Two Chicago institutions bridge jazz and blues | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Two Chicago institutions bridge jazz and blues 

Guitarist George Freeman and harmonica player Billy Branch demonstrate the common roots of the sounds they love.

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George Freeman and Billy Branch - PAUL CHEN
  • George Freeman and Billy Branch
  • Paul Chen

Blues and jazz have been intertwined since the beginning, and this collaboration between two Chicago institutions shows the power of their convergence. Jazz guitarist George Freeman, 92, is part of a familial dynasty that includes his late brother, tenor saxophonist Von; harmonica player Billy Branch, 67, is one of the most lyrical musicians on the city's blues scene. You can hear them both on Freeman's latest album, George the Bomb! (Southport), which dropped in April and features Branch on three cuts, including the title track. Branch has a new record of his own with his band the Sons of Blues, Roots & Branches: The Songs of Little Walter (Alligator). Both men know exactly where blues and jazz meet.

  • The title track of George the Bomb!

Freeman and Branch will be accompanied at the Jazz Festival by bassist John Devlin, drummer Luis Ewerling, vocalist Joanie Pallatto, and pianist Bradley Parker-Sparrow. The two veteran musicians first encountered each other years ago in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood, at a club where Branch would stop by to jam with Freeman. Pretty soon Freeman was coming by Branch's gigs in return. "He's got good rhythm," says Freeman. "He can make the harmonica talk and is able to support me. I tease him sometimes: 'You make the harmonica sound like it's crying!'" Freeman knows the importance of a good rhythm player. Back in the day, he says, "There were so many piano players that could comp. And then the beboppers came, and they could tell stories and comp."


George Freeman and Billy Branch
Fri 8/30, 4:15-5 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion


Says Branch, "I view [comping] as important as soloing because it's a challenge. A lot of harmonica players, they only look at the solo aspect. But to be able to enhance the rhythm section or the soloist is an art form in itself. I've prioritized that skill as an integral part of my style." He's also quick to praise Freeman's skills: "I've always admired George, a very astute, sensible, gracious musician and soul. He's a bluesman at heart, which he has said in his own words."

One of Freeman's first influences was T-Bone Walker, an acrobatic blues guitarist with a jazzy sense of swing. When Freeman first encountered him, he says, "He was playing guitar behind his back at the Rhumboogie Cafe [a short-lived nightclub on East 55th in the early 1940s]. They had chorus girls and a band, and T-Bone would come out playing the blues. I wasn't too impressed by that, because I didn't see what that had to do with playing guitar. But all the girls loved it! Then my brother brought home a Charlie Christian record, and that was the end!"

  • Freeman and Branch onstage together this past spring

Branch, for his part, has added the occasional jazz standard to his set, such as Benny Golson's "Killer Joe" or Miles Davis's "All Blues." On occasion, he says, he's sensed a mild bias from the jazz side of the street ("If looks could kill," he adds wryly). "I experienced, quite a few times, instances where the jazz players had an aversion to the blues, almost like a class or caste system. We use a term in African American vernacular—jazz is bougie, blues is low-class," he laughs. "But the real cats didn't—Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Coltrane. George gets it. Von Freeman got it. They understand that jazz evolved from blues. They will tell you that you can't play jazz unless you could play blues. The blues is the foundation. It's why I'm comfortable in all musical settings, whether I'm playing Chicago blues or funk or reggae or soul or R&B or rock. Because the blues roots allow you to express yourself."

Together these two masters may not bridge the gap between jazz and blues so much as close it.  v

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