Dewey Redman

'Country boy' jazz saxophonist
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Walter Dewey Redman, tenor saxophonist, musette player, and bandleader: born Fort Worth, Texas 17 May 1931; married Lidija Pedevska (two sons); died New York 2 September 2006.

'In my world, the first thing I reach for is the sound. Technique is OK, but if you got the technique and I got a good sound, I'll beat you every time. You can play a thousand notes and I can play one note and wipe you out. That's what I reach for is a sound."

Although he was thought of as an avant-garde or free jazz player, there was much of the familiar in the tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman's playing. It probably had to do with his Texas roots and that state's tradition of big-toned blues playing saxophonists. He came up in the way that old-fashioned tenor players did:

I think of myself as a country boy from Texas trying to make it in the big city. I learned by trial and error and watching other saxophone players do what I do and asking them questions. That's the best lessons in the world.

The clarinet, which he took up at 13, playing in a church band, was to remain a minor part of his musical arsenal. But he bought an old alto sax to enable him to get into jam sessions free, and usually declined when the participants asked him to play. In the band at Fort Worth's I.M. Terrell Elementary School Redman first met as fellow students a surprising number of future jazz stars, including Ornette Coleman, Prince Lasha, Julian Hemphill, Ronald Shannon Jackson and Charles Moffett. He later majored in industrial arts at the black Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical University in 1953. Whilst there he settled on the tenor sax as his main instrument:

Ornette Coleman's always been a guiding light for me. All the stuff he's been through and he still hasn't received the recognition that he deserves, even though he has about a half-dozen honorary doctoral degrees. He still is not recognised. He's one of America's greatest artists ever. I've had people help me throughout the years, but he's the main one. He was also the first vegetarian I knew.

Called into the US Army in 1953 Redman took various jobs after his discharge two years later before taking a job as a teacher at a high school in the Texas city of Bastrop. He formed the school band and played weekend gigs in nearby Austin. Whilst there he also took a master's degree in education at the then North Texas State College.

In 1959 Redman travelled to Los Angeles in search of his father, whom he hadn't seen for 15 years. His search was fruitless and whilst in the city he received a telegram from Fort Worth to say that his father was terminally ill in a hospital in Dallas.

Dissatisfied with the Los Angeles jazz scene, Redman went to San Francisco for a couple of weeks. He stayed for seven years and co-led a big band with the alto saxophonist Monty Waters and worked regularly at the Soulville and Bop City jazz clubs. It was at Bop City that he met John Coltrane for the first time. After that the two met whenever Coltrane came to the city:

I learned a lot from him. He's the most spiritual person I've ever known. He didn't talk much, but he had this calmness. He was a great artist.

Redman wanted Coltrane to tell him what to study and was disappointed when advised just to practise.

By coincidence in 1965, whilst driving a taxi at San Francisco airport, Redman saw Ornette Coleman, just returning from Japan, and picked him up. Coleman suggested Redman should join him. Redman made his first album, Look for the Black Star, in 1966. A year later he moved to New York to play with the Coleman group.

He made two albums with Coleman for Blue Note and toured the world with him, staying in the band until 1974. In 1969 Coleman's bassist Charlie Haden established, with Carla Bley, the Liberation Music Orchestra. He and Haden also played for Keith Jarrett from 1971 to 1976 and led small bands of his own. He took up the musette, a small African instrument with a sound like bagpipes, and developed an original technique that involved singing through his saxophone.

During the Eighties he worked with Don Cherry, Haden and Ed Blackwell in Old and New Dreams, an Ornette Coleman reunion band. Redman made more than a dozen albums under his own name, one of the finest being the 1996 Dewey Redman in London and there was much critical acclaim for his 1998 album made with Cecil Taylor and Elvin Jones, Momentum Space.

Redman's son Joshua also became a tenor sax player and during the Nineties outstripped his father in fame and eminence. The two men worked together in 1991 and recorded together in 1992.

Slowed down by illness during his last decade, Redman made his last appearance at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Manhattan on 27 August.

Steve Voce

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