© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I met pianist, composer and arranger Russ Freeman just after his days as a professional musician were over. He was a member of the Executive Board of Musicians Union Local 47 when I made a presentation to it in 1988 regarding a health and welfare benefit that the union was considering for its members.
The negotiations were protracted so I spent quite a bit of time before the Board during its weekly meetings at its offices on Vine Street in Hollywood.
About 10 years later in May, 1999, the Los Angeles Jazz Institute put on a 4-day festival under the theme of “Jazz West Coast II.” One of the evening concerts during this festival was devoted to Russ’s original compositions. The event was held outside in one of the small amphitheaters on the property of the Hyatt Newporter Hotel in Newport Beach, CA. [Earlier that day, Russ had participated in a panel discussion on the subject of West Coast Jazz which is the source for the photo at the outset of this piece.]
It seemed very fitting to be listening to the cool sounds of West Coast Jazz in the balmy evening weather along the southern California coast.
After the concert, I noticed Russ sitting alone and I approached him to share with him how much I’ve always enjoyed his music and to ask him to autograph my copy of a book about the West Coast style of Jazz that predominated from about 1945-1965.
As I was turning a chair around to straddle it [I wanted to stretch my back], Russ said,“I know you.” I thought he was referring to the aforementioned health and welfare benefits meetings at the union which I started to comment on.
But then he said, “No, no. You used to come to The Manne Hole a lot when it first opened [early 1960’s] and you’d always turn a chair around, fold your forearms over the back of it and stare at Shelly playing drums for hours on end!”
To which I said: “Yeah, if you look closely at the photo on the cover of Shelly Manne and His Men at The Manne Hole, you’ll see me sitting there doing just that.”
Russ and I reminisced for almost an hour while the crew broke down the stage and put away the audio gear.
It was the last time I saw him. Russ died three years later in July, 2002 at the age of 76.
I thought it might be fun to remember him on these pages by posting a two-part feature about Russ consisting of excerpts from interviews he gave over the years and portions of commentaries by writers familiar with his music.
Let’s start with Len Dobbins insert notes to Russ Freeman: Safe at Home, a CD of a performance that Russ gave in 1959 at The Orpheum Theater in Vancouver [Just A Memory Records - JAM 9160-2]. The CD was issued in 2005 and Len’s notes provide a comprehensive overview of Russ’s career and highlight many of his best known original compositions.
“If I were asked to list ten I underappreciated pianists, Russ Freeman's name would certainly be on that list The previously-unreleased material at hand and the 1953 trio sessions done with Joe Mondragon and Shelly Manne in October and with Monty Budwig and Manne in December, issued on a CD in 1989 shared with the ill-fated Richard Twardzik, are the only sessions as a leader that I've come across.
Freeman was bom in Chicago on May 28, 1926 and moved to L.A. where he studied classical piano from 1934 -1938. By 1947 he was, like George Wallington and A! Haig in New York, one of a handful of white pianists heavily involved in the burgeoning bebop scene in Los Angeles.
By 1947 you could find him playing with Howard McGhee, Sonny Criss and Dexter Gordon as well as recording with Charlie Parker on February 1st at a jam session at the home of trumpeter Chuck Copely, this shortly after Bird's release from hospital in Camarillo. From the late 40s into the 60s, Freeman was part of drummer Roy Porter's big band, one that also included Eric Dolphy, Joe Maini, Teddy Edwards, both Art and Addison Farmer and Jimmy Knepper. He was later to work in large ensembles led by people like Benny Goodman (that's him along with Pepper Adams heard on recordings of "Happy Session Blues") and Charlie Barnet. In the spring of 1949 he also did a big band date led by Charles Mingus for the Rex of Hollywood label (Included in the invaluable "Charles 'Baron' Mingus: West Coast 1945-49" on the Uptown label.)
A muscular player, Freeman did much to insure the success that was to come to Chet Baker. He appeared with the trumpeter as early as 1952 and is heard to great advantage on many of Chet’s early recordings beginning in July 1953 when they did "Isn't It Romantic" with Red Mitchell and Bobby White.
