May 19, 2024

The Philosophy and Life Work of
Earl LeVon (Von) Freeman
as told to Phyllis A. Lodge August 22, 1988

Von Freeman The Interview begins in the middle of the conversation with Von speaking. Von refers to any of the local musicians who frequent his sessions as his “horses”. It is a term of endearment…

VF: One of my ‘horses’ is with Johnny Griffin, when and if his bass player leaves. And I told you that Stevie Coleman and Dwayne Armstrong (both are saxophonists from Chicago) had moved on to New York. I was proud of them. And that I had seen this trumpeter – Steve Schmidt – who had formed a state band in Nice, France. I had also seen the guitar player whom I’m so crazy about, Pope Paul, with McCoy [Tyner]. And I know he loves playing with McCoy. I thought it was so nice [that] McCoy’s giving some of the young cats a chance, you know, because this fellow is very young.

JazzUSA: How old is he?

VF: Oh, he looks to be in his early 20’s to me. Came up with Stevie (Coleman) and all of them, you know. And that’s just a few of the fellows whom I predict great futures for.

Of course, I think I’m entering a frame of mind where I think I would go back into writing again, which I had given up for 30 years just about. Even reading music. It had gotten to the point where I stopped reading music; no more than some lines, you know. And I think I may go back into that.

JazzUSA: Actually reading notes, because a lot of musicians are trying to get away from that now, aren’t they?

VF: Yeah, well, it’s always a good… [ponders briefly] …option; put it that way. And then you can be creative in writing too, if you try. Actually, I’ve been doing this spontaneous playing for so long until maybe I’m getting tired of that now, I don’t know. You know you go through phrases [corrects himself], phases, I’m trying to say and uh…

JazzUSA: Laughing, “Phrases and phases”. Von laughs too]

VF: Yeah, well alright. I heard that. Right, right, right. But that may be where I’m coming to now, because I know, over in Europe this last time, I sat down and wrote four or five pieces. I hadn’t done that in years. And I had been going to Europe for the last seven years, and I had never gone there and done that. And this time I found myself [interrupts himself]… of course, Nice is like that sort of, because – Nice, France – because it is so quiet; and it’s conducive to creative writing. It’s on the Riviera in France.

JazzUSA: Ah, I don’t know that much about Nice…

VF: Well, Nice is worldwide famous. That’s where they have the nude beach.

JazzUSA: Oh-h-h” … laughter here. “…Okay”

VF: And then Cannes is down the road a bit. And they’re world famous for the film festivals where they give the “greatest” films, you know. And it’s very authoritative…. [Here Von inquires very diplomatically]. Well, listen, are you getting this? [After we confirm that the tape is picking up okay, Von resumes …]

I think I’m getting closer with my brother, George, musically. And maybe even when I go to Europe next time, I’ll take him with me. We do have a problem with that. It doesn’t leave anyone back here with mother, you know. We can work that out, I’m certain, because it wouldn’t be for any more than a week or two; or maybe four weeks at the most, which is about all I go for anyway. And perhaps if I took him [George] I wouldn’t even stay that long. [NOTE: The beautiful Mrs. Freeman has, since this interview, joined the ranks of the Ancestors.]

Everybody, I think, or every musician should get a chance to travel one time at least. It’s really broadening to go abroad, you know. It’s really broadening [he affirms] inasmuch as you get such recognition from the people there, from the masses, until it’s really heart-warming, for example, to go and be photographed on the street. And praised. So it is just a shot in the arm to the average musician who has never been there, because most of our musicians are not, in most cases, accustomed to the type of royal treatment the Europeans give you.

JazzUSA: I was reading something Cecil (Taylor) said about how the pianos, even in the places where jazz performers play, are superior to many the places they have to perform on here in the United States].

