photo by H.K. Millar

Palmetto Records



Anyone who has worked with Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett is a Roadshow superhero. Dewey Redman has done both, so the Fireside chair is marked reserved for the tenor saxophonist. Redman was diagnosed as having prostate cancer a few years ago. He is in remission now, but as fans, we should all be grateful for every performance and every recording from one of jazz's most under-recognized voices. I am honored to present to you, Dewey Redman (father to one Joshua Redman), unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

DEWEY REDMAN: I have always been interested in the music since I was a kid. I used to sneak out of the house at night to go listen to bands that came though. There were no concerts. There were only dances, but I heard a lot of the old timers, people that you wouldn't know. And so my interest grew in music until I was about twelve, thirteen and I decided that I wanted to play music and I didn't know what I wanted to play. So I knew I didn't want to play trombone because it was too much exercise. The piano had too many notes. So I finally figured out that what I really wanted to play was the trumpet because it only had three keys. I went to my teacher. I went to a teacher and he was a brother and he said, "You can't play trumpet because your lips are too big." I was embarrassed and discouraged, but I found out later that he needed clarinet players because there was a church band that he was in charge of and nobody wanted to play the clarinet because it squeaked and so that was the reason that he told me this, but I never forgot it. And so my first gig was in a church and from then on, I was in high school. I played in the high school band and my interest in jazz was still there. There was a friend who had some Charlie Parker records when Bird first came out, whom I didn't like at all. But since, I have learned that he was the greatest improviser that I've ever heard. I went through college. I guess I am telling you my life story, Fred (laughing). Anyway, I went to Prairie View A&M, which is in Texas. I'm from Texas, you know, Fort Worth. My interest in jazz, I played in a jazz band, a college jazz band and then my interest was still in this music. And so after college, I was drafted into the Army and I never got out of Texas. I went to El Paso, Texas and I stayed there for two years and I met a wonderful gentleman, who taught me a lot about jazz. Then I went back to Texas and I taught school for four years in Texas, in a small town near Austin, Texas and then on the weekends, I would go to Austin and play in bands. And everybody said, "Hey, man, you sound good. You ought to be in the big time." I thought about it a couple of years and then I decided to go to New York, stay five years, get it out of my system, and then come back to Texas and teach school. However, it didn't work out like that. I've been in New York thirty-three years and the five-year plan just went to hell. Actually, when I left Texas, I went to California to find my father and that's another story and I finally found him because I hadn't seen him in fifteen years. Then, I am on the way to New York. I didn't like the Los Angeles scene because there was nothing happening. I'm on the way to New York and somebody says, "Go to San Francisco. You might like it there a little better." And so I went to San Francisco for two weeks and stayed almost seven years.

FJ: You seemed to get sidetracked a good deal.

DEWEY REDMAN: (Laughing) Yeah, but it was a nice community. I was there in the Sixties. It turned out to be, probably, one of the best places in America to be. Not only did they have the flower children and the protests against the Vietnam War and the love ins and the smoke ins and all of the other ins, they had a nice jazz community. It was a very interesting place to be. I almost forgot about New York. As a matter of fact, Fred, I used to see, there was the Haight-Ashbury district, but I used to see Janis Joplin walking down the street. It was the beginning of Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe & the Fish and The Grateful Dead and all of that. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was historic. Of course, the jazz community was good. I got a chance to play and it was great. It was much better than Los Angeles. And then, after about seven year, almost seven years, I decided that it was time for me to go to New York.

FJ: San Francisco's vibrant culture was emerging, why leave a sure thing for the lure of bright lights, big city?

DEWEY REDMAN: Well, it was time because my original plan was to go from Texas to New York. I was on a five-year plan. I was going to go from Texas to New York, spend five years there, get it out of my system, and come back to Texas. And so I arrived in New York in 1967 and I was thirty-four years old and had never been to New York before, but I knew Ornette Coleman. I had kept up with his music all this time and so he said, "When you come to New York, come to my house." He had a loft in SoHo and so I went to Ornette's loft and he said, "Bring your horn over." And so I brought my horn over and we just started playing some of his tunes that he wrote. He is a prolific writer. He can write ten tunes in ten minutes. It takes me ten years. Anyway, that was the beginning of my jazz career in New York thirty-two years ago. So I played with Ornette and within a year, I was playing with Ornette Coleman. It was a great job to me because nobody knew who I was. Here I was playing with one of the best known artists in the world. Then I started playing with Keith Jarrett. I played with Pat Metheny and many, many others, Old and New Dreams, Charlie Haden & the Liberation Music Orchestra, Carla Bley. Anyway, that is pretty much it up until now. But I have also had my own bands.

