For as long as anyone can remember, legendary Chicago tenor saxophonist, Von Freeman, has played every Tuesday night at the New Apartment Lounge in the South Side neighborhood of Park Manor. “Vonski” draws a wide following from the North Side, the suburbs and beyond, all of whom come for cover-less jazz, cheap drinks and multicolored Formica. On all other nights, a predominantly African American clientele throws ’em back until the wee hours while watching the Chicago Bulls or White Sox on TV and checking out other bands that take the stage on weekends at the lounge.
The New Apartment Lounge is located on the north side of 75th Street, just off I-94 and past Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, and in the base of an imposing, three-story brick mixed use building. Step through a pair of double doors and you’ll find a rather comfortable barroom. A curved bar, topped in two-tone blue Formica and carpeted along the sides (matching the floor), runs most of the length of the western wall and sports about a dozen black vinyl, high-backed barstools. Behind the bar are mirrors that make the room look bigger, particularly with the mirrored wall opposite. Behind an ornamental overhang in blue that matches the bar are additional mirrored panels adorned with string lights. Barry White would be proud. The rest of the white-painted drywall ceiling sports a series of lighting in various degrees of recession along with a few random holes. The bar is cash only, but drink prices for both cocktails and bottled domestic and imported beers (no taps, served from the built-in, matching blue cooler behind the bar) are easy on the wallet.
Photo courtesy of Yo! Chicago
New Apartment Lounge doesn’t serve food, but Army & Lou’s just west on 75th has been serving up some good barbeque since 1945, every day until 10pm, though a patron brought in popcorn that was given out for free on my last visit. When Mother Nature calls, the ladies’ restroom lies opposite the north end of the bar and the gents’ is under the exit sign in the rear, on the left. If it’s winter, bring a sweater as I could see my breath as I took a leak. Across from the bar are two small windows with vertical blinds looking out over 75th, in front of which is a small wooden stage where the legend plays.
Born Earl Lavon Freeman on Chicago’s South Side, the career of Vonski (as he is known to both friends and admirers) actually began playing with the Horace Henderson Orchestra for a year, before getting drafted into World War II as part of the “Great Lakes Experiment” that desegregated the Navy by allowing black sailors to join and perform music. Following the war, Freeman played the Pershing Hotel Ballroom with his guitarist brother George, drummer brother Bruz, and visiting jazz legends that included Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, and Roy Eldridge. Like another local jazz great, Fred Anderson, Von Freeman also played with Sun Ra beginning in 1948, and he later released a series of albums in the 1970s and, later, another three with his son and fellow tenorist, Chico Freeman.
Now in his mid-80s, Freeman would be more renowned if he ever played beyond Chicago, but it is here where he raised a family and he has performed primarily here at the New Apartment Lounge for the last 30 years. His “Express Yourself” jazz sessions begin on Tuesday nights at 10:30pm, though you’ll want to get there at least an hour before, as it’s often standing room only when the set begins (at least in good weather). The normally African American crowd becomes more diverse by race and age on Vonski nights due to those who come from far and wide to hear his music, including the occasional singer and younger musicians that hope to be invited on stage to play during the jam session that starts around 1:00am. In honor of his jazz career, the City of Chicago named this section of 75th, the “Honorary Von Freeman Way,” and Northwestern University presented him with an honorary doctorate. The adjacent red room features additional jazz and reggae later in the week, and the orange room handles overflow from other bars because of its late-night license. No cover is charged for music but there is a two-drink minimum at the bar.
Additional entertainment is gleaned from the jukebox next to the stage, brightly lit in green neon, as well as a table-version Pac Man across from the bar and next to a noisy, full-size video poker machine, and several Vonski “regulars” often yell out encouragement to their subject of admiration. While Freeman was playing on one visit, a TV in the next room had to be turned down, which was interfering with the music, especially for the bass solos, so you may need to put up with neighborhood patrons with a penchant for full-length fur coats who are more interested in what’s on TV than who’s playing next door. When you leave, you’ll likely be asked for some spare change for “looking after your car” by a one of a few guys that look homeless and, though this is questionable in the least, they are harmless and probably deserve a tip even though I am usually loathe to recommend things like this.
The New Apartment Lounge opened around 1980 and, other than its blue, orange and red rooms, named after the Formica-topped bars of those colors, is like many other dive bars in the area where most Chicagoans have never been. However, when Von Freeman plays saxophone on Tuesday nights, the New Apartment Lounge reaches top jazz club status and the colorful regulars provide added entertainment. Vonski has also been known to play at Green Mill and Andy’s Jazz Club. If you like New Apartment Lounge, you might also like the New Velvet Lounge, Jazz Showcase, and the more bluesy New Checkerboard Lounge.