Russ Freeman, a jazz pianist best known for his pivotal supporting role in the early work of mercurial trumpeter Chet Baker, has died. He was 76.
Freeman, who also had a long and musically productive association with the drummer Shelly Manne, died June 27 at a hospice in Las Vegas. The cause of death was not announced by his family.
In 1954, Freeman was hired by Richard Bock, the founder of Pacific Jazz records, to work with Baker on the trumpeter’s first recording for the label. But on this date, Freeman was more than a pianist. He served as Baker’s musical director, picking the songs, arranging the music and teaching the material to Baker.
“He was the perfect pianist for Chet at that time,” Bock told jazz journalist Wil Thornbury years later. “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.”
Born in Chicago, Freeman moved with his family to Los Angeles at the age of 5. He started studying classical piano three years later but switched to jazz in high school, where he was influenced by the emerging sounds of the great bebop players Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
By the late 1940s, he had developed into a fine bebop pianist in a band led by trumpeter Howard McGhee, which occasionally featured Parker during the days he lived in Los Angeles.
But although Freeman loved bebop, he also was versatile enough to work well in a broad range of styles. In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, he worked in local bands that included such top players as saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper and Wardell Gray.
He also played with the Lighthouse All-Stars and a band led by Shorty Rogers.
Freeman also was developing into a fine songwriter. His compositions would include “Bea’s Flat,” “Band Aid” and most notably “The Wind,” which over the years has been recorded by such diverse talents as guitarist Jim Hall, pianists Keith Jarrett and Ramsey Lewis, Baker, and singers June Christy and pop star Mariah Carey.
In 1954, Freeman’s career took a sharp turn when he teamed up with Baker, the star-crossed trumpeter, whom he had known since 1952.
Freeman later told Down Beat magazine that Baker was "... the only one who could play my songs the way I hear them. He had such an innate feeling for them.”
As to Baker’s overall talent, the pianist added: “When he was right, he was as good as anyone--and that includes Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and all.... There were nights when Chet would finish playing a solo, and I’d be sitting there, and I’d feel: What’s the point of trying to play a solo now? He just said it all.”
The album that came out from that 1954 session, “Chet Baker Quartet Featuring Russ Freeman,” was one of the seminal recordings of Baker’s drug-plagued career.
In his authoritative book on the Los Angeles jazz scene at mid-century, “West Coast Jazz, Modern Jazz in California, 1945-60,” Ted Gioia notes that the Baker-Freeman association “forms the trumpeter’s most important legacy from the 1950s.
”... Baker’s playing would never again be at such a consistently high level, and seldom would he find a group of sidemen as stable and sympathetic as those on these sessions. Further, Baker’s most outstanding work as a singer also dates from this period.”
After leaving Baker, Freeman joined Manne and played with him for 12 years. He and Manne had an excellent musical relationship, and when the two weren’t playing in the quintet--Shelly Manne and His Men--they would experiment with duo playing without the usual bass accompaniment.
“Playing on the job,” Freeman told Ted Gioia, “Shelly and I used to do things together in the rhythm section, not just counterpoint to the horns, but between us. Instead of playing a drum solo or a piano solo, in some spots, we’d play a solo at the same time, trying to feel each other out, with an awareness of each other being there.”
Beyond his work with Baker and Manne, Freeman recorded an innovative trio album with a young jazz pianist named Andre Previn that featured two pianos and drums.
He toured Europe with Benny Goodman, and pretty much abandoned jazz work after he left Manne in 1967.
He worked as musical director for singer-dancer Mitzi Gaynor and as musical director for television’s “Laugh-In” and later “Tony Orlando and Dawn.” He worked in studios writing the underscores for films and in Las Vegas as musical director for shows.
His final jazz recording, “One on One” with Manne, came out in 1982.
Freeman is survived by his wife, Carolyn; daughter Paula Freeman-Allison; stepdaughter Gale Tripp; and three grandchildren.
A memorial celebration will be held July 18 at the Jazz Bakery. Donations will go to the L.A. Jazz Society’s mentorship fund for piano students.