“Spress yo’self!” Those were the words of encouragement that tenor saxophonist Von Freeman would offer the young musicians on the bandstand. Words that pushed you forward, lifted you up, words that made you feel that yeah, you had it in you. You could do this. And you’d do it – in part, for him. Although you knew that these words came from a living legend of a man, you didn’t feel like you shared the space with a legend, but rather a coach, a tender supporter, even a loving parent. Of the many accomplishments of this man’s life, to me, I think his greatest was the nurturing support he gave to so many young musicians throughout the years.
In the past few months I’d been thinking about Von. Wondering how he was doing, how long he was going to live. I didn’t think he’d played in a while now, how did he live without music? Was he merely lingering? What did he do all day? Did he relive old memories in his mind, or were his thoughts quiet? Was he ok? I’d made up my mind to write him a letter. I’d wanted to thank him for the love he’d given me, for the way he’d helped so many of us. I’d wanted to give him a little light in his long days. I also guess I’d felt a little guilty perhaps that here, in my new life, I was using very little of my musical gifts, but in spite of that, Von’s support all those years ago had nonetheless been a very important part of my life, of my growing and learning. Selfishly, as a means of receiving either his forgiveness or permission – or even both, perhaps, I felt I needed to tell him this. I wanted to tell Von that I had chickens. I imagined him smiling to himself at the thought. I wanted to thank him, to cheer him, to give him my love before it was too late. Any thanks or love I’d ever expressed to him in the past would have been diluted by a noisy bar, or kept to myself in polite silence as he offered me his arm and like a gentleman, walked me back to my car at the end of the night.
My house well in hand, my guests all gone, this week I’d had on my to-do list to write to Von. But, last night, Fareed called to tell me that Von had died. We cried together for a moment, and then I admitted that I was actually happy for him. If anyone had earned death and relief from this earthly world, Von sure had. We laughed through our tears, and on this, we both agreed.
A year ago Elihu and I had visited Chicago, and we’d made a pilgrimage to the New Apartment Lounge on Chicago’s south side to attend one of Von’s famous Tuesday night jam sessions. I’d known the place had recently been closed, shut down for renovations, maybe even in part shut down because Von had had some minor health problems. I don’t remember exactly now. But I knew well that Von hadn’t missed a Tuesday night in decades running, and somehow, I felt he had to be there. I’d heard the place was due to be up and running by July, and it was late in the month. I was ready, excited, expectant. As we drove there, in my head I began running through the tunes I might sing that night (knowing full well that in the end I would choose a favorite of mine and Von’s, the ballad, ‘My Old Flame’, complete with its lovely verse.)
When Elihu and I arrived the club was dark. I even passed it once, although I’d been there dozens of times through the years. It was closed. I was in shock; a cold wave of reality washed over me: it was over. The era had ended. I dismissed this thought quickly, because I wasn’t ready to accept it. I parked (in a bus stop as it turned out, and I received a $125 ticket after telling the cops I’d ‘move in a second’) and Elihu and I got out. I cupped my hands over my eyes and looked in the window. It still looked the same. The goofy curved, light blue bar, the mirrors on the wall, the tiny stage and its rickety banister. But the neon lights of the sign were out, the place absolutely empty. My heart hurt. I asked a couple of people on the street what was up with the place, and they assured me it was opening again very soon. What could I do? I was there at least, and Elihu would at least see the place with his own eyes. I had him stand in front, and I snapped a picture (as the cops wrote me a ticket). We were there less than three minutes. We got back into our car, and I drove away, a deep sadness settling into my core.
I wish that I could be there in Chicago this week, to share his remembrance with friends. I want to feel that love, that camaraderie of folks who knew Von, and who wish to be in his presence one last time. I feel a need to share in some ceremony of closure, but being so far away, I simply can’t be there. My closure will come instead through a sharing of my remembrances, through my writing of a post. I begin to think of so many of Von’s peers who have gone before, and I realize how this historic era in American music is coming to a close. I’m conflicted; should I feel supreme sorrow or should I feel supreme gratitude? We live now in a world that has been made richer by these people. They, and Von, gave us their love and their music. In the end, they’ve lived as few of us do. They’ve left a legacy, and they’ve departed this planet loved by many. I realize now that I feel a bittersweet mixture of both sorrow and gratitude.
