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Don Redman: Setting the Template


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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 hundreds—if not thousands—to a denuded sliver of text that could fit in a single tweet—one 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 sound—capacious enough to eventually express the full range of sonic textures and human emotion—was 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 All Stars Vol. 2Don 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).

Redman's innovations helped popularize this new American music in an astonishingly short period of time, helped by the simultaneous development of nationwide radio networks. Purists then and since have either described what they considered a dilution of "pure" New Orleans jazz or diminished the achievements of Redman and his contemporaries. Marshall Stearns, writing in The Story of Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1956) , says:

"the trick of making a big band swing had been amazingly simple. With the help of arranger Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson had figured it out in the early twenties. First a hot solo line was harmonized and written out for the whole section, swinging together. Then arrangers returned to the West African pattern of call-and-response, keeping the two sections answering each other in an endless variety of ways."

Stearns and others short-changed Redman, who did a lot more than that (as we shall see). And who knows to what extent (or even if) jazz would've become America's popular music if Redman had gone in a completely different musical direction? (Counter-historians are welcome to submit scenarios.)

If creating the 1920s big band wasn't enough, after Redman left Henderson's band in 1927, he played and arranged for Louis Armstrong's Savoy Ballroom Five in 1928, then created (with McKinney's Cotton Pickers, Paul Whiteman and his own bands) the instrumental model for the expanded 1930s Swing Era bands, incorporating three trumpets, three trombones, four saxophones (two altos and two tenors) and a four-piece rhythm section (another lamentable loss from the bop-heavy mid-1940s onward).

To gain further insight into Redman's innovations, I spoke to Dan Morgenstern, recently retired director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ, and the dean of American jazz critics.

Morgenstern crystallized Redman's contributions: "Don wrote the book on jazz arranging. He laid the groundwork for what became the established way to score for large ensembles." The elements of this approach greatly exceeded Stearns' evaluation and included:

1. The grouping and contrasting of brass and reeds;
2. The incorporation of the hot solo and devices such as the break and the chase;
3. Ensemble passages written to sound like solos;
4. Whole choruses or long phrases played in block chords by the entire band;
5. Moving the melody around different orchestral sections and soloists, sometimes with one section punctuating the figure of another;
6. Clarinets (often in trios) playing on top of brass, which anticipated not only Ellington's use of this effect but Glenn Miller's sound by 15 years.

Morgenstern explained that because Redman was a skilled multi-instrumentalist (he played alto, soprano and baritone saxophones, clarinet and trumpet, among other instruments), "he knew what was each instrument's comfortable range, a most important skill for an arranger."

Vince Giordano told me that Redman also played the goofus, a period instrument that resembled a saxophone but also came with a long rubber tube that allowed the player to place it on a horizontal surface and play it like a keyboard whilst blowing it through the tube. Twenties saxophonist Adrian Rollini even called one of his bands The Goofus Five.

Morgenstern added that Redman was "a fine player, a nice vocalist [in an ingratiating, half-talking voice often employed on novelty numbers] and a good composer. He had imagination and creativity."

Redman wrote two standards, "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You?" and "Cherry." More intriguingly, Morgenstern told me that Redman wrote for Paul Whiteman:

"When I went up to Williams College to see the Whiteman collection which is huge, I was interested in what they had about Redman, and a woman showed me a whole batch of Redman stuff that was not recorded, from the early 1930s.

Don Redman Free and EasyBandleader and musicologist Vince Giordano, whose Nighthawks have been playing Redman's music for 40 years, told me that, "what Don did for the Henderson band was amazing for its time. He experimented with brass and saxophones unlike any of his contemporaries. He gathered dance band ideas from the likes of Ferde Grofe [an arranger for Paul Whiteman] and put them into a jazz context."

Giordano admits that many of Redman's earliest charts for Henderson were simply "cut-and-paste jobs on stock arrangements, done under pressure for concerts and club dates." However, Giordano adds that "Redman's work with intros, passages and codas was amazing. And when Don wrote arrangements from scratch, as he did with 'Stampede' for Henderson and later with McKinney's and his own bands, the results were even better." Morgenstern cites "Shanghai Shuffle," "Sugar Foot Stomp," "Tozo" (with a great Redman vocal) and "Stampede," all done for Henderson from 1924 to 1926, as Redman's first great arrangements.

Space limitations prohibit extended musicological analysis. For that, please consult the Bibliography. However, we should note that this period coincided with the arrival in Henderson's band of Louis Armstrong, who taught the band—and the world—how to swing.

Giordano singles out Redman's composition and arrangement "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You?," recorded by McKinney's Cotton Pickers in 1929, as "so modern in its voicings—Don knew how to spread the chordal voicing to make the band sound bigger than it was. He was a genius."

Morgenstern credits Redman with the ready adaptability of a professional craftsman. "When he went to McKinney's he picked up on the style, capabilities and musicians of that band, which swung harder than Henderson's. Don also came into his own as a soloist with McKinney's."

Among Redman's greatest results for McKinney's were "Save It Pretty Mama" and "I'd Love It." However, when Redman formed his own band (comprised of McKinney's alumni and half of Horace Henderson's band), from 1931 to 1934 he turned out the work that Morgenstern and other cognoscenti consider his greatest, masterpieces such as one of the earliest performances of "I Got Rhythm," and the futuristic, harmonically sophisticated "Chant of the Weed," which employed a whole-tone scale (and is best known today because Gil Evans recorded it).

