Don Redman: Setting the Template
As someone who came to jazz as a young man in the 1970s, I can attest that subsequent generations of both its chroniclers and, even sadder, its practitioners, have succumbed to the peculiarly and regrettable American disease of a-historicism.
They've shoved jazz history through a sieve, reducing it from an epic tale of heroic evolution with a cast of hundredsif not thousandsto a denuded sliver of text that could fit in a single tweetone that might read like this: "MilesTraneTraneTraneTranebirdsomeoldguysluvTraneisawesome!"
This column was conceived to restore at least a fraction of the historical record and to enumerate and celebrate the achievements of some of the music's most important and/or overlooked pioneers. Some subjects undoubtedly will be familiar to many of you. Others may not.
Tight ensemble playing; The working band (admittedly a victim of severely diminished economic opportunities); Through-composed writing. Isn't it time we stopped borrowing "Rhythm" and other familiar changes and wrote original harmony? After all, Benny Carter never borrowed changes, Billy Strayhorn almost never, and Duke rarely. Is it any surprise that their music is among the most magnificent? Melodic elaboration by soloists and sections; The ability to play with authority at all dynamic levels.
My goal is not to simply rehash the conventional wisdom, but to examine my subjects from new perspectives, conduct original research, solicit the testimony of those best positioned to speak authoritatively of my subjects and offer my personal encounters with the musicians and their music.
I've chosen to highlight one master from each decade, starting with the 1920s.
Hard as it may be to believe now, for a good quarter of the 20th century the jazz big band of flaming reeds, screaming brass and a propulsive yet elastic rhythm that shatters Newtonian space-time was the popular music of America. Even today, almost a century after its inception, people are overcome by an ecstatic frisson from a saxophone section shake or trumpet high note, out-of-bodied by a rhythm-inducing moment of transcendent elation that stops Newtonian time in its tracks, or emboldened to kindle the spark of romance on a ballroom floor. And during each such moment, they give an unconscious nod to Don Redman. This gentle, urbane, conservatory-trained African American, born in 1900, to a far greater degree than anyone else (including Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington), created the prototype for the soundtrack to generations of American lives, as generated in nightclubs, films, radio and TV shows. Redman was one of the very few jazz men of his generation, black or white, who was so thoroughly schooled.
This buoyant soundcapacious enough to eventually express the full range of sonic textures and human emotionwas incubated in perhaps a two-mile radius of New York City in the early 1920s, but within a decade had spread to nearly every nook of the planet. And yet, for at least several generations, highly respected critics, soi-disant "jazz writers" and upstart musicians (churned out by the thousands by those same type of conservatories Redman attended) have expunged from or reduced to a footnote in the historical record Redman's name and his seminal achievements.
Don Redman didn't single-handedly devise a way to translate the "hot" music of the earliest New Orleans polyphonic, collectively improvising ensembles (usually five or six pieces), into the setting of the larger dance band (which a Terpsichore-crazed American public in the early decades of the 20th century demanded).
Other pioneers were John Nesbitt, who worked with McKinney's Cotton Pickers and contributed charts to the bands of Luis Russell and Fletcher Henderson (and who doesn't have a page on this site); Alex Hill, who created some of the most important early jazz compositions and arrangements, including "Beau Koo Jack" for Louis Armstong's Hot Seven; Bill Challis, a key contributor to both Paul Whiteman's Orchestra and McKinney's Cotton Pickers, and, of course, Henderson and Duke Ellington. I omit Jelly Roll Morton who, until the late 1930s, composed for a typical New Orleans small ensemble.
However, he set the template for the Jazz Age big band, which consisted of 10 (the more conventional size) to 12 pieces: usually two trumpets, one trombone, three saxophones (two altos and a tenor) and a four-piece rhythm section.
Redman realized that Western diatonic music (for all practical purposes) allowed a maximum of six-part harmony, which he had to distribute between two horn sections, reeds and brass. If, say, he wanted four-part harmony from the brass, he had to blend families of instruments. This "cross-section writing" was a revelation (although it is a lost art in contemporary jazz, as is arranging in general).