From 1997 to 2011, I was a member of Von’s quartet at the New Apartment Lounge where he performed his celebrated Tuesday night set and jam session. Each week I was privileged to accompany a master musician who possessed an improvisational freedom that is rare, and a knowledge of tunes, possibility, and structure that seemed without end. After our sets, he loved to hang out with club patrons and encourage young musicians (who he affectionately called his “horses”) while they participated in the jam session. I often witnessed him mentor the horses, befriend fans, and help people down on their luck. Indeed, during my dissertation research at the University of Chicago, I came to learn these interactions with him continue to touch people in ways that still resonate today. Truth be told, Von’s music was so vast and his presence in people’s lives so impactful that he could be his own field of study, what I call Vonology.

Freeman spent his entire life in Chicago committed to improvisation and creativity, a vital life force for him, one that he wanted to sustain and to see continue and grow. To do this, he offered access. Anyone could speak with him. If any horses mustered the courage to approach him, he would rub their shoulders and offer advice. He often conversed with the bartender Weezie (Elouise Rhymes) about mundane matters, and he befriended doctors, real estate agents, and other regulars who came from all parts of the city to listen to and absorb his improvisations at the club each week. He also made his music accessible—as deep as his improvisations were and as outside as he might play, people always came back to hear more. Von was also religious, and often spoke to me about how he believed that “the Good Lord” spoke through him as he played. When he improvised, he told me, he would channel the spirit and let the music come to him. In other words, he made accessible his vulnerable musical self to those who would listen to him, converse with him, ask questions, and demonstrate serious commitment to the music. 

It was in 2011 that the seed was planted for Vonology. Lauren Deutsch, director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago at the time, has approached drummer Michael Raynor and I to perform Freeman’s music at Millennium Park with Eric Alexander, Julian Priester, and Steve Coleman. With the success of this project, Lauren commissioned me to compose an original work to be performed the same year at a festival she programmed of Chicago artists with the late Wojciech Juszczak of Estrada Poznańska in Poznan, Poland. This performance laid the groundwork of what would become Vonology later in 2018, when Lauren asked me to revisit and expand the 2011 project. By this point, I had been working on my dissertation for five years, and had learned much more about Von through George Freeman, Chico Freeman, musicians form New York and Amsterdam, and numerous patrons and musicians who frequented the New Apartment Lounge. Thus, I combined my research with the an expanded musical structure to create and record Vonology in December of 2018. With delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2021, and mixing and editing with John Abbey of Kingsize Soundlabs in Chicago, Vonology has finally arrived in 2022 with the help of ears&eyes Records.

Next: Charting Von’s Natal Horoscope