Chico Freeman was born into a musical family, his father Von Freeman is the legendary tenor saxophone player, and his uncles George Freeman and Bruz Freeman play guitar and drums respectively. His grandfather George Freeman Sr played piano and was a close friend of Louis Armstrong, his grandmother Earle Kree Freeman was a gospel singer who sang with Mahalia Jackson and The Clara Ward Singers. Chico earned a mathematics scholarship to Northwestern University, but also played trumpet in the school jazz band. He quickly learned that his heart was elsewhere and eventually studied the tenor saxophone 8 to 10 hours a day until confident enough to challenge the sax section. He switched to a music major, and a great tenor player was born. He graduated with a degree in music with proficiencies in saxophone, trumpet, and piano.
Following studies in advanced composition and theory, he began teaching elementary and intermediate courses at the Chicago-based AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) School of Music. While playing with the Governor’s State Jazz Band at the Inter-collegiate Jazz Festival in South Bend, Indiana, he won awards as best soloist and best saxophonist. He also won the opportunity to tour Brazil in 1976 with the winning group.
Although jazz was the first music Freeman was exposed to, many of his early professional gigs were at Chicago clubs with such blues artists as Memphis Slim, and Lucky Carmichael. Freeman went on to play with pop and R & B greats The Temptations, The Four Tops, Jackie Wilson, The Dells, The Isley Brothers, and The Eurythmics. In 1976 Freeman released his first album as a leader, titled Morning Prayer. In 70’ he moved to New York City, where he had the opportunity to play with Elvin Jones, Sun Ra, Sam Rivers’ Big Band, and Don Pullen. He also led his own groups and soon developed his own style. Between 1975 and 1982 he began to gain recognition, recording a dozen albums, including Spirit Sensitive, No Time Left, Peaceful Heart Gentle Spirit, Freeman & Freeman (with his father), Destiny’s Dance, Tradition in Transition, and The Search. During this time he won the New York Jazz Award, and the Stereo Review Record of the Year for The Outside Within.
In June of 1982 he participated in a legendary concert at Lincoln Center as part of The Young Lions. The group included many shining stars from the jazz culture of the 1980s, including Wynton Marsalis, Paquito D’Rivera, Kevin Eubanks, Anthony Davis, and others. The group produced an album on which Freeman played nearly every cut and also he composed a 14-minute piece called “Whatever Happened to the Dream Deferred,” which was called “one of the best of the album” by the New York Times.
In 1986, when superstar bands were being organized by promoters in Europe, Freeman brought together The Leaders – an all-star sextet of internationally recognized bandleaders. This band set the standard for eclectic and innovative music from a band comprised entirely of composers. In 1991, during the 150 year anniversary celebration of the invention of the saxophone by Adolphe Sax, the band Roots was formed. This band consisted of internationally known saxophonists Nathan Davis, Benny Golson, Arthur Blythe, and Chico Freeman. Adding Buster Williams (bass), and Winard Harper (drums) and later Ed Thigpen (drums) of Oscar Peterson fame. This band is still touring the world, and delighting audiences with their unique arrangements, and brilliant improvisation. Chico Freeman, the multi-reedman, composer and producer embodies the intent of jazz by finding new avenues of expression that embrace the heritage and tradition of the music. Many critics have compared him to the greats in jazz history, but the proof, beyond arguable opinion, is in the fact that he has played and recorded with some of the most innovative musicians in the world. Few artists can equal his list of musical associations.
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