Von Freeman, Chicago jazz legend, dies at 88

August 15, 2012

Von Freeman, 88, a jazz saxophonist who was honored this year as a National Endowment for the Arts jazz master, died Aug. 11 at a nursing facility in Chicago.

He had a heart ailment, his son Mark Freeman told the Chicago Tribune.

Mr. Freeman was revered around the world but never found much commercial success. His refusal to leave Chicago during most of his career cost him incalculable fame and fortune but also enabled him to create a distinctive, innovative style.

He forged an unusual but instantly recognizable sound and pursued musical ideas that were unlikely to be welcomed in the commercial marketplace.

“They said I played out of tune, played a lot of wrong notes, a lot of weird ideas,” Mr. Freeman told the Tribune in 1992. “But it didn’t matter, because I didn’t have to worry about the money — I wasn’t making any. I didn’t have to worry about fame — I didn’t have any.

“I was free.”

Earlier this year, he became one of the few Chicago-based musicians to receive a Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, regarded as the nation’s highest jazz honor.

Mr. Freeman, sometimes known as “Vonski,” stood as the perennial outsider, working on the fringes of the jazz mainstream. He merged elements of down-home blues, R&B honking, brazenly avant-garde techniques and an utter mastery of the predominant jazz language of the 20th century, bebop, to create a distinctive personal style.

Every sweet-sour note, every intricately etched phrase was crafted to sound as unexpected and as intensely expressive as possible.

Earle Lavon Freeman was born Oct. 3, 1923, in Chicago. (Many sources say he was born in 1922; according to the Tribune, his birth certificate gives his year of birth as 1923.)

By age 12, he was playing professionally. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he worked in a hotel house band with two of his brothers. He declined an offer to tour with singer Billy Eckstine in the 1940s.

Mr. Freeman later turned down an opportunity to replace saxophonist John Coltrane in the group led by trumpeter Miles Davis, preferring to hone his art on his own terms in his hometown.

His only taste of major-label exposure came in 1982, when Columbia Records released “Fathers and Sons,” featuring Ellis Marsalis with sons Wynton and Branford on Side A, Von and son Chico Freeman (a noted saxophonist based in New York) on Side B.

From early 1980s, jazz devotees from New York to Paris — such as alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman and pianist Jason Moran — made pilgrimages to Chicago to hear Mr. Freeman play and to study his work.

Survivors include his sons, Mark and Chico Freeman; a brother; and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.

— From news services and staff reports

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