November 8, 2013
By Ken Waxman
Over the years he’s played with Gene Ammons, Charlie Parker, Johnny Griffin and Richard “Groove” Holmes, composed a couple of funky jazz hits and still gigs frequently at 85, yet if Chicago-based George Freeman is known in jazz, it’s as the last remaining jazz-playing Freeman Brothers.
Baby brother of the three siblings, that included Drummer Bruz 1921-2006) and tenor saxophonist Von (1922-12012), he’s also the uncle of saxophonist Chico Freeman. Freeman says without boasting, but with no false modesty “God gave me an extremely different type of talent, but I don’t think I’ve been properly heard”.
Although he has been featured on more than a dozen records, especially in the soul-jazz heyday of the ‘60s and ‘70s, he’s right. That may have something to do with his constant movement over the years from the Windy City to NYC to California and back and forth again. Or as he jokes “I’ve always been in the right place at the wrong time”.
This goes back to his first NYC experience in the late ‘40s when tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin and trumpeter Joe Morris left Lionel Hampton’s band asked the guitarist to put together a group. He did, but no sooner did he arrive in the Apple then his amplifier was stolen and the gig they were supposed to play never materialized. Instead they worked in cities such as Philadelphia which is where Freeman first met John Coltrane, who declared: “I like the way you play guitar … you hits all the low strings”. In 1947 the Morris-Griffin group recorded a Freeman-conceived tune called “Low Groovin’” which became one of Atlantic Records first hits.
It isn’t surprising that Trane should like his playing because Freeman developed his style “trying to play like a saxophone” after he heard his first Parker record. “Bird’s playing was so strong, but I could hear it on the guitar,” he recalls. “That’s when I started playing bebop.” He had already picked the rudiments of the instrument from a neighbor and later was in the DuSable High School band under Captain Walter Dyett, its legendary director. Other pre-Bird influences were Charlie Christian and Floyd Smith on record as an experience as a youngster where through the Rhumboogie Club’s door he saw T-Bone Walker resplendent in a white suit, sing and play the guitar behind his back. “The guitar just fascinated me,” he recalls.
By the early ‘50s the Freeman brothers were some of the most in-demand back-up musicians in Chicago, which is how in 1950 they got to play with Parker at the Pershing Ballroom, tapes of which have circulated ever since. “The first time I saw Charlie Parker play live I was in tears, but I was able to play with him,” Freeman recalls. “Later when we played with Dizzy Gillespie it was the same thing. Every time he hit a high note we would let out a scream”.
After experiences like this the guitarist tried his luck back east again. “I just like the smell of New York,” he admits, but ended up playing less than well-paying gigs with Holmes and others. Eventually he went on the road with organist Wild Bill Davis. When they arrived in Los Angeles, Freeman tried to get a record date at Pacific Jazz. The producer wanted Holmes as well and when the organist arrived in California, they made a series of well-praised funky LPs. He didn’t stay with the organist’s band when Holmes returned east and had a huge hit with “Misty”, Freeman recalls ruefully.
When he left California, it was to work with singer Jackie Wilson’s band, fronted by saxophonist Sil Austin. “But I’m really a jazz guitar player,” says Freeman. So it was off to work with others, usually organist. “I like organ players,” confirms Freeman, whose present working group includes an organist. “They know how to fill a room and make the drummer play a certain way with a continuous backbeat. But I can keep up and I know how to comp behind an organ player and make him feel good. I was raised with that sound and I can play heavy”.
Proof of this came during the seven years in the early ‘70s he spent with Ammons, especially when the front line also featured Sonny Stitt. “Although it was sometimes like going against heavy artillery, I had volume that I could raise and I could really play heard.” Besides having known Chicago-born Ammons since childhood another reason he stayed with the group was that his composition “Black Cat” became a major hit for Ammons. During that same period he recorded a few pioneering jazz-funk sessions, some of which like 1972’s Franticdiagnosis remain popular. But he returned to Chicago and more mainstream playing after Ammons death.
In the same way although AACM members Lester Lashley) and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre were featured on his Birth Signs CD in1969 (“the producer’s idea” he explains) and his nephew is an AACMer, he has never really been interested in avant-garde improvising.
“At Von’s funeral when I played “I Remember You” I went ‘out” but then I came back in. That’s what I always do. Listen to John Coltrane he played ‘in’ before he played ‘out’ and he would always come back in. I like blues, ballads, standards and like to swing in a modern way. Charlie Parker blew my mind then and he still does today.”
Richard "Groove" Holmes Groove-Pacific Jazz 1961
Gene Ammons The Black Cat! Prestige 1970
George Freeman Birth Sign (Delmark 1969)
George Freeman Franticdiagnosis 1972 Bam-Boo Records/Luv’N’Haight
George Freeman Rebellion (Southport 1995)
George Freeman George Burns! (Southport 1999),
George Freeman At Long Last George 2001, Savant)
—For The New York City Jazz Record November 2013