Featured Music: Wednesday, September 17, 2003
Jazz Festival by the Boulevard featuring Dewey Redman, Spyro Gyra, Bertha Coolidge, and more\r\nSat-Sun at Camp Bowie Blvd & Lancaster Av, FW. Admission is free. 817-763-5299.

Fort Worth’s Dewey Redman has tenor, will travel.


Dewey Redman never planned to have a career as a jazz musician. When the Fort Worth native left home to seek his fortune elsewhere, first on the West Coast and later in New York City, his intention was to play for five years, then return home to teach school. But all of his five-year plans went awry. This week, he returns home for only his fourth Cowtown performance since the ’80s, at this week’s inaugural Jazz by the Boulevard festival.

At 72, Redman is one of the most respected jazz voices on the tenor saxophone. Reviewing a 1989 performance at New York’s Knitting Factory, a Down Beat writer hailed him as “our greatest living tenor saxophonist by several standards: endurance, inspiration, burly tone.” In the past, Redman has dismissed such extravagant praise, but he’s clearly a master of his craft. While best known for his work in the avant-garde, he’s far from a one-trick pony. Like Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp, he’s proven himself to be equally adept as a balladeer, a bluesman, and a bebopper.

It’s ironic that many jazz neophytes know him only as the father of the highly successful (but less titanic) saxophonist Joshua Redman. The elder Redman has toured the world with jazz innovators Ornette Coleman (whom he met while both of them were students at I.M. Terrell High School in the ’40s), Keith Jarrett, and Pat Metheny and has recorded prolifically since the ’60s, including a dozen albums as leader. His last released recording, 1999’s Momentum Space, found him pushing his sound into the air in between pianist Cecil Taylor’s dark, dense atonal splendor and the polyrhythmic thunder of drummer Elvin Jones. A more representative recording is 1996’s Live in London, a pristine quartet date on which he deftly mixes inside and outside playing — straight-ahead and free-form. In the course of a set, he’s been known to sing through his horn, recite poetry, and improvise on the musette, a small reed instrument with a bagpipe-like sound.

Although he’s slowed his pace since being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 (he’s currently in remission), Redman’s hardly been idle. Last year, he was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowship for music composition, and he used the grant money (along with a couple thou of his own) to produce a jazz video entitled Musics, Musics, Musics. He’s currently at work on two books: a “non-academic” treatise on playing the saxophone and an autobiography. His ’70s albums Ear of the Behearer and Musics have been re-released on c.d., and he’s in the process of getting organized to market his own music.

He’s excited by the opportunities that the internet offers musicians. “Now,” he said, “you don’t have to beg a record company to let you record.” An encouraging development, in light of the response Redman received from a big-time jazz record producer the last time he tried to interest a major label in his music. “He told me, ‘I know who you are, but I can’t do it,’” said Redman. “He said what they’re looking for is young black artists, preferably under 30 and good-looking. Music is not a top priority.”

On a torrid Sunday afternoon in August, a few days after appearing with Mayor Mike Moncrief at Will Rogers Memorial Complex for a press conference announcing the festival, Redman sat down to discuss what he modestly refers to as “my so-called career” in the living room of the South Side house he inherited from his mother in 1999. Although Redman’s lived in the same rent-controlled apartment in a mostly West Indian neighborhood in Brooklyn since he arrived in New York, he’s been a regular visitor to Fort Worth for years and says he plans to spend more time here.

He’s philosophical about being second on the festival bill to Spyro Gyra, and he’s hopeful that the festival will succeed in building awareness of Fort Worth’s jazz heritage. “I have a list of dozens of great musicians who came from here,” he said. One gets the sense that he’s happy to be playing a show in his hometown that someone’s actually promoting — unlike 2002’s Juneteenth extravaganza, where he performed outside the Fort Worth Convention Center to something like 10 people.

He understands that his bracing brand of music can be a tad daunting for folks whose idea of jazz is the smoove kind. He recalls one of his neighbors in Brooklyn confronting him and demanding, “Can you play like Kenny G?” and repeats an account he heard from fellow tenorman David Murray of a show where the World Saxophone Quartet opened for the G-man and was interrupted mid-set by the entire crowd chanting, “We want Kenny!” “And,” he said incredulously, “these were black people.”

Redman followed a circuitous path into the jazz world: college, military service, a teaching career — and then full-time music. Born in the Fort in 1931, he started playing the clarinet at age 13. He originally wanted to play trumpet, “but the teacher told me that my lips were too big! After that, I always looked at trumpet players’ lips. I think he just needed clarinetists.” In the band at I.M. Terrell, Redman rubbed shoulders with future jazz greats like Coleman, Julius Hemphill, Charles Moffett, Prince Lasha, and Ronald Shannon Jackson.

He first encountered Coleman hanging out on Evans Avenue. “Ornette was the first vegetarian I knew and the first guy I saw with his hair marcelled,” said Redman. “A cop saw him and said, ‘Nigger, get that shit off your head!’” Redman remembers walking in the rain to stand outside a club window and listen to Coleman play an early R&B gig. “At first,” he said, “Ornette played in a Louis Jordan style in jump bands. Then he graduated to playing like Bird [bebop originator Charlie Parker]. When Ornette started playing like Ornette, nobody thought it was unusual. It was just his style, whether he was playing chord changes or not.”

A formative influence on many of the younger Cowtown jazzmen was saxophonist Red Conner, whom Redman remembers living “in a little shotgun house on the South Side, always practicing. It wasn’t until I left town and heard guys like John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon praising him that I realized how important he was.” Redman bought an old alto saxophone at a pawnshop on Evans Avenue to help him gain free admittance to jam sessions, but he was reluctant to get on the stand with more experienced players. “I couldn’t play,” he said. “When they invited me up, I’d just say, ‘I’ll play at intermission.’”

