Credit: Herb Nolan

This story is being republished as part of the Reader‘s 40th anniversary issue. Don’t miss former Reader jazz critic Neil Tesser’s 2011 reminiscence on his 38-year-old story.

“It’s not easy.”

Von Freeman is standing at the bar that lines one wall of Betty Lou’s, which is pretty much the same as standing in the middle of the room. The husky smoothness of his voice replaces the smoothed-out huskiness of the post-bop, past-bop saxophone lines that have just burned out in a pyre of applause, while John Young’s electric piano picks up the musical embers and fans them into new flames. Von approves vocally: “Young John Young!” he blurts, with the sound rising and falling like it was a Sunday hosanna. Then he pumps a few hands, orders up another scotch and milk, and turns, glowing with life and a laid-back and sublime sense of strength, to face the combo not two yards away.

“It’s not easy.” He says it with the knowing shake of the head that accompanies self-evident truths when they are verbalized.

It is a phrase that Von repeats often, whether standing at the bar with friends, or acting as the genial emcee for the pool of musicians who gather to play in varying combinations at Betty Lou’s on a Wednesday or Thursday night; musicians, nameless to most of the most dedicated jazz buffs, gathering in an unobtrusive little south-side bar to unobtrusively put down some of the damn cookingest sounds around. One of those whose name is starting to get known is a young bassist named Tias Palmer, who comes over to say hello to Von, and is promptly embraced by the man’s arms and smile as he exclaims, “See this boy? I raised him from infancy. He’s seven now. Yes sir, he just like all my raisin’s; they act a little crazy, but they do all right.”

A young man maybe 18 or 19 (another “raisin’?”) approaches the saxophonist, receiving the effusive and ebullient greeting seemingly reserved for only the immediate world, and attempts to pay off a small debt by stuffing a few bills into Von’s hand. No luck; Von won’t hear of it, would rather consider it a gift, and, when the young man tries again, says the cat can buy him a taste sometime. The young man smiles in resignation, thanks him, and drifts back to his table.

“It’s not easy,” Von says as he returns to the playing area.

But it is, or at least it seems to be, as he raises the 30-year-old Martin tenor sax to his flexible jaw, which clambers about acrobatically, under and around the mouthpiece, as he varies the volume on seemingly every successive note of the incredible lines he’s ripping off. He’s so freaking fast on that thing, but all the notes add up to a highly individualistic statement, not just a random selection from the Carl Fischer exercise books. His hyperexpressive tone, though, is the thing that catches you first, and it doesn’t sound easy: a weird sound, maybe scrunged up from the garbage cans of the ghetto, a thinned out, maybe constricted sound that nevertheless embodies a certain strength, that unmistakable quality of having survived (through Lord knows what); a tone at times as tortured as the melodies it carries are tortuous. Hell, at times, it sounds like there’s some semihuman creature hiding in the saxophone bell, crying out to anyone who will hear in a voice from that twilight zone between intelligible human speech and animal ravings. No, that tone is anything but easy.

But it isn’t even the sound of the sax that Von refers to when he comments on the difficulty of it all. In fact, he’s not talking about anything that’s going on right then at the bar, on the bandstand, or at the tables; he’s talking about what’s going on in the streets outside, every minute of every day, he’s talking about a way of life. He’s talking about being out there, playing, for over 30 years. Von Freeman happens to be a jazzman of the highest caliber, and a saxophonist possessed of the most original conception of the instrument to be heard since Coltrane, but he is only one of scores of musicians playing in lots of little clubs dotting the south side, and lots of little south sides dotting the country. Von Freeman is a creative musical artist in America.

In the 30s, in Kansas City, before the music was discovered and exploited—I mean, packaged—by the eastern record companies, they were playing the freest, most wide-open jazz anyone had ever heard. But one of its main characteristics was that hardly anyone had ever heard it. “The District” was honeycombed with music clubs and cabarets, but it was a secret to almost everyone outside of KC, except the musicians. The greatest pianist Art Tatum once said, “Kansas City is a cellar, a dark place where the best wines are kept. And the music is different there, too.”

Sometimes you might get the feeling that the cellar has been moved to the south side. It’s not the same, of course: the level of activity isn’t as high, and the music isn’t that different in style from a lot of other places, because the south side isn’t as isolated as was KC. But spread out all over the lower city are the little bars, like Betty Lou’s, too small even for a bandstand, just a few tables cleared away from the center of the room and replaced by a trap set and electric piano and a few mikes and amps, and the musicians, playing with a warmth and sincerity that come only from playing among friends. A dark place where the musical wine flows freely.