VF: Aw yeah [Von chimes right in]. Those Bosendorfers and things. The Steinways. You have the best pianos. And of course, that Bosdendorfer! That thing has a sound that, my goodness! I think it has more than 88 keys, too. And they’re very long, like a concert grand. And the average piano player [here] has never played on one. Well, a lot of piano players never played on Steinways [either]. And of course these pianos just help your playing so much because it is a good instrument. It’s like a violinist playing on a Stradivarius. Naturally, he’s going to get the most out of his talent playing on a great instrument.

JazzUSA: Another thing Cecil commented on was how he sometimes felt like half a musician, because he always only had “half pianos” to play on. Not his exact words, of course, but you know what I mean.]

VF: Yeah. And then too, most of the time the pianos are out-of-tune, and this is bad too, to a sensitive musician. Not so much the malfunction of the keys,* you understand, as the thing being out-of-tune. And this can really wreck havoc with you, with your ear, you know.> *[McCoy Tyner has remarked on more than one occasion how he suffered for years playing on pianos with chipped keys. The older pianos were made of ivory rather than plastic, and they would cut his fingers pretty badly after prolonged playing. “When are you gonna get this thing fixed?” he often wondered silently.]

JazzUSA: You don’t have that problem with a horn, though…

VF: Well, see, you have a problem when you have to play with them. [

JazzUSA: Yes, of course]

VF: See, because when you play with an out-of-tune piano, it’s almost impossible to tune up with it, and you find yourself altering … [shifts his thoughts here]. Like, I came up with out-of-tune pianos. Consequently, it helped to wreck me. [Von laughs this off half-heartedly] And a lot of guys, they come up with that stuff because you have a tendency… well, all you’ve ever heard was something out-of-tune. And it’s not… [here he elevates his mood…] but, all things being equal, that’s just another barrier you have to jump across. Or climb over – let’s put it that way – one of the many.

JazzUSA: I don’t even remember this guy’s name, but I ran into him up on the North side. I told you about the one that time who was talking about how great you were and who was saying that you play in a different kind of pitch anyway…

VF: Yeah. Well most people just say it’s out-of-tune and let it go at that [he laughs].

JazzUSA: He didn’t describe it that way, though. He said that you have your own pitch. Von acquiesces. Yeah, well remember what I’m doing is playing very sophisticated harmonically. That’s really all it is, because I sit up and study harmony day and night. And of course, when you play that way, the average person can’t find the little “ditties” and things he hears in what most people play. And if he can’t identify or be familiar with certain things, most people really don’t dig it. You see, people are not [muses a bit] …people are not that happy with things they are not familiar with.

JazzUSA: There’s the catch, trying to make them familiar. But if they’re not exposed, then I guess it wouldn’t be familiar to them.

VF: Things that people are not familiar with they just have a tendency not to dig. And that’s just people in general. Even dealing with other people, most people, if they’re not familiar with something … you call it prejudice, really. But it’s not…I don’t think it’s that so much as people are just not comfortable with things they’re unfamiliar with. Especially if a certain thing is great [musically]; and you come out with something different. Or you’re doing it, not necessarily [here Von qualifies]… you’re innovative with it, but you’re in [or a part of] that trend. And people have a tendency not to really accept anything they’re not familiar with. And that’s in music and life in general.

So like, I’m rarely accepted because I must be “happy” with myself which … [hastily] I’m not that happy with myself, but the times that I am happy with myself it is always because I’m doing something I was trying to do; that I heard, or that I believed in.

And since I’m “poor” anyway [in his trademark comic relief], it doesn’t really make any difference. I’m not going to get any poorer, you know. Or any richer. So you just, well… I think this is the way all musicians should view life: you just do what you think you can do. And then, I think the artist does what he has to do, really. And I think most musicians do what they want to do – or what the people want them to do. [Von seems to be speaking in “either/or” terms here] These [latter] are generally the commercially successful musicians…

JazzUSA: But are they really doing what they want to do, that’s the thing. I’ve always wondered about the ones who really are “making it”.

