Earle Lavon Freeman, a tenor saxophonist and National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, was being remembered Tuesday as a jazz great who made every song his own with a husky, melodic sound.
Freeman, who passed away over the weekend at age 88, never became of a major star but was highly regarded as a musician by other jazz practitioners. Miles Davis reportedly wanted him in the 1950s, but Freeman refused to leave his native Chicago for most of his career, taking only the briefest trips out of the city to perform.
The musician, known by friends as "Von," told the Chicago Tribune in 1992 that because he didn't have to worry about fame or money, he was free to pursue what a critic called an idiosyncratic and intellectually demanding style.
"An extraordinary saxophonist with a sound all his own, Von Freeman's contributions to jazz -- and specifically Chicago's jazz history -- are numerous," Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said in a statement Wednesday. "We join many others in the jazz community and beyond in mourning his death while celebrating his life and his music."
His son Mark Freeman said his father died Saturday of heart failure.
Born in Chicago on October 3, 1922, Freeman came from a musical family. His mother sang in the church choir, his father was an amateur trombonist, and a grandfather and an uncle were guitarists.
Freeman's father was a policeman whose beat included the Grand Terrace Ballroom. Freeman said his father admired the artists who played at the club, among them Earl Hines, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, and invited them to his home.
"I got all this music by osmosis," Freeman told the Tribune.
Initially self-taught, he played saxophone with Gene "Jug" Ammons at DuSable High School, a public school that also produced Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Johnny Hartman and Johnny Griffin. After a stint in the Navy during World War II, Freeman returned to Chicago and played with his brothers George and Eldridge in the house band at the Pershing Hotel Ballroom, which was frequented by jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, according to the newspaper.
In the 1950s, Freeman associated himself with various Chicago artists, including Sun Ra, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Al Smith. He recorded the first album under his own name, "Doin' It Right Now," in 1972.
Until recently, Freeman regularly performed on Tuesday nights at a South Side club in Chicago. He was awarded the Rosenberger Medal in 2010 by the University of Chicago in recognition of his talent, and the National Endowment of the Arts named him a jazz master earlier this year.
Along with his son Mark, he is survived by another son, Chico, and his brother, George.