© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“L'association avec Russ Freeman, "experience en quartette fait du trompettiste introverti, parfois peu assure techniquement, un soliste imaginatif, pour lequel sensibilite ne rime plus avec timidite.
[Through his] association with Russ Freeman, " [Baker’s] experience in a quartet [with a piano] makes the introvert trumpeter, sometimes technically insufficient, an imaginative soloist, for whom sensitivity no longer rhymes with timidity."
- Alain Tercinet, West Coast Jazz
“Baker now found in pianist Russ Freeman a musical collaborator as stimulating, if less well known, than the baritone saxophonist. Like Mulligan, Freeman was both an instrumentalist and a composer. Less restrained than the emotionally cool writing by Mulligan, Freeman's compositions, as well as his supportive comping style, gave Baker free rein to stretch out. In fact, Freeman's pieces stand out as among the finest musical settings Baker ever found. Freeman, in return, saw Baker as the ideal interpreter of his music. "He's the only one who could play my songs the way I hear them," Freeman would say in 1963. "He had such an innate feeling for them."
But Freeman was much more than composer-in-residence for the new Baker quartet. He also served, in a rare combination, as musical director, road manager, and personal advisor all rolled into one. In Richard Bock's words:
He was the perfect pianist for Chet at that time. He gave him an enormous amount of room. He was really the musical director, you know, and he was largely responsible for the success that the quartet had as far as being able to be a unit to work. Not only did he pick the tunes, he wrote the tunes, he taught Chet what he needed to know to play them, [and] took care of business on the road….
The music Baker and Freeman recorded for Pacific Records forms the trumpeter's most important legacy from the 1950’s. …
In assessing the Baker quartet of this period, one's attention is invariably drawn to Freeman's contributions as a composer. His collaboration with Baker brought out the best in him as a writer, just as his compositions in turn evoked some of the finest improvisatory work from the trumpeter. It is difficult to generalize about this large body of work, and this reflects the music's strengths: There is an invigorating range and breadth in these recordings, a wideness of musical inquiry that belies the stereotyped view of Baker as a limited specialist in moody ballads. Much of Baker's reputation at this time was, of course, based on the success of his recording of "My Funny Valentine/' but these first Pacific dates avoided the obvious temptation to focus on only one side of Baker's talent. The quartet's first sessions, in late July 1953, show his comfortable mastery of Freeman's Latin-tinged "Maid in Mexico" and his fast bop chart "Batter Up." A follow-up session from October 3 produced especially memorable up-tempo work from Baker and Freeman on the latter's "No Ties," "Bea's Flat," and "Happy Little Sunbeam." ...
Russ Freeman [also] stands out as the most compatible of all the pianists who worked with Shelly Manne during the decade [of the 1950’s]. In contrast to Freeman's performances with Chet Baker, where the pianist's harmonic knack was brought to the fore, the Manne collaborations evoked some of the strongest rhythmic playing of Freeman's career. One might expect pianist and drummer to be tentative without a bassist, but Manne and Freeman take more rhythmic chances in this setting [referring to their Contemporary Records LP The Two] than they typically did in the context of a full ensemble. When Freeman later joined Manne's working band — where he served for some eleven years from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s — the two musicians continued to build off this striking rapport. On gigs they often had the rest of the group fall out for a chorus or a bridge while they worked their striking interplay on piano and drums.
- Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz, Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960
“By the time The Two was recorded, Russ Freeman had left the Giants and joined the Chet Baker Quartet, both as pianist and business manager. Freeman, an absolute perfectionist, is a very rhythmic piano player, very conscious of the time feeling. On the Contemporary liner notes he states, "1 think one reason Shelly enjoys working with me is that though 1 play what is commonly thought of as a melody instrument, I am very interested in using it percussively."
“Shelly commented during the same interview, "We have a lot of confidence in each other, particularly in each other's time." — and — "Russ has a way of inverting time, and it stimulates me. Instead of just playing constant lines of eighth or sixteenth notes, he plays long lines and breaks them in rhythmic patterns, without losing the melodic structure." So the sympathetic relationship between the unusually melodic drummer and the very percussive pianist was forever captured for the Contemporary label.”
- Jack Brand, Shelly Manne, Sounds of the Different Drummer
Although it was conducted primarily for the insert notes for The Complete Pacific Jazz Studio Recordings of The Chet Baker Quartet with Russ Freeman [Mosaic Records MD3-122], I’ve always found these interviews to be particularly insightful about pianist Russ Freeman life and music at this point in his career.
And, as such, they along with the above quotations from Ted Gioia, Alain Tercinet, and Jack Brand constitute Part 2 of our profile on Russ who was a superb musician and one heckuva nice guy.
“Russ Freeman is three years older than Chet Baker. Born in Chicago in 1926, he came to Los Angeles in 1931, studied piano with an aunt, somewhat indifferently, from the ages of eight to twelve, and then stopped playing. "At fifteen I went to a Friday dance and heard my high school dance band. I thought 'that looks terrific to me — I want to do that!” The band was pretty bad — just perfect for me — I fit right in! I couldn't read music and didn't know anything about chords or harmony. From then on it was all self-taught."
