IN THE LATE 70s AND EARLY 80s YOU AND GUYS LIKE DAVID MURRAY PUT OUT A TON OF ALBUMS, AND THEN BACKED AWAY A BIT FROM THAT PACE. WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU AND ALL OF THE “YOUNG LIONS” OF THAT ERA?
I was fortunate; I had a record company support me early in my career; India Navigation. The owner, Bob Cummins just believed in my voice 1832 and what I was doing. I knew that I would probably be able to put out one record a year, but at times he and I would come up with ideas of things to do. Therefore, I sometimes put out two records a year.
I had another record company ; Elvin Jones got me my contract with Contemporary Records, which was run by Lester Koenig, who also recorded Sonny Rollins, Hampton Hawes and guys on the West Coast. Lester Koenig passed away, and his son John took the label over. John was a cellist himself, as well as a lawyer, and he also believed in me and supported me.
During that era I was able to put out a lot of material, and I was writing a lot. David Murray was also on India Navigation, and was putting out records for them and Black Lion.
I got picked up by Columbia Records, and did Fathers and Sons (with Wynton Marsalis) , and Bruce Lundvall got me on Warner Brothers; I was very prolific during that time. I had a lot to say, and I was fortunate to have outlets for it.
DID THE OUTLETS JUST SUDDENLY DRY UP?
Yes. After 9-1, things changed drastically, for everyone. Bob Cummins passed away, and John Koenig gave up Contemporary Records, and sold it to (I believe) Fantasy Records. The whole record industry started changing. Chains like Tower and Virgin became defunct
BACK IN THE 80S, THERE WERE TONS OF YOUNG LIONS LIKE YOU, THE HARPER BROTHERS ETC. NOW ONLY YOU, MURRAY AND MARSALIS ARE LEFT STANDING.
After the record stores went defunct, the independent labels went out of business. It was difficult to have a vehicle for distribution. Then, a lot of musicians started to make their own records, and then cds came in.
I think that cds and the digital world was a death knell for the whole industry. You couldn’t just make your own vinyl; anyone could make a cd.
The stores then became inundated with information by people putting so many cds out. People didn’t know who to buy; writers didn’t know who to write about. It was overwhelming. People don’t have the time or mental capacity to listen to everything.
IS THIS THE PERIOD WHEN YOU MOVED TO EUROPE FOR “SELF IMPROVEMENT AND REFLECTION”? WHAT WAS THAT ALL ABOUT?
9-11 happened, and I was there when it happened. I wasn’t running away from anything, but after 9-11 New York became dark. Restaurants weren’t open, there were no places to work because everything was closed. I spent that time practicing and woodshedding, basically.
I got into a head space, and thought “This is an opportunity.” I took a few of them to play in Europe. A lot of Americans at that time were afraid to fly, but I went.
It was a great opportunity to take advantage and learn while there. Before, when I toured around, I never spent more than a day or two in the same place. I thought it would be interesting to finally learn about other people’s culture, what music means, and how it’s expressed within their cultural boundaries. I didn’t think I was going to stay there for as long as I did, but opportunities kept opening up for me there, and I took them as they presented themselves.
I had opportunities to study other kinds of music. The music of the gypsies was the first thing that caught my attention; how they practiced and what that music meant to them.
I believe that culture is just a combination of your circumstances and environment. The way I define culture and see it develop is that we are all human beings and we have all the same basic needs and things to do. It doesn’t matter what color or gender you are. We are all basically the same with exactly the same needs. We all have the need to feed ourselves, to protect ourselves from the environment and clothe ourselves, for example, as well as the other needs like the need to procreate in order to survive.
Then, there’s music, which started with the voice as an expression as to how we deal with and handle those other needs.
WE ALL CAME FROM ADAM AND EVE, AND THEN FROM THE SIX PEOPLE FROM NOAH AND THE ARK, SO WE’VE ALL GOT A COMMON LINK.
If you live in a cold environment, you’re going to take your materials that are available to you and build your house and build it. You take what’s available to you and make your clothes, and grow your food. In Africa, it’s hot there, so you build a house of straw, from Alaska it’s made of ice. The foods and spices that are around you are what you use for seasoning.
