When the Chicago pianist-bandleader Muhal Richard Abrams was helping to establish the groundbreaking music collective known as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, in the early 1960s, Freeman plunged into that experimental scene, as well. His already unconventional approach to his instrument neatly dovetailed with the organization's penchant for the shocking, the new, the dissonant, the hitherto unheard.
It wasn't until 1972, at age 49, however, that Freeman cut his first record as bandleader, "Doin' It Right Now" (Atlantic), an LP produced by a more famous musician: saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Like Freeman's other releases of the '70s and '80s -- "Have No Fear" and "Serenade and Blues," both recorded by local producer Chuck Nessa -- "Doin' It Right Now" captured the piquant quality of Freeman's tone and the majesty of his soliloquies while making hardly a dent in the broader public consciousness.
That recording likely introduced more listeners to Freeman's work than all his live performances and scant recordings combined, yet the lone Columbia release could not lift him from the marginalia of jazz -- not without the touring and promotional support that make international careers.
Yet Freeman at this point seemed to undergo a change in perspective, stripping from his schedule all the blues and R&B gigs and focusing purely on jazz. Just a couple of years earlier, he had launched his weekly sessions at the New Apartment Lounge, where young musicians from across the city and, eventually, across the country and around the world, queued up for a chance to sit in with him (those sessions ended in recent years).
"I think he decided he was just not going to play every type of music there is anymore," said Mike Friedman, owner of Chicago-based Premonition Records, which has released several Freeman CDs since 2001.
"I think he decided he was just going to struggle with the music, work through his ideas in jazz, no compromises, no distractions."
From this point -- the early 1980s -- the cult of Freeman began to develop. Jazz devotees from New York to Paris traveled to the New Apartment to hear a vastly under-recorded jazz giant. New generations of jazz players -- such as alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman and pianist Jason Moran -- all made pilgrimages to hear Freeman play, all studied his work and incorporated aspects of it into their own.
"You wouldn't believe how many waves of great musicians have come to the New Apartment to get that knowledge," said trumpeter Maurice Brown, who as a teenager in Chicago played many Vonski sessions at the New Apartment and has since moved to New York.
When Freeman belatedly made his Manhattan debut as a jazz headliner, in 1981, John S. Wilson raved in The New York Times that "Mr. Freeman gave some evidence of his roots in rhythm and blues both in his playing and in his jaunty attitude on stage" and that he "played ballads with the big-toned swagger of the descendants of Coleman Hawkins but he colored them with some of the musical vocabulary of contemporary saxophonists."
Yet even such fine subsequent recordings as "Walkin' Tuff" (1989, on Chicago-based Southport Records) and a series of releases on Steeplechase didn't bring Freeman the wider recognition he deserved.
That happened quite belatedly, with a 75th birthday celebration in Grant Park during the Chicago Jazz Festival (1997, though Freeman was 73); a DownBeat cover story, his first in a major jazz magazine (2001); an 80th birthday celebration in Symphony Center, in which he told the audience, "I feel like a king" (2002, Freeman was 79); and two stunning recordings -- the best of his career -- on Premonition ("The Improvisor," of 2002, and "The Great Divide," of 2004).
Though the acclaim didn't make Freeman a household name, except in some very sophisticated households, it brought him a measure of recognition he never sought and certainly never expected.
He had only one regret about his late-in-life accolades, he told NPR in 2004. "I'm sorry that my mother didn't live to see it," he said. His mother died in 1998, at age 101.
"That makes me almost want to cry," Freeman continued, because "she never really wanted us to play music, but after we behaved ourselves to a certain extent, she was proud of us.
"And she stuck it out with us, and she never saw any of us really make it, you know. And now
I don't think I've made it, but, I mean, at least I'm being sought after for this 15 minutes."
Freeman is survived by his brother, George Freeman; his sons, Mark and Chico Freeman; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, said his son Mark. He was preceded in death by his brother, Eldridge "Bruz" Freeman; and two daughters, Denise Jarrett and Brenda Jackson, said Mark Freeman.
A memorial service is being planned.