Freeman worked hard and learned quickly. "I wasn't really into jazz, then, but traveling around the country with a big band seemed to me the greatest, most glamorous thing I could do with my life. I went on the road at sixteen with a big band led by a guy who fancied himself a Benny Goodman type. He really couldn't play at all — he held clarinet. I had to beg my mother to let me leave high school. The guy ran off with all the money and left us stranded in Quincy, Illinois. My mother came for me by train, all the way from Los Angeles — it was wartime and we didn't have airplanes. She put me back on the train and took me right back to school. I graduated."
In 1945, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie came to Billy Berg's in Hollywood. "Nobody had ever heard anybody play like that in the history of the world!," Freeman remembers. "We were just dumbfounded by the whole thing. We had sort of been fooling around with jazz up to then, but that really set things off. There was a guy out here named Dean Benedetti who was sort of our leader. He was a bit older than us, and he put a sextet together including Jimmy Knepper, who'd been with me in high school. We were the first organized bebop band on the West Coast. We had charts and everything, and spent day and night listening and playing. I think we only worked one or two gigs in the whole time we were together, but we learned a lot. ...
"At that time there were a lot of jam sessions in Los Angeles — a lot of clubs, late-night, after-hours clubs. Some didn't start a session until two in the morning; they'd serve liquor illegally, put it in coffee cups. There were a lot of weekend sessions, too — Sunday afternoons, for example. Maybe a club would pay a rhythm section eight or ten dollars apiece for a session and everybody else would go there and play. We sort of followed the circuit to find some place to play, because that's all we wanted to do.
I'd been doing that for a while when I got hooked up with trumpeter Howard McGhee. We both lived in sort of the same neighborhood, within a couple of miles of each other. I lived at the time around 52nd and Western and he lived at 42nd near Main. So I used to hang out at his house all the time. Eventually, we started working together. The horns in the band were usually Howard, Sonny Criss and Teddy Edwards, or some combination of the three. Roy Porter was the drummer. When Bird got out of Camarillo, he joined the band and the front line became just Howard and Bird. We worked a number of one-nighters and a lot of after-hours clubs, places like 'Jack's Basket', on Central Avenue. Playing with Bird was an indescribable experience.
"You know," Freeman said, "you listen to some of those old records back from the '40s and early '50s and the horn players sound terrific. You listen to the rhythm sections and they sound terrible. It took them longer to catch up to what was happening in those days than it did the horn players. My first influence was Nat Cole.
"I never heard him play in person, I just listened to him on record and on the radio. He was really a giant player. Everything about him — the style, touch, time — was perfect. Then I heard Bud Powell. Nobody ever articulated on the piano the way Bud did, not even Nat Cole. Not many pianists realized that they could do what a horn player does as far as the various weights that are given to notes, and the phrasing, and the whole way of playing. Bud is the first one to have done that. Where he came from, I don't know, because he didn't play like anybody else."
By the early fifties, Fuss Freeman had performed with Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper. And he had begun to run into Chet Baker at sessions.
"Our friendship and musical association started around 1952," Freeman remembered. "Chet lived in Lynwood with his wife and they had this little house-behind-a-house where Chet and I played together a lot, days and nights. There had been a time earlier when I had been pretty strung out. By 1952 I had straightened myself out and I was seeing a lot of Chet and we were playing together every chance we could get. …”
"We all decided to move to Hollywood while I was working at the Lighthouse and Chet was working with Gerry," said Freeman, "so I got to be around at the time the quartet was organized. A lot of the things that were being done on the West Coast were, in retrospect, really not very good. But Gerry and Chet were astonishing. They had a rapport between them that was unique—like an intuitive conversation. You'd think, 'well, they've got this stuff worked out — he's going to come in here, and he’s coming in here — but it wasn't that way at all. Whatever they played it was different every time." …
"Chet had suddenly, overnight, blossomed into a major star — or at least a very big fish in the small pond of jazz," Freeman said. "And I think Dick Bock wanted to take advantage of the fact that he had two stars — not just Gerry but Chet, too."
"It didn't help my relationship with Gerry," Bock said. "I think in a way he felt that I broke up his band by recording Chet on his own, by helping to make Chet a star. Of course it wasn't all on my head — there were personal disagreements between them. I'd have been happy to record Gerry and Chet for as long as they were together, and Chet could have made his own records in the studio and not needed to travel — I think it would have been better for both of them. But it was apparent that Chet was going to have his own thing: he wanted it, and if I hadn't recorded it he would have gone someplace else."
"I had ambivalent feelings," said Russ. "I thought the breakup was really unfortunate, but I liked the idea that Chet and I were going to get to play together.
Gerry's things sound terrific still: they're lyrical — jazz compositions, and what these two were playing between them was just gorgeous. One of the reasons Gerry didn't want to use the piano is because he didn't want to have anything that would interfere with the flow between the two of them. I never heard that same flow between them whenever anyone was playing the piano; somehow it went away. The format gave, particularly Gerry, the freedom to cushion him with that baritone sound underneath, those notes he would pick to play when Chet was playing a solo. It was really just beautiful.