FJ: What was it about the Big Apple that had you abandoning the five-year plan?

DEWEY REDMAN: Well, the first thing, I had to go find my father that I hadn't seen or heard from in about fifteen years. So that was important to me and I knew that he was in the Los Angeles area, so I went to Los Angeles and I found him. It took me about three or four months because, actually, when I found him, he was dying. He was in the hospital, but I got a chance to see him before he passed. And then, it was on to New York, but San Francisco got in the way. And the real reason that I stayed there for a long time was that I had always played by ear. I didn't know anything about chord changes or two, five, one and all that. What I did was the last two years that I stayed in San Francisco, I rented a piano and learned about chords and changes and all of that on the piano. It was a great help to me because I knew that if I went to New York, I couldn't go to New York just playing by ear. I had to verse myself in the harmonic side of music and the technical side because you can't be in New York, you have to know damn near everything, even though I still played by ear mostly.

FJ: Even to this day?

DEWEY REDMAN: Even to this day. I can hear. I have relative pitch. I don't have perfect pitch. I can play. I can still play a couple of notes.

FJ: What subject did you teach?

DEWEY REDMAN: I was a fifth grade homeroom teacher. I was also hired as the band director because I had minored in music in college. I majored in something else. But I was hired primarily to be the band director in a small town. It is a very hard job because we had to practice after school. But I had a fifth grade homeroom, so I taught spelling, geography, I don't remember, Fred, because it's been so long ago now. But I had two or three subjects that I taught in the fifth grade.

FJ: Do you miss bestowing knowledge to the youth?

DEWEY REDMAN: Teaching, oh, there is nothing like teaching. Yes, I miss it, Fred, very much. I learned more from the kids than they did from me (laughing) really, about human behavior. The kids are very hip. Kids are very hip and I was always honest with them. I didn't try to be Mr. Big Shot or the great teacher. I interacted with them, but they knew that I was the teacher. I was honest with them and I think that is one of the greatest attributes you can have being a teacher is to be honest with your kids and let them know that you're honest, that you're human too. So I enjoyed it, Fred, and I miss it. And it's been so long ago. I still teach. I give private lessons, but it is nothing like teaching in school.

FJ: Here you are, first time in New York and you find yourself sharing the same bandstand with Ornette Coleman, who at the time was an icon in the big city. Nice.

DEWEY REDMAN: You better believe it (laughing). You better believe it, even though he was a friend. I knew Ornette in high school. We went to the same high school. Of course, in that era, all the black kids, I don't care where you lived, had to go to the same high school. I knew Ornette when he first started playing. First, he started playing like Louis Jordan. He began to play like Louis Jordan, he and another guy named Prince Lasha. Then he progressed through Bird and then he started the beginnings of playing like Ornette plays. We never thought it was that different. It was just the way Ornette played. It was accepted. Then he left Fort Worth and went to Los Angeles, where he stayed for a long time, over ten years before coming to New York. But it was a big thrill for me because knowing the history of Ornette, when Ornette came to New York in 1959, he exploded on the scene. You can imagine the outrage that he created in the jazz community. The beboppers didn't like him. There was a great controversy about Ornette. Whether this was jazz or even if it was music. He created quite a controversy in 1959 and when I got to New York in 1967, there was still, as a matter of fact, Fred, to this day, there are some people who do not accept Ornette. I think he's a genius and I don't that word lightly.

FJ: It has been over forty years since Ornette kicked the jazz world in the back of the head, why the debate?

DEWEY REDMAN: Because he had no, I mean, all the jazz music up to that point had bar lines. It had certain chords that you played on. That was the way it was. When Ornette hit the scene, he had no bar lines. There were no chords to play on. You really had to be creative. The heart and soul of jazz to me is improvisation. We might play the same horn, but we don't sound a like. There is nobody else that I know that's ever really captured Charlie Parker or John Coltrane or even Ornette. So his forte was improvising. He would write out a melody and then you would just improvise on it. You didn't have to play chord changes.

