I’m lighting candles today.
Several of them will take the form of figurative fireworks in honor of the iconic Chicago tenor saxist Von Freeman, among the last of the NEA Jazz Masters. Freeman is one of the five recipients of this award, which the National Endowment for the Arts has conferred on just over 125 jazz artists in the last 30 years; this is the final year of the program.
icedjamb.com readers (and much of Chicago) already know about Freeman’s selection for this honor, which comes with a $25,000 stipend. I reported it here two months ago, when the news inadvertently leaked out – much to the consternation of the NEA, which strives to maintain a news embargo on these decisions.
(To succeed at that goal, the NEA would have had to try a lot harder. I learned the news in not one but two phone calls – one from each coast – telling me of the decision.)
But yesterday marked the official announcement of the NEA honors (which you can see here), and it places Freeman in grand company. His peers in this last class of Jazz Masters include:
- the drummer and bandleader Jack DeJohnette – like Freeman, a Chicago native – whose career stretches from his work with the AACM and Miles Davis to his current participation in Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio;
- bassist Charlie Haden, renowned for his work with Jarrett and Ornette Coleman, and especially for his own groups, ranging from visionary Liberation Music Orchestra to his popular Quartet West;
- and Sheila Jordan, the highly idiosyncratic and equally influential vocalist, whose annual visits to the Green Mill are always among the high points on Chicago’s jazz calendar.
(The NEA also gave its “Jazz Advocacy” award to trumpeter Jimmy Owens, in recognition of his efforts to found the Jazz Musicians Emergency Fund program administered by the Jazz Foundation of America.)
Chicago’s pride in the 87-year-old Freeman already knew few bounds. But even so, his enshrinement in this unique society of jazz elites brings a lambent warmth to his thousands of friends and fans. For those of us who love “Vonski,” June 24 – the “official” date of his Jazz Masters status – becomes a red-letter day in Chicago jazz history.
Coincidentally, this was already a date to remember in Chicago jazz. It is the one-year anniversary of the passing of Fred Anderson at the age of 81. The saxophonist, clubowner, and teacher shared with Freeman the stature of jazz mandarin; it’s more than fitting that June 24 should cement the link between these two Chicago tenor titans. In their own ways, they each symbolized the most important jazz winds blowing through this town in the course of five decades.
Over the last several months, plans have emerged to honor Anderson’s life by building a park – presumably to be named in his honor – not far from the site of his now-shuttered club, the Velvet Lounge; I hope to have more information about this project in the next few weeks.
But today, I’ll be sending up a few emotional skyrockets (“Let’s light this candle!”) for Von Freeman. And I’ll light one real candle, to remember Fred Anderson.