Although Redman kept bands throughout the rest of the 1930s, for reasons that to this day aren't clear, he stopped innovating, leaning heavily on novelty numbers in an attempt at commercial success. This, along with an earlier tendency to overwrite—to "throw too much into the pot," in Morgenstern's words, were his only flaws.

Why, then, has Don Redman been lost to the ages?

1. The overwhelming dominance of soloing over ensemble playing over the last 65 years of jazz (which Phil Schaap recently has described as a "ratio of 99 to 1) has not only all but eliminated the need for arrangers, but belittled their past accomplishments.
2. Giordano says, "In big band work, the arranger always is the most neglected."
3. Redman made his most important contributions early both in his career and the history of jazz, while Henderson, who clearly learned from Redman, went on to update Redman's model, streamlining (but not simplifying) it in his upholstering of Benny Goodman's band, into a dominant big-band model for decades to come. Thus, Henderson, who Goodman praised to the end of his life, eclipsed Redman in the big-band creation myth.
4. For reasons that still remain murky, Redman didn't possess the necessary drive, ambition or luck to succeed in the Big Band Era. He was described as carefree. As a young musician, Giordano befriended two of Redman's ex-mates: trombonist Quentin Jackson (who later was an Ellington fixture) and Jimmy Butts. "Both said that 'Don loved his reefer' and that a lot of his musicians were of same persuasion."
5. He made unwise career choices, such as leaving Henderson's band at a time when it was reaching its peak, from 1928 to 1934.

6. Redman, while a fine saxophonist, was soon overshadowed on his main instrument, the alto, by Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter (and later by Charlie Parker).

7. Outside of writing freelance charts for, among others, Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James, Count Basie and Cab Calloway, and taking the first American band to Europe after WWII (a band that featured modernists such as Don Byas and Billy Taylor with some arrangements by Tadd Dameron), Redman spent the rest of his career in relative obscurity as Pearl Bailey's musical director.

Don Redman and His Orchestra: Classics 1931-1933A fascinating tidbit: Redman took over Jay McShann's band for a few months, right after Charlie Parker left, says Morgenstern. However, Morgenstern continues, "He wrote some nice charts for Bailey and smaller groups that included Charlie Shavers, and a very late recording, Don Redman's Park Avenue Chatter, with an all-star band featuring Coleman Hawkins and Hank Jones."

Still, Morgenstern admits, "It was kind of sad to see his career ending in relative obscurity, not commensurate with his accomplishments."

Sadder still, as Redman, described as a kind, gentle soul, was universally beloved by musicians. Morgenstern says, "Everybody who worked with him liked him. You could tell he had a sense of humor and a very engaging personality. I was present at a Count Basie recording session and when Don dropped by the studio, all the guys were really happy to see him."

Considering that every jazz innovator since (with the exceptions being Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman) has apprenticed in big bands—and yes, that includes John Coltrane—musicians everywhere should invoke the "Chant of the Weed" in gratitude.

Key Recordings

With Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra: "Copenhagen"
"Shanghai Shuffle"
"Whiteman Stomp"
"Sugar Foot Stomp"
With McKinney's Cotton Pickers: "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You?"
Recorded under the McKinney's banner but using stellar N.Y. musicians, including some Hendersonians: "Peggy"
"The Way I Feel Tonight"
"Miss Hannah"
With Don Redman & His Orchestra:
"Chant of the Weed"
"Shakin' the African"
"Trouble, Why Pick on Me?"
"Hot and Anxious" (composed and arranged by Horace Henderson)
"I Got Rhythm"
"Down Home Rag"
"Sweet Leilani"
"Milenberg Joys"

Musical Colleagues

Redman forged strong creative ties with several generations of great musicians, who either played in or with his bands, wrote arrangements for Redman or for whom Don contributed arrangements. Here's a short list:

Louis Armstrong
Coleman Hawkins
Benny Carter
Henry "Red" Allen
Big Sid Catlett
Joe Smith
Jimmy Harrison
Fletcher Henderson and Horace Henderson
Jimmy Dorsey (arrangements)
Bing Crosby (arrangements)
Benny Goodman(arrangements)
Harry James (arrangements)
Count Basie (arrangements)
Don Byas
Billy Taylor
Tadd Dameron (contributed arrangements)


Shamefully, no one has written a biography of Redman. However, information about him can be gleaned from the following sources:

Jeffrey Magee, The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz (Oxford University Press, 2005)

Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1991)

Richard Hadlock, Jazz Masters Of The 20s (Da Capo Press, 1988)

Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (Oxford University Press, 1986)

Morroe Berger, Edward Berger and James Patrick, Benny Carter: A Life in American Music (Scarecrow Press, 1982)

Walter Allen, Hendersonia: The Music of Fletcher Henderson and His Musicians (Self-Published, 1974)

Martin Williams, ed., Jazz Panorama (The Jazz Book Club by arrangement with Crowell-Collier Press, 1969)—contains an article on Redman by Frank Driggs

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