Dewey Redman, from his first gig in a Baptist church to his years in high school and Prairie View A&M University playing march, concert and swing music, through various rhythm and blues and jazz groups to leadership of his own ensembles, has achieved high respect and gained prominence in the music world. Perhaps the key to Redman's artistry is his versatility. Being able to adapt, execute and communicate different styles, moods and tempos is a unique talent in itself. To listen in 2003 to Dewey Redman is to hear a consummate artist in his prime, whose message is clear, masterful and dynamic.
Dewey Redman, John Addison Concert Hall, Harmony Hall Regional Center, Ft Washington, Maryland, December 7, 2002 © 2002 Ronnie James Photography
RJ: You're originally from Texas and started out on clarinet. What jump-started you and got you into this music?
DR: What jump started me into music was first buying an instrument because I'd been listening to music all my life. Music was in my house. And there was a place across the street -- a juke joint that had music and I used to sit on my front lawn and listen to it. I finally decided at the age of 12 that I wanted to play an instrument. I eliminated the instruments I didn't want to play like the trombone and the piano, because they had too many keys. I didn't want to play the violin and so I figured out in my juvenile mind that what I really wanted to play was the trumpet because it only had three keys. I figured I could master that. So I went to this music teacher, he was a brother, you know, and he said, "You can't play the trumpet because your lips are too big." I was embarrassed but he was a teacher who had a church band. That's the first gig I had in my life, in a church. But I found out later he needed clarinet players -- he just told me this to fluff me off. So I started playing clarinet which is at this point a lot better than playing a brass instrument because reed players last a lot longer. That's how I got started playing clarinet. And then from there I went to Prairie View A&M and I started playing saxophone.
RJ: You gave up a teaching career to become a full time musician. What courses did you teach and where?
DR: I was teaching in a small town in Bastrop, Texas, right out from Austin. I had 5th grade Homeroom. I taught geography, reading and other subjects, it has been a long time and I really don't remember but I know it was a great experience.
RJ: You didn't teach music?
DR: Yes, it was music, I had high school music in the afternoon. In the morning I had the 5th grade. That's the reason they hired me, to continue their band thing. I was hired as a band director really, but if you teach in a small school, you have to do a little bit of everything.
RJ: Are any of your former students notable musicians out there making it now?
DR: I don't think so, I don't know. This was a long time ago, in the late '50s.
RJ: You were a member of both Ornette Coleman's and Keith Jarrett's groups. What were the main differences in their musical styles?
DR: That's a good question -- yes! Well, Ornette of course, he was much freer. It's hard to put music into words you know. A lot of people have tried to do that and very few have been successful. You can write a lot of adj ectives and adverbs and everything. Most arts are like that. But anyway, playing with Ornette was more loose, more freedom, yet there was discipline there and playing with Keith it was tighter. Keith wants his music played exactly as he wrote it.
RJ: What elements make your recording Live in London one of your personal favorites?
DR: Because I think the music on it is good, if you don't mind me saying so. My thing is to play a variety of music, not just in one direction all night. I like to play a ballad, I like to play an avant garde ballad, I like to play avant bebop, I like to play bebop, I like to play the musette. So my repertoire is varied. That's the way I prefer to do it because it keeps me interested and keeps the musicians interested, and hopefully it keeps the audience interested.
RJ: On Momentum Space with Cecil Taylor and Elvin Jones, [recorded in New York on August 4 and 5, 1998] you stated nothing was written down and there were no notes. Was everything recorded on the first take?
DR: No, we did an average of two takes a tune. I don't remember the exact number of takes but it wasn't a long time. I listen to rock musicians and they say, "Well, we did this album in only 11 months." [laughter]. Rock albums are done in a lot of time but they run jazz musicians through there pretty fast! I mean, 11 months -- I wouldn't know what to do! [more laughter]
RJ: You've stated you always wanted to play in Africa, China, and Brazil. You made it to the Chivas Jazz Festival in Brazil in 2002. Did this experience meet your expectations?
DR: Yes, Brazil was nice. We played in Rio and San Paulo. And also last year I played in Cape Town, South Africa, so the only one left is China.
