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Von Freeman And The Case For Jazz's Hometown Heroes

Von Freeman.
Jimmy Katz
Courtesy of the artist
Von Freeman.

When Von Freeman was named an NEA Jazz Master last month, it meant more than the recognition of another saxophonist. The announcement also rekindled an argument about jazz history: Should we focus only on the artists who developed a national reputation? Or should the narrative also include those artists who hunkered down in their hometowns to stay close to their families, devote themselves to the local scene and hone their craft? If those players attained technical mastery and distinctively original voices, shouldn't they too find a place in history books?

By choosing to honor Freeman, the National Endowment for the Arts is arguing for the latter approach. Freeman has never ventured far from Chicago; he's recorded only sporadically, and only for small labels. But he is a dazzling player — able to articulate each note even at blistering tempos, able to construct melodic solos even while using his one-of-a-kind, husky tone.

He has left his mark on almost every Chicago musician of the past 60 years. It's heard most obviously on saxophonists like his son Chico Freeman and on his protégés Ed Petersen and Frank Catalano. But almost every touring musician who happened to jam with the senior Freeman in Chicago came away intimidated and/or raving about his talent. And even if jazz fans two states away were unaware, musicians knew.

Von Freeman may be the finest example of the local jazz hero, but he's just the tip of the iceberg. Every big American city has its own equivalent of Chicago's Freeman: a musician who could blow away visiting all-stars in on-stage cutting contests, and who developed fully original, idiosyncratic styles because they weren't chasing national trends. Baltimore had Mickey Fields, Washington Buck Hill, Cleveland Tony Lovano, New Orleans Alvin "Red" Tyler and Philadelphia Bootsie Barnes. And those are just some tenor saxophonists of Freeman's bebop generation. There are singers, keyboardists, trumpeters and more of every generation, all brilliant players, their fame dimmed by self-imposed isolation rather than by any limits on their talent.

The existence of these players complicates our notion of jazz history. If that chronicle is merely a detailed chart of influencers and influences, as it so often is, these local heroes can be left out, for their low profile excludes them from that spider web network. But if jazz history is to be the story of the art form's greatest practitioners, these overlooked jazz masters need to be included. That's why the NEA announcement is such a milestone. It dares the genre's critics and historians to search out and document these reclusive masters.

Earle Lavon Freeman Sr. was born in Chicago in 1923. By his teenage years, he was working paying gigs. By the '40s, the Freeman Brothers — Von on tenor, George on guitar and Buzz on drums — were the house band at the Pershing Ballroom backing established swing stars and up-and-coming bop players.

Freeman soon found he could hold his own against the biggest stars in jazz, and could easily hit the road the way they had. But he also saw the cost to their families and decided to stay in Chicago to raise his own. There, he got the chance to play with other locals such as Sun Ra, Gene Ammons, Andrew Hill, Clifford Jordan, Malachi Favors and many more.

"My story's not much different from most musicians in Chicago," Von told DownBeat Magazine in 2001. "Most of them never got anywhere nationally, which is a shame. Great players around here, like [now-deceased saxophonist] Eddie Johnson. He should be famous."

When Von's son Chico started touring internationally in the late '70s and early '80s, he was able to coax his father away from home for a few shows. I still remember reviewing Von's first-ever Washington, D.C., show in 1982. It was supposed to be Chico's gig, but the old man with the broad frame in the dark suit stole the date with an unaccompanied version of "I Remember You." His purring tone and sinuous phrasing caressed the melody before spinning variations on the tune in wider and wider spirals until he was inventing far more than he was altering.

You can hear some of the same alchemy on "Never Fear Jazz Is Here," an uptempo flag-waver from Von's 2004 album, The Great Divide. Jimmy Cobb, Miles Davis's old drummer, kicks off the piece with a rumbling solo, and Von jumps on the melody at full sprint. Hear how he articulates each note, how he punctuates each phrase with a breath, how he refuses to merely run scales but constructs actual tunes. About a minute into the number, Von leaves behind his fast-and-furious attack for a burst of free-jazz dissonance, as if to prove that he never fell asleep in the past, before segueing smoothly back into his own sound.

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It's no coincidence that Chico became an accomplished jazz musician. He benefitted not only from his father's example as a player, but also from Von's presence as a musician who chose to stay home with his family. This is true of many local jazz heroes. Tony "Big T" Lovano raised Joe Lovano the same way, and Ellis Marsalis stayed in New Orleans until his sons (Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason) were old enough to leave home and pursue jazz careers of their own.

This writer never got to see Von lead his weekly jam sessions at the New Apartment Lounge in Chicago, but I did get to see the astonishing Mickey Fields play countless times in Baltimore. He was a short, stocky man with a thin mustache and an impish smile. He could get to any note on his tenor sax at any time and at any tempo, but he also had a warm vibrato that always seemed to be rippling from his own intensity. The saxophonist Sonny Stitt had a reputation for coming into towns and embarrassing local performers with tunes, tempos and keys they had never encountered. But Stitt could never get the best of Fields, who could match the bop legend phrase for phrase and with a flush tone that Stitt could never touch.

