Remembering Russ Freeman
by Bill Moody
[Russell Donald 'Russ' Freeman, born May 28 1926; died June 27, 2002. He was 76.]
The host of the Riviera Hotel's Monday Night Jazz in Las Vegas called me one day and said he'd met a guy named Russ Freeman. Given this host's penchant for smooth jazz, I thought he meant the leader of the Rippingtons. "No," he said. "This guy is a piano player. Who is he?"
I hung up the phone and thought about Russ Freeman and wondered what he was doing in Las Vegas. I'd last seen him in Los Angeles at Shelly's Manne Hole in 1963, playing bebop piano with Monty Budwig, Conti Condoli, Joe Maini, and of course Shelly. By then, of course, Russ had played with Dexter Gordon, Howard McGhee, and had done a long stint as Chet Baker's pianist-arranger and composer. Like Shelly Manne, he eased into the studio scene and wrote and conducted for a number of singers.
I'd heard he was no longer playing and hadn't been able to find out why, but living in Las Vegas? This was another twist. My book, Solo Hand, was out by then and I'd used Russ as someone for my protagonist Evan Horne to track down when his own career was interrupted by an injury. Now I could do it myself.
I arranged to get Russ a copy of the book and a few days later he called and we met for lunch. He hadn't changed much since those days at the Manne Hole. He graciously complimented my book and was interested in hearing about the writing. When I asked him about the move to Las Vegas, he answered with one word.
"Earthquakes," he said. The Freeman's had been hit hard by the last big one in L.A. and he didn't want to go through any more of those. As for why he'd stopped playing he was more vague. No it wasn't an injury or anything physical. He simply felt his time had passed. Now there were Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett, and a host of young pianists. He'd had his day and now he was concentrating on composing.
He was a great accompanist and had worked for a number singers. But it was one of his old tunes, "The Wind," written for Chet, that struck the fancy of pop singer Mariah Carey, and gold for Russ. She wrote lyrics to it, recorded it and caused Russ to say, "I didn't know there was this much money in music."
He and his wife Carolyn built their dream house in Las Vegas and he settled into life in the desert, but still no real reason for having stopped playing. It took another singer to do that. When the Las Vegas Jazz Society brought Ruth Price up from L.A., Russ took charge of the rehearsals and played for Ruth in a program that featured much of Russ's music. As far as I know that was the last time he played in public.
Over the next few years, we became good friends. He became a loyal supporter of my books and when I told him I wanted to write one built around Chet Baker, he offered his full support, sharing recordings, stories, anecdotes, and interview tapes he'd done over the years. By then his health had begun to fail and I gradually watched him deteriorate.
I'd moved to the Bay Area, but we kept in touch by phone and e-mail, and the occasional visit. Each time was more painful than the last. I completed a draft of Looking For Chet Baker and sent a copy to Russ. He was excited and agreed to write a foreword. Who better? He became weaker and weaker but fortunately was around to see the finished book.
Russ was one of the premier pianists on the west coast. His work with Chet Baker alone makes him a standout. Other recordings with Shelly Manne and Art Pepper among others gives us a legacy of straight ahead jazz piano. His e-mail address was russdidbop. Yes he did.
Bill Moody is the author of the Evan Horne mysteries: Looking for Chet Baker; Solo Hand; Death of a Tenor Man; and Sound of the Trumpet. He is also the author of The Jazz Exiles: American Musicians Abroad. His articles have appeared in Jazz Times and his stories in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. As a drummer, he has toured, and recorded with, Maynard Ferguson, Jon Hendricks, Lou Rawls, Jack Montrose, and Earl "Fatha" Hines. He also teaches creative writing.
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