George Freeman, Guitar Royalty at 96

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“Charlie Christian with the Benny Goodman Sextet on record, that was it!” said Freeman of his early influences.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Visit Chicago guitarist George Freeman, whose new album The Good Life (High Note) featuring Joey DeFrancesco and Christian McBride, among others, dropped on his 96th birthday — April 10, 2023 — and be charmed.

Comfortably ensconced on a couch in the grand piano-dominated living room of his longtime South Side home, dapper in an open-collared, white shirt and tan suit, Freeman is a model of contentment. He gives a hearty welcome, directs attention to the photos of his family’s historic musical legacy crowding his walls, and leans into telling stories from back in the day as well as the present moment, in which he takes great pleasure.

“My new album? I love it,” Freeman exults, as well he should. The Good Life comprises seven tracks from two trio sessions recorded in 2022, Freeman performing mostly his original tunes either with bassist McBride and drummer Carl Allen, or with organist DeFrancesco — in what proved to be his last studio date — and drummer Lewis Nash. “I listen to it every day.”

Freeman’s self-satisfaction is well-earned, as he’s honed his unique style of jazz guitar for 70 years, essentially since the instrument first plugged in. Its earliest adopters showed Freeman what his future could be.

“Charlie Christian with the Benny Goodman sextet on record, that was it!” he recalls, citing their classic cuts like “Flying Home” and “Seven Come Eleven.” “And when I was a schoolboy, my friends and I used to gather on the sidewalk outside the Rhumboogie club to listen, since we were too young to go in. One night someone playing guitar knocked me out! ‘Who is that?’ I found out — T-Bone Walker!”

Swing and blues, the soundtrack of the ’30s and ’40s as embodied by Christian, Goodman, Walker, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Tommy Dorsey and others, became keystones of Freeman’s personal vocabulary, but he didn’t stop there. “I always listened to the horn players,” he says, “And Charlie Parker changed everything. Before him it was all swing, music for dancing. But when Bird played, the dancing stopped. The young people wanted to hear what Charlie Parker was playing. They understood what he was saying.”

Freeman understood, too. He’d been immersed in music since birth. His father, one of Chicago’s first Black police, befriended Louis Armstrong, who lived with the Freemans for a time. His mother was an amateur singer; his older brothers (both now deceased) were Eldridge “Bruz” Freeman, a drummer, who eventually pursued jazz in California, and Earle Lavon “Von” Freeman, tenor saxophonist, community mainstay and NEA Jazz Master.

One night in 1950 at Chicago’s Pershing Hotel Lounge, George demonstrated directly to Parker how he’d absorbed bebop’s fleet lyricism, irregular phraseology and improvisational daring. The alto saxist led George, Bruz and Von (long misidentified), bassist Leroy Jackson and pianist Chris Anderson through jams on “There’s A Small Hotel,” “These Foolish Things” and “Fine And Dandy” issued in 1970 as An Evening At Home With The Bird (Savoy Records).

Parker seldom played with guitarists — few were up to bop’s challenge. “Freddie Green and the other guitarists in big bands were strictly rhythm men,” Freeman says. “There was Tiny Grimes, Oscar Moore, Les Paul, Barney Kessel, Mary Osborne. But the best was Tal Farlow, who played with the red-headed vibist, Red Norvo. He was a monster. And Wes Montgomery. He was a natural.”

When George Freeman joined that rarified jazz guitar cadre, he’d already made a mark in the other new genre of the 1940s: rhythm ’n’ blues.

Let’s back up: The Freemans attended Chicago’s DuSable High School, known for its rigorous jazz program run by self-styled Captain Walter Dyett — who wouldn’t accept George in it. Undeterred, the guitarist teamed up with one of Dyett’s most illustrious students, tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, in a band led by trumpeter Joe Morris that was leaning on riff-tunes, laying into the beat and going for the gusto. On “Boogie Woogie Joe,” Morris’ hit of 1947, George Freeman played explosive breaks and a hot chorus that has been called the first electric guitar solo in rock ’n’ roll.

