“Lofty Thoughts” by Ron Free

Ron Free, aka Ronnie Free in the loft days, is the most ubiquitous presence on Gene Smith’s loft tapes, showing up on more than one hundred reels, approximately three hundred hours.  He lived in the loft for roughly two years 1958-1960.  Here he reports in again with us from Hot Springs, VA where he plays drums at the Homestead Resort.

Other than sharing the same birthday, one might ask what two white jazz drummers (Gene Krupa and moi) of different eras could possibly have in common with a black civil rights leader who came to prominence in the sixties?

Quite a bit actually.

When Martin Luther KIng so eloquently articulated his famous I Have a Dream speech, it resonated viscerally with everything in me, because from a very early age I’d had a similar dream. Maybe that’s why, in retrospect, I have come to regard jazz musicians as early civil rights workers. After all, blacks and whites were “sitting in” together long before sit-ins became a movement.

As a child growing up in the deep (shallow?) south I gave very little thought to seeing restrooms and water fountains designated as white or colored.  Nor did I pay much attention to restaurants and lunch counters that were open to whites only.  Likewise with schools and other segregated institutions.  It was simply the way things were.  Who was I to question the order?

But questions did arise early on. A few key events come to mind, like the time my father beat the crap out of me for playing baseball with “a bunch of niggers.”  When it comes to bigotry my father made Archie Bunker look like a bleeding heart liberal.  Yet it was okay for me to sit in with “colored” bands and musicians around town.  In fact, he encouraged it. Say what?

My mother was such a softie I thought she would be different. I could usually talk her into just about anything. But that bubble burst on one occasion when I had the good fortune to meet and play with a superb “colored” alto player named Lonnie Hamilton.  We played together in a club where my mother was tending bar.  For Lonnie and me it was instant friendship. We were both young and enthusiastic.  Music magic was in the air.  I got so excited I invited Lonnie to my house so we could talk music and listen to records.

I guess I should have checked with Mom first.  She adamantly refused to allow it.  I pitched a hissy fit, which usually worked like a charm – my fits usually persuaded her – but regardless of how much I demanded, begged, whined or cajoled she would have none of Lonnie visiting our house.  I was stunned and humiliated. Lonnie, as I recall, was most gracious and understanding, wise beyond his years; wise beyond my years, at least.

Another time I remember listening to Rufus Jones playing an incredible drum solo over WPAL, Charleston’s black radio station. I was lying in bed thinking in wonder that such a great young drummer lived in the same home town as me, yet we’d never met.  How could that be?  It made me tear up.  We didn’t meet until years later when I was able to catch Rufus “Speedy” Jones dazzling the world with the famous Count Basie Orchestra.

Included in Gene Smith’s tape collection are excerpts of MLK speaking on the radio and TV in the Civil Rights era. Gene made these tapes in his loft near where I crashed on his recliner for a couple of years.  Ironically, the loft was a place where King’s dream was being manifest ahead of the curve so to speak, because in the loft no one, as far as I could tell, was judged by the color of their skin, but rather the content of their character. The unspoken rule was: if you can play, you can stay. And it takes strength of character to play a musical instrument with any degree of mastery.

As a jazz drummer I have often joked about sometimes feeling like a black man trapped in a white man’s body. I wonder if Gene Krupa had any such feelings when he faced the horrors of racism. He, along with many others of various colors, genders and nationalities, had to contend with that hideous monster long before I, or MLK for that matter, hit the scene. But perhaps Capricorns, aptly symbolized by the mountain goat, are destined to share such lofty thoughts.

And dreams.