If you eat pasta in Southern Italy, for example, and you eat the same pasta in New York, it tastes different. Even if you import things from other places, it’s different. The tomatoes that they use.
Marco Polo found and discovered pasta in China and brought it back to Italy. Look what the Italians did with the same pasta.
THAT WAS THE ORIGINAL “CHINESE TAKE OUT.”
Exactly! (laughs) That’s a good one, man! And Marco Polo was the first customer!
IS THERE A BOOK OR PHILOSOPHY THAT HAS HELPED YOU ON YOUR SPIRITUAL GROWTH?
I have read many, many books (chuckles). I’ve studied a lot of religions and books and everything. I find that religion, for me, causes more troubles than it solves. All of the major religions have one thing in common; they talk about helping one another. I take the good from them.
What I don’t like to adhere to is to become a part of a “group.” It becomes man made and a political thing to control people. Every major war was started by religion, but I don’t want to offend anyone or their beliefs. This is just my opinion.
90% of the hits, no matter the genre (R&B, rock and roll) were behind the beat. Listen to Ray Charles, Duke Ellington or James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone…you name it, and it’s relaxed and behind the beat.
SO NOW YOU’RE BACK IN THE STATES AND DOING A NEW ALBUM. WHAT WAS THE MOTIVATION?
The motivation was my five daughters. Five of the songs are written for my daughters. I allowed the guys on the album to write a couple of songs. Antonio Farao my great pianist wrote two of the songs and (bassist) Heiri Kanzig wrote one. I wanted to put two standards that I wanted to play. Not the “regular” standards; I wanted songs that had been written by musicians. That’s why I chose “Seven Steps to Heaven” by Victor Feldman and Miles Davis, and because I’m from the home of the urban blues, Chicago, I played in all kinds of blues bands yet have never recorded a slow blues. I heard this Stanley Turrentine blues that knocked me out, “Soft Pedal Blues.” I recorded that one because it really touched me and was in line with the spirit of my daughters. They were the focus of the album.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE BACK IN THE STATES AND PLAYING HERE?
Great. Fantastic. I have missed playing with American musicians.
First of all, America has regions, Midwest, North, South, East Coast and West Coast. Musicians who are born in each of those places do things a little differently from the other places. I’m from Chicago, which is the Midwest. One of the things that I like so much about Chicago, and I feel it naturally, is that we play behind the beat. More relaxed.
I did a little bit of research and found out that 90% of the hits, no matter the genre (R&B, rock and roll) were behind the beat. Listen to Ray Charles, Duke Ellington or James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone…you name it, and it’s relaxed and behind the beat.
I found out that the East Coast has a tendency to play in front of the beat. Straight up funk, like George Clinton, is right in the middle of the beat.
In America, I can find myself musicians who can do any one of the three, or they naturally play the ones that I like. I have more choices.
Also, there are more musicians available to me of a very high level here in America. I did a tour when I first came back, and I had five dates with five different drummers, and every one of them was different, but they were all great. My choices are more here; I wasn’t able to find those elements that I just explained.
THAT’S A GREAT POINT. YOU DON’T THINK OF A “SOUTHERN ITALIAN” BEAT, OR “NORTHERN ITALIAN GROOVE.”
They definitely don’t have a Chicago beat.
YOU PLAYED WITH TWO JAZZ ICONS THAT HAVE PASSED AWAY. GIVE ME YOUR THOUGHTS FIRST ON ARTHUR BLYTHE
Arthur was a great friend of mine. 3718 I really miss him from a personal standpoint. He and I played together before…I had heard of Arthur before I left Chicago. Another friend from the AACM, Artur Burton, turned me on to this guy from California, Arthur Blythe.
When I got to New York, Arthur was also in New York; we met on the street. It was a simpatico meeting. From time to time we’d find ourselves in the same band and in the same circles.
