Saxophonist Chico Freeman carries forth the legacy of his father, tenor saxophone giant Von Freeman. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)
It would be difficult to overestimate how much the Freeman family has given to jazz in Chicago and, really, the rest of the world.
Most famously, leonine tenor saxophonist Von Freeman remains a symbol of the music even after his death here in 2012, at age 88. His name towered on the signage at the Von Freeman Pavilion during the recent Chicago Jazz Festival, and his legacy resonates in the work of proteges such as MacArthur Fellowship winner and saxophonist Steve Coleman, revered drummer Jack DeJohnette, Cassandra Wilson music director/bassist Lonnie Plaxico and scores more.
Like Freeman, his brother – guitarist George Freeman – played alongside Charlie Parker back in the day. At 92, George Freeman is enjoying wider recognition in concert and on recordings than ever before. Add to this the work of the late drummer Eldridge “Bruz” Freeman, and you have a remarkable trio of siblings whose histories go back practically to the dawning of jazz in Chicago.
For when Louis Armstrong moved here from New Orleans in the early 1920s, he became friends with the Freemans’ father, a Chicago police officer and amateur musician. The two duetted informally during off hours, the young Freeman brothers growing up within earshot of Satchmo, who to this day remains the global face of jazz.
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Which brings us to powerhouse tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman, who has received less attention in the United States than he deserves for a particular reason: Until three years ago, he had been based in Europe for more than a decade. But when you add Chico to the Freeman lineage, you have a regal jazz family that bears comparison to the Marsalises of New Orleans (Ellis, Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason) or the Joneses of Detroit (Elvin, Thad and Hank).
For anyone who has heard Chico Freeman during his periodic visits to Chicago, there’s no question of his stature, which is documented on recordings such as “Fathers and Sons” (1982, featuring the Marsalis and Freeman families) and “All in the Family” (2015, spotlighting George and Chico Freeman).
So Chico Freeman’s return here from his current base in New York for a four-night run at the Jazz Showcase starting Sept. 26 comes as welcome news to anyone who values fiery jazz improvisation in the Freeman family tradition.
“Some people say it’s like royalty in Chicago, and that’s great,” says Chico Freeman. “My dad, he got his play, and now my uncle George is enjoying his time in the sunlight.
“But there’s somebody that we never shined the light on: my uncle George’s mom and my dad’s mom (Chico’s grandmother). She was a gospel singer, sang with Mahalia Jackson, with the Clara Ward Singers.”
To bring attention to this lesser-known side of the Freeman family, Chico Freeman has been developing a jazz-gospel project that will tour Switzerland in November and, he hopes, the United States next year. It’s an intriguing way of further illuminating the Freeman story.
When Chico Freeman was visiting here over the summer to develop the venture, he dipped into the local scene and was struck by what he heard.
“It’s good to see there’s such good musicians there these days – I was real pleased when I heard Thaddeus,” says Freeman, referring to vibraphonist Thaddeus Tukes, who will join him at the Showcase.
“I went to see (guitarist) John McLean and (singer) Dee Alexander. They had this drummer with them, Charles Heath – he really could play. Really good time.”
Because Freeman still travels between the States and Europe so often, he can’t help but notice the difference in how he feels on either side of the Atlantic. So much so, that whenever he returns to America he considers it “a double-edged sword.”
“It’s great to come back, and the best part is playing with the guys, and playing the way we play, the way we do things,” says the saxophonist.
“The politics and all the other crazy stuff that goes on – I’m always on guard, because of the nature of things, which I don’t have to do in Europe. I’m more relaxed over there.
“In Switzerland, a couple of times I’ll hear the police sirens – they’re not looking for me. They’re not looking for anybody that looks like me. That’s a relief.
“When I come back to the States, I don’t feel that ease. That’s a fact.”
Yet Freeman is quick to point out that he benefited enormously from growing up in Chicago in the presence of his grandmother, father and uncles, their music shaping his understanding of the art of jazz. And though Von Freeman wasn’t doctrinaire about music, he imparted lessons that have guided Chico Freeman ever since.
“He wasn’t a pro-active teacher – that wasn’t his thing, but he never let me go down the wrong road,” says Chico Freeman.
“For instance, he would tell me: ‘Your sound is the most important thing.’
“He would say: ‘Your sound is you. We all play the same notes, but the only thing that makes you different from me, and me different from everyone else, is your sound, your voice.’
“He’d say: ‘You can play a thousand notes, and if you don’t have a sound, no one will know you. But you can play one note, and if you have a sound, everyone will know you.’”
That certainly applied in Von Freeman’s case, his keening tone and sometimes ever-so-slightly-flat pitch distinguishing him from anyone who ever brought reed to lips. Chico Freeman, too, sounds like no one else, the heft and grit of his sound quite far from that of his father.
“The other thing he would say: ‘Saxophone players, our beat is in our fingers, that’s where we keep time,’” adds Chico Freeman.
“And he’d say: ‘People say (that) practice makes perfect.’
“He’d say: ‘No, that’s not true. Perfect practice makes perfect.’
“And I’ve been living that way. You play things slow enough so you can play it perfectly. Otherwise you’re just practicing your mistakes.”
Listeners may not realize it, but Freeman was classically trained at Northwestern University, where he started as a math major but switched to music. Contrary to popular wisdom, the worlds of classical music and jazz have more similarities than differences, thanks to the complexity and depth of the work, which does not easily lend itself to radio airplay or pop-culture approval.
But when Freeman was studying at Northwestern, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the perceived gulf between jazz and classical was wider than today, as he learned the hard way.
After numerous rehearsals in a classical saxophone quartet at NU, the young Freeman would head to the South Side for jam sessions led by his father and featuring some of the greatest tenor players in a city famous for them.
“So I get up on stage with Clifford Jordan, and I start playing whatever song we’re playing,” remember Chico Freeman.
Compared to tenor master Jordan, “My sound was paper-thin and terrible. I was embarrassed. My dad was embarrassed. So I got offstage.
“At the end of the night, I was getting ready to go back to school, and my father said, ‘Come home with me.’
“He gave me his mouthpiece and said, ‘Try this.’
“My sound was changed. Like boom!”
At the next classical saxophone quartet rehearsal at Northwestern, Chico Freeman played just a few notes before his professor called him out.
“He said: ‘Oh no, what happened, what’s going on?’” recalls Freeman.
“I said, ‘I’ve got this new mouthpiece. Isn’t this great?’
“And he said: ‘You’re playing classical music! We don’t want this!’”
The Freemans, however, had the last laugh.
In 2003, Northwestern awarded an honorary doctorate degree to the jazz musician who had transformed Chico’s Freeman’s sound and influenced generations: his father Von.
Chico Freeman plays Sept. 26 through 29 at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court; $20-$40; 312-360-0234 or www.jazzshowcase.com.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
Howard Reich is the Tribune's Emmy-winning arts critic; author of six books, including "The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel"; and writer-producer of three documentaries. He holds two honorary doctoral degrees and served on the Pulitzer music jury four times, including for the first jazz winner, "Blood on the Fields."
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