"With Gerry, Chet was so free — it was almost as if there wasn't any space between the idea and the execution," Bock said. "Russ played differently than anyone else that it was difficult for me to accept, at first. He didn't sound like Al Haig or any bop pianists that I liked at that time. But it wasn't long until I began to admire Russ because of his compositions. He wrote some great things, I think equally as memorable as Gerry's.
And he was the perfect pianist for Chet at that time. He gave him an enormous amount of room. He was really the musical director, you know, and he was largely responsible for the success that the quartet had as far as being able to be a unit to work. Not only did he pick the tunes, he wrote the tunes, he taught Chet what he needed to know to play them, took care of business on the road. There was something in Chet's personality that was, I think basically irresponsible — toward himself and toward anything else. That's probably the thing that upset Gerry the most, because Gerry was able to function as a leader, and his career is ample proof of his ability to do that. He always looked upon Chet as a sideman.
"Mulligan once said to me 'You're a songwriter,'" Russ said. "I wondered for a while what he meant and I realized that the things I wrote back then, with Chet, were very melodic, very lyrical. Part of that was the influence of Lester Young and Charlie Parker. Bud Powell, too. Those were the major influences on me, the people who influenced me the most. Monk, too, in a way. Monk always sounded like a self-taught player, as if he evolved that style of playing and writing totally by himself. He heard the piano in a different way than anybody else, he made fanny noises — not the right word — funny sounds came out of the piano. He played some of the damndest things — when you play one of his tunes, either by yourself or with a band, the structure of the tune makes you play a certain way even when you go into the solo. That's a unique ability. He was incredible.
"Some of the things that I wrote I still like. BEA'S FLAT, I think is good...THE WIND [written for CHET BAKER AND STRINGS, on Columbia] is a good song...and I like SUMMER SKETCH. I'm more pleased, I think with the things that I wrote than with the records I was on — the way I was playing in those days. I liked my playing better later on.
"Chet struck me as a giant player, than. You listen to the album we did in '57, the one with SAY WHEN and that unbelievable solo on LOVE NEST, and you hear how lyrical he could be even while playing fast and hard. You know, he doesn't have any idea what key he's playing in or what the chords are — he knows nothing from a technical standpoint — it's all just by ear. Of course, we all play by ear when we play jazz, but he has nothing to fall back on. If he had a bad night, which he had occasionally, he didn't have any way to say 'Well, okay, I'll just go back and cool it and sort of walk through this path.' He didn't know how to do that — he had to rely on what his ear told him to do. And if he was not on that night, then it didn't happen. But there would be certain nights, maybe once a week when it was absolutely staggering. To the extent where I would sit there comping for him, listening to him play, and think 'Where did that come from? What is it that's coming out of this guy? You mean I have to play a solo after that?' Now that didn't happen all the time you know, but when it did it was like he'd suddenly got control of the world.
"I've never heard anyone get quite the sound on trumpet that Chet gets. I don't think he's ever been captured on record the way I've heard him play — that's not surprising; it's true of most players, because it's not a natural thing to go into a recording studio and try to play jazz. It's not impossible but it's not as comfortable.
There's something about playing in a nightclub, knowing that you're just going to get up there and play a few sets, so that if it doesn't happen you can still get back on the stand later. Playing jazz — is there anything else that's comparable to it? Do those people who write words have the same sense of inspiration? Do painters, or dancers, or architects? I don't know. Is there the same sense of mystery?
I'm not a religious person at all, I mean zero; but three or four times in my life, while playing, I suddenly have become disembodied — in the sense that I seem to be behind my right shoulder watching myself play, literally watching my hands on the keyboards. And sitting there saying to myself, 'Isn't that interesting — what's he going to do now?' I'm serious! — it's bizarre! In all the years that I played jazz in clubs, I only had it happen those three or four times — and never in recording. It's the strangest experience: you're at your peak, you're not falling back on cliches or hot licks...you're just creating music and it's like pouring water out of a pitcher. And part of your mind is sitting there saying 'Oh, that's nice...' All of a sudden everything gets easy — nothin' to it — and you say to yourself 'Well, I've got it now! No reason why tomorrow or the next week I can't do the same thing I'm doing now! Of course, it doesn't work that way.
"That's what you're after, that high. There are a lot of layers, though, that go along with it. It's a zig-zag existence and it's one of the reasons I stopped. I just couldn't handle that up and down. The up was wonderful, but the down was so bad I just couldn't stay with it.
"It became very painful to go through those periods where you get on a bandstand and you try something and it's not happening."
— Will Thornbury June, 1987
If one were to look closely and comparatively in terms of all the Giants of Jazz that Russ Freeman performed with from 1945 - 1965, particularly those on the West Coast, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone whose career surpassed it.
And there’s a reason for this 20-year association and that reason is because Russ Freeman was a Giant, too.
The following video feature Chet and Russ on Love’s Nest.