Fields didn't leave many recordings behind before he died in 1995, but he left his mark on every saxophonist who came out of Baltimore between the '60s and '90s, including Gary Bartz, Gary Thomas, Antonio Hart and Ellery Eskelin.

"Mickey Fields was a hometown hero," Hart told me in 2004. "When Dexter Gordon or Jimmy Heath came down, they made a point to check out Mickey Fields. Every city has a guy like that, a guy you never heard of, that makes your jaw drop they're so good. Everyone has a calling; not everyone's meant to become an icon. Jimmy Heath, my mentor, is always telling me about guys who never became famous but who were playing some really bad stuff."

"Mickey Fields was a world-class musician, but for whatever reason he chose to stay in Baltimore," Eskelin added in 2010. "He could have gone out on the world stage and we'd all know who he was. He was a completely generous and positive spirit, especially to us younger musicians. He wasn't going to yell at you; he was going to lift you up. He was incredibly soulful in his sound and delivery, but he could play anything on the horn.... A lot of cities all over the country had guys like Mickey. We only have recordings to go by for the history of jazz, but I think there were a lot of musicians we never heard of. We knew it at the time, even if he wasn't known outside Baltimore."

On this rare recording of Fields playing "Lover Man" live at Baltimore's Famous Ballroom in 1977, you can hear the tone and agility that made him a legend among Marylanders and traveling musicians. Listen to how he takes the Billie Holiday song and rephrases it by jumping octaves, by redistributing the rhythmic accents or by adding parenthetical asides. Always, though, you can hear that churchy hum so characteristic of Baltimore saxophonists, imbued with an ardent romanticism here. That's Von's brother George Freeman on guitar and Richard "Groove" Holmes on organ.

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Down the road from Baltimore in Washington, D.C. lived Buck Hill, another saxophonist with a buttery tone and supple phrasing. After holding his own with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, he considered moving to New York. But he already had a wife and children by the end of the '40s, so he got a job as a postman, a job he kept until he held onto for 60 years. But he never stopped playing and teaching locally, and one of his grateful students, drummer Billy Hart, got Hill on the European jazz festival circuit during the mailman's summer vacations.

It's easier to be a local hero in New Orleans: It's one of the few American cities outside New York where a jazz musician can make a full-time living without traveling. It's not unusual for local players to turn down tours because they know they can make more net income if they stay home and play the local clubs in a town where the party never stops. The Crescent City is full of terrific players that the average jazz fan has never heard of — trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, trumpeter Marlon Jordan, vocalist John Boutte — but Alvin "Red" Tyler is perhaps the finest example. He, too, is a tenor saxophonist of the same generation as Freeman, Fields and Hill.

Tyler is best known as a key member (with fellow saxophonist Lee Allen, guitarist Ernest McLean and drummer Earl Palmer) of the Dave Bartholomew Band that played on most of Fats Domino's hit singles. But after recording these tracks at the studio in the daytime, Tyler would go out and play bebop all night with such local jazz heroes as pianist Ellis Marsalis, clarinetist Alvin Batiste and drummer James Black. During those late sessions, Tyler developed a distinctive voice that combined the harmonic invention of bop with the push-and-pull syncopation and vocal-like horn blowing of the local R&B.

But in a town known for traditional jazz and radio-friendly funk, it was hard to make a modern jazz recording. It wasn't until 1985 that Tyler got a chance to document the jazz side of his playing. On that album, Heritage, Tyler was joined by a band of fellow local jazz heroes: pianist David Torkanowsky, trumpeter Clyde Kerr Jr., bassist James Singleton and drummer Johnny Vidacovich, all overlooked masters in their own rights. Two more hidden gems, vocalists Germaine Bazzle and Johnny Adams, also make appearances on the album.

On this track, "New Orleans Cakewalk," you can hear the "Spanish tinge," the phrase that Jelly Roll Morton invented to describe the special jauntiness of the city's rhythms. But when Tyler takes the first solo, you can also hear a powerful voice, muscled up by R&B blowouts and refined by a small group of like-minded musicians who both refused to leave New Orleans and refused to abandon their jazz ambitions.

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This is just a small sampling of the local jazz heroes scattered around North America and beyond. Well worth checking out are such recluses as San Francisco's Sonny Simmons, Boston's Donal Fox, Philadelphia's Carl Grubbs, Baltimore's Lafayette Gilchrist and Portland's Darrell Grant. No doubt there are many more that even a jazz writer like myself has never heard of. By naming Von Freeman a Jazz Master, the NEA has reminded us all that local communities can be as important as the national scene to the history of jazz.

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Geoffrey Himes