This essay is adapted from Sam Stephenson’s The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith From 821 Sixth Avenue 1957- 1965.
“I was thrilled to have Ronnie working with me in my trio at the Hickory House in 1959 (or 1960),” says the pianist and radio-show host Marian McPartland, who studied with Hall Overton in 821 Sixth Avenue. “He was considered the great young hope among drummers on the scene, a really wonderful player. He had a different style, more swinging, very subtle. Free is a good name for him. He didn’t play bombastic solos like many drummers did. Ronnie was one of the best I ever saw. Then one night he just disappeared. We had a gig and he didn’t show up. Nobody saw him after that. Thirty or thirty-five years later, in the early 1990s, I was walking down the street in Columbia, South Carolina, and I couldn’t believe my eyes, but Ronnie Free was walking right toward me, looking exactly the same My first words to him were, ‘What happened to you that night you didn’t show up for the gig?’”
The short answer is that earlier that day Free was committed to the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital by police. They found him wandering through the streets erratically, virtually daring cars to run him over.
The longer answer could be a movie or novel. He got out of Bellevue in mid-1960, took a train back to his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, kicked a dangerous drug habit, and never returned to New York. He had somebody ship his drums to him from 821 Sixth Avenue, where he’d lived in Eugene Smith’s fourth-floor loft space for two years. He pawned his drums and didn’t play music for more than twenty years. He ended up in San Diego driving a cab for a decade. “It’s astonishing that he could just stop playing like that,” said the late bassist Sonny Dallas. “I mean, weare talking about a phenomenal musician here.” But he saved his life.
Today, Free is seventy-three years old and lives in Hot Springs, Virginia. For fourteen years he has been playing waltzes and slow dance numbers at the Homestead, a resort founded in 1766 around seven natural springs deep in the Allegheny Mountains near the West Virginia border. It is a comfortable gig in a beautiful setting—the house musicians live in quarters provided by the resort—but it is a long way from the hot New York scene of the late 1950s, where Free was sought after by many prime bandleaders. Yet, Free is content. He has no regrets, no bitterness. He rarely mentions his former reputation, and many of his current friends are unaware that Free’s drumming is credited with driving some of the greatest sessions at 821 Sixth Avenue. They don’t even know he used to play in New York at all. Free doesn’t own copies of the records on which he played. In his room the only clue to his jazz past is a small magazine picture of Miles Davis taped to his wall. Free seems genuinely surprised and embarrassed when told of the fond memories other musicians have of his playing fifty years ago. He says he is surprised they remember his name at all.
Despite a twenty-year age gap, Free and Eugene Smith were united by lamentable childhoods—Smith’s father committed suicide; Free’s father abused him physically and emotionally—and mutual desperation. Both dropped out of school as teens (Smith after his freshman year at Notre Dame, Free from high school) to be full-time professionals. Free was the drummer for a strip show in a traveling circus, the Royal American Shows, before finding his way to Staten Island and eventually to 821 Sixth Avenue. Smith and Free were both down and out when they met in the loft, battling severe substance addictions. Free gave Smith access to his drugstore connection, and Smith gave Free a place to stay. “Gene and I swapped goodies,” Free says. “My favorite amphetamine was a little white pill called Desoxyn, which I shared with Gene. Gene gave me what he called ‘psychic energizers’ [given to Smith as antidepressants by the famous psychiatrist Nathan Kline]. In those days if I found a pill on the street I’d pop it in my mouth without even knowing what it was. At one point I was taking about a hundred amphetamines a day. I’m lucky to be alive. I was a neurotic, screwed-up mess. I was virtually homeless. The only things I owned were my drums and the clothes on my back. Gene was generous enough to let me stay. And he was in a similar situation as me, trying to get everything back in order.”
The pianist Dave Frishberg found his way to 821 Sixth Avenue soon after moving to New York from Minneapolis, against the wishes of his parents, who wanted their son to be a doctor or a lawyer—to live the straight life. He credits playing with Free in the loft as helping affirm his decision to be a professional musician. “Ronnie had a certain raw, instinctive, profound musicianship that was overwhelming and inspiring,” says Frishberg. “There was one night in particular when we played deep into the night. Ronnie and I achieved this remarkable rapport for several hours. It was one of the most nourishing musical experiences of my life. I went home feeling good about being a musician, glad to be playing with big leaguers.”
On the afternoon of August 11, 1958, Ronnie Free received word that musicians were to congregate the next morning in front of a brownstone on 126th Street in Harlem for a historic group portrait. The photograph was to be published in an upcoming Esquire magazine issue devoted to jazz. On August 12 Free rolled out of bed—Smith’s reclining chair—and headed up to 106th Street, where he met his friend and occasional bandmate pianist Mose Allison. The two men walked up to the designated address, but when they arrived the photographer Art Kane had already snapped the now famous shot of fifty-seven assembled musicians on the steps and sidewalk. The photograph included such icons as Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Pee Wee Russell, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, and Sonny Rollins. Filmmaker Jean Bach made an acclaimed documentary about the photograph in 1994, A Great Day in Harlem, and posters of the image sell around the world.
As the musicians dispersed on that “great day,” Free and Allison mingled on the sidewalk. Dizzy Gillespie took their picture alongside Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams, Charlie Rouse, and Oscar Pettiford. For Allison, who in five decades has recorded a career that’s made him a legend, Gillespie’s obscure snapshot is a souvenir. For Free the picture is a tangible reminder that he was once a rising star in the jazz world.
But better evidence is found on Smith’s tapes. Free’s drum work in the loft is documented on more than one hundred reels—at least two hundred hours of recordings—playing with the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Paul Bley, Freddie Redd, Gil Coggins, Sonny Clark, Warne Marsh, Henry Grimes, Zoot Sims, Eddie Costa, Hall Overton, Pepper Adams, and dozens more, including obscure figures such as Freddy Greenwell and Lin Halliday. Particularly memorable is one night in 1960 when Free shared the drum set with Roy Haynes.
Listen to Sara Fishko's 2009 Jazz Loft Project Radio Series segment on Ronnie Free here.
Sam Stephenson's 2000 Oxford American article, What Happened to Ronnie Free?.
Free reading his poem, The Parade.
Ron Free's Journey Leads Back to Charleston (Charleston City Paper. March 30, 2010)