Red Holloway: Jazz saxophonist who also played with John Mayall


Red Holloway, a tenor saxophone player who had a tone as big as the side of a house, made his name in jazz, but more quietly – or musically, more loudly – worked for John Mayall and a variety of rhythm'n'blues stars. "I enjoyed playing with Mayall," Holloway said. "He's a very good self-taught entertainer and I admire that. It takes an awful lot of nerve and perseverance to become successful like he did... We had a good working relationship."

Holloway was one of a number of hard-toned tenor players who came from Chicago; among the others were Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin and Van Johnson. Born in Arkansas, he was raised in Chicago and his playing had the hard tones of Windy City blues singers like Muddy Waters and Roosevelt Sykes – and indeed, he recorded with many of them. He could play fast, like Charlie Parker, because he was a bebop player, but his ideas were usually comparatively basic, being passionate rather than cerebral. In the 1960s he moved sideways to play with organists in the vogue for "soul" or gospel-inspired tenor playing.

He wasn't a front-rank jazz musician like Parker, but he had an exuberance and a comprehensive ability that allowed him to hold his own with many of the giants like Clark Terry, Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt. It was Stitt who encouraged him to play the alto sax. The two-tenor saxophone front line of their quintet (1977-82) was fashionable, and the music was given a much bigger range when both men played their altos. It led to some confusion, because Holloway liked to play in the upper reaches of the tenor, where its range crossed with that of the alto, and it was sometimes difficult to tell which horn he was playing.

His family was musical, with his mother playing piano and his father violin. They separated when Holloway was small and he lived with his mother in Chicago. When he was 12 his stepfather gave him a tenor saxophone and he soon had command of the instrument. He enrolled at Chicago'sDuSable High School, where the singers Nat "King" Cole and Dinah Washington had been educated, along with the jazz tenor players Gene Ammons and Von Freeman. Another tenor giant to be, Johnny Griffin, was in his class.

His first professional job came in 1943 when he joined bassist Eugene Wright's Dukes of Swing at the age of 16. Wright went on to be a pillar of the Dave Brubeck Quartet for many years.

Taken from school into the Army when he was 19, Holloway became bandmaster of the Fifth Army Band. When he returned to Chicago in 1948 he studied at the Chicago Conservatory for two years and found regular work with the blues singers BB King, Roosevelt Sykes and Willie Dixon. He formed his own quartet in the city in 1952 and worked there with it until 1960, backing stars like Billie Holiday and Ben Webster. He stayed on the fringes of the blues field, recording with Otis Rush and Pee Wee Crayton and touring with Memphis Slim and Jimmy Reed.

Holloway moved to New York in 1960 and in 1963 joined the quartet led by the organist Bill Doggett. In a significant move, he left after three months to tour with another organist, Brother Jack McDuff. His full-toned saxophone was ideal in competition with theelectric beast, and the two toured America and abroad for three years. For much of the time, the guitarist was George Benson. This was when Holloway made his name – and it was on their European tour that he first came to London.

"There's a certain mystique in being in Europe and in London too," he said. "I guess it's the history. You learn it all in school and then you get here and say, 'Hey! Is this really the Traitors' Gate?'"

For his tours in Britain his agent was Ernie Garside, who also handled Sonny Stitt's tours until Stitt's death in 1982. "I don't usually work without a contract, but my relationship with Ernie is so good that we never have one," said Holloway.

Holloway had settled in Los Angeles in 1967, where, from 1969 to 1984, he led the house band and booked attractions for the Parisian Room. He moved to Cambria in north California, but continued with his work in LA. From 1977 to 1982 he was also able to tour the world in the saxophone duo with Sonny Stitt; and in 1982 he came to Europe again with the pianist Jay McShann.

During the 1980s and '90s he toured with a variety of jazz musicians, including Clark Terry, Harry Edison, Harold Land and Joe Wilder. He played on the Floating Jazz Festivals that sailed around the sunnier parts of the Atlantic each year and appeared as a solo player at jazz festivals across the continents. During his career he appeared on innumerable recordings and recorded 17 albums under his own name.

Steve Voce

James Wesley "Red" Holloway, tenor and alto saxophonist and bandleader: born Helena, Arkansas 31 May 1927; married (marriage dissolved; two sons, three daughters); died Morro Bay, California 25 February 2012.