The other night, during a performance and interview at the University of Chicago, he seemed, at times, a bit frail. He’s nearing 90 and was recently in the hospital. But what I said a while back still holds true: no tenor player moves me more.
Von Freeman (tenor saxophone, with Mike Allemena, guitar; Matt Ferguson, bass; Michael Raynor, drums), “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” live, Chicago (Mandel Hall, University of Chicago), 2/24/11Vodpod videos no longer available.
better late, etc.
The University of Chicago recently awarded Von the Rosenberger Medal, which “was established in 1917 . . . [and recognizes] achievement through research, in authorship, in invention, for discovery, for unusual public service, or for anything deemed of great benefit to humanity.” Past recipients include Toni Morrison, Pierre Boulez, and Frederick Wiseman.
It takes years to explain those vibrational things in verbal language. And it still might not work. One time I asked Von Freeman about his voice-leading in harmony, he’s the master of that shit. I asked him, “How did you learn that shit? You’re so fluent at it.” And he said, “Well, you know, I sat down one day and I said, let me look at this thing.” He said, “I began with one tone. I studied one tone. And I studied all that I could study about one tone.” When these old guys talk, you don’t ask too many questions. You pretty much just listen to what they say. And so, I didn’t know what he meant, but I just listened. And he said, “I worked on that for a long time, you know, for months. Just seeing what could be done with one tone. When I felt pretty good about that, I moved on to two tones. That was a bit harder. I worked a lot longer, but I worked and saw all that I could do with two tones. Then I moved to three tones, and so on. After I went on for a while I realized that you can pretty much do everything that you need to do with two tones.” That’s what he told me. I spent years thinking about this shit. Years. I’m still thinking about it, you know. I feel like I have a better handle on knowing what he meant now than then, although it is not a simple thing to explain. And when I tell the story to somebody playing in my group or something, and they ask me, “What did he mean?” it takes me literally years to explain what I think he means. And I’m sure I only have part of what he means. What it means to me. Some things, you have to explain them with a million examples over a period of time. The meaning dawns on a person and when they have to explain it it’s funny. We live in this McDonald’s type society where everybody thinks everything is just quick. It’s not like that. You have to actually build the understanding, slowly over time. So this thing that Von Freeman explained to me, it sounds like a very simple thing, but it really doesn’t make any sense at all without the experience. It’s maybe fifteen years ago that he told me, and I found it to be absolutely true. I could never explain it in one day, or in a lecture over an hour.
my back pages
No other musician, in any genre, has meant so much to me in so many ways for so many years. I first heard Von in the mid-70s, when I was in my twenties (and working for Alligator Records) and he was in his fifties. The setting, coincidentally, was the University of Chicago; he opened for Cecil Taylor. I got to know him and booked a few shows for him. In 1977, when I got married, he and pianist John Young played at our wedding ceremony. Later, when I was reviewing live jazz, I wrote a piece about him for the Chicago Reader. Over the last three decades, I’ve listened, avidly, to his growing catalog of albums and seen him live more times than I could count. He is now an old man. And I am getting there.