YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO TAKE THIS ON FAITH, BUT BACK IN THE 80S AND 90S, MODERN JAZZ WAS ACTUALLY POPULAR! WITH A COLLECTION OF “YOUNG LIONS” SUCH AS WYNTON MARSALIS, CHICO FREEMAN, DAVID MURRAY, THE HARPER BROTHERS AND KENNY GARRETT, SOUNDS THAT MIXED THE TRADITION WITH A FORWARD LOOK DOMINATED THE AIR WAVES, WITH RESULTANT CROWED CLUBS AS WELL AS ALBUM SALES ON MAJOR LABELS SUCH AS COLUMBIA RECORDS.
SOMEHOW, THE BOTTOM FELL OUT OF THE MARKET, AS DID THE CAREERS OF MANY ARTISTS. WHERE ONCE ARTISTS LIKE MARSALIS AND FREEMAN RELEASED 2-7 ALBUMS A YEAR, NEW ALBUMS AND TOURS BECAME FEW AND FAR BETWEEN, WITH SOME ARTISTS LEAVING THE USA TO FIND CAREERS IN EUROPE, OR GOING BACK INTO ACADEMIA.
CHICO FREEMAN, SON OF THE LEGENDARY SAXIST VON FREEMAN, WAS ONE OF THE VANGUARD OF YOUNG STARS BACK IN THE DAY. HIS EARLY ALBUMS MORNING PRAYER, NO TIME LEFT, AND THE OUTSIDE WITHING CAUGHT THE EXCITEMENT AND IMAGINATION OF THE ERA, STILL SOUNDING FRESH TO THIS DAY. HIS OWN GROUP, THE LEADERS, INCLUDED ALL STARS LESTER BOWIE AND ARTHUR BLYTHE, MIXING LEFT OF CENTER SOLOS WITH ACCESSIBLE GROOVES.
WHILE OUTSIDE THE RADAR OF HIS AMERICAN FANS, FREEMAN HAD BEEN CARVING OUT A BASE IN EUROPE WITH A COLLECTION OF INTRIGUING COLLABORATIONS. JUST RECENTLY, HE HAS RETURNED TO HIS HOMELAND, WITH HIS MOST RECENT RELEASE, SPOKEN INTO EXISTENCE, SOUNDING AS EXCITING AS ANYTHING HE’S EVER DONE. IT’S A WELCOME RETURN.
WE RECENTLY HAD A CHANCE TO CATCH UP WITH THE LEGENDARY ARTIST. THE TOPICS COVERED A WIDE VARIETY OF TOPICS, AND MR. FREEMAN WAS SO GENEROUS WITH HIS TIME AND IDEAS THAT WE STRETCHED THE INTERVIEW INTO TWO PARTS SO YOU, THE FAN, WOULD NOT MISS ANY PART OF FREEMAN’S FASCINATING CAREER AND THOUGHT PROCESS.
YOU GREW UP IN A MUSICAL FAMILY WITH THE FAMOUS VON FREEMAN AS YOUR FATHER. LOOKING BACK, WAS YOUR INVOLVEMENT IN JAZZ MORE BECAUSE OF, OR IN SPITE OF HIS PRESENCE?
My mom took me to see him when I was 5 years old. He was playing with Miles Davis in the Regal Theatre; it was the sextet with Cannonball (Adderley) and (John) Coltrane. That was the first and only time I ever saw John Coltrane as well.
Then, I grew up listening to my father and his brothers; they had a band called The Freeman Brothers. They played and were able to rehearse in our house, particularly during the summer. So I got an opportunity to listen to them and the people that they were playing with, like Ahmad Jamal, Andrew Hill, Malachi Favors and others.
We had a lot of kids on our block, and because back then we didn’t have air conditioning we’d open up all of the windows in the house, and the whole block could hear them. All the kids would come and sit on the front porch (laughs).
YOU STARTED OUT ON TRUMPET. DO YOU STIL PLAY IT? WHAT MADE YOU SWITCH TO TENOR SAX?
My brother and I were digging about dad’s old navy stuff in the basement, and we found a trumpet and saxophone. As luck would have it, I just picked the trumpet up, so that’s why I started on it.
The first record that made me want to become a musician was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Miles Davis became my favorite trumpet player, and I couldn’t get his sound out of my head. Because of conversations that I had with my father, I knew that if I didn’t find my own voice I would not be able to do my best.
I then picked up the saxophone and realized that was my voice; that’s why I changed.
YOU WERE A MATH MAJOR IN COLLEGE. WHAT DO YOU THINK WOULD HAVE HAPPENED TO YOU IF YOU DIDN’T PURSUE MUSIC?
That’s a good question. There were two other things that I really wanted to do besides music. I wanted to fly planes, because my father’s older brother was a Tuskegee Airman; he and Percy Heath flew in the same squadron.
The other thing I wanted to do was to play professional basketball.
HOW TALL ARE YOU?
Six foot three.
YOU WERE PROBABLY A FORWARD IN HIGH SCHOOL, AND IF YOU WENT PRO, YOU MAY HAVE BEEN A GUARD FOR THE 76ERS.