-Ron Free


  1. margaret watson Said,

    February 14, 2010 @ 2:33 am

    This is a wonderful comment on the way life was in the 50′s.I didn’ have the opportunity ,as did Ronnie, to be exposed to variety as did Ronnie, but I remember in high school that I had interaction with Black people, which was considered in my southern town as not politically correct. I had a neighbor who was a “numbers guy” and he and his wife wiuld take me when I was 10 to the movies and to things around town. I was so impressed besause he had a baby blue Buick convertible with auto buttons. I was in heaven.His name was Mr. Harris and when I would ask him where he worked he would say ” Walker and Turner”,,,walk the streets and turn the corner.One of his big connections was a man he caller Big Red.I cannot tell you how proud I was to know Big Red and have all my friends see me stop and have a few words with Big Red.Of course, it all was not acceptable in the town where I lived.I am sorry that at my age I was not involved in the civil rights movement, because I had friends, but they were not accepted. To this day, I get furious that they paid the same price to see a movie, but had to sit in the balcony.I still have wonderful memories of the Black people, but no way, was it acceptabile and they were not included in any activities. Schools were segregated, movies, separate water fountains at the train station. It is a time of which all Americans should be ashamed.I still find it hard to believe that the attitude existed. In New York, I had a Black roommate and even there and then, there were comments not complimentary.I apologize for this book I have written as a response. Ronnie was in a posotion to be with peers and not have social pressure and he has great insight and sensitivity along with talent.I will always wish I could have done more to make a stand against the pathetic, disgusting, ignorant beliefs which held back some of our great minds and talents.

  2. Sandy Stevenson Krell Said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 10:47 pm

    I am the former wife of Jimmy Stevenson. I moved into the loft at the end of 1961 with my husband Jimmy. We lived there until 1963, just prior to the birth of our daughter, Beth. Uunfortunatly, I never had the chance to meet you, Ron, as you preceeded us in the loft. I was moved by your writings because I experienced similar feelings, being expossed to all the various people who came and went in the loft.

    I was raised in an upper class family and attended Grosse Pointe High in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, an affluent suburb of Detroit. Needless to say, it was a very segregated environment. Dr. King spoke at Grosse Pointe High when I was in New York; and he referred to Grosse Pointe as being one of the most racist environments he had ever experienced.

    My experiences in the loft had a tremendous impact on my cultural, social and political values and were totaly life-changing. I recall watching TV with African American friends Alice Coltrane, Joe Henderson, and Ira Jackson, and witnessing the demonstrations in the south– people being hosed and attacked by dogs– and being “blown away” by what we saw. I had many opportunities to talk to various musicians when they were not playing in the loft.

    I also learned to play chess.

    When I left New York in 1967, I returned to Detroit.(ironically during the riots in our city) I became very involved in the civil rights movement. I started a drug program for addicted females (also gleaned from my experiences in the loft) which was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Because of this work I was accepted into Graduate School, bypassing two years of undergraduate work, and received a Masters Degree in Social Work. All of my professional life was spent working in Detroit, ending in 11 years in the Detroit Public Schools.

    I was about 23 when I moved into the loft, and although it was hard in many ways –four flights of stairs with a baby, a baby carriage, and laundry, and for a while, no hot water– I survived and grew. I truly believe I became a much richer person because of my life in the loft. I am so grateful to, and have such warm feelings toward, all the people that I met at that time, especially Ira Jackson for his patience in putting up with the simplistic questions of this naive white girl from Grosse Pointe. I also am grateful to Sam Stephenson for this wonderful book and to the blog (to which I am addicted) and to you, Ron, for your wise words which inspired me to write this People have said I should write a book. How do you put all those life experiences on paper? I should have had a tape recorder –and a camera.



  3. Tom Wayburn Said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    Hi Ron,

    There aren’t many people left from the jazz scene of those days. Probably Freddie Greenwell is gone, but I have not heard about it. Larry Rockwell died a few years back. I heard about his death on the internet. Recently I spoke to Eddie Diehl and Ted Wald. Also, Peter Ind and Bill Crow are still with us. Several years ago I called Al Leavitt long-distance in France and talked to him for awhile. A few days later I mentioned Al to G. T. Hogan here in Houston. He said, “Al died.” I said, “No he didn’t; I just talked to him.” He replied, “I just read it in the [international jazz newsletter].” I forget what he called the periodical; but, of course it was true. Here today; gone tomorrow. As far as I know, he was not sick. And, now, G. T. is gone.

    Take care of yourself. You’re one in a million.