Remembering Von Freeman

Lincoln Park’s blues scene comes alive in a cool, thumping tantrum of Chicago sound. Belting voices, bottleneck guitars, the melancholy sirens wail all night long in the dives and doorways near DePaul. They bellow in River North and on the South Side, from House of Blues to Buddy Guy’s. 

Carl Weathersby, Koko Taylor, B.B. King. Those were the names lighting up the marquees back then. The legends got people in the door; the music kept them there. Cover after cover I made the rounds, from Blues on Clark to Rosa’s Lounge. Each joint beckoned with soulful serenades and crying six-strings that could make you weep if you let them.

So it seems strange that once I discovered jazz I never set foot in a blues bar again. It’s Michael’s fault. Or Von’s. I really can’t say. All I know is, once I heard their music, I never needed anything else. Andy’s on Hubbard, that’s where it was. Von never liked me on the South Side. Without a car, it wasn’t feasible anyway. So it was Wrigley Building one flight down, two blocks straight ahead. Past Shaw’s Crab House and Mother Hubbard’s. Look for the awning.

Inside was a touristy enclave, refined not raw. It was the kind of club you’d see in any downtown, but the breadth of talent made it a standout. Dark wood with a little shine, food that’s good not great. White tablecloths and a bit of class. But not too much. If Goldilocks had been hunting for a jazz club, this would have been the place. It was just sophisticated enough to feel inviting, with a brusque bartender to keep you on your toes.

To hear Von play sax was to be transported to another time, another place. Even if it meant plunging deeper into the current moment. An old-school saxophonist with a Chicago School sound, he was all about reaching a crescendo. As he blew, you could hear him scrambling toward a higher plane. Note for note, he brought the crowd along with him. 

Elevation, that was his gift. He took people higher through his music, no question. And he did it through his words. His mentorship. His wisdom. Von was born to play music, he said that once. He had a gift, and he used it to empower. 

To put others on the apex, he had to reach that pinnacle within himself. Night after night after night. Seeing him play was to watch him hustle up the mountaintop, toward some higher ground of perfection.

Von told me once that his audience understood him, that they got what he was trying to achieve. Looking at it now, I think they understood him because he inspired them to hustle up the mountaintop, too. All around him was a village of young musicians who came up in his shadow. But he never kept them there for long. Once he spotted talent, he let it bloom.