Born: May 28, 1926 | Died: June 27, 2002 Primary Instrument: Piano
Jazz pianist Russ Freeman, was a key figure in the career of Chet Baker in the 1950s, when the trumpeter was making some of his most distinctive music. Though his contribution was eclipsed by Baker's relationship with the charismatic Gerry Mulligan, he was an ideal collaborator, imparting focus and narrative shape to Baker's sound.
Born in Chicago, Freeman studied classical piano in Los Angeles. By the 1940s, when bebop was taking over New York's hip clubs, there were few west coast pianists who understood its harmonic complexities - and pianists, with their more sophisticated theoretical awareness, were often crucial to helping other instrumentalists get to grips with how the new idiom worked.
With his training, and a spare but flexible technique, Freeman grasped bebop's mechanics fast. At 21, he accompanied Charlie Parker in a Los Angeles gig; as James Gavin notes in his new Chet Baker biography, Freeman thought Parker was the greatest musician who ever lived, and he hung out in New York with Parker's circle until the following year. He also began working with virtuosi like trumpeter Howard McGhee and saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray and Sonny Criss, his piano models being the east coast bop pianists Bud Powell and Joe Albany. Freeman's 1947 New York visit turned him into a heroin addict for four years, and, as he told James Gavin: When you get really strung out, it's a 24-hour-a-day job. That's your life. During this period, he often worked with musicians in the same condition, notably saxophonist Art Pepper.
But in 1951, facing jail or even death, Freeman straightened out. He began rooming with Chet Baker and his wife Charlaine in the Hollywood Hills, and when Pacific Jazz offered Baker a recording deal in 1952, it was Freeman who picked and arranged the tunes, and explained the harmonies to the trumpeter, who could not read chords, on their living-room piano. Baker's characteristic style - embroidering the melodies with delicate alternative lines - emerged in these sessions, and Freeman, providing a sinewy alternative to Baker's vaporous style, contributed an invaluable contrast.
The relationship cut two ways. If Freeman's subtle pressure made Baker play better, Baker's intuitive improvising on the pianist's original pieces surprised and delighted the composer.
In the same year, Freeman worked with the Lighthouse Allstars, one of the most inventive west coast bop groups. Between 1953 and 1955, he toured with Baker, recorded with trumpeter Clifford Brown, travelled to Boston to play with saxophonist Serge Chaloff and worked in a creative piano-drums duo with Shelly Manne. Instead of playing a drum solo or a piano solo in some spots, Freeman told writer Robert Gordon, we'd play a solo at the same time, trying to feel each other out, with an awareness of each other being there.
The connection extended to Freeman becoming an associate of Manne's groups, from the mid-1950s into the 60s, when he also worked extensively with clarinettist Benny Goodman. In 1962, he formed the publishing company Encore Music, which concentrated on his considerable abilities as a composer. As well as Baker, the singer Carmen McRae and pianist Keith Jarrett have recorded his work, and his impressionistic piece The Wind has appealed to many interpreters, including Chico Hamilton.
In the 1960s and 70s, Freeman was a musical director for artists working the Hollywood nightclub circuit, and played on movie soundtracks and television shows. He also resumed his partnership with Shelly Manne, recording again with the drummer in 1982. A musician's musician, who achieved telling effects by the most oblique and understated of methods, he may not have become a celebrity, but he repeatedly made a difference.
Source: John Fordham