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.