I then did this record with Jack DeJohnette (Freeman and Freeman), and Arthur came up to me and said “Chico! How did you get Jack DeJohnette to play with you?” I told him “I just asked him, Arthur.” (laughs)
So the next thing I know, Arthur has DeJohnette playing with him on Lenox Avenue Breakdown! “I just asked him, Chico!” (laughs)
From that point on, we started really working with each other. I started the group The Leaders3934. The original aggregation, or “aggravation” (laughs) was Don Pullen (piano), Cecile McBee (bass), Don Moye (drums) with Arthur Blythe and Don Cherry (trumpet). That was the first Leaders band. We were together for a year, toured all over, and then had a second aggregation and Hilton Ruiz replaced Don Pullen. A couple of years later Hilton decided to do something different, and we tried to get John Hicks but ended up with Kirk Lightsy, and then we later changed from Don Cherry to Lester Bowie.
I knew Lester from Chicago, but not very well, mostly from his part of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
WHAT IMPRESSED YOU ABOUT HIM AFTER TOURING WITH HIM?
Lester had a unique ability to lead people. He did that well with the Art Ensemble and his Brass Fantasy groups. He had his own sound and his own way of playing.
Lester had a way of getting people to work for him. He knew how to delegate, and whom to delegate to. He had himself as the final decision maker, and was always on good terms with promoters and business people until it was really needed otherwise. He knew how to get things done; that’s something I learned from him.
WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE GOALS?
Continue to learn and develop; to bring back things that I learned while I was living overseas. Some of the opportunities that were afforded me then that I didn’t have before were things like I hadn’t been able to travel to Africa. North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. I got to travel and play with gypsies in different countries. The Spanish gypsies are different from the Greek gypsies and from Hungary and Bulgaria, for example. I got a chance to listen to the folk music in these places. In America we don’t get to hear this music.
Some of the things I learned by playing with these guys, as well as immigrants who came to Europe from other places. My Kings of Mali record I got from studying. I went to Paris and got a chance to meet people from Mali. They immediately embraced me because they had heard my record which was about two of the great kings of Mali. They took me to their homes and cooked me meals because I knew something about their history.
I want to bring to America some of my musical experiences.
THAT’S INTERESTING, BECAUSE AT THIS TIME IN AMERICA THERE ARE MORE BLACKS IN AMERICA AS DIRECT IMMIGRATION FROM AFRICA THAN THERE ARE FROM DESCENDENTS OF SLAVES. THIS CREATES SOME MAJOR MUSICAL IMPLICATIONS AS FAR AS INFLUENCES.
Very true, because I came back to America and discovered how much more integrated it is now than it used to be. I find that encouraging as well.
THERE’S RACISM IN MOST COUNTRIES AS WELL. IN ITALY YOU HAVE RACISIM BETWEEN THE NORTHERNERS AND SOUTHERNERS
That’s different, but it is an “ism.” When I was growing up, I never imagined a white woman and a black man, or a black woman and a white man in a love relationship on television. Also Asian and black; I see everybody with everybody.
FUNNY YOU MENTION THAT, AS ALEX DE TOCQUEVILLE’S FAMOUS BOOK IN AMERICA FROM THE EARLY 1800s MENTIONED, THE BEST CURE FOR RACISM IN AMERICA IS FOR INTERMARRIAGE.
That’s an interesting point; I’m not sure if it’s true (laughs). You have intermarriage in Brazil and there’s lots of problems there still.
OBSERVANT ABOUT A PLETHORA OF FACETS OF LIFE, CHICO FREEMAN HAS BEEN ABLE TO TAKE IN ALL THAT HE’S EXPERIENCED AND LEARN OVER THE YEARS AND USE IT TO CREATE A FRESH COLLECTION OF MUSICAL IDEAS. HIS LATEST ALBUM CONTAINS INSPIRATION FROM HIS DAUGHTERS AS WELL AS IDEAS FROM HIS TRAVELS ABROAD. WHILE NO LONGER A ‘YOUNG LION,’ HE IS NOW AKIN TO THE SAGES IN THE MOVIE SECOND HAND LIONS, ABLE TO TEACH A NEW GENERATIONS TIMELESS LESSONS FROM HIS OWN EXPERIENCES. CATCH HIM WHILE YOU CAN!