Below is a short essay that touches on some performance aspects relating to Don Redman's work. My thoughts arose out of my study of Redman and resulted in me writing a jazz suite.
David Hackbridge Johnson
Suite: Hommage à Don Redman
1. McKinney’s Stomp
2. Piedmont, WV
3. Henderson's Chant
4. Memories of the Greystone
5. Blues for Don
6. More Plain Dirt
Introductory Essay and Performance Directions
Who was Don Redman? It is amazing how even many professional musicians I meet have not heard of this important musician. He was born in 1900 and died in 1964. He is perhaps the first great arranger for medium sized and big bands. He first came to prominence in Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra where he was able to write tightly structured arrangements that nevertheless allowed room for hot solos by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins. When he left Henderson in 1927 it was to become musical director and alto saxophonist with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. In 1931 he formed his own band which featured some of his more modernistic compositions like Chant of the Weed (1931), a work that contains pre-echoes of Sun Ra. He kept his band going for a decade before becoming freelance, working with Count Basie, Jimmy Dorsey and Pearl Bailey among others. Redman's main instrument was the alto saxophone although as a child prodigy he could play most instruments by the age of 12! His playing bears comparison with other great, early alto players like Benny Carter. In fact it is possible that Carter was influenced by Redman. However it is perhaps as an arranger that Redman is better known. His scores abound with wonderful orchestrations and sumptuous harmonies and voicings. Like all the best composers he often confounds the expectations of the listener by doing something surprising or even disturbing. It is probably true to say that the Ellington and Lunceford orchestras owe much to the example of Redman's work.
My suite pays homage to a great jazz master. I have not used any of Redman's compositions but I have written the music in the spirit of his bands from the 1920s and 1930s. The movement titles refer to aspects of Redman's career. McKinney's Stomp refers to William McKinney, the founder of McKinney's Cotton Pickers. Piedmont, WV is the small town in West Virginia where Redman was born. Henderson's Chant refers to Fletcher Henderson. Memories of the Greystone makes reference to the Greystone Ballroom in Detroit where the Cotton Pickers held a residency. Blues for Don requires no explication. More Plain Dirt refers to the C. Standon composition Plain Dirt that Redman arranged for an exhilarating Cotton Pickers recording of 1929.
The suite is scored for 2 alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, drums, banjo and piano. This unit is somewhat smaller than the standard big band of the 1930s and 40s but was a common size for the 1920s. No amplification of any sort should be used. Amplification distorts the sound of the instruments and everyone ends up playing fortissimo. Loud bands like this don't swing! The musicians themselves must balance the music using their natural musical sensitivity. The drummer must be particularly careful not to drown out other instruments in these circumstances, using wire brushes if necessary. The tuba is an essential instrument in these arrangements as it was commonly used in big bands of the 1920s. The use of the electric bass is completely forbidden and constitutes a breach of copyright!
The saxophone section should adopt the tonal characteristics and playing style of a 1920s big band. If possible vintage instruments should be used since many modern saxophones produce a piercing, nasal tone completely at odds with the style of this music (or any music for that matter!). The section should try a fast quivering vibrato on sustained notes. Ascending scoops may be used towards notes at the peak of phrases. A close study of the saxophone section work in records by McKinney's Cotton Pickers or Don Redman's own orchestra can facilitate the required style for this suite. I have included written out solos for both alto and tenor saxophones although musicians are welcome to make up their own, indeed this is preferable. I would recommend listening to the solos of Redman and the tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Prince Robinson. Redman produces a beautiful, clear and open tone on the alto. He is certainly a hot soloist but never produces an ugly sound on his instrument. One of his best solos is on the recording of Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady that Redman made with his own orchestra in 1932. Robinson is a neglected figure but his solos show him to be a worthy rival to Coleman Hawkins. Indeed Robinson may have been influenced by Hawkins' earlier work with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.
