Remembering Vonski

Maurice Brown and Von Freeman at The New Apartment Lounge (Photo by John Broughton)

Maurice Brown and Von Freeman at The New Apartment Lounge (Photo by John Broughton)

When I moved to Chicago in the mid 90s my jazz experience consisted of the few jam sessions and gigs I had done with my Dad in my hometown of Lexington, KY. I was eager to play and hungry to learn, however, having enrolled in a classical performance degree program, I wasn't allowed to formally study jazz in college.

After a several years, and a few coffee shop jobs later, I met a jazz guitarist who had recently graduated from Oberlin named Aaron Weistrop. He was the first person to take me down to the legendary session at The New Apartment Lounge at 504 E. 75th St. on Chicago's south side. It was so far beyond anything that I had ever experienced - such a completely different world than what I had known up to then -  that I will never forget it. It was in the winter, or late fall.. or early spring (OK, I forgot that much)... so it was cold. Really, really cold. Anyone that has ever lived in Chicago can tell you that the seasons, except in the most bitter part of the winter or the height of the summer, tend to blend together into one long, dark, grey, windy spell. I remember lugging my Polytone amplifier out of Aaron's car and sprinting to the door of the bar.

What you see in this video is pretty much what it looked like, except that Von was much younger, there was a partially different band, and there were a lot more people. This clip, by French filmmaker Jean Michel Papazian, features "Vonski" (more about his nickname later), Mike Allemana on guitar, Matt Ferguson on bass, and fellow Kentuckian Michael Raynor (the original drummer from my earliest memories) on drums.

Von and the house band would usually play from about ten o' clock until midnight. All the young "horses," as Von would call us, would line up against the wall with our cases and drinks, and receive a jazz schooling that few of us could appreciate at the time.

Von was called "Vonski" because he spoke in his own hip lingo, much like the stories one hears about Lester Young's ultra-cool way of speaking, that usually included the addition of "-ski" to the end of whatever he was saying at the time. Also, he would often refer to himself in third-person as "Vonski," by saying things like,

"Vonski needs to rest himself and let these young horses run for a while."

Often he would engage in hilarious, acerbic banter with the bartender "Weezy" who took absolutely no shit from anyone. I distinctly remember a deep feeling of gratitude whenever she would finally serve me a Heineken that I had ordered twenty minutes ago.

But while all this was going on, Vonski would sit at the edge of the bar and scrutinize the music like a coach shouting from the sidelines. It was a running commentary of cool encouragement mixed with the occasionally needed chastisement and it was completed by a Greek chorus of regulars who affirmed Vonski's assertions.

Here are some clips of Vonski right around the time that I first heard him. You can hear that his musical vocabulary is the entire span of jazz history up until then, from the early swing era through bebop and post-Coltrane. Also notable is that his playing is a seamless amalgam, not a quotable list of stylistic highlights, and for this reason alone it is essentially impossible to copy Von's playing. The band is made up of prominent Chicagoan's: Brad Goode on trumpet, Jodie Christian on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums.

I'll leave you with a nice tribute to Vonski by the National Endowment for the Arts upon his recognition as a 2012 NEA Jazz Master. There are a lot of great clips popping up on YouTube since his passing including a hair-raising tenor battle between him and fellow Chicagoan Clifford Jordan at the 1988 Chicago Jazz Festival. No doubt, you will find more scholarly essays about Vonski on the web and I encourage you to read on.

For me Von Freeman will always represent the epitome of dedication to one's craft along with a fearless championing of self-determination in one's life and career. I recently watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, an inspiring documentary film about an octogenarian sushi master in Tokyo who is acclaimed by many as the greatest of all time. His singular dedication to the perfection of his personal vision seemed, as I watched, totally antithetical to the American concept of life and work. But now, as I reflect upon the life and work of Von Freeman, I must acknowledge that these masters are among us and that I have personally known one of them.