Those of us who are fans of the big band era know that the tenor saxophone was an important part of its success, and in the early years its use was popularized by guys like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. But there was another saxman around in those days who could stake a legitimate claim as one of the pioneers, even if his name isn’t quite as well-known as the others. That would be Bud Freeman, who was sometimes known as ‘The Eel’ because of an early star-making turn.
Like many of his contemporaries, Lawrence ‘Bud’ Freeman’s long career included a lot of different musical styles, but it all began back in the late 1920s when the teenaged Chicago native first began breaking into the music business. Still feeling his way among several instruments, he settled on the tenor sax and began to perfect his play while learning the ins and outs of the early jazz era. Within a few years he’d moved to New York, where he began to work with some of the best bands around, including those led by Red Nichols, Joe Venuti, and Ben Pollack. His breakout moment came while he was with Eddie Condon, on a song called “The Eel” that featured his long, sinuous solo. Although he still had a long career ahead of him, it furnished him with a nickname that would stick.
It would have been exciting to be a jazz musician based in New York in the 1930s, and Freeman kept busy working with headliners like Ray Noble, Tommy Dorsey, and others. Later in the decade he spent a brief period with Benny Goodman before deciding to try forming his own band, but even though his Summa Cum Laude Orchestra was a much-admired group, the approach of World War II might have shortened its life. In any case, Freeman spent much of the war in the Army entertainment division, and in the years that followed he again entered the professional ranks.
During the 1950s and beyond Freeman stayed busy, either leading his own jazz groups or working with other respected pros, and he was at home in just about every kind of jazz. He not only made a lot of successful records but was also a popular attraction on world tours. He even lived in London for a while, but eventually moved back to his native Chicago. He continued to be musically active into his eighties and also wrote an autobiography in 1989. He was 84 when he died in 1991.