I would have been a guard in the pros, but in high school I was a forward; in grammar school I was a center! I was taller than everybody, but by the time I got to high school I played forward and had to learn to handle the ball, as if I wanted to play professionally I was going to play guard.
I played in college, and later I had an opportunity to play professional basketball in Europe for Switzerland, in Lugano.
But I then made a conscious choice; a big tour came up for me to play saxophone while I was working out with the team. 600 The season hadn’t begun yet, and I made the decision to choose music, and I took the tour.
In college I was being recruited by IBM and NASA, and another company called Data Control. While I was good at math, I was doing computer programming as well.
WHO WERE YOUR FAVORITE BALLPLAYERS?
If I had to pick two, it would be Dr. J (Julius Erving) and Michael Jordan.
BUT THEY WEREN’T YOUR HEROES WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP. THEY WERE WHEN YOU WERE OLDER.
If I go back to then, it’s Oscar Robertson as a guard. I loved Cazzie Russell and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. Of course Elgin Baylor, and you can’t forget Bill Russell.
WHAT WAS YOUR IMPETUS FOR ASSOCIATING WITH THE AACM. BEFORE YOU LINKED UP WITH THEM YOU WERE ASSOCIATED WITH ACTS LIKE JACKIE WILSON, SO WAS THE FREER MUSIC A DECISION, OR DID IT JUST FLOAT THAT WAY?
It just floated for me that way. When I was in college (Northwestern University) I met Fred Anderson there. He took me and Steve Colson with drummer Hamid Drake…Colson and I formed a band called Life and Death Situation. We used to go to Fred Anderson’s house, and we’d stay there all the time and even fall asleep at his house on the floor or on a couch. He’d be playing us Charlie Parker records all the time. He educated us about the older guys like Bird and Lester Young.
He was into the avant garde and started a chapter of the AACM in Evanston. That’s how I started. Another trumpet player named Billy Brimfield played there. So he just introduced us all to this music. When he would go out and play, he played more the AACM way, but his influences were heavily from Parker, Young and so on.
When I graduated and was going over to Chicago, he recommended that I contact Muhal Richard Abrams. We all went over there where he was teaching at the AACM. We started studying composition with him, and I became a member.
(My dad) said these words, “There’s a time play, and a time to listen”
During that time I would go listen to my dad. While I was in school I would go hear my father’s jam sessions and would meet people like Clifford Jordan, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons, so I got exposed that way. I always had one foot in both worlds.
In the meantime, if you’re playing around Chicago, you have to play a lot of different things. I played with a fusion band Street Dancing, and also did a lot of R&B and Motown stuff: The Dells, The Spinners and all of the Motown groups.
WHAT’S THE ADVANTAGE OR TAKE AWAY BY PLAYING WITH GUYS LIKE JACKIE WILSON, MEMPHIS SLIM OR THE FOUR TOPS?
You learn how different people do different things; you have to learn different styles of music. That educational experience was invaluable to me. It informed my musical life in ways, because one thing that the AACM did was make me open to all kinds of music.
People always look at the AACM as some kind of avant garde group, but much of it is based on the styles of long time ago.
Muhal used to take me into his basement (that’s where his grand piano was). He would sit there and play me music from himself, or he would play these records of James P. Johnson and Sid Catlett, the people that influenced Charlie Parker. I got a good education combination from him and Fred Anderson
A lot of our music at the AACM was based on older forms, and Muhal always studied them, their characteristics and elements, including classical music. Both the AACM and my dad were strong about that.
WHAT WAS THE BEST ADVICE SOMEONE FROM THE AACM OR AN OLD SAGE GAVE YOU ABOUT MUSIC?
I got a bunch of them! (laughs) The first one came from my dad.
I was practicing, and while I was playing I thought I was doing pretty well. After awhile, my father came out, and pulled the horn out of my mouth. He socked me, actually. I thought “What is this?” because my father was a man of few words.
“Sit down,” he told me, “and listen to this.” I was trying to play “Misty” if I’m not mistaken. He put on a record of it by someone for me. I don’t remember who.
After a few moments, he said, “Now go back and try to play it.” I played it; unbeknownst to me he had recorded both my practicing and my playing of it after listening. He made me listen to both versions, and there was a marked difference from before and after I had listened.
He said these words, “There’s a time to play, and there’s a time to listen.”
That was one of the first ones. He also said “It’s very easy to copy, but it’s very difficult to be original. Not only is it hard to find your own voice, but to then have the courage to express it, because people like to respond to what they know. Acceptance from other people is hard, so you have to have the courage to continue to do that in the midst of a sea of unacceptance.”
WHAT’S YOUR THOUGHTS AS YOU LOOK BACK ON YOUR FIRST ALBUMS LIKE MORNING PRAYER THAT WERE SO SUCCESSFUL WHEN THEY INITIALLY CAME OUT?
When I look back, I can see that I had my own sound and my own style; I can appreciate my records more now than I could then.
THE INTERVIEW CONTINUES ON PART 2