Freeman wrote another song for Morris, “The Hulk” (heard on The Good Life, retitled “Lowe Groovin’”), but was denied composer credit. Unhappy about the slight, George traveled to New York with Morris and Griffin, found Harlem disappointing, and the Apple unpleasant. He says he realized that “in New York you have to really want what they got there. You have to be ambitious, more than I am. I wasn’t raised like that.”

Back in Chicago, Freeman established a low-key local career, often with his brothers, working out of the Pershing. But by the end of the ’50s, he’d become restless and took to the road with saxophonist Sil Austin, soul-man Jackie Wilson, organists Wild Bill Davis and Richard “Groove” Holmes and Jimmy McGriff. He anchored tenorist Gene Ammons’ band for five years, and released his debut as a leader, Birth Sign, helmed by then-fledgling record producer Michael Cuscuna (whose liner notes grace The Good Life).

An underacknowledged soul-jazz classic, Birth Sign introduced five of George’s tunes (including “Mama, Papa, Brother,” “Cough It Up” and “My Scenery,” which is still in his book). Von played tenor, two organists alternated duties, little-known Billy Mitchell drummed perfectly, AACM members Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre on tenor and Lester Lashley on trombone sat in on a Robin Kenyatta blues, and the program was rounded off by a tender reading of Kurt Weill’s “My Ship.” Cuscuna spent three years shopping the tape; finally, Chicago’s Delmark Records released it.

Since then, Freeman’s recordings have been intermittent yet embraced by a coterie of connoisseurs. They’ve ranged from Man & Woman and New Improved Funk from Groove Merchant (both issued in 1974), to a run from Chicago’s Southport Records that started with Rebellion in 1995 and has continued with George Burns! (1999), All In The Family with Chico Freeman (George’s nephew, Von’s son, 2015), George The Bomb (with blues harmonica avatar Billy Branch, 2019) and Everybody Say Yeah! (2022). Each album is imbued with George’s slyly understated personal touch, quirky open-ended lines, peerless sense of dynamics and timing, and hints of dry humor — as is The Good Life.

A celebratory project, The Good Life was initiated by George’s circle of devoted fans, who thought he rated a birthday treat. Jazz Museum of Harlem founder Loren Schoenberg was producer, supervising the sessions; bassist McBride brought in Allen and invited DeFrancesco, who brought Nash; Sirius XM jazz director Mark Ruffin connected with High Note (whose sister label Savant issued Freeman’s At Long Last George in 2001).

The players’ buy-in gratifies George. “I love these musicians,” he asserts. “Those guys played like it was their own date, like they were the leaders.”

Well, not quite. The four accompanists do indeed give their all to the tracks, Joey D. being particularly creative and expressive. (An aside: “George wanted to record with an organist, and wanted the best,” says his friend Jeff Shaw. “Joey usually visited Chicago in October, but changed his Chicago booking to early August. He died three weeks later.”) However, everyone remains deferential to George throughout, alert to the hushed moods and simmering themes he sets, responsive to his nuances and inflections. They make music as a true group effort, which makes their real leader happy.

At 96, he’s in decent health and lives independently, getting help when needed from family and fans. He’s been honored with a proclamation by former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, appeared on the Chicago Jazz Festival main stage and the Museum of Contemporary Art’s prestigious Tuesday on the Terrace concerts, and been a font of information on Chicago’s South Side jazz for research conducted in pursuit of an advanced University of Chicago degree by guitarist Mike Allemana, who often backs up George on gigs. He composes at his piano, performs on either the red Gibson ES 335 that Groove Holmes bought for him in the late ’60s or an Ibanez Artcore, using a metal cabinet knob for a pick. “A pick is the most important thing about your sound,” he advises.

George Freeman has exemplified the good life. He’s played it his own way and it’s gotten better over time. “Yes,” says the guitarist, massaging his graceful hands one with the other, a daily habit he says keeps his long fingers spry. “I see everything opening up now.” DB



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