Back 15-20 years ago when Public Radio still played
traditional jazz at night, I heard this cat blowing a horn like it owed him
money and I loved the sound, turns out it was Von Freeman and that was
considered “The Chicago Sound”.
My family had educated me on Captain Dyett and all the great
musicians that came though his program at DuSable High School and some of them
my elders had known personally. But Vonski was different, he played different
and lived differently, he was literally playing to his own rhythm but it was a
song to behold.
I really got into him because I was just starting to follow
the exceptional, young, local vocalist Kurt Elling who was a Vonski disciple.
Anything that Kurt was into, I’d follow. Seems there were these jam sessions at the New Apartment Lounge in my grandparents'
old neighborhood (Chatham), on east 75th Street (just east of the
old Army & Lou’s soul food restaurant), and just about anyone would come in
those doors to listen and play. That was Vonski’s house, many a young jazz lion
came through that club and received a Chicago jazz education.
I own Vonski’s 2002 CD The Improvisor and no words have
better suited a musician that that album title. He embodied Chicago jazz and
taking that time in every song to put his own stamp on it. His sound was
enviable to other musicians and so unique that within a few notes you knew it
I never thought about Vonski and his “lost” chances to be a
national or international jazz star, but more that he was a true Chicago jazz
cat, he never moved to New York, or tried to be bigger than the music. He was
the music, he lived the music and he loved the music.
Right around the time The Improvisor came out, I remember a
good friend saw him playing a free gig in the now defunct Borders on Michigan
Avenue. This was around the time of his 75th birthday and there was
a huge expensive gala celebrating his birthday was well. And here he was
playing for free at lunchtime in a chain bookstore. How many jazz cats would do
But that was Vonski playing his own tune and being with the
locals who loved him. I know he made a fan of my friend that day and likely
I last heard Vonski at the Chicago Jazz Fest a few years
ago, he played a late afternoon gig and sometimes people don’t always go since
the headliners will be at Petrillo band shell in an hour or two. But it was
standing room only for Vonski and the people stood but his horn stood taller.
You could feel the vibe and swinging in the air and people enjoyed themselves
as he played. The gig was supposed to stop sometime after 4 P.M. I remember
him just playing as strong as he
started, it was as if his playing kept Father Time at bay and the rest of us
And Vonski did receive our nation’s highest honor last year
for a jazz cat, which is National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.
And master jazz did he ever.
We’ll miss you Vonski but never will forget your sound.