Other memorable recordings from that period were done with people like Charlie Parker in Englewood in 1952, Miles Davis and many others at the Lighthouse in 1953, Clifford Brown in 1954, an afternoon session at the Tiffany Club in LA with Chet and Stan Gets from the same year and the success of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross's 'The Swingers" session of 1959 owes much to Freeman's strength as an accompanist.
He did a number of recordings with Art Pepper and Shelly Manne during this period as well including 'The Two", a drums and piano duet with Manne and "Double Play" with Manne and fellow pianist Andre Previn. On the latter all the titles had something to do with baseball.
By the late 60s Freeman pretty well dropped out of playing and began acting as a musical director and got involved in film work in that capacity as well as a player. Among these films was 'The Wild One" (with Brando) in 1953, "I Want To Live" in 1958, "Porgy and Bess" and "The Proper Time" in '59, 'The Subterraneans" in '60 and, as a player, in a 20 minute short, "Shelly Manne and His Men" 1962. Among his later recordings were a number with Art Pepper, "Funk 'n' Fun" in 1978, a March 1979 session with Pepper and trombonist Bill Watrous and a July 1980 set with Pepper and Sonny Stitt.
In June 1982 he did "One On One" for Contemporary, a reunion with Manne and Previn and the sole session listed under Freeman's name in the sixth and latest edition of the "Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD". Russ Freeman died in Las Vegas, where he spent the latter part of life as a music director, on July 27, 2002; he was 76.
He was also a composer of note and his 'The Wind," first recorded for Columbia on a "Chet Baker & Strings" session in 1953/54 has become a jazz standard - Mariah Carey added lyrics and recorded it and Annie Ross did likewise with Freeman's "Music Is Forever." Chet also recorded Freeman's "Maid In Mexico," "Band Aid," "Happy Little Sunbeam," "Bea's Flat" and "Russ Job," and in a 1956 reunion, "Fan Tan" (included here), "Summer Sketch," "An Afternoon at Home," "Say When," "Amblin" and "Hugo Hurwhey." Among the others are "Bock's Tops" (for Dick Bock of Pacific Jazz), 'The Eye Opener" and "Laugh Cry" as well as the sports related titles that suggest a liking of football and baseball. Included in this valuable "live" set from 1959 are his "Backfield In Motion," "Safe At Home" and "Fungo."
I for one am delighted to have this superb trio session to add to the rather sparse discography of a major talent and I urge listeners to search second hand stores for some of the earlier material listed herein.”
'A Touch Of Genius': Chet Baker and Russ Freeman, from Jeroen de Valk, Chet Baker: His Life and Music.
“After breaking with Mulligan, Chet again hooked up with an experienced musician — Russ Freeman, three-and-a-half years his senior (born May 28, 1926) and an active member since 1945 in the LA jazz scene. The quartet with Freeman lasted (with two brief interruptions) from the end of June 1953 until August 1955. After that, the pair still teamed in the studio occasionally. Freeman plays on both of Chet Baker's two best LPs from the '50s: Chet Baker Sings (1954/56), and Quartet (1956).
Russ Freeman: "From the start we got on well together. We met the first time at the end of 1951. Chet had just gotten out of the army and was still completely unknown. He lived with his first wife Charlaine in Lynwood. Behind their apartment there was a small, freestanding little house that we used as a practice area. We didn't perform publicly, but we practiced a lot together. At his place, at my place—wherever we could. Already he played just like he did later, more or less. In 1953, after my divorce from my first wife, we lived for a while together: Chet, Charlaine, and I. We had a house in Hollywood Hills. He played with Gerry at that time, I had a job with the Lighthouse All Stars. When we went on tour with the quartet, it was all over between Charlaine and Chet, and we moved out of the house." ...
In the first year of the quartet with Freeman, Chet was still performing well. His playing sometimes reached an amazing level. Russ Freeman: "He had a touch of genius. When he was in form, he played as well as the best musicians I've met—on the same level as Bird, Diz . . . whoever. I played with Charlie Parker once, in Howard McGhee's band. I was just a beginner, but by luck I got the chance to play with him. So I know what it's like to work alongside a genius. And Chet was on the same level. He could have the same emotional impact. He had an original approach. He was a thinking artist. His improvisations were not simply a bunch of licks, they were small compositions. Sometimes he was in such dazzling form that it embarrassed me. He blew a solo, and if I was to go next, I would think to myself, What is the point of playing another piano solo? He's already said everything there is to say I could only do a pale repetition.
