originator of the Big Band Swing sound
Redman was announced as a member of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame on May 6, 2009.
Redman was born in Piedmont, West Virginia. His father was a music teacher, his mother was a singer. Don began playing the trumpet at the age of 3, joined his first band at 6 and by age 12 he was proficient on all wind instruments ranging from trumpet to oboe as well as piano. He studied at Storer’s College [He was the first African American to have a bachelors degree in music and played 28 instruments] in Harper’s Ferry and at the Boston Conservatory, then joined Billy Page‘s Broadway Syncopaters in New York City. (He was the uncle of saxophonist Dewey Redman, and thus great-uncle of saxophonist Joshua Redman and trumpeter Carlos Redman.)
In 1923 Don Redman joined the Fletcher Henderson orchestra, mostly playing clarinet and saxophones. He soon began writing arrangements, and Redman did much to formulate the sound that was to become big band Swing. (It is significant to note that with a few exceptions, Henderson did not start arranging until the mid-1930s. Redman did the bulk of arrangements (through 1927) and after he left, Benny Carter took over arranging for the Henderson band.)
His importance in the formulation of arranged hot jazz can not be overstated; a chief trademark of Redman’s arrangements was that he harmonized melody lines and pseudo-solos within separate sections; for example, clarinet, sax, or brass trios. He played these sections off each other, having one section punctuate the figures of another, or moving the melody around different orchestral sections and soloists. His use of this technique was sophisticated, highly innovative, and formed the basis of much big band jazz writing in the following decades.
In 1927 Jean Goldkette convinced Redman to join the Detroit, Michigan-based band McKinney’s Cotton Pickers as their musical director and leader. He was responsible for their great success and arranged over half of their music (splitting the arranging duties with John Nesbitt through 1931). Redman was occasionally featured as their vocalist, displaying a charming, humorous vocal style.
Don Redman and his Orchestra
Redman then formed his own band in 1931 (featuring, for a time, Fletcher Henderson’s younger brother Horace on piano), which got a residency at the famous Manhattan jazz club Connie’s Inn. Redman’s band got a recording contract with Brunswick Records and a series of radio broadcasts. Redman and his orchestra also provided music for the animated short I Heard, part of the Betty Boop series produced byFleischer Studios and distributed by Paramount. Redman composed original music for the short, which was released on September 1, 1933.
The Brunswick records Redman made between 1931-1934 were some of the most complex pre-swing hot jazz arrangements of popular tunes. Redman’s band didn’t rely on just a driving rhythm or great soloists, but it had an overall level of arranging sophistication that’s unlike anyone else of the period.
Notable musicians in Redman’s band included Sidney De Paris, trumpet, Edward Inge, clarinet, and singer Harlan Lattimore, who was known as “The Colored Bing Crosby”. On the side Redman also did arrangements for other band leaders and musicians, including Paul Whiteman, Isham Jones, and Bing Crosby.
Redman recorded for Brunswick through 1934. He did a number of sides for ARC in 1936 (issued on their Vocalion, Perfect, Melotone, etc.) and in 1937, he pioneered a series of swing re-arrangements of old classic pop tunes for the Variety label. His use of a swinging vocal group (called “The Swing Choir”) was very modern and even today, a bit usual, with Redman’s sophisticated counter-point melodies. He signed with Bluebird in 1938 and recorded with them until 1940, when he disbanded.
In 1940 Redman disbanded his orchestra, and concentrated on freelance work writing arrangements. Some of his arrangements became hits for Jimmy Dorsey, Count Basie, and Harry James. He appeared onUptown Jubilee on the CBS Television network for the 1949 season. In the 1950s he was music director for singer Pearl Bailey.
Don Redman died in New York City on November 30, 1964.