Von Freeman Dies At 88; Jazz Tenor Saxophonist With Singular Sound

Von Freeman
Von Freeman was revered as a tenor saxophonist but was never a major star, worshiped by critics but perpetually strapped for cash. He seemed to purposely avoid commercial success.

When trumpeter Miles Davis phoned Freeman in the 1950s looking for a replacement for John Coltrane, Freeman made a typical move — he never returned the call.

His refusal to leave his native Chicago during most of his career cost him incalculable fame and fortune but also enabled him to create a body of distinctive and innovative work. This year he received a Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, regarded as the nation's highest jazz honor.

He had mentored countless younger jazz musicians, including his son, Chico Freeman, who became more famous than his father as a tenor saxophonist.

Freeman died Saturday of heart failure at Kindred Chicago Lakeshore care center, said another son, Mark. He was 88.

His relative obscurity was a blessing, according to Freeman. It enabled him to forge an unusual but instantly recognizable sound and to pursue off-center approaches to his music.

When his “weird ideas" were criticized, it didn't matter, Freeman told the Chicago Tribune in 1992: “I didn't have to worry about the money — I wasn't making" much. “I didn't have to worry about fame — I didn't have any. I was free."

He represented the quintessential jazz musician, forging a unique and influential musical voice. He staked out an exotic but alluring artistic territory, merging elements of down-home blues, R&B honking and brazenly avant-garde techniques. He was an utter master of bebop, the predominant jazz language of the 20th century.

“You hear one note, you know that's his sound," Fred Anderson, another noted Chicago tenor saxophonist, once said. “He took a lot from a whole lot of people and created Von Freeman."

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