VF: Well, they’re doing what the public wants them to do, as a rule. Of course, then you can occasionally find a genius who can do what the public wants him to do and still do what he has to do, too. Or, what he wants to do and what he has to do. I’ve always tried to do, and in fact, I’ve always done what I had to do. And that’s just what I’m doing – whatever that is [Laughs in spite of himself]. And I’ve been criticized roundly for it. Then, I’ve been praised for it. So…

JazzUSA: You’ve certainly been praised. That much I know.

VF: Well, there you go. You can’t get involved with the public opinion of yourself, you know. Of course, you would like to have your peers…you would like for them to dig you, of course. Even if they don’t, though, you really can’t get [too caught up in, or be] too concerned with that. A man or woman has to do what they have to do. And I think that’s the epitome of being an artist. And I don’t think you can take any credit for it anyway, because something you have to do, you have to do it anyway. I’ve seen people fight that, but I don’t think that works out either.

Just like you. You have to write, so you write. There are probably some other things that you probably could do to be commercially successful – quicker. Like you could always apply for the Post Office or something like that…

JazzUSA: Yeah, Hah! Right.

VF: …or get into some Civil Service, or something. You have a college education and what not. Certainly you would be accepted before a lot of people who didn’t have it. Or there are any number of things you could go into to make money, but probably these are not the things that you have to do. You’re probably doing what you have to do.

JazzUSA: And when you’re doing the things you’re supposed to, and you start finding the right direction, stuff starts coming around anyway; or at least the things to help you develop, I think.

VF: Oh sure. Well, you know, all these ideas have lives of their own, you understand, or at least substance of their own — put it that way. And, of course, the more you deal with the substance (or substances) that benefit you, your brain… [here Von shifts to a portion of his own philosophy].

See, I’m into the brain, you know. A lot of folks are into the mind. I’m not into that, because I found out that if somebody hits you on the head hard enough and takes away your brain, [more comic relief here] the mind ceases to operate. [We both have to laugh ] I’m into the brain because the brain is right here. And the brain has got to deal with man, and woman, and child and this Earth – and all these nuts out here. See? And I’ve found that if you can’t deal with them, the first thing you know, they’ll put you away.
JazzUSA – NOTE: Here Von embarks on a lengthy treatise befitting a philosophical work which one day he might give us permission to publish. He transitions it effortlessly back to the music.]

VF: See, music is ethereal to a great extent. And I think a lot of people who play music get on “cloud nine”. And I think that is why they think they can abuse their bodies and the brain, and still make it. And you if notice, what happens is, they are soon a memory. I don’t know where you go when you leave this planet, but they certainly make their transition. See? So if you don’t take care of yourself, through [the correct use of] your brain; or even learn to use your brain, where it [enables] you to take care of yourself — and stay away from excesses and things — they’ll one day be saying how beautiful you used to play. So I’ve learned that you’ve got to keep that brain in good, good working order. See the brain, I’ve read we only use, what is it, about 1/8 of the brain?

JazzUSA: Some people say maybe 10%, or even less than that.

VF: Yeah. And then they’re generally a genius, if they use 10%, aren’t they? I mean, they’re like a genius to us, right?

JazzUSA: I believe you’re right. Okay, so how do you develop the brain?

VF: Well, I think you develop the brain through Love. See, if you love – and I mean, truly with your heart…see the heart and the brain work hand-in-hand. You have to temper the brain with your heart. Now you can’t really do anything with the mind with your heart, for the simple reason that the mind is like a Spirit. It’s out there. It can go anywhere. And it seems to be jealous of the rest of your body if you ask me, because it always wants to be on cloud nine somewhere, floatin’ around with all these thoughts. And a lot of times they have nothing to do with paying the rent, or eating, or doing the things that are necessary for you to live and be healthy.

