Brad Goode: Stories From Chicago

Part 6) Von Freeman and the SteepleChase Recordings

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Danny Meyer: Can you talk about Von's playing?

Brad Goode: Yes. First of all, there are different value systems, and depending on where you learn or where you get your inspiration or your training, you may be subscribing to different ideas.  I think that, - I hate to be a guy who says this - but I always get mad at people who say that, “Jazz Education is the problem,” as if there's one thing that happens in Jazz Education.  It's simply not true.

But I think in general, Jazz Education has gravitated toward the idea of vocabulary or imitation, and when you used the word “language,” I thought you were saying something other than what you were actually saying, because when most people use that word in Jazz Education, they're telling you, “You need more language and you need more vocabulary.”  They're telling you, “You need to play more things that the Jazz greats played so that you can understand how your phrases are supposed to sound like Jazz.”  That's a value system that I personally don't subscribe to, and that's pretty important because it's at the basis of a lot of what's being taught.

I see the result of that value system.  Everybody doesn't sound identical, but what somebody said, I think it was Dexter Gordon who said this, that all the saxophone players he heard in the '70s and '80s who were coming out of the schools, “All sounded like they’d studied with the same teacher.”  That was his way of describing the phenomenon, because they were all playing the same phrases based on the material of the same group of players that they had deemed to be the most important players.

Von is, to me, the example of the opposite value system, because he grew up in a time where Jazz wasn't being taught and you had to figure things out for yourself. It was always possible that you could go the route of stealing licks and transcribing and enter the genre that way, playing what Bird played, or playing what the people who were popular at the time played, but during the era where Von was a teenager, and I guess I'm probably talking about the 1930s and the 1940s, he was in a community where it was important NOT to play what other people played. That was the beginning of the change of the world view, from being functional dance musicians who played occasional solos to being people who were known by their unique artistry; the end of the Swing Era, the beginning of the real Combo Era in Jazz, when combos were more common.  

What would make you interesting to an audience is if you were saying something different, so just having that as an idea, Von might be one of the first people that posed these questions: If it was okay to say something different and your goal was to say different things all the time, what direction might you pursue in your development, instead of learning what everybody else was doing. How unique could it be and still be sensible, understandable, and compelling?  He was a pioneer in this way of thinking, which is why I say he predates, or maybe even foreshadows, the Avant-Garde in a certain way.  

Brad Goode: Yes. First of all, there are different value systems, and depending on where you learn or where you get your inspiration or your training, you may be subscribing to different ideas.  I think that, - I hate to be a guy who says this - but I always get mad at people who say that, “Jazz Education is the problem,” as if there's one thing that happens in Jazz Education.  It's simply not true.

But I think in general, Jazz Education has gravitated toward the idea of vocabulary or imitation, and when you use the word “language,” I thought you were saying something other than what you were saying, because when most people use that word in Jazz Education, they're telling you, “You need more language and you need more vocabulary.”  They're telling you, “You need to play more things that the Jazz greats played so that you can understand how your phrases are supposed to sound like Jazz.”  That's a value system that I personally don't subscribe to, and that's pretty important because it's at the basis of a lot of what's being taught.

I see the result of that value system.  Everybody doesn't sound identical, but what somebody said, I think it was maybe Dexter Gordon who said this, that all the saxophone players he heard in the '70s and '80s who were coming out of the schools, “All sounded like they’d studied with the same teacher.”  That was his way of describing the phenomenon, because they were all playing the same phrases based on the material of the same group of players that they had deemed to be the most important players.

Von is, to me, like the example of the opposite value system, because he grew up in a time where Jazz wasn't being taught and you had to figure things out for yourself, and it was always possible that you could take the road of stealing licks and transcribing and enter the genre that way, joining all the reindeer games by playing what Bird played, or playing what the people who were popular at the time played, but during the era where Von was a teenager, and I guess I'm probably talking about the 1930s and the 1940s, he was in a community where it was important not to play what other people played and that was the beginning of the change of the world view, from being functional dance musicians who played occasional solos to being people who were known by your soloing, so the beginning of the, or the end of the Swing Era, the beginning of the real Combo Era in Jazz, when combos were more common.  

What would make you interesting to an audience is if you were saying something different, so just having that as an idea, Von might be one of the first people maybe simultaneous with, but not related to, say, Herbie Nichols or ... I'm trying to think of some other examples, Eric Dolphy, Mingus, that if this was your idea that it was okay to say something different and your goal was to say different things all the time, what direction would you pursue in your development instead of learning what everybody else was doing, or studying what everybody else was doing, and that how different could it get and still be sensible, understandable, and comprehensible?  He is a pioneer in this way of thinking, which is why I say he predates, or maybe even foreshadows, the Avant-garde in a certain way.  


