At 95, Chicago-based guitarist George Freeman is among the world’s oldest active jazz musicians. Although he came of musical age in the 1940s and counts figures like Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins among his influences, his own trajectory has led him from gigging alongside Bird himself through forays into soul jazz, big-band swing, R&B, post-fusion jazz-funk and beyond, while never losing his core identity as a bebopper. Along the way he’s traveled and/or recorded with as diverse as Les McCann, Gene Ammons, Wild Bill Davis, Shirley Scott, Buddy Rich, Jackie Wilson, Chicago blues harmonica ace Billy Branch, and AACM bassist Harrison Bankhead, to name just a few.
Freeman was mentored by his older brother Von, a tenor man who went on to become one of the city’s most beloved postbop stylists and whose son Chico has himself garnered an international reputation as a saxophonist. George’s oldest brother, Bruz, also played a significant role in his development before going on to establish himself as a first-call drummer with such artists as Sarah Vaughan and Hampton Hawes. Inspired early on to pick up the guitar, Freeman used to sneak backstage, or peek into an open side door, to watch shows at Chicago clubs like the Rhumboogie on 55th Street. “The first guitar player I saw was T-Bone Walker,” he remembers today. “Rhumboogie is where I saw [him]. He was singing, had that guitar up behind his neck—he was dynamic! Or I thought he was, until my brother [Bruz] brought home a record by Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian. That’s what started [me] out.”
But Christian couldn’t hold Freeman’s attention either. “Bebop, when it hits the scene, it just messed me up. Charlie Parker—I just couldn’t wait to see that man. I prayed on him! I prayed to meet Charlie Parker. My mother took me to church; it was a big day for all the ministers to be there together, and [one of them] said, ‘Anything you want, you ask for it and you will get it.’ I said, ‘I want to work with Charlie Parker!’”
There was still a lot of woodshedding to do, though. Freeman attended DuSable High School, where the music program was run by the legendary Captain Walter Dyett, mentoring to several generations of Chicago jazz legends. Although he never actually played in the school band, Freeman drank in the atmosphere (“At that time, everything was jazz, jazz, jazz”), and by the time he was in his mid-teens, he’d gotten together with classmates like Johnny Griffin and began to sit in various venues around town.
By the late ’40s, he was leading a group he remembers as “the first bebop band come out of Chicago. It wasn’t a house band; just gigs, little band, had a singer. When Lester Young came to Chicago, I played at the Pershing Ballroom with [him]. I played ‘DB Blues’ [from Young’s 1946 Aladdin album Lester Blows Again] in front of him. He just couldn’t believe it, and he came behind me and swung that thing out! Yeah, that was some heck of a days.”
In 1947, Griffin and trumpeter Joe Morris, who’d worked together in Lionel Hampton’s band, formed a group of their own, and Griffin recruited his old classmate to join them in New York. Specializing in the kind of danceable small-group jazz that was rapidly becoming known as “rhythm & blues,” they recorded a series of sides for the Manor label, one of which, “Boogie Woogie Joe,” featured Freeman’s first recorded solo: a torrid break that, in retrospect, sounds like a clarion call of the future (or, as one critic has suggested, “the first scintilating guitar workout in rock history”). Stretching what were then the accepted boundaries of harmonic, melodic, and sonic convention, he sounded bent on taking the guitar to levels of ecstasy that had previously been broached only by proto-R&B saxophone screamers like Illinois Jacquet. You can hear it on Joe Morris: Best of the Early Years (Goldenlane, 2014).
A dispute over composer’s credit for “Lowe Groovin’,” another Morris release, soon sent Freeman back home, where his prayers were answered in 1950 (or, according to some accounts, 1951) when Bird recruited him, Bruz, tenor saxophonist Claude McLin , pianist Chris Anderson, and bassist Leroy Jackson for a gig at the Pershing. Freeman remembers that when Bird arrived, he wasn’t wearing a necktie. Von, who wouldn’t have missed this event for the world, took George’s tie off his neck and gave it to Bird; a photo was taken, which now adorns the wall behind the stage at Chicago’s world-renowned Jazz Showcase.
