All that jazz

Saxophonist Von Freeman shakes up Mandel Hall as part of his reception for receiving the University’s Rosenberger Medal.

By Jonathan Lai

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The audience at Mandel Hall erupted into a standing ovation as Von Freeman walked down the aisle and onto the stage with his saxophone. Members of the audience shouted out “Vonski,” the jazz artist’s childhood nickname, above the applause, eager to hear the legend play music and talk about his work Thursday evening.

Freeman, a founder of the Chicago School of jazz tenorists, gave the 2010-11 Rosenberger Interview and Performance as a follow-up to his reception of the Rosenberger Medal, a University award honoring achievement in the creative and performing arts, last June.

Before sitting down for an interview with Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich, Freeman played music he described as coming from previous “scribblings” with the other members of the Von Freeman Quartet.

Before beginning to play, Freeman slowly introduced each member of his band, explaining that he never wanted his band members to feel left out the way he did as a young musician. “Imma always take my time and say everyone’s name correctly, because I think that’s what you should do,” he said. “I know you’re thinking, I wish that old guy would shut up and play.”

After playing, Reich spoke with Freeman about his experience as a jazz musician outside of the heart of the music scene in New York—Freeman is a native South Sider. Freeman, who plays at the New Apartment Lounge on South 75th Street every Tuesday, set the tone for the casual conversation from the beginning. “I’d just like to tell things that I think you might be interested in,” he said.

In response to Reich’s questions about his past, Freeman told stories about his youth and family, often telling unrelated stories in order to provide background context before answering the question. Asked to explain his nickname, Freeman discussed the Inuit language and names before settling on its origins in his mother’s side of the family.

On his musical education, Freeman described himself as self-taught. “I was always peeping, trying to learn all I could learn,” he said. Freeman attended DuSable High School on the South Side, where he studied under the band director Walter Dyett. Freeman later played in the Navy, and went on to play with jazz legends like Roy Elridge and Dizzy Gillespie.

For Reich, who called Freeman a longtime friend, this was not the first time exploring Freeman’s past. In January, Reich published a column entitled “Rewriting history,” where he corrected the record on Freeman’s name and birthday.

Earl Von Freeman, as he has long been known, is actually spelled Earle with an “e,” Reich wrote, citing a birth certificate that the Tribune had obtained.

According to Reich’s column, Freeman’s date of birth, commonly attributed as October 3, 1922, is also wrong. Freeman was actually born a year later—October 3, 1923. Freeman was unaware of these errors, Reich wrote.

Freeman, the father of saxophonist Chico Freeman and brother of guitarist George Freeman and drummer Eldridge Freeman, described his life in humorous terms.

“I’m from the old school. In fact, I’m so old school I’m past the new school. You figure that out,” Freeman said.

Following a post-interview encore performance, Freeman gave a short speech thanking the audience as well as various people in his life.

According to Assistant Secretary of the University Geertrui Spaepen, who helped organize the event, Freeman “essentially closed out his own evening,” replacing a planned closing speech by the provost.

Approximately 450 to 500 people attended the event, according to Spaepen, who described Freeman’s Rosenberger interview as unique.

“Normally, the Rosenberger, it’s a lecture. Freeman wasn’t very comfortable with that, he hadn’t given a talk before since he’s a performer. So we structured it as an interview, and since he’s a performer we reached out to his band and they quickly said ‘yes.’ The performance was a bonus,” Spaepen said.

Spaepen considered the event a success. “I think for those who stayed, and for those people who know something about the jazz world, they were very moved by the whole evening,” she said.