I

think that, what Red Rodney said to me was, “Von Freeman was the first outside player.”  That was the way Red said it, but is Von really outside?  Not so much.  He has control over the time and he has control over his lines.  He has real control over the harmony, over the form of the tune, over the tradition of swinging.  He has control over it.  I don't know if in his 30s or 40s he had mastered that yet, but he knew it strongly enough.  He had enough experience with playing inside the box to be able to use contrast.  

His solos, even from early on, the ones that were recorded in the 50s, (the few that we have, ) demonstrate this idea of inside versus outside, in that he sets up an expectation to play well within tonality or well within the time, very strongly.  He disrupts that expectation with the surprise of playing outside the tonality or into other tonalities, or outside the time or against the time or abstracting the time. On the pitch or off the pitch. He seamlessly goes in and out, and in and out.

Von never really wanted to play in a free format without structure.  He was more interested in dealing with really structured music, traditional music.  If the song stays the same ... if you play “Bye Bye Blackbird” for 60 years or 65 years, how much must YOU change in order to keep saying something different, to not become staid, to not become bored with yourself?

Earlier, I said that Eric Dolphy probably forgot more music than you and I will ever learn. I think Von Freeman probably threw away many approaches and many types of lines and never played them again. He spent his hours of working out and practicing in favor of doing something else; moving onto the next thing.  The progression of his playing was such that it became increasingly more abstract and increasingly more complex throughout his entire career.  It didn't stop evolving.

It was incredible.  It was inspiring, being around him and beginning to understand how he was dedicating his life to developing his playing.  Early on, I realized, I don't want to BE Von Freeman.  I don't want to play WHAT Von Freeman played.” That's actually not part of the aesthetic.  I have never transcribed Von Freeman and I've never tried to play what he played. What’s inspiring is the example he provided, the philosophy. To play what I really hear, to keep changing what I do based on my own thoughts and my own influences and my own ideas. To keep trying to move beyond what I have become comfortable with, and to do it without dissolving the form, to do it within the tradition.  

Maybe it's like a science experiment.  If everything is a variable, you don't have a valid experiment, but if there are constants, then you can work the variables and your experiment is more controlled.  

If you look at Miles, all those years through the 1960s, he recorded original music by the members of his band, but the only tunes of those things that he played in his performances were the simplest ones.  He played “All Blues,” he played “Footprints,” he played “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “All of You,” “Stella by Starlight,” “Green Dolphin Street,” “So What,” “'Round Midnight”.

This is most of his repertoire from 1958 to 1967, he didn't change the tunes.  You hear the band play on, I think the original album is called Jazz Track, the original “Green Dolphin Street” recording with Trane.  You hear the way they play that.  It was actually a jukebox hit, the single of that one. Then, listen to Live at the Plugged Nickel.  How far have they stretched the experiment, but the constant is “Green Dolphin Street.”  I think Von was doing something like that.

Von's thing in particular, required a really straight-ahead rhythm section. He didn't want the drummers to be really interactive with him.  Very much like Tristano.  Not that he didn't want them to be strong; he just didn't want them playing lots of fills, and he especially didn't want them playing fills in the turnbacks, in the ends of the eight-bar phrases, which is where most horn players would rest and most drummers would put a fill.

DM: That's where he would play?

BG: He didn't want that because it got in the way of his choices. What he wanted was maybe to go across the turnback, or through it, or do something with it. Michael Raynor, was Von's drummer for the last 20 years of his life. During Mike's early gigs with Von, Von was constantly turning around and telling him, "No, just swing, baby." Mike has tons of chops and he wanted to do all this stuff, but Von didn't want him to be too busy. It took Mike a little while to understand what Von was asking of him.

You said there are different belief systems. Von's thing, maybe it's the antithesis, or an opposite belief system, of the philosophy that our friend Art Lande is into.  Art is less interested in the soloist, more interested in the group sound and expression. That's a totally valid way to improvise, but it’s a completely different aesthetic.

Von's approach highlights what the soloist is going to reveal about himself and about the music during the course of his solo.  What kind of journey will he take you on, and then how will the next soloist proceed from there?  “Now it's your turn to solo and then maybe we can have a dialogue.” “Can we inspire each other in this dialogue?” This was the motif of what Von and I did, when we had the trumpet and the tenor, to drive each other on, to give the other player ideas. Von’s brand of improvising was never about the group sound, or the denial of the ego, to be certain... that's not Von's thing.  Von's thing is, “It's about a solo that tells a story.”

DM: It's about the individual?

BG: It's not so much about the individual.  It's about the solo, it’s about the art of the solo and it's about the ability to really move and express and take the listener on a journey though building and developing the solo.  Of course his solos were long.  Often, incredibly long.  He was doing this years before others starting doing it.  Again, I can't say, definitively that the idea for the extended solo also comes from Von, but I know that Von played long solos all the way back to the '40s.