FJ: When I listen to both Love Call and New York is Now on Blue Note, Crisis on Impulse!, Science Fiction on Columbia, and Live at Prince Street available through BMG International, your tenor playing flawlessly compliments Ornette's playing.

DEWEY REDMAN: Well, it's just that whoever I play with, I try to, not only just play the music, but integrate myself into their sound because it was much different playing with Ornette than playing with Keith Jarrett. It required a different whatever that is. It is really difficult to put music into words, Fred, as you probably know. But it was a joy playing with him. And then, I didn't have to worry about chord changes or all of that. It was just great. I could just improvise and evidently, he liked the way I played and improvised. I played with him and we made quite a few records.

FJ: You made up the frontline of Keith Jarrett's vital quartet and quintet in the Seventies, making numerous recordings, principally for the Impulse! label, with the pianist that were liberal for their time.

DEWEY REDMAN: I met Keith through Charlie Haden because Charlie Haden was playing in the band at the time in Keith's trio and he suggested me to Keith and so that's how I started playing with Keith. I played a gig with him and he said, "OK, do you want to be in my band?" I said, "Yeah," and so that is how that started. And I played with Keith for maybe three or four years.

FJ: For a major player in the avant-garde, you have recorded barely over a dozen records in thirty-five years. Why have you not recorded more?

DEWEY REDMAN: Because, well, the main reason is that I never wanted to record six records a year. I didn't think that I had that much to say. But I am very proud of every record that I have ever recorded from the first one in 1966 called Look for the Black Star (Freedom) up until the present. I am very proud of every record that I have ever recorded, which is about eleven at this point, twelve, I am not sure. And then there was the thing with the record companies. It's always a hassle with the record companies. You don't have to always go to them on bended knees and suck up to the record companies. And I never did that. I don't know, Fred. That is the way it worked out. I never regret it. I know some guys who recorded a hell of a lot, but sometimes, if you listen to them, most of them sound just the same. But with my records, I tried to play a variety of things. On all of my records, I try to play a variety of styles. They don't all come off, but that is what I do. That is what I try to do.

FJ: Your debut on Freedom, Look for the Black Star, features the late drummer Eddie Moore, a terribly overlooked musician.

DEWEY REDMAN: We were friends too. Eddie and I played together for close to twenty-five years, on and off together. Eddie played with Sonny Rollins for a number of years and with Stanley Turrentine and with Ahmad Jamal and many others. Basically, during the latter part of his career, he played with me mostly. Eddie was a fantastic drummer. It was just fantastic. Like I said, Fred, it is hard to put music into words, but we were also friends.

FJ: As in the case of Eddie Moore, you also featured significant, yet unheralded, violinist Leroy Jenkins on The Ear of the Behearer (Impulse!).

DEWEY REDMAN: Well, it is not the instrument. It is not what you play. It is how you play it. To me, that's important and so I knew Leroy and also, I knew Jane Robertson. She plays cello on the record. But I've always tried to incorporate the player that I would thought would add to the music the best, whether they played violin or piano or whatever.

FJ: So rather than focus on instrumentation, you center on the player.

DEWEY REDMAN: It doesn't matter to me what tune you play. It matters to me how you play it.

FJ: Palmetto released an outstanding live set from you entitled In London.

DEWEY REDMAN: Yeah, live In London, which I think is one of my best. I think it is one of the best. Actually, all of it wasn't live. We recorded some in the daytime and then some at night. So I have some more from that recording session that I haven't put out yet.

FJ: Do you plan on releasing another volume?

DEWEY REDMAN: Yeah, in the future, yeah. As a matter of fact, Fred, I recorded this January another album that I haven't gotten around to putting out yet because I've been so busy. In the meantime, I have contracted prostate cancer, so I've been living with that for three years. As a matter of fact, last year, I gave the First Annual Jazz for Prostate Cancer Research Benefit in New York and the musicians gave their time and we did it at the Knitting Factory. We're going to do it again this year. The Knitting Factory gave us the space and we were able to raise almost five thousand dollars that we turned over to the American Cancer Society for research into prostate cancer because it is devastating our neighborhood. You know African-American are three times the rate of Caucasian men when it comes to prostate cancer.