Thank you so, our dearest Vonski, we’ll love you and miss you always.
Following is a post I’d made nearly a year ago and have never published; it was to be part of a longer retrospective on the many disparate and varied experiences I’d had in my ‘last life’. In this post I was recalling my first experience with Von Freeman on stage. Through the years to follow, I would come to sing and record with Von and marvel at his unending strength, good humor and belovedly familiar and unique sound.
I’m at the Bop Shop and it must be the late eighties sometime. Von Freeman, Chicago’s legendary tenor sax player is here tonight. He’s known for helping the young musicians. He’s known for hosting jam sessions in which he invites the newbies up to play or sing, and then supports them with shouts of ‘express yourself!’ throughout their solos. I’m rather new to singing this night, and very new to joining jam sessions. A singing gig, with its planned out, rehearsed songs and familiar arrangements is only just now within my comfort zone. Getting up on stage with real jazz musicians, calling tunes, keys and tempos, talking down the form – that’s all a little beyond me right now. But Von’s gonna help change that. Right now. He calls my name, and invites me to join the band onstage. “Miss Liz” he says, holding a hand in front of his eyes to see past the lights and out into the audience, “are you out there?”. There is no escaping this. I am nervous. I’ve played lots of gigs, but as a keyboard player in pop and rock bands. I feel like I’m just pretending to be an actual singer. I haven’t done it for that long. Oh shit. I wish I could just leave. But I can’t.
When I get to the stage I’m faced with a racing heart and an empty head. “What would you like to do?” Von asks. Good question. What would I like to do? I knew this might happen and so wasn’t entirely unprepared, yet I didn’t quite have it together. I probably called “There’s A Small Hotel”, because the old guys seemed to like it, or at least they usually expressed some kind of enthusiasm when I mentioned it. Von leaned in, helping me every step of the way. “What key?”. Yeah, what key? I think. It’s a flat key, that I know – but was it Eb or Bb? Man, they’re a fourth apart, I’d better know otherwise I’ll be screwed. At least the range isn’t so big in this tune, if I choose the wrong one, I can probably still make it through. “Bb” I said. He knew better than to expect me to count it off, so he swung his fist to give the tempo to the band. Off and running.
It went well, I guess. I remember feeling that the first tune felt good once we were underway. When he hit me for another tune, I had one ready to go; I was over the hump and I’d pulled it together. I’ve always felt good on a mic; talking to a crowd is something I enjoy. Although at that time in my life I was years away from hosting a radio show or MCing events, it was still a skill that thankfully, I had been comfortable with on that night. But knowing my tunes, the keys and tempos and being right there with em – that I definitely did not have down. I called an up tempo tune, because I had to (a medium tune and a ballad had gone before) and it started ok. But then it kinda waggled off track into a world I’ve never felt too at home in. Scatting. I’d finished the tune, but here was Vonski telling me to ‘espress myself’. Huh? I’m done, pal, it’s the piano player’s turn for a solo. But nope, it was my turn. That’s the down side of up tunes. If you’re a singer, and you’re playing with jazz musicians, they often expect that. Never mind that the model you have in your head is Doris Day and your main goals are just to have great intonation and sing a swingin, understated little ditty. Scatting has seldom felt ‘understated’ to me. But that was so long ago, so early on in my singing career that I didn’t yet know what my thing was exactly. And trying my hand at this stuff was part of the program, dig it or not. So scat I did, with Von standing there, in his dark glasses, sax resting in front of him, shouting an enthusiastic “Espress yoself! Espress yoself!” while I made it through. I got to the other side of the chorus and felt ok. Scatting might not turn out to be my thing, but it was kinda fun, actually. Kinda fun to express myself.