When I was playing with him, he would play for 10 minutes, 15 minutes. I would play for three minutes because I'm a trumpet player! I couldn't play 10 or 15 minutes, so after a few, I would stop.  He would look at me and he would say, "No. Don't stop!"  You can actually hear this on one of our live records.  You can hear him say it.  I stop, and the people applaud and he says, "No, go on!  Express yourself!"  I put my horn back up, start playing and play another three or four choruses.  That was pretty typical.  

In this way, he was trying to show me something. (As an aside,: here's where I had to change my trumpet technique, because I just couldn't physically keep up with him.  I had to find a way to make it possible.)  Finally after about two or three years of experiencing this, one night I was driving him home after the gig and I said, "Von, can I ask you something?" He says, "Sure."  I said, " Why do you always ask me to keep playing after I have finished my solo? Why do you want me to play more?"  His answer was, "You have to play past what you know to get to what you don't know."  

The long solo wasn't so much about grabbing your attention for a long time as a listener, although maybe it did that, if you knew what you were listening to, if you had that kind of brain to be able to pay attention to it.  It was more about exhausting your routine until you got to the point where you had nothing left to play that was under your fingers, and then; what do you play?  That's what you’re hearing, I believe, when you listen to Von’s long solos.

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In 1990, I bought a Digital Audio Tape recorder in Japan. I was the first kid on my block to have some kind of digital recorder. I got myself set up with mixers and pre-amps and mics, and started experimenting with live recording.

I was using this stuff, and I was explaining to Von what I had bought, “It's digital so it can just become a CD, basically”.  That was the simplest way I could put it.  

Von said, and this was in 1991, he said,

"What we are doing right now," (meaning he and I and the gigs we were playing,) he said, "We should be capturing this on tape.  You should tape every gig we play, if you can,"

Of course I couldn't tape every gig, because it involved a lot of set up and lots of microphone stands and wires running everywhere, and then I would have to put it somewhere unobtrusive.  Over time, I figured out how to minimize the equipment and preset it to record a quintet, and so I would set it up when we were in a place where I could do that, and I would record the gig.  I really think that what he was saying to me at that time was that he knew that HE was really playing at the top of his game, that this was the best he'd ever played in his life and he was aware of this.  I would record these gigs, and the day after the gig, I'd transfer it to cassette and drive it to his house.  

He and I and his brother George (the guitarist), and his mother, who at that time was 100 years old, literally, (laughs) would sit in their living room and  listen to the tape and we'd all discuss it. I think that George was really a bigger admirer of Von than anybody. I'd just leave him a pile of cassettes every time.

Years later, after I had recorded 20 gigs or so like this, SteepleChase records wanted to come to Chicago to record Von. Von never enjoyed playing in a recording studio. I think he would get very conservative and feel like he needed to play really inside. In the studio, he never really opened up and stretched, the way he did on the gig.  

He just told Nils Winther, the owner of SteepleChase, "Brad has all these tapes.  You should just buy the tapes from him.  I don't want to go to the studio."  I got the call from Nils Winther and we started discussing it, and it took a long time to work out all of the business details, but in the end, Von and I sold the whole collection of DAT tapes to Nils.

I took a trip to Denmark with all of the tapes.  We spent ten days editing, basically turning what were 40-minute tunes and 45-minute tunes into 15-minute and 20-minute tunes to prepare them for release.  We prepared, I believe, 16 completed CDs.  They're done.  Right away, he released four volumes in the first year, (2001) and since then he has never released anything else.

Inside Chicago - vol 1
$18.73
By Von Freeman/Brad Goode
Inside Chicago, Vol 2
$18.73
By Von Freeman/Brad Goode
Inside Chicago Vol. 3
$10.99
SteepleChase
Inside Chicago, Vol. 4
$16.98
By Brad Goode/Von Freeman

[These records are also available on iTunes]

DM: There's still 12 more and they're of Von playing at his very best?

BG: That's what I'm saying.  When the 4 CDs came out, it wasn’t big news, because Steeplechase doesn't do much with promotion or marketing, although I did mention to you about Harvey Pekar writing an article for Jazz Times when they came out, trying to make a case for Von having played like this for years. However, I'm glad I have that documentation of Von’s genius, and I do have copies of all of it. Obviously, I'm not allowed to put it on YouTube or anything, because they don't belong to me anymore. We sold the rights to Steeplechase.  So I’m just waiting; I don't know if Nils is planning to release the rest of them or not.  

The recordings were made between 1991 and 1996.  My favorite ones are the last ones from 1996. I think it's maybe the best playing I've heard from Von, and I also liked the way I played on these.

Of the ones released already, I like Von’s solos on “Inside Chicago, Volume 1” best of all.