? BG: That's what I'm saying. When the 4 CDs came out, it wasn’t big news, because Steeplechase doesn't do much with promotion or marketing, although I did mention to you about Harvey Pekar writing an article for Jazz Times when they came out, trying to make a case for Von having played like this for years. However, I'm glad I have that documentation of Von’s genius, and I do have copies of all of it. Obviously, I'm not allowed to put it on YouTube or anything, because they don't belong to me anymore. We sold the rights to Steeplechase. So I’m just waiting; I don't know if Nils is planning to release the rest of them or not. The recordings were made between 1991 and 1996. My favorite ones are the last ones from 1996. I think it's maybe the best playing I've heard from Von, and I also liked the way I played on these. Of the ones released already, I like Von’s solos on “Inside Chicago, Volume 1” best of all.

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