Von Freeman at the Green Mill, October 2011
Von Freeman at the Green Mill, October 2011 Credit: Jim Newberry

Over the past 30 years, Von Freeman has become one of a handful of jazz musicians internationally known as Chicago icons. He’s not only linked in the public mind with the Chicago jazz scene—alongside Fred Anderson, Patricia Barber, Kurt Elling, and Ken Vandermark—but indisputably admired by his peers on that rarefied list. This summer the National Endowment for the Arts selected him for its last class of Jazz Masters, placing him in the company of about 100 other artists who’ve been so honored since the program began in 1982. Well into his 80s, Freeman continues to play with a power and vigor that mystify his long-term listeners and challenge his younger sidemen.

The luminary of today stands a world apart from the man I encountered when I first wrote about “Vonskis” in 1973. (The nickname derives from his lifelong habit, inspired by bebop slang, of adding the syllable “-ski” or “-skis” to the end of pretty much every acquaintance’s name; I’ve been “Neilski” since the day we met.) The phrase “when I first wrote about” should be read in its most restrictive possible sense: by coincidence or luck, I was in the right place to publish the very first interview with Freeman—in fact, the first major article of any kind about him.

At the time, Freeman was a knockabout south-side Chicago saxist with an iconoclastic style and a resumé that included some pretty impressive credits—he’d made a lo-fi jam-session recording with Charlie Parker in the early 50s, for example, and played with Sun Ra’s band later that decade. Nonetheless, north of Madison only hard-core listeners had ever heard him (or even heard of him). But other musicians certainly knew him. And in 1972 one of them—wild saxophone prophet Rahsaan Roland Kirk—produced Freeman’s first album, Doin’ It Right Now.

For the 1972-’73 school year, I was a senior at Northwestern and hosting a weekly jazz program for the campus radio station, WNUR (89.3 FM). But I might never have bothered with Freeman’s LP when it arrived in the station’s music library, thanks to its self-consciously funky cover photo of Vonskis in a wifebeater, holding his horn in some dilapidated cellar. I had no idea at the time just how ridiculous that image was—even though he turned 88 this month, Freeman always appears in public dressed with dapper distinction.

Fortunately Freeman’s son Chico—then a trumpet player, later to become a saxophonist and an important jazz artist in the 80s and 90s—shared a music-theory class I was taking at Northwestern. He knew I had an interest in jazz, and one day he said to me, “You know, my father plays saxophone.” (I now consider this akin to saying, “You know, Everest is a mountain.”) Chico suggested I bring his father onto my radio show for an interview, and I first met Vonskis on a Sunday night in the spring of ’73, when he drove from the south side to Evanston to be questioned by a very green white boy.

From then on, Freeman would introduce me as “this fellow who owns a radio station in Evanston.” He knew better, but I think he had fun watching me squirm when he said it.

Judging by that interview, I figured Freeman would make a pretty good story for the Reader, the fledgling weekly for which I’d begun writing the previous year. (It turned out to be my first cover feature.) I spent some more time with Vonskis in front of a cassette recorder, and then went down to beard the genial lion in his south-side den—Betty Lou’s at 87th and Vincennes, where Freeman hosted a weekly set that even then included lots of sitting in by proteges and wannabes. I was the only white person in the room and, at 21, one of the youngest. But I still felt comfortable walking in and finding a spot at the bar—right up until Freeman greeted me and offhandedly offered a friendly warning: I’d be “safe as a bug in a rug,” he said, as long as I stuck by him.

Fast-forward to the 90s, by which time Freeman had moved his weekly sessions to Tuesdays at the New Apartment Lounge on 75th Street, where in 2002 the block in front of the club was renamed Von Freeman Way. The room brimmed with people, white and black in almost equal numbers, many of them tourists from Europe or Japan. The kids bringing their horns and hoping to sit in were usually predominantly white, trekking in from area colleges to pay some dues and grab a little of Freeman’s reflected spotlight. (The club recently reopened after renovations that lasted most of 2011, but whether Freeman will return to his weekly gig remains to be seen.)

In the 90s and 00s, Freeman placed his career in the hands of two Chicago record labels. Southport Records got things started with some loosey-goosey projects that put him on the discographical map; then Premonition Records’ Mike Friedman oversaw several more sessions, better planned out and more carefully controlled, that resulted in the albums that will likely endure as the saxophonist’s legacy.

Freeman owes both labels a great deal of gratitude for helping to bring his utterly unique, devastatingly authentic talent to the world’s attention. He had rarely traveled outside Chicago when he began recording semiregularly in the 1980s; in this century, he’s performed frequently in New York and Europe. Covered widely in jazz journals, chronicled in the Chicago Tribune, reviewed in the New York Times, Freeman as a senior citizen enjoyed a career boost that would have dazzled a jazz musician half his age. Nonetheless, throughout the 80s and 90s, he often referred to me as “that young man who made me famous” and mentioned the Reader cover story from decades earlier. This “young man” turned 60 last month, and I still think that it was really more the other way around.

Neil Tesser
Neil Tesser

Neil Tesser, author of The Playboy Guide to Jazz, began covering jazz for the Reader in 1972 and most recently contributed a 2008 feature about Sonny Rollins‘s time in Chicago.