"In a theoretical sense, Chet was a total illiterate. He never knew what key he played in. He also had nothing to rely on if he happened to be having a bad day. I must admit that Chet was not in form on occasion, especially after he started with the drugs. He could already read a little music in the studio. The parts of course could not be too hard. I cannot remember that he ever wrote anything down in musical notation. That's probably also the reason he never composed anything, so far as I know." …
Freeman describes the climate in the band as Veal good'. "There were difficulties sometimes of course, but that is inevitable. Here we were, eight of us on the road, four young men and four pretty girls. That easily leads to conflict. It also happens when young people go on vacation together. But we were always able to talk about it. Chet was somebody you got along with easily. He was an easygoing person. He was open to every suggestion. He made few demands. If there were problems, it was usually because of money or a girl. We didn't earn an awful lot if you take into account that we had trip and hotel expenses. There would be some grumbling if we stayed in bad hotels or had to play in funky clubs. Now the working conditions for jazz musicians in California have improved somewhat.
"Toward the end of 1954, when we played Birdland for the third or fourth time, I left the band after a big dust-up with Chet. Chet at that time had a relationship with a French girl who tried to insulate him from the other band members. She pulled us to pieces. I can't remember the details and I also can't remember what her name was. But she was certainly the reason I drove back to LA. Fortunately the conflict was resolved quickly, and by the beginning of 1955 I was back in his quartet. …
"Chet was quite a normal kid, in the sense that he showed up promptly on stage, dressed well, and so on. The real problems only began in the spring of 1955 when I returned to the band. He was now truly addicted. He became unreliable….
Shortly before a long European tour, I finally left the group. There were several reasons for it. Chet was addicted, his drummer was addicted, and there is always a division between musicians who are clean and those who are using. Addicts hang with other addicts. Our old friendship no longer existed. I finally had enough of bearing all the responsibility. Chet was the leader officially, but in practical terms I had to take care of everything. I had constant headaches, a kind of migraine. After I left the group, I played for years in the band of [drummer] Shelly Manne. We played night after night in his club, Shelly Manne's Hole. Sometimes I met Chet when he visited the club. ...
"In 1956, we did two sessions for Chet Baker Sings. After that we played only one time together—on the album Quartet from 1956. I believe that to be the best record we did together. The way he plays 'Love Nest' on it ...
"I spoke with him for the last time about four years before his death. He called me and asked whether I wanted to do a European tour with him. I passed on it. The financial conditions were not very attractive and were not going to get better.
Furthermore, I was incredibly busy with studio jobs and arranging. We would have had to arrange a lot before I could leave Los Angeles. In retrospect I regret that I didn't do it ... Well, things can't be changed now."
In 1983 Chet mentioned a plan of Japanese organizers to reunite him with Freeman and the rhythm section from that period—Carson Smith and Bob Neel. Chet thought it was a great idea, and Wim Wigt was prepared to sponsor the project. But Freeman again declined.
Freeman: "In the last ten years of my career I was a dance arranger. I wrote the music arrangements, sometimes also the compositions, for many big television shows. The Andy Williams Show, the Academy Awards show, variety shows, you name it. It was a terrible job. I hated every minute of it, but it paid well.
In 1987, when I could afford it financially, I quit working. Since then I haven't touched the piano. I still sometimes get telephone calls from people asking me whether I want to play this gig or that. I always say 'Sorry but I don't play anymore. There are so many good young musicians in LA, just ask them. 'But why,’ they ask, 'don't you have the time?' And I say 'Because I just don't want to anymore. I worked my whole life, and now I no longer work. It has been beautiful but I'm retired.’
"I played jazz for the last time in 1982. I did a duet album for the Japanese market with Shelly Manne. I've heard little about it since then."
To be continued in Part 2.
You can checkout Chet and Russ performing Freeman’s original Say When on the following video montage which also features Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Shelly Manne on drums.