The Big Fish and Von Freeman
As I wrap up things in Chicago for the move out west, I’m lounging in the waters of nostalgia and waltzing to the tunes of thirty years living in this city. A few of these stories have been told multiple times on stages and in books. Recognizing that we create our own mythologies along the road and the legendary exploits that position each of us as the protagonist in a biopic that few will ever see, I still can’t help but think fondly of this town and all that I learned from her.
The Big Fish swims in the Little Pond and, because he is a fish, he has no idea how small the pond is nor how small he is in the context of other ponds. When he is uplifted and thrown into a far larger pond (or a lake or an ocean) the inflated self-image shatters with the sound of an ego cracking like a Hummel figurine thrown against a brick wall.
In 1989, I was that Big Fish. I was a hot-as-asphalt-on-a-summer-day badass trumpet god at the University of Arkansas. I had just finished a three-month tour with a soon to be major jazz celebrity as he toured his new movie soundtrack album. I had been the King of Trumpets at the college for a few years. And when I decided to drive my happy ass to Chicago, there was no doubt in my feeble mind that I was going to blow the city away with my smoking chops and hot licks. Chicago had no idea who was coming.
When I arrived with no money, no job prospects, and knowing no one in town, I lived in my truck and played my horn to cull together enough cash to eat daily. I applied for my Illinois teaching certificate and, at night, I would hit the open mics at the Get Me High Lounge, the Blackstone, Buddy Guy's and The legendary Green Mill.
The atmosphere of a jazz open mic in the early nineties was unlike anything I'd ever experienced.
The Get Me High was simple and divey. You showed up after midnight and hung around the stage with your horn out and waited until the house ensemble gestured for you to come up. There was rarely an audience — mostly eight or nine players waiting their turn, drinking beer or straight liquor.
The Mill was something altogether different. Dark and opulent and filled with the ghosts of jazz legendry. You paid a three-dollar cover and signed up on a sheet of paper. There was an audience of civilians. The open mic wannabes sat clustered over left of the stage, hunched over their cases and fingering scales to the music the band was playing.
The night in question had none other than the Von Freeman Quintet playing. They had headlined earlier and now were winding down and catching a few more dollars as the house band.
Freeman was a jazz God. He'd played with Dizzy. He'd played with Charlie Parker and Sun Ra. He was considered a founding father of the Chicago School of tenor saxophonists. He was towering and fucking cool in the only way a black jazz musician can own. He wore shades in the dark and a tipped fedora. He didn't speak — he left that to his bassist.
Now, a thing I was too young to be proud of but was true nonetheless was that I never get nervous. Especially not when I'm playing jazz. I subscribe to the Miles Davis "flake a note and then play that note two more times and it's a choice" philosophy. Perfection is overrated and I only got nervous when I played Haydn or Hummel. So when I started to feel nervous as we waited for the open mic to start, it was a surprise. An alto sax player went up and played "A Foggy Day" respectably. The rest of us gave him the respect that you give. A couple of trumpet players and a clarinetist went up and didn't do too bad.
I thought the two gin and tonics might calm me down but they only made me feel sick and unbalanced. But I knew that once Freeman heard me play, he'd finally break his stoic silence and offer me a gig on the spot. I was that fucking good.
And then his bass player looked over and said "Hall?" Something locked in my throat. I can't explain the feeling but in an instant, the fate of my world was at stake. Somehow, all of the foolishness of randomly driving to a metropolis with no safety net came crashing down around me like chunks of ceiling and plaster in a condemned building.
I can't honestly remember what song we played or the changes we improvised over. It was likely a standard; it was likely one I'd played hundreds of times. Whatever the song, what I heard in my head and what was being translated to my lips and fingers were two different things. I couldn't use the Miles Davis philosophy because in order to repeat a flaked note, it needs to be surrounded by right notes and there were no right notes. I felt like I was treading water in a bottomless lake in the dead of night. And, for the first time since coming to Chicago, I felt alone. There would be no one with whom to laugh about my horrible playing. There would no one who would buy me a drink and tell me it was fine, I do better next time. There would be no one.
And the song — the torture, the failure, the humiliation — finished, and I smiled guiltily at Freeman. He wasn't even looking at me. As I slunk to the edge of the stage, just east of the men's room, I heard Freeman's voice as he broke his silence and spoke for the first time that night.
"That guy sucks," he said with his deep, bluesy baritone.
The Big Fish swims in the Little Pond and, because he is a fish, he has no idea how small the pond is nor how small he is in the context of other ponds. When he is uplifted and thrown into a far larger pond (or a lake or an ocean) the inflated self-image shatters with the sound of Von Freeman casually stating the obvious in front of a room filled with strangers.
I packed up my horn and sat near the door and ordered gin and tonics that I paid for with money I had made by playing on the street. As the Mill closed down that night, I drunkenly walked to my truck and wept myself to sleep in the back.
Roughly a year later, after I had licked my wounds, received my teaching certificate, got an apartment, and gigged around town quite a bit, I saw that Freeman was headlining at the Mill once again and, once again, was hosting the open mic. I was no longer a Big Fish — I was still a guppy in this town of sharks — but I figured I'd give it a shot.
This time I had much lower expectations. I wasn’t looking to become Clifford Brown, I just wanted to finish the song without crying in my drink. The bassist (a different cat this time) called me up. He asked what I wanted to play. “All the Things You Are,” I said. And after we played it, I started to walk off the bandstand and Freeman shook his head.
"Stick around," he murmured.
I played five tunes before they decided it was time to take a break. Freeman sidled up to the bar next to me. He gestured to the bartender that the next round was on his tab. He asked where I'd been gigging. I told him and reminded him about the humiliation I'd suffered a year before.
"Huh. Well,” he said with a wink, “you got better."