So I think that when you love, this tempers the brain…because the things that really get the brain “off”, in my opinion are things like gluttony (like eating too much); envy, jealousy, hate, all those types of things, because, see, these are like what I call ‘highs’ anyway.

Like, you’ll see somebody who doesn’t drink nor smoke and they’ll tell you – like they’ll see a drunk and they’ll say: [Von does this using his hilarious falsetto that will have you cracking up!] “Ooooh, shute. Isn’t that awful?” Or they see somebody on dope: “Oooo – isn’t that awful.” But by the same token, they may be jealous of you when you walk in the door. Or they may have an ego that’s out of sight.

Now that’s one of the worst ‘highs’ I’ve seen, is an egoist. So, there are a whole lot of ways to get high that ain’t got nothin’ to do with drugs or whiskey or refer. Like some people get high by stealing. Some get high by goin’ with another man’s wife or another woman’s husband. Some get high by gamblin’. Some get high by staying up all night long. Like they don’t feel mellow until they stay up all night and hang out.

JazzUSA: [Laughing]

VF: So see, I’ve witnessed, oh, a whole bunch of highs in different people since I’ve been in music that had nothing to do with whiskey or dope. And man, they’d be so high. And like I say, the worst one I’ve seen yet is ego. Of course sometimes whiskey brings that out; sometimes dope does; sometimes having a beautiful woman does. Wherever it comes from, that ego is something else, man! I’ve seen people almost destroy themselves because of that ego; so that’s a terrible high. Sure, I’ve seen some musicians who could play – I mean really play, like, almost geniuses. Or, I haven’t seen that many geniuses, but say they were right on the verge of being a genius.

And when they got through playing, they didn’t want anyone else to play, because they felt like the next person wasn’t on the their level and would destroy what they had put out there. Well, that’s ego. See, they got so mellow, and so beautiful into thinking about what they were playing. Then, you hear them ten years from then, and the music has turned all around – and they’re called ‘old hat’. See? Then they almost can’t stand it because whereas they once were considered innovative, now their music is called ‘old hat’. Well, if their ego had remained intact and say, like on a level from zero to ten their egos had stayed somewhere between four and six where egos should be — instead of up there on twelve somewhere — then they’d be cool.

You see what I’m saying? After all, when your time passes, or when time passes you by, you’ll be able to accept that. And you’ll be able to learn from the people who are currently doing whatever the time is [dictating]. Everything has its time, after all, and you can’t be a man or a woman for all seasons. Nobody is.

JazzUSA: But you can learn from the times, as well as from others…

VF: Sure. But you can learn and then you can make an attempt…and praise that which is. Like say when Bird (Charlie Parker) came up. You can tell where the saxophone players were who “thought forward”, because all of them tried to ‘cop’ on the Bird. Whereas the dudes who didn’t, would sit back and try to put down Bird – but how could you put down the truth, man. So, forty years later, you can really see, because all those who put down Bird, well, Bird is still light years ahead of them.

And so, it took forty years for people to even catch up to what Bird was doing. Then they’re going to be another forty [years] catching up with Trane [John Coltrane], see? Then there’s always going to be somebody else new. It will take them another forty generations or so to catch up with the next guy, or the next. There will always be somebody. They just have different names, but innovation is innovation.

There will always be somebody to progress the music. Or, the way I think and the way I’ve seen it in the past, if the past is indicative of the future – there will always be somebody to progress the music, give somebody something to shoot for. Then they will leave this [plane] … make the transition, of course, [their body will leave] but their brain waves will live on and somebody else will pick them up, because brain waves go out into the air. Every time you play an idea, that is [a by-product of] your brain, and part of that goes out there into the air. And somebody who is able to assimilate it, picks it up.