Prodded by his mother to attend college, Redman enrolled in Tuskegee University, the prestigious, historically black Alabama school. “Without benefit of counseling,” as he put it, he chose an electrical engineering major but had difficulty with “math, calculus, and climbing on phone poles.” At Tuskegee, he had his first experience playing jazz, as a member of the college swing band. “The band director asked me if I could play, and I got in the band by faking the beginning of [Woody Herman’s] ‘Blue Flame,’” he said. Redman’s academics weren’t strong enough to carry him, though, and at the end of his first semester, he found himself back in Fort Worth “in disgrace.”

Enrolled at Prairie View A&M, Redman majored in industrial arts and led a trio with pianist James Tatum and bassist Herman Wright. By his second year there, he was playing alto in the school’s swing band, the Prairie View Collegians. The following year, he reluctantly switched to tenor when the band’s tenor player graduated. When Redman himself graduated in August 1953, his student draft deferment expired, and he was inducted into the Army two months later. He spent two years at Fort Bliss in West Texas, where he auditioned unsuccessfully for an Army band and played in an off-duty quintet with blind trumpeter Jerry Hunter.

Back in Fort Worth after his discharge, Redman worked at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, a lumberyard, and Amon Carter Field before he heard of an opening for teachers in Bastrop. He taught high school shop for a year before taking over as band director. “I started the band,” he said. “We’d sell cakes and pies to buy instruments. Those were some of my best years. I learned as much as I taught.” While teaching, Redman played weekend gigs with blues bands in nearby Austin and earned a master’s degree in education over three summers at North Texas State College (now UNT).

By 1959, friends were urging Redman to try breaking into the New York jazz scene, but he was hesitant — “I didn’t think I could compete.” Instead, he headed out to Los Angeles to try to find his father, whom he didn’t really know, and “hadn’t seen in 15 years or heard from in 12.” After a fruitless search, he received a telegram from Fort Worth informing him that his father was terminally ill in a Dallas veterans’ hospital.

The L.A. jazz scene proved to be a dead end. Redman’s Terrell classmate Coleman had been there, but he’d already moved on to New York. Redman stopped in San Francisco for what he thought would be a couple of weeks, but found a thriving jazz scene there and wound up staying seven years. In the city by the bay, Redman wrote and arranged music for a big band he co-led with alto saxophonist Monty Waters and held down gigs at the after-hours clubs Bop City and Soulville.

At Bop City, Redman had his first meeting with the most influential saxophonist of his generation, John Coltrane. Although they never played together, Redman would drop by to discuss music whenever Trane was in San Francisco. “I wanted him to tell me what to study, but all he’d say was ‘practice,’” said Redman. “I was pissed off, but he taught me that you have to get it yourself; no one else can teach you.” He was also impressed by the older musician’s humility. “I was a middleweight, not a heavyweight,” he said, “but I had an ego. Coltrane had no ego. He showed me that if you can play, someone will tell you; you don’t need to brag.”

During his San Francisco sojourn, Redman recorded his first album as a leader, Look for the Black Star, with drummer Eddie Moore (who worked frequently with Redman until his death in 1999) and sometime Coltrane sideman Donald Garrett on bass and clarinet. While some listeners believe the album’s title has racial or spiritual significance, Redman says it came from “a discussion about Indian ladies. The ones with the red star on their foreheads are married, so you have to look for the ones with the black star.”

A chance meeting in 1965 hastened his arrival in the Big Apple. While Redman was driving a San Francisco cab, he saw Coleman, just back from Japan, in the airport and picked him up. “Come play with me,” Coleman said. In 1967, Redman moved to New York and became a member of Coleman’s band, playing on the albums Love Call and New York Is Now. Those recording sessions teamed Coleman and Redman with the “classic” Coltrane rhythm section of bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. “I was shaking in the studio, thinking ‘I’ve got no business being here,’” said Redman. “It didn’t help that I saw [saxophonist] Joe Farrell sitting there with his horn, reading the paper. Jimmy had to pull me aside and calm me down.” Redman also appears on Coleman’s albums Friends and Neighbors, and Crisis!, and Science Fiction.

Redman was a member of the Coleman group that was touring Europe in 1971 when bassist Charlie Haden was arrested by Portuguese police after a concert in Lisbon. “We played Charlie’s tune ‘Song for Che,’” said Redman, “and he dedicated the piece to the liberation of Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea, where Portugal was fighting a war at the time.” Redman and Haden continued playing together through the ’80s in pianist Keith Jarrett’s group, Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, the Coleman alumni band Old and New Dreams, and the band that came together on guitarist Pat Metheny’s album 80/81.

In July 1997, Redman was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “I had no pain; I felt like nothing was wrong, except I had to pee a lot,” he said. “That’s why it’s a silent killer. It scared me to death. Luckily, it hadn’t metastasized.” He chose surgery as an alternative to five-days-a-week chemotherapy and currently takes hormones to manage his condition. He’s become active in trying to spread awareness of the disease, playing at several benefits and serving on a related committee in Brooklyn. “The effect of this disease on African-American men is devastating,” he said. “The incidence is three times what it is among white men, because black men won’t go to the doctor and because of their high-fat diet.”

On Saturday, Redman will take the stage at 7:30 p.m., accompanied by a band of Austin- and San Antonio-based musicians: pianist Andy Langham, bassist Hamilton Price, and drummer Gerry Gibbs (son of vibist Terry Gibbs). “I’m still here, and I can still play a couple of notes,” he said — a typical understatement from a Fort Worth native son who’s finally receiving some hard-won recognition at home.

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