The cause was heart failure, his son Mark said.
Though his work won him ardent admirers, Mr. Freeman, familiarly known as Vonski, was for decades largely unknown outside Chicago, where he was born and reared and spent most of his life.
As The Chicago Tribune wrote in 1998, his playing “represents a standard by which other tenor saxophonists must be judged.”
Last year, Mr. Freeman was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, the nation’s highest honor in the field.
Not until the 1980s did he begin performing more often on famous out-of-town stages, including Alice Tully Hall and the Village Vanguard in New York. Earlier in his career Mr. Freeman had made much of his living, as he told The Tribune, playing for “strip joints, taxi dances, vaudeville shows, comedians, jugglers, weddings, bar mitzvahs, jazz clubs, dives, Polish dances, Jewish dances, every nationality.”
If he never got his big break as a young player, Mr. Freeman said, then that was because he never especially sought one.
“I’m not trying to brag or nothing, but I always knew I could play, 50, 60 years ago,” he told The Tribune in 2002. “I really don’t play any different than the way I played then. And I never let it worry me that I didn’t get anywhere famewise, or I didn’t make hit records.”
What he preferred to chasing fame, he said, was playing jazz as he felt it demanded to be played. The result, critics agreed, was music – often dazzling, occasionally bewildering – that sounded like no one else’s.
Mr. Freeman’s playing was characterized by emotional fire (he was so intense he once bit his mouthpiece clean off); a huge sound (this, he said, took root in strip clubs where the band played from behind a curtain); and singular musical ideas.
His work had a daring elasticity, with deliberately off-kilter phrasing that made it sound like speech. He cherished roughness and imperfection, although, as critics observed, he could play a ballad with the best of them.
Where some listeners faulted him for playing out of tune, others praised him for exploiting a chromatic range far greater than the paltry 12 notes the Western musical scale offers.
“Don’t tune up too much, baby,” Mr. Freeman once told a colleague. “You’ll lose your soul.”
His masterly tonal control let him summon unlovely sounds whenever he chose to, and he chose to often…
Read more: NY Times