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Dewey Redman: The Sound of a Giant

By Published: December 15, 2003

"As far as I know I had an uncle, but I can't prove it, whose name was Don Redman [one of the first great jazz arrangers and a pivotal figure in the development of the Big Band style]. He was a great bandleader, saxophonist and composer in the 20s and 30s. I never got a chance to meet him. I wasn't aware that he was my uncle, so to speak, until I saw a picture of him and he looked just like my father. And he was short in stature and my father was short in stature. But he passed a couple years before I came to New York in 1967. The only thing I know is that he looks just like my father. They were born in the same place, Piedmont, West Virginia. So I think there's a connection there. I can't prove it, but I think that he's my uncle."

His parents were supportive of his musical efforts and were willing to buy an instrument to get Dewey started. "It took me a long time to decide. I didn't want to play the trombone, because I didn't like the way it functioned. I didn't want to play the piano, it had so many keys. I didn't want to play the violin. So I decided what I really wanted to play was the trumpet, because it had three keys. I figured I could work that out. I went to this music teacher and I said, 'My mother wants to buy me an instrument, but I want to know if you?ll give me lessons.' He said, 'Yes. What do you want to play?' I said I want to play the trumpet. He said, 'No you can't play the trumpet because your lips are too big.' [laughter] I was embarrassed. I went home and told my mother.

"Then he said what I need to play is the clarinet. But the deal was he needed clarinets in his church band. My first gig was the church band and nobody wanted to play the clarinet because it squeaked. So I started on clarinet. Ever since then, every time I meet a trumpet player the first thing I look at is his lips," he says with a laugh.

Things worked out with the instrument, as Redman played in high school and went on to Prairie View A&M University in Texas and started playing in the its jazz band. He had been playing a bit of alto sax, but it was then he turned to the tenor for good. "I'm really a late bloomer, unlike Ornette, who was playing in high school. Playing his ass off. But I started playing in college."

He was influenced by a hometown saxophonist named Red Carter, as well as Ornette, whom he calls "a genius," Gene Ammons, Stan Getz, and "most anybody who had a sound." Redman was drafted into the Army right after the Korean war and stationed in El Paso, where he played in clubs at night. "I met a gentleman named Jerry Hunter, who was a fine trumpet player, and he took me under his wing and taught me a lot about music."

Redman became a teacher after the Army in the town of Bassdrop, Texas, near Austin. He found himself playing jazz on weekends in the Texas capital city. "The guys said, 'Hey, man. You're good. You ought to go to New York.' I said, 'No, man. I'm not gonna starve and go to New York. What are you talkin' about?' But after a couple years I decided to go to New York for five years, get it out of my system, then come back to Texas and teach school, which was a secure position."

On the way to New York, he decided to reunite with his father, whom he hadn't seen in many years. The search took him to Los Angeles. His father died not long after Dewey found him. When it was time to get back on the trail to the Big Apple, Redman took a slight detour north to San Francisco. It was the 1960s.

"I went to San Francisco for two weeks and stayed almost seven years. It was a great step for me, because there was a great jazz community," he says. "That was a great thing for me. At that time in San Francisco there was the protest against the Vietnam War, there was the flower children, and it was the beginning of the rock bands, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish. I used to see Janis Joplin walking down the street. And they had a great jazz community."

The call to New York continued, however, and eventually he made the trip. There, he encountered Ornette again. "Ornette Coleman has always been a guiding light for me. All the stuff he's been through and he still hasn't received the recognition that he deserves, even though he has about a half dozen honorary doctoral degrees. He still is not recognized. He's one of America's greatest artists ever. I've had people help me throughout the years, but he's the main one."

He dropped by Coleman's loft and became part of that experimental scene in the late 1960s that resulted in several gigs and recordings. Then it was on to Keith Jarrett's group, "which is a different kind of experience," with much more structure, "but I enjoyed that also. Then I played with Old and New Dreams . I played with Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra and I recorded with a lot of people. I recorded with a lot of musicians from Italy, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, France. So I've been a pretty lucky guy."

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