Down Beat

A Cause Without Glory.(Von Freeman, jazz musician)

Von Freeman (Vonski, that is) Blows the History of Hardcore Chicago Jazz Through his Tenor Sax

Von Freeman has a subconscious Chicago compass. In the front living room of the house that he's called home for the past 51 years, on the city's South Side, Freeman sits at the center of that flawless navigational instrument. Referring to 23rd and Indiana, the location of the hospital in which he was born in 1922, he instinctively points forward, a little to his right, northeast. Discussing DuSable High School where as a student he studied under the influential educator Captain Walter Dyett, he unthinkingly dips his head forward, north, toward the monolithic schoolhouse. Speaking about the New Apartment Lounge, where he's been hosting a weekly jam session--the most important in Chicago for straightahead jazz players--for nearly 20 years, he automatically throws his thumb over his right shoulder, east-by-southeast.

Just being a lifelong Chicagoan is enough to install that innate map direction in anyone with the city's grid, its insistent north/southness. But Freeman could be a compass for Chicago jazz history, too. He's been active professionally for more than 60 years and seen almost all the changes in the city's music first. hand, from the trenches. Chicago's even evident in his nickname: Vonski. His mother's sister, Aunt Tyneski, gave him the Polish suffix, bearing testament to the city's ethnic mix. And unlike many of his colleagues--including both his musician brothers, guitarist George and drummer Bruz, and son, saxophonist Chico--he never pulled up roots and left. He's played around the world, winning the heart of Europe in the late '70s, but only on jaunts. "My story's not much different from most average musicians from Chicago," he says with typical modesty. "Most of 'em never got anywhere nationally, which is a shame. Great players around here, like Eddie Johnson. He should be famous. Franz [Jackson], he used to be one of my idols. He's still around."

It's a wonder that Freeman has stayed in Chicago. If he hadn't, he'd almost certainly be an international star. But if he hadn't, the city definitely wouldn't be the same. Freeman stands as one of the greatest tenor players in modern jazz, someone who grew and adapted as each new trend came along, incorporating elements of swing, bebop, soul jazz/hard-bop and free jazz into a unique, but thoroughly Chicagoan style. At 78, looking and acting like a man 20 years younger, he is one of the unsung heroes, a living legend, someone whose relatively few records don't do him justice, the honest-to-goodness summation of all those jazz cliches about greatness and obscurity:, one of the all-time best, playing weekly for free at a neighborhood bar. But this does not make him bitter or reclusive: He's a mover and shaker, a booster of young talent, a positive force supporting jazz as a living music.

Every Tuesday at the New Apartment, at 10 p.m., the bar begins to fill up, and without fanfare or even announcement, a nondescript man leaning against the CD jukebox launches into standards--Vonski taking wing. …

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