Freeman was in awe, of course (“He was just the epitome—you want to be with the greatest”). But, as evinced on Charlie Parker: One Night in Chicagoreleased on Savoy in 1980 (actually a corrective to an earlier Savoy release, 1961’s Charlie Parker: An Evening at Home with the Bird, which erroneously billed the set as having been recorded at a private party), he didn’t let it overwhelm him. He sounds fully in command of his instrument, with the directional linearity he’d honed listening to sax players spiced by bebop dexterity and harmonic adventurousness. As he remembers it, Bird didn’t give his sidemen many instructions, although at one point, when Parker took the bandstand earlier than expected and found himself waiting for his guitarist, he told the others, “No, we don’t start ‘ til George gets here”—a moment etched indelibly into Freeman’s memory: “Now you know what that did for me. I haven’t been the same since!”
Nonetheless, he was still restless, and within a few years he’d decided once again to head out of town. Again, hope proved a cruel mistress, but he did come tantalizingly close to the big time. Sarah Vaughan was looking for a guitar player: “She said, ‘George, I want to put you on the front line with me.'”, Freeman had a run-in with one of Vaughan’s sidemen who, as it turned out, was also the band’s straw boss. The latter man got his revenge by giving Freeman an incorrect date for the tour’s start; he showed up for the first gig only to find that Vaughan and her troupe had departed days earlier.
It was also during this time that Freeman had a more successful hookup with soul star Jackie Wilson. Yet again, it was a stylistic leap—but on the other hand, at least as early as “Boogie Woogie Joe” he’d shown himself adept at spicing bebop-honed technical facility with rhythm-and-blues brio, a gift that would soon make him invaluable to soul-jazz bandleaders Wild Bill Davis and Richard “Groove” Holmes, with whom he worked in quick succession. Around 1969, Freeman reunited with Gene Ammons, a pairing that lasted until Ammons’ death in 1974. Through the ’60s and ’70s he appeared on a series of acclaimed recordings with Holmes, Ammons, and Jimmy McGriff. But not until 1971, when Introducing George Freeman Live with Charlie Earland Sitting In appeared on the Giant Step label, did an actual George Freeman recording come to be. (Delmark had recorded him a year or two earlier, but the resulting album, Birth Signdidn’t hit the streets until 1972.)
Why did it take so long? Freeman believes that the very eclecticism that had held him in such good stead as a first-call sideman proved to be an Achilles heel when forging an independent recording career: “They couldn’t classify me! I was playing the blues one day, then bebop, then I’d turn around and play a ballad, I was swinging—I was a mess. They couldn’t figure me out at all. I couldn’t figure myself out! Only thing, I had to work. You got to make some money to pay the rent.”
“God gives you the creativity, the rhythm, the soul—but you’ve got to have the concept.”
Finally, in 1995, Freeman signed with Southport Records, beginning what has become a 27-year association with the label and setting the stage for a remarkable late-career renaissance. To date he’s had five releases on Southport—including the new compilation Everybody Say Yeah!which showcases a previously unreleased version of “Summertime” featuring label co-owner Joanie Pallatto on vocals, as well as a fresh take on “Perfume,” which previously appeared on guitarist Mike Allemana’s 2017 release Live at the Green Mill, also featuring Freeman—as well as several albums on other labels. It’s a remarkable tale of perseverance and triumph, all the more so given that Freeman is still in command of his chops; he recently celebrated his 95th birthday at Chicago’s Green Mill, fronting a band that included Allemana, Hammond organist Pete Benson, and longtime musical compatriot Bernard Purdie on drums. He remains determinedly optimism about the future.
“I didn’t know I was old, ’til one day somebody told me!” he jokes. “It’s amazing what’s happening now. It’s something that God gives you. I think He gives you the creativity, the rhythm, the soul—but you’ve got to have the concept. Everything seems to be falling into place.”
Richard “Groove” Holmes: Les McCann Presents the Dynamic Jazz Organ of Richard “Groove” Holmes (Pacific Jazz, 1961)
George Freeman: Introducing George Freeman Live with Charlie Earland Sitting In (Giant Step, 1971)
George Freeman: Birth Sign (Delmark, 1972)
Johnny Griffin: Bush Dance (Galaxy, 1979)
Charlie Parker: One Night in Chicago (Savoy, 1980)
George Freeman: Everybody Say Yeah! (Southport, 2022)
George and Chico Freeman: Family Business