Von Freeman's 75th Birthday Tribute

Chicago -August 30, 1997

People ask me why I didn't leave Chicago?" queried tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, at centre stage on The Petrillo Bandshell for his 75th birthday tribute as the Saturday night finale of this year's Chicago Jazz Festival.

"It's because I love Chicago and it loves me," he concluded. And then the gray-haired, loquacious, patriarch of the city's jazz musicians, proceeded to play a hearty chorus of "I Hear A Rhapsody," before introducing the other musicians on stage.

Indeed the love and respect Freeman takes as his due could be seen not only in the rapturous response to his appearance, which came from the thousands of fans gathered in Chicago's Grant Park for the 19th annual edition of the festival, but also from the musicians who participated in the tribute. Prominent among them at first was seasoned club vocalist Bettye Jean Reynolds,who has been part of the Freeman nightclub "show" for years and his brother, guitarist George Freeman, "who has been with me all his life," as Von declared. That crew, backed by Chicago piano legend John Young, sporting his trademark white cap; young bassist Rob Amster and veteran, but still many years Freeman's junior, drummer Mike Raynor performed their distinctive versions of a couple of jazz standards. Then it was star time.

Welcoming his son, New York-based tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman, Von allowed that he thought of all his musicians as if they were members of his family "like George Freeman ... Bettye Jean Freeman ... John Freeman ... Mike Freeman... Rob Freeman and ... Jack DeJohnette Freeman." Just then surprise guest drummer Jack DeJohnette, another former Chicagoan strolled on stage. With DeJohnette taking his place behind Raynor's drumkit, this new grouping went through a version of "Softly In A Morning Sunrise," with plenty of solo space for everyone.

Joined by diminutive trumpeter Brad Goode and with Young yielding his piano bench to AACM founder Jodie Christian, the group subsequently swung through "Speak Low". And that was a comment that could never be attributed to Von, who likes to keep a level of dialogue going at all times, no matter the topic.

After another tune that featured up-and-coming alto saxophonist Rudi Mahanthappa, who like Von helps organize jam sessions throughout the city, scat singer Kurt Elling, wandered on stage. Antimately waving his outstretched hands, he led the massed players through a ragged version of "Happy Birthday To You". Soon the crowd was on its feet demanding an encore as Von acknowledged the applause.

Calling for silence and joking that "the polices" would soon be called if the gathering didn't behave itself, Von graciously thanked everyone involved in his tribute, and retreated offstage playing an a cappella version of "Red Top", the old Gene Ammons hit from the 1940s.

Earlier dapper Von had confessed jocularly that "I was going to get a new suit and tie for the occasion. But then I figured doing what I did before this got me here in the first place, so why do it?"

He was right. The concert was a long overdue tribute to one of the world's many journeymen jazz musicians. These local legends are the ones who stick close to home, keeping the music alive and playing in as many situations as they can find. Freeman's distinctive, burry tone and open mind have over the years allowed him to work with stylists as disparate as Sun Ra and Horace Henderson and with innovators as notable as Charlie Parker and Muhal Richard Abahams.

Yet while the past couple of decades has finally seen his work committed to LP and CD in different settings, his ultimate legacy may be the jam sessions he led and continues to lead all over the city . Those sessions, which have been going on for more than 40 years and which have encouraged and inspired scores of young players, some of whom shared the stage with him that night, are as important as any universal fame or encyclopedia reference.

-By Ken Waxman