RJ: Any plans for China?
DR: No, not at the moment. I'm working on it.
RJ: You wanted to play trumpet when you were coming up. What trumpeters influenced you back then?
DR: It wasn't who influenced me; it was that the trumpet only had three keys. All the other instruments had a lot of other things going on and I figured three keys, I could do that. But it didn't turn out like that.
RJ: How did you come to play the musette?
DR: I started playing the musette when I came to New York. Ornette Coleman had a variety of instruments. I saw the musette but not knowing anything about it, I took it home. It was called the French Musette at the time. I later found out it's called the Chinese Flute. It's made in China. They have this kind of instrument in Tibet and Mongolia. I studied it and I'm still studying it. I never took a lesson on it. I play it from where I am and from where it is. They have an instrument like that in all the cultures in the Middle East. And also in Africa they have an instrument like that. One of the places is tCameroon, so I try to do it in an African way because I'm African in my background.
RJ: Your son Joshua is obviously a great saxophonist. Between the two of you, who was more advanced ten years after picking up the instrument?
DR: I don't know -- I really can't address that because each musician has his own time that he develops. Joshua developed very early. Joshua was voted an outstanding soloist in high school in California. He was voted the most outstanding musician at the high school jazz festival. And of course, I'm a late bloomer. My essence didn't come out until later on in life because I was a school teacher first but I still played on the side. I didn't blossom until after I left Texas and went to San Francisco and then to New York. And it's that way with most musicians and in all the arts. If you start young and you have the talent then you're going to develop earlier.
RJ: Joshua seems to be taking his music in a different direction with his Elastic Band. Have you heard this record and what are your thoughts on his new direction?
DR: Joshua is a great artist. I'm better! [laughter] But he's more famous, you know. I'm very proud of him. What else can you say when your son comes out and makes more money than you do and gets more fame than you? I'm not jealous, just a little bit envious, you know. But still proud, of course.
RJ: How did your musical relationship with Jane Bunnett begin?
DR: It began a long time ago with Don Pullen. As a matter of fact we play a tune called "Don's Light". The relationship began maybe ten years ago I think. I'm very proud to play with Jane Bunnett. She's a great artist, as is Larry [Cramer, trumpeter and Bunnett's husband/musical partner].
RJ: If you could put together and manage the super jazz sextet of all-time, who would you pick for tenor, alto, trumpet, piano, bass, and drums?
DR: That's a difficult question. That would be a hard thing to put together. Probably for the alto I would pick Charlie Parker who to me is the greatest improviser ever. Trumpet probably would be Louis Armstrong. Drums, the category is wide. Tenor saxophone, the category is wide. It's difficult to put that together.
RJ: What's ahead musically in the immediate-to-near future for Dewey Redman?
DR: I plan to publish a saxophone book that I've written. I've never had a saxophone lesson so this is from where I am and what I've learned on the saxophone. Also I plan to publish my autobiography. To me, I've played with some of the best musicians around: a country boy from Texas trying to make it in the big city. That's about it. Actually the saxophone book is written already. I just have to get it together and get it published. The autobiography will take a little time.
RJ: Over-commercialism, young players not respecting the heritage, jazz reinventing itself, overseas jazz audiences vs. American audiences -- what's your general impressions on the art form today and where its going?
DR: It's difficult to tell. The way I see it is that jazz is in a state of depression, if you will. Even in Europe which has always supported jazz and also Japan there aren't as many gigs as there used to be. The reason for that, I don't know why. I don't think young people are exposed to jazz as they were during the time I was coming up. There might be a lot of reasons for it, but I don't think jazz will ever die because it's a very creative process and one never knows. As Fats Waller used to say, "One never knows, do one?"
Ronnie James is principally a jazz photographer, based in Washington, D.C.
C o m m e n t s
Dewey Redman Interview 1 of 3 Charles 'Rahmat' Woods
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January 27, 03
Nice Interview of one of my favorite artist. Dewey Redman is truly one of our great improvisers, and his avant-garde explorations have been an inspiration to me and a host of other musicians. Peace to you Brother Dewey!..Keep the sounds coming!