Maybe it is through heredity. I don’t know – I’m not that wise. Always somebody to pick it up. It may be somebody young or somebody… one day it’s going to probably be (turn the whole world around, too) … but it will probably be an innovator [who] is a cat 90 years old or so. And he’ll be playing some stuff and everybody will say: [Von uses his falsetto again] “What!” You know. “Wha…. How in the world… Where’d he get this stuff from?” [Chuckles in spite of himself]. And he’s 90! He might be past a hundred, and playing some stuff and turn everybody around. Currently it’s always some younger guy who does it, but one day, it may get to that just to show us that the assimilation of ideas can come into anybody’s head.

I think that’s where the Creator comes in. He can put it in a baby; He can put it in a person past a hundred. That’s His prerogative. I think he puts it, (or places it) into a young person because there you have the body to go along with your thinking. You’re strong enough, physically, to execute your ideas because all these instruments require physical prowess to play. And writing, you’ve got to be able to see and assimilate. Youth. The Creator, being perfect I imagine He does it that way, He gives these thing to youth, because they’re strong. He could very well turn it around, though, and maybe one day He will – just to show people, because a lot of people don’t believe that the Creator is doing this.

JazzUSA: Yeah, I know what you’re saying; that creative drive…

VF: Yeah, well the Creator is All-Powerful so He can [here Von suddenly changes his progression of thought] but I say He usually does things in a way that’s very easy to see His train of thought. Then sometimes, it’s very mysterious, because they’re way beyond us anyway. I was just making a wild guess though, that one day He may well do it that way, just to show youth that it’s nothing special because they’re young. It’s just that when you’re given a gift, you have a gift. And it comes from the Creator.{Here Von tries to lighten up the mood] I don’t know what kind of conversation this is I’m holding [laughing].

JazzUSA: Well, I always enjoy listening to you because I learn a lot of things that I can think about…

VF: Well, the whole thing is, you’ve been trained to use your brain, I hope. And this is a beautiful thing, because people are getting further and further away from that. That’s the reason why you we see so much strife in the world today. People are off into some other stuff where you can tell they’re not using their brain. You wouldn’t have all these wars and kidnappings and guerrilla warfare and terrorists. And folks murdering one another and rape – and all that. Like to me, the silliest thing is this rape. You wouldn’t have all this stuff if people used their brain.

JazzUSA: Von speaks more on the multitude of social ills plaguing the world, before ending up back on one of his favorite subjects involving the relationship between art, the heart and the brain.

VF: Real art, true art, comes from the heart. And the heart is master of the brain. And whenever you put out true art, you get people to feeling as though they want to use their brain. Whenever you see great, great, art, this comes from the heart and this immediately triggers the brain. And this makes you immediately want to do what. To think. And this makes you want to be a better person; and to stand up and be counted and blah, blah and then [pauses in dead silence for a few seconds and the starts laughing] — you have created a problem.

Well, let’s not go any further with that. But listen, I’ve gotten tired now, but you haven’t asked me any questions…

JazzUSA: Well, because I just prefer letting you go with your own thoughts on things. I was going to do some more things on your sessions…

VF: Well, you know where I was born. And you know how hold I am. So, 1922, October 3rd. And you know how many children I have – four. [Two sons Chico and Mark, and two daughters Denise and Brenda]. You know Chico plays and you know we just completed a trip to the “Continent”. And you know we just cut an album, Father and Sons with the Marsalis clan on one side and the Freeman clan on the other. And you know my brothers: George Freeman plays guitar, and Bruz Freeman plays drums. And you know that I run the sessions at the El Matador and the Enterprise* and try to give all the musicians a chance to play – young old and amateurs, to give everybody a chance to express themselves. And that’s the password of the set: “Express yourself”.

And that I’ve dedicated my life to trying to help the young guy – the youngsters. And – that’s it….

JazzUSA: That’s it?

VF: That’s it….

*Later Von began holding sessions at the New Apartment Lounge on 75th Street on Chicago’s southside. This is one of his institutions, and like Barry Harris’s Jazz Cultural Theater activities, Von Freeman’s Tuesday night sessions remain one of the saving graces of this music.