Von Freeman is in his 50s, and he says he feels stronger than at any time in his life. He lives on the south side, with his mother, stepfather, and his son Von Jr., an emergent avant-garde saxophonist, in a modest—the writer’s euphemism for poor—frame house on Calumet Boulevard. It has a small living room with a few chairs, a sofa, a table, and, of course, a piano. When he was little, his family bought him a saxophone after he had torn up his father’s old Victrola and taken the arm, which was shaped roughly like a sax. He drilled holes in it and made a mouthpiece and was running around the house blowing the thing when his father came home and asked him what the hell he was playing. (“He couldn’t play his sounds,” Von says, “his Louis Armstrongs and Fats Wallers and things and man, he was disturbed. I thought he might kill me.”)

“A lotta people say my sound is original, but it’s really not,” he says. “I got it from Dave Young, who used to be with Roy Eldridge. He’s one of the very greatest horn players I ever heard, and I bet you there’s not too many people who know anything about him. He’s still here. He was on the staff of the Chicago“—pronounced Chikargo—”Defender, at least he was the last time I saw Dave, four or five years ago. And he’s great.” But Von doesn’t know if Dave Young still plays.

He’s pretty sure that Roy Grant doesn’t play anymore. Roy and Von went to school together, jammed together, and Von says that “Roy could have been one of the world’s great saxophone players, but I don’t think today he even plays.”

Why not? What would make any of these players, if they were really so great, drop their horns like they were suddenly radioactive and leave music?

“Well, it’s that same story,” says Von, “he just got lost in the shuffle and scuffle.” It’s not easy.

After the Navy, Von formed a house band at the Pershing Lounge with his brother George on guitar. They learned plenty as they backed up Bird, Diz, Lester Young, and others and, in a few years, when their drummer-brother Bruz joined them, the band was known simply as the Freeman Brothers. When that group broke up, about 1952, Von says he got “caught up—you know how you just get into something and you stick with it”—playing with rock ‘n’ roll and blues bands (including Otis Rush) for the next ten years. He played with various groups from then until 1969, when he returned from an international tour with Milt Trenier to form his own group, which he’s led ever since.

And after rustling and hustling in the shuffle and scuffle, after being out there, playing, for over 30 years, Von Freeman recently cut his first album as a leader, on Atlantic. Downbeat rated it “very good,” a description that unfortunately doesn’t apply to the sales figures. It might seem a bit unusual that it took someone all that time to get around to putting Von’s music on disc, that this truly individual saxophonist could remain unknown for so long, but Von is not surprised; after all, he can name “40 or 50 very good horn players around this town that no one knows anything about.” It might also seem unusual that these players, musicians in the truest sense, are unknown to almost everyone, that these craftsmen of America’s greatest musical tradition all live in modest homes in the ghetto, where they have gigs by day to make a living, so that at night they can blow their horns to make an art.

Von is one of those few who makes both living and art from the sound he produces; in fact, he’s about the only local musician he knows who’s never had a “day job” to tide things over. He won’t deny it’s been rough, but he won’t put it down, either.

“You see, I don’t think I could live any better. Like, to me, I’m rich. All my life, any time I ever really needed anything, the money was always there. And the love . . . Well, I can name four times in my life I was gonna quit playin’. I just had gotten defeated. And different persons would come to me—my son was the last one—and he said ‘Man, I wouldn’t quit playing.’ My brother George has done it. I was on the road with Milt Trenier’s great group, and every now and then I would get drugged, and want to quit, and some person would come out of the audience, just like the Master sent him, and tap me on the shoulder, and say, ‘Hey: this is a great group. You certainly can play.’ And it would just refuel you, regenerate you, and I think a lot of musicians haven’t been fortunate enough to get this over the years. But I have.” Survival tactics.

“I’ve been lucky,” Von continues. “I’ve been able to just eke out a livin’; that’s it. But I’ve been happy. I don’t even know, if I had to do it over, if . . . well, I couldn’t do it any differently anyway.”

That’s not just jive. Von has been happy: he believes that playing jazz is one of the most satisfying things in the world, and that the cats out there doing it are happy in a way that most people can only envy. And he probably wouldn’t do it any differently: he holds on to a completely bohemian view of the freely creative artist, one in which money is not only unnecessary for, but actually at odds with, creativity. What it comes down to is money being at the root of something or other.

“The average jazz musician plays better poor than any way I’ve seen him. You give the average guy some money, man, he seems to change. It seems like he gets over into another bag, gets over into business, maybe starts thinking about his money and protectin’ it, which of course is one of the forces of having money. I don’t think he has time for that instrument like he had when he was poor. ‘Cause when you poor, man, you express yourself through your instrument. You’re hungry, you sit down, start bangin’ at the piano, go get your horn and start tootin’. And brother, there is no rich man in the world that can play like some poor hungry cat, ’cause that’s a different bag. You got a tortured sound . . . well, they call it soul. Maybe it is.

