An Interview with Chico Freeman
JazzUSA talks to
by Mark Ruffin
1999 is starting to shape up as quite a notable year for the Freeman jazz family. Last month, George Freeman’s album George Burns, came out, and in this month Von and Chico Freeman will put out Von Freeman’s 75th Anniversary with Diane Reeves.
Von and George Freeman, Chico’s father and uncle respectively, live in Chicago. Chico lives in New York, but he brought his new band Gattaca, featuring Hilton Ruiz to Chicago’s Symphony Center last month. It gave Chicagoans a rare chance to see all three members of Chicago’s first family of jazz. His uncle George also had a big record release party at a local club for his new album “George Burns.”
“It’s kind of ironic, but there are people who still think I live in Chicago,” the sax star said by phone from his New York home. “I never quite understand it, since I’ve been in New York for 20 some odd years, but there’s always someone who thinks I live in Chicago.”
Also last month, Chico was at Lincoln Center attending the premiere of a movie he scored called Andre’s Lies. In June, he’ll be performing with comedian and drummer Bill Cosby, in anticipation of their new live album coming out later this year. Plus Freeman is the producer and music director of the stage show of actor singer Keith David (Armageddeon, Dead Presidents, Clockers, Platoon), but it’s his new band that has him raving.
“Guataca is the name of the band. We play Afro-Cuban music with a twist,” Freeman explained. “That is, we play the rhythms that are from Africa and from Cuba. The compositions are mine and some of the harmonies, as well as the tunes and structures are atypical.”
It comes as no surprise that Freeman is coming home playing a different kind of jazz. He’s been crossing genres since he was a kid growing up on 69th and Calumet, on Chicago’s south side.
“I’ve always liked different kinds of music,” he said. “I just really try to express myself, whatever I honestly feel.”
Jazz wasn’t always what inspired Freeman. For that matter, music wasn’t always a priority for this Northwestern graduate, just a constant. As a youngster, he remembers watching his father’s band, The Freeman Brothers, rehearse at his house. Along with Von and George on sax and guitar, was the now retired Bruz Freeman on drums, David Shipp on drums and either Andrew Hill or Don Baltazar on piano.
“We had a lot of kids on our block, and I remember, especially during summertime when it was hot, a lot of kids would come sit on the porch and listen a lot. All of my friends were all excited because there were all these instruments in my house.”
Many of Freeman’s classmates at Parker High School went on to become musicians including brothers Verdine and Fred White of Earth, Wind & Fire, and the Hutchinson sisters who became the Emotions. While excelling at math, Freeman too was part of a vocal group called the Rotations.
When the rest of the group got drafted, and Freeman accepted a four-year scholarship from Northwestern, the would-be singer turned first to trumpet and then to the saxophone. Before graduating with a degree in music and working on a Master’s from Governors State, Freeman played more r&b with the Spinners, Dells and Four Tops, and blues with J.B. Hutto and Buddy Guy.
“It’s funny, my father wasn’t a big influence on me musically until later in my life,” said the musician who would only give his age as 40-something. “I use to hear him practice all the time, and then I didn’t care for it because it was practicing. It wasn’t connected to any music at the time, but I heard it all day, so I think it got into my self-conscious.”
Chico never had intentions of leaving Chicago, it just happened after his determined jazz studies started taking him places. First, it was the Norte Dame Jazz Festival in the late 70’s, where he won best soloist and participation in a Brazilian student exchange program. On the way home from Sao Paulo, he decided to visit a Chicago friend in New York, bassist Fred Hopkins, who just passed away in January.
“It was three days to be exact, which is what I thought,” Freeman said picking up the story. “I was just trying to see what New York was like. Then (another Chicago saxophonist) needed a sub because he had to get back to Chicago, so three days turned into a week. Then I jammed with another musician who liked me so much, he hired me for his weekly Sunday gigs. So my week was now a month.”
That cycle increased as he met bassist Cecil McBee who hired him as did his father’s old employer Sun Ra. He then hit the big time landing a gig with internationally renowned drummer Elvin Jones who landed Freeman his first record contract within weeks of coming to New York for three days.
“Once I got with Elvin, that was all she wrote,” Freeman remembered, “because I started touring all over the world. To make a long story short, once I got to New York, I started working and never looked back.”