Thursday, October 2, 2014

Freddie Redd - The Thespian

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Freddie Redd has an endless imagination for melody.”
- Mabel Fraser, Jazz author

“Freddie Redd is a real master of melody. He has a lot more to say than many composers. He hears music in longer forms. All his compositions are long."
- Don Sickler, Jazz musician

“Unlike most professional jazzmen, Freddie didn't take up an instrument until quite late in his teens. Around 1946, when he was in me Army, Freddie began to pick up me piano on his own. After being discharged, he ... heard Bud Powell [on 52nd Street in NYC]. ‘Bud really got me started. I'd never heard a pianist play quite like that—the remarkably fluent single lines and the pretty chords. In time, Thelonious Monk got to me too. Actually, however, I've been influenced by many things I've heard on a lot of instruments. What I do is try to piece together what stimulates me into my own way of feeling things musically.’"
- Nat Hentoff



In his insert notes to Shades of Redd [Blue Note 21738], Nat Hentoff further explains that “... since his emergence as composer of the score for Jack Gelber's harrowingly exact play, The Connection (Blue Note 4027), Freddie Redd has finally been gaining some of the recognition that has eluded him for much of his playing career. Freddie also plays the taciturn pianist in the play with convincing effect. Although he hopes to work again in the theatre, Freddie remains essentially a jazz player-writer, and this album underlines his growth as a composer of vigorously expressive jazz originals. … Freddie's long association with the play had led to his being dubbed "The Thespian" by Joe Termini, the owner of The Jazz Gallery and The Five Spot in New York, and Freddie chose the nickname for the title of the opening tune.”

Hence, too, the title of this piece.


The Mask of Janus, the two faced Roman God is often associated with theatrical performances.  Janus is the God of beginnings and transitions, and thereby of gates, doors, doorways, passages and endings. He is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past. The Romans named the month of January after him in their calendar.

The structure of Freddie Redd’s The Thespian seems to fit perfectly into the easy duality represented by the Mask of Janus. It sounds like it’s two tunes, but it is really only one which is played at a faster tempo when it is repeated. The solos and the closing refrain stay in the faster tempo. It almost as though the musicians are practicing the tune at the slower tempo to figure out the fingerings on their respective instruments, how to phrase the melody and how the chords lay, before bringing the tune up to the meter it is supposed to be played in.

It takes a lot of skill to write something that sounds well when the phrasing is exaggerated and also when played in an up tempo.

Freddie once remarked: “I like pieces that I can elongate." The Thespian is certainly that - a stretched out composition.

When I think of Freddie, the image that comes to mind is that of a skillful composer who plays okay piano; kind of like Tadd Dameron, who has been featured in a number of postings on these pages, recently. For as Richard Cook and Brian note about Freddie’s piano playing in their Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.: “Redd is a player who hasn't been able to fall back on an absolutely secure playing technique.”

One would think that having made three albums for Blue Note -  The Connection, Shades of Redd, and Redd’s Blues [4037] - would merit more than a passing reference in Richard Cook’s “history” of the label, but that’s all you’ll find on page 137.


Mabel Fraser gives this  more detailed overview of Freddie’s career and his approach to music in these insert notes from his 1985 Uptown recording entitled Lonely City [UPCD 2730]:

"Music is like oral history. It's all born out of an inspired feeling." Freddie Redd's inspiration synthesizes Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron and John Coltrane. His music, however, has its own special resonance, its own mystique, its own creativity. He never thinks about who influenced him, although he acknowledges teachers and artists who inspired him "always leave something with you. You try and find yourself. They just point the way."

Somewhat like alchemy. Redd can transform a few notes into musical touchstones. "I hear a little phrase which gives me the feeling of someone. Dameron, for example. I just hear it. And I write what I hear.  I like pieces that I can elongate."

A lot of his music is like that. The cohesion among the notes sometimes gives an impression of intricacy, yet later we find ourselves humming the tune quite easily. The long melodic lines, the formats of the tunes, the memorable lyric evoke a musical combination of art and poetry. He is such a rich composer.

And yet commercial success has eluded him. "I never went after it. My motivation was the music. It took me wherever it was going to take me."