“The lifestyle where I play is, you get up and you blow your brains out. The average guy, this is what he’s got to do. Now, when you get on another level, you might even wear a tux. And you go there and you have the proper attitude, and the proper stance, and you do your thing . . . properly. And everything has a certain etiquette to it.

“But when you’re over there in a place like Betty Lou’s . . . it’s just a different thing. My creativity is at its highest level, because I know I’m not goin’ to make any money, so to speak, and I know just about what’s goin’ to happen, so you don’t have anything to think about other than creating.

“I think the closest you can get to complete creativity in jazz music is at one of these dinky little places, where everybody’s makin’ a lot of noise, but it’s controlled noise, ’cause they still wanna dig you, they still respect you; and you are playing for them, and for yourself. Now, say you go down to the London House or Mr. Kelly’s and you hear a great musician or a great singer; they got a lot of things to be considering: how well they’re dressed, who is there, maybe Kup is there, or somethin’ . . . .

“But I could put this cat in Betty Lou’s, and I’ll bet you he gets a different sound altogether. Because Betty Lou’s is gonna be mellow, and funky, and half the cats there are gonna be funky”—he even says it funky—”and it’s got a different atmosphere that is conducive to jazz creativity. Nobody’s gonna worry about money, or fame, or who’s there, because nobody cares. There’s not gonna be nobody there anyway, generally speaking. Nobody is tryin’ to do somethin’, nobody is tryin’ to be nothin’, everybody is just creatin’. Because you see, when you get into those bags, where you are tryin’ to do other things, I think this lessens your creativity.”

But it goes even deeper than that, even farther than what happens when the jazzman is on the stand. The spark that ignites a jazz performance, or a jazz musician—both of which realy so heavily on spontaneous composition—is creativity: “an elusive force,” Von calls it. Von admits to having been truly creative only a few times throughout his life, but he has had enough run-ins with it to know how slippery it is, and to know that it doesn’t restrict itself to hitting a musician only when he’s ready to play.

Ideas come, explains Von, not only when you pick up your horn, but all the time. Creativity is a full-time, any-time thing, and Von feels that money, its attendant worries and the changes it brings, lessens the artist’s receptivity to that “elusive force,” wherever and whenever it might strike. Almost like the rites to some obscure reverse-exorcism, the artist needs free time to prepare himself and be ready to receive creativity; and if, as Von feels, having and worrying about money impinges on that free time—well, the line is drawn, and you can stand on whichever side you want. It’s a choice that almost every creative musical artist in America goes up against at least once, and it’s not easy.

A lot of cats—Von can tell you—never make it to that moment of choice. They get eaten up by the jungle of competition, of just plain survival at their profession, and get spewed out somewhere far away from questions of creativity. But if they do make it, you can bet there was some suffering, and it shows up in the music, and in the sound of the man as he sends his inner voices through a metal maze.

“Once you get proficient, and have paid the right amount of dues—and when I say the right amount, I mean, however many you paid, that’s the right amount—you just get a sound, man. You see all the dope, all the whiskey, all the loose ladies, all the late hours, you go through all that stuff out here, man, you see it all happening. If you happen to survive, you gonna have something that’s unique. It’s gonna be a sound and a way of playin’ that’s you.”

Von Freeman has survived, and he has the sound to prove it: the unmistakable quality of having survived, and suffered too, in the process. It’s a kind of worldliness that you hear in that tone, a simple statement of the fact that yes, he’s seen all that stuff and retained little bits and pieces of it in the strong, blunted throb of his tenor sax. He finishes off a number, with John Young’s vibrating chords and the flurry of fireworks from Bucky Taylor’s drums forming a pulsing cushion for his final notes. Then Von announces the next tune, a rarely played Charlie Parker ballad, in honor of Bird’s birthday the night before. “You listening, Bird?” he shouts joyfully into the ceiling, joining in the laughter that fills Betty Lou’s. And then, after the piano intro, he starts to play.

The performance is the perfect tribute to one of the greatest creative musicians, as it not only conjures up the memory of the man who inspired everyone since, but also provides a fresh and uncopied and decidedly Freeman-esque musical experience, a beautiful new creation. Every so often, after a lightning run or a carefully shaped phrase, Von takes the instrument from his mouth and shouts “Hear that, Bird?”, almost, but not quite, breaking the mood he has established. And when the weird, strangely sensitive tones of the speeding, filigreed melodies have been swallowed up in the rolling wave of approval, Von Freeman smiles broadly, makes a circle with his thumb and first finger, and yells “That’s for you, Bird!”

And then, as the rhythm section picks up the ebb and flow of the song, Von puts down his sax and begins to dance with a woman seated at a nearby table (they’re all nearby), who he either knows or doesn’t know. And as he glides around in front of the musicians, he shoots a glance and a grin and says, “It’s easy, Neilly. It’s easy.”