Trumpeters used by Redman include John Nesbitt and Langston Curl in McKinney's Cotton Pickers and Henry 'Red' Allen, Rex Stewart and Sidney de Paris in his own orchestra. Their solo styles are worth listening to for trumpeters who wish to make their own solos in my suite. Stewart’s playing is well known from his work with Ellington. He takes a fiery, muted solo with Redman’s orchestra in Rocky Road (1931). One of the most outstanding trombonists during this period was Claude Jones; listen to his marvellous work on Plain Dirt (1929) or the irrepressible bounce of his solo on Milenberg Joys (1929). He blended great agility with elements of the tailgate style and his playing should be better-known. Above all he embraced the characteristics of the instrument rather than trying to make it sound like a different one.
Finally, great care and attention must be given to the rhythm section. Other writers have been somewhat dismissive of the two in a bar rhythm sections of this period, seeing them as somehow transitional towards the emergence of the working bass lines of the swing era. This notion is mistaken in my view. The feel provided by these rhythm sections in uniquely pointed and springy and traces its ancestry back to the marching bands of New Orleans. It is a therefore a style in itself. The much scoffed at banjo is actually a crucial part of rhythm sections during this period. Dave Wilborn's playing with McKinney's Cotton Pickers is bouncy and quite aggressive. Despite the relative size of the band his playing is picked up quite well in the early recordings and his presence can be felt throughout. Pianists used by Redman included Todd Rhodes, Fats Waller, Horace Henderson and Don Kirkpatrick. It is vital that pianists do not adopt the comping style used in modern jazz. They should provide a bass line in conjunction with the tuba and use offbeat chords with the right hand. In soloing an awareness of stride techniques is desirable. Listen to Rhodes' solo on Will You, Won't You, Be My Babe? (1929) for an example of stride playing that perhaps doesn't require the ne plus ultra technique of Waller. Redman's early groups often used either Billy Taylor or Ralph Escudero on tuba. Redman had played with Escudero during his years with Fletcher Henderson. It is a mistake to imagine the tuba as a lumbering, heavy instrument; it is possible to play it with lightness and agility. Vaughan Williams' Concerto and the brilliant modern jazz playing of Bob Stewart are good examples of the instrument's versatility. Redman's tuba players really swing when playing a basic two pulses per bar in common time and when the instrument is used for sustained notes it provides a marvellously rich bass to the ensemble. With regard to drumming, we are so used to the modern style of playing it is difficult to find players who are adept at New Orleans and swing drumming. This problem is made more difficult by the fact that the work of drummers is often obscure in recordings from the 1920s. However the excellent work of Cuba Austin is quite discernible in the McKinney's Cotton Pickers recordings of the late Twenties. Drummers should pay particular attention to the fact that he does not drop bombs with his bass drum and he doesn't play a swing pattern on a ride cymbal. There doesn’t appear to be a hi-hat on off beats either. His basic rhythmic pattern often consists of press rolls on offbeats with occasional use of the cymbals for accents. His use of this technique in a slow tempo can be most clearly heard after the vocal chorus on Gee! Baby, Ain’t I Good to You (1929). The band really sounds astonishing at this point. On the aforementioned Will You, Won't You, Be My Babe? (1929), Austin’s choppy snare patterns are very audible and his preternaturally tight choke cymbal work on Milenberg Joys (1929) is superb. Occasionally Austin plays wood blocks or cowbells and their use is to be encouraged provided it doesn't become a gimmick.
I have made these copious remarks not to stifle creativity but to encourage players to find new things in the recreation of some nearly forgotten styles and techniques. I am particularly interested in stimulating group performance of this style of music. Early jazz was always such a collective experience; a metaphor for communal living, at once an uplifting art but also one that in the case of black musicians meditated on the sufferings of a people under oppression. If modern jazz has now focused on the star performer as soloist that is because the purpose and role of jazz has now shifted. My view is that a re-acquaintance with ensemble jazz of the 1920s can invigorate musicians of any stylistic persuasion. At the very least, if my suite can stimulate discourse between musicians and jazz lovers, I shall count it a success.
©David Hackbridge Johnson, 2006