Remembering Vonski, master of the jazz tenor sax

August 29, 2012

Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele

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 Famed Chicago tenor saxophonist Earle Lavon “Von” Freeman,  once told Tony Sarabia that he was never meant to be a teacher. Saxophonist Frank Catalano and percussionist Kahil El’Zabar strongly disagree. The two musicians, who both played with Von Freeman, and WBEZ’s Richard Steele join Eight Forty-Eight to discuss the legacy of one of Chicago’s greats, who died earlier this month.


Tony Sarabia:

This weekend jazz lovers will get two opportunities to remember Chicago’s last link to the classic jazz era of the 1940’s and 50’s. Both the Chicago Jazz Festival and the African Festival of the Arts will pay homage to Earle Lavon "Von" Freeman, the late tenor saxophonist who was affectionately known as Vonski.

Von Freeman was a modest and loyal man. He once told me he never considered himself teacher to the young musicians who would come to play with him at his regular longtime gig at the small Chicago club The New Apartment Lounge; if anything, he would say, “I’m around", meaning he was here to play and play and play with whomever wanted to sit in and jam.

When I say Von was loyal, I mean in the familial sense. Von could have gone to New York, following in the tradition of other Chicagoans who headed east where the scene was centered; it started with Louis Armstrong in the 1920’s when he left Chicago to work with Fletcher Henderson’s band. Von’s peer and fellow tenor man Gene Ammons left his hometown for the Big Apple and even Von’s son Chico packed his horn for New York.

But Von Freeman had a family to raise and Chico once told me that no matter where his dad might be playing, whenever report cards came home, his dad was there to praise or lambast: all in all, to be a parent.

Once the kids grew and Von was divorced, there was his aging mother. He wanted to be around for her and he told me during an interview that the only regret he had was that his mother had died just as he started to get noticed around the country and the world for his “tough” tenor playing.

There was always something keeping him from leaving Chicago for good: his blind dog Benji, was another reason he gave.  I suspect deep down, Von just loved Chicago and its music scene. He certainly was beloved.

Von benefited from staying, he played with some of the top names from the classic jazz era such as Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins, whenever those musicians came through town.

Von Freeman didn’t make his first record until he was 39 years old; late for a jazz artist-his last was 2009’s Vonski Speaks. Avid listeners may say they can detect a change in style thru those years, but Von would tell you that he always played the same -- tough, like the city itself. It was a robust sound in the vein of Coleman Hawkins’s masculine tone.

It was a style that surely influenced a good number of up and coming Chicago area tenor players.

I think for many Chicagoans even casually familiar with jazz are familiar with the name Von Freeman; hopefully those folks will come out and hear those that played with Vonski over the years pay tribute to a man who truly belongs among those other great Chicago jazz artists that came before him.

Richard Steele:

Many great things have been said about the late Von Freeman. They’re all true.

He lived his entire 88 years in Sweet Home Chicago. When he was a youngster, he got to know great jazz players like Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Earl Hines. They would stop by his home to see his police officer dad, who was also a pretty fair piano player.

All that close proximity to outstanding musicians and their music began to rub off on young Von. Pretty soon he was learning to play tenor sax. When he furthered his musical education under the tutelage of the great DuSable High School music director Walter Dyett, his professional career began to take flight.

In the beginning his playing was heavily influenced by Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. He later developed his own unmistakable style. Over the years  “Vonski,” as he was known to his friends and admirers, played with everyone from Sun Ra to bluesman Jimmy Reed. Part of his enduring legacy is the many young musicians he mentored during his long career. One of those players came to Von’s legendary Tuesday night sessions at The Apartment Lounge on Chicago’s South Side when he was 13. His name is Frank Catalano, and we selected the title track from a duo album they did back in 2000 after Catalano had become a professional musician. It’s called You Talkin’ To Me?!             

Another choice selection is from Von Freeman’s Live at the Dakota album from 2001. The track is called “Crazy She Calls Me.” You’ll hear Von do his signature announcement before he begins to play: “This one is for the ladies.”      

I picked the next track because it showcases Von Freeman as a burner. He lights this one up. It’s taken from the album called The Great Divide and the track is “Never Fear, Jazz Is Here.”

Von Freeman is now blowing at that eternal jam session with the likes of John Coltrane, Gene Ammons and Coleman Hawkins, but his musical footprint on this planet will be deep and lasting.

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