Freddie Redd himself is hard to categorize. He's a maverick, of sorts. Born in New York City on May 29, 1928, Redd grew up in Harlem. A late starter, he only began playing the piano at 18. He "sat down and played things by ear. Then I learned about chords and how they were connected." He also taught himself music notation. His "first job ever" was with Papa Jo Jones, the former Count Basie drummer, in New York in early '49, Later that year he played with Oscar Pettiford. During those days in New York, "you got to know everyone pretty well. Monk, Bird, Powell." He met Charlie Parker at the studio of an artist-Friend. Redd had fallen asleep by the fire and "woke up and there was Bird, looking down, laughing." He also met Bud Powell. Both were sporting similar hairstyles. Redd "hated barbers I wouldn't cut my hair, so I had the first Afro in the Village."

In the early 50's, he played with Cootie Williams, Coleman Hawkins, Joe Roland, The Art Farmer-Gigi Gryce Quintet, and in '54, Art Blakey. His first recording was for Prestige in '55 and in '56 he toured and recorded in Sweden with Tommy Potter, Joe Harris, Benny Bailey and Rolf Ericson. The tour had been arranged for some Swedish and American All Stars by a Swedish radio broadcaster working in New York. "A mutual friend, knowing a replacement was needed, asked me. I was available. The very next day I had my passport."

When Redd returned to the US, he settled in San Francisco, where he composed a "series of impressions of that city," recorded as San Francisco Suite (Riverside) in '57.


Redd's reputation as a jazz composer grew when he wrote the original score for the 1959 off-Broadway hit "The Connection." "I was living on First and Bowery in a loft. The Five Spot, later a famous jazz club, was a few blocks away Gary Goodrow, o tenor sax, and I sessioned there together. He became involved in acting and told me that Jack Gelber, the author of the play, was looking for o musician-writer. We met, I wrote the music in a short space of time and Gelber liked it." The play, about the misery of junkies waiting For the 'connection,' owed part of its success to the avant-garde use of the musicians. Freddie Redd, Jackie McLean, Michael Mattos and Larry Ritchie actually took part in the play as actors and musicians. The Connection, the jazz event of 1959-60, was later made into a movie, using the same musicians. Redd recorded two LPs of The Connection, one on Blue Note and one using the alias 'I Ching' on Felsted.

Throughout most of the 60's and 70's, Redd lived in Europe, "because of the environment over there. We were considered artists. There was employment opportunities." He stayed in London for two years with The Connection, then moved through France and Germany. Although he played "everywhere," he only recorded a trio session Under Paris Skies (Future) in 1971.

In the late 70's, Redd returned to the US, and while living in Los Angeles he recorded Straight Ahead in '77 (Interplay Records), picked by Swing Journal in Japan as one of the best jazz records of the year. Although he continued playing, his main interest was composing. "As a professional, you have to make records and a presentation of yourself. But I never bothered. I wanted to create." The need to survive led him to many odd jobs, for "there is very little subsidy for artists in the US." He moved to Jackson, Mississippi as "an artist in residence" for a musical project that never materialized.

Redd then turned up in Washington DC in '84. He "was booking talent and playing at Woody's on the Hill near Howard University, with Philly Joe Jones, Bill Hardman, and Junior Cook." Redd contacted producer Bob Sunenblick at Jeff Barr's suggestion. Barr, a noted jazz record dealer and writer for Jazz Times, had earlier brought up Redd's name as a musician deserving contemporary recognition. Bob agreed and by mid-84, when Redd was in Washington DC where Barr lived, the three cooperated in renting a piano and setting up rehearsal space. Redd then began working on the music for Lonely City.

In New York, Bob contacted Don Sickler, arranger of many Uptown record sessions and trumpeter-arranger for Philly Joe Jones' band, Dameronia. Redd composed the tunes and Sickler wrote the arrangements. Sickler considers Redd a "real master of melody. He has a lot more to say than many composers. He hears music in longer forms. All his compositions are long." Redd stayed at Sickler's house in New York and they spent many hours playing together while Redd worked out the music. Consequently, he developed a great feeling for Don’s musicianship. …

The history of jazz is full of valid musicians who proved to be as ephemeral as their music. Freddie Redd should not be in that category. With his simple melodies and lilting poetic tones, Redd's talent radiates on this record. His concepts, his sound, have an exciting touch and a haunting quality. He should be considered one of the great living masters.”

Freddie Redd is still going strong today at the age of eighty-six [86].

You can hear Freddie’s original version of The Thespian with Jackie McLean, alto saxophone, Junior Cook, tenor saxophone, Paul Chambers on bass and Louis Hayes on drums on the following video montage which features images of Japanese Kabuki actors done in the woodblock print style known as “yakusha-e.”


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