FJ: What seems to be the reason behind the numbers?

DEWEY REDMAN: The only reason that the doctors know is, when I got it, I didn't even know that I had it. I had none of the symptoms or anything. That is a long story, but to make it short, the only reason they know is because African-American men don't go get checked up. It is not necessarily genetic, but I think maybe ten percent of all cancers are genetic, is that we don't go and we don't want to go. We don't know and we don't want to know. And by the time we get there, sometimes it is economic. We don't have the resources to go to the doctor. So that is the only reason they know and that is the only reason I know. I'm active in my neighborhood especially because up to forty thousand men are going to die from prostate cancer this year. Last year, unfortunately or fortunately, we had some high profile people in New York, including the mayor, who came down with prostate cancer and the chief of police and some other high profile people. But also, in the black community, when I researched this and I was trying to put this show on, I found out that there was a lot of jazz musicians who have prostate cancer including Kenny Burrell, J. J. Johnson, the Heath brothers, Jimmy and Percy. There is a long list of jazz musicians who have prostate cancer, I found out in trying to get this program together. I feel I have to give something back.

FJ: How are you holding up?

DEWEY REDMAN: I feel OK. I'm not cured, Fred. I'm just in remission. I feel glad that I'm here. When I was diagnosed, I went to the doctor and they take a PSA and that is a blood count and on the scale of zero to four, four being the highest, my PSA, my second opinion was two hundred and eight. The doctor told me that on the scale of one to ten, you have at least a seven of prostate cancer. It shocked the hell out of me because I had none of the symptoms. The symptoms are you pee a lot or you have lower back pain or you can't pee. Those are the symptoms. So I had none of the symptoms. That is another story, but I am looking forward to giving the Second Annual Jazz Prostate Cancer Research Benefit in New York this summer some time. A couple of months ago, I was stricken with pneumonia.

FJ: You're like Job.

DEWEY REDMAN: Yeah, man, you ever had it?

FJ: No.

DEWEY REDMAN: You don't want it. I've never been so sick in my life, Fred. I'd just played a gig in Tel Aviv and came back and so I got sick and my muscles were aching and I was coughing and I went to the doctor and they rushed me to the hospital quick in an ambulance and found out that I had pneumonia. It's been a couple of months, but I feel OK now.

FJ: A couple of years ago, remarkably, Verve released Momentum Space, a session coupling you with Cecil Taylor and Elvin Jones. Has Verve expressed any interest in a second volume?

DEWEY REDMAN: No, I don't. It would be nice but no I don't think so.

FJ: What label will be releasing your new record?

DEWEY REDMAN: I'm in the process of getting my own label. The live In London was the last really one that was put out, well, Momentum Space was on Verve. But I decided that, I mean, it is very difficult to find a record company unless you are a big, big star. If you are a big star then there is no problem. But if you are not a big star and you don't sell a lot of records, then, like, there is another member of my family, I can't think of his name now, that is very, he's a superstar. Uh, I can't think of his name right now (laughing). But if you are in that category, then there is no problem, but for, not only me, but for a lot of other lesser known jazz musicians, it is a real struggle and the way things are going now, why not? It seems that with this Napster business and people just taking music, why not have your own label? It is not that difficult to get a CD printed. So that is what I decided to do. So hopefully, this next record will be on my label.

FJ: As a father you must be proud of Joshua's success.

DEWEY REDMAN: Oh, extremely proud, although, he sometimes doesn't mention me in his interviews (laughing). I'm extremely proud of him and he is a nice young man and he's a fantastic player. I'm better, but he's, I'm very proud of him.

FJ: Final thoughts?

DEWEY REDMAN: One other thing, Fred. The way that I approach music is through sound. I figured that if I had a good sound, that would get me half way there, maybe more than half way. So everything I play, I try to play with a good sound. That is very important to me. That's the first thing on my list, is to play with a good sound. One day I sat down and figured out that everybody I liked, whether they played drums or piano or sang or whatever, what I liked about them was they had a good sound and so that has been my approach to music.

Fred Jung is the weakest link. Good-Bye. Email Him.