JJ 04/61: Freddie Redd interviewed

Sixty years ago Valerie Wilmer drew out considerable biographical detail on the pianist who came to fame for his part in The Connection and died last month. First published in Jazz Journal April 1961

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Freddie Redd

The Connection may have added in­sult to injury as far as the linking of jazzmen and “junkies” is concerned, but it has done the public a good turn with the introduction of Freddie Redd.

Freddie’s music has a decidedly different flavour to most contemporary “cooking”, and I for one was blissfully unaware of the considerable composing and playing abilities of this talented young pianist. However, during the course of several lengthy conversations, I discovered that he is a man who has been around musically.

Born on May 29th, 1928 in New York City, Freddie did not actually do any­thing in music until about the age of seventeen, but—”Always, ever since I was a little kid and used to watch the Salvation Army bands and that, I had an interest in music.

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“I always liked the piano and I had an uncle who used to play. As a matter of fact he played for the silent movies. I used to listen to him and sometimes wanted to play. So I always had the secret desire, but not the opportunity.

“I remember I left High School and went into the Service, and there they had a piano in every recreation room. That was April 4th 1946, and from that moment on I started teaching myself tunes. I never studied chords, not formally; I knew what I was playing but not the chords and things.

‘I applied to Greenwich House School of Music in Greenwich Village. But all that practice bored me to death! I didn’t have that kind of time to waste because I had that feeling to play inside me’

“We formed a little band in the Ser­vice, and I remember the time I sat in with the big band they had. I only knew two tunes and a blues, and I re­member sitting up there and playing my three tunes all night long! That was what really determined me to learn.

“But before that, what got me in­terested was when I heard a Charlie Parker record, Shaw Nuff. I sat up and said “Wow! What’s that!? What’s happening?’. I felt so in tune with him, you know. I felt so I understood and it was something personal.

“This really determined me to want to play that type of music, and while I was still in the Service I listened to Bud Powell’s records a lot. I didn’t hear Thelonious till some time later, because we didn’t have his records. In fact we only had about one LP, on Musicraft, I remember. There were V-Discs, but they were only swing things like Buddy Rich and Earl Hines and so on. We wanted to hear the new guys, who were just coming up.

“We used to play every day and half through the night. I ran into this guitar player, really a remarkable guy. His name was Eugene Jones and we became very good friends. It’s funny, you know, he was great but he hasn’t done anything since then. It was just like a dream, he came along and then he left. There was a drummer named Lee Langford and a bassist named Richard Mont­gomery. We had a tenor player from the infantry just across the road, Frank Spacer, and soon we got to the point where we used to play for officers’ dances and had quite a good little unit going.

“I got out in 1949 and suddenly had the desire to want to go to school, so I applied to Greenwich House School of Music in Greenwich Village. But all that practice bored me to death! I didn’t have that kind of time to waste because I had that feeling to play inside me.

‘We never made much money and we had an old ’38 car and used to go round all the gas stations and drain the hoses into a can! We knew if we could make ten gas stations a day we could get a full can!’

“So I took my first professional job at a place in Syracuse called Hy’s, a nice swinging little place with dancing, where the people used to come and listen a lot There were three clubs there at the time: Hy’s, The Embassy, where Philly Joe’s cousin was playing, and the Penguin, with Philly Joe himself. Ray Bryant and little Jimmy Oliver. So the town was jumping.

“Tina Brooks was on tenor with me. He and Jackie (McLean) are together on some Blues Notes just coming out, and he’s on another LP of The Connection I did for another company. But that was all fun then. We never made much money and we had an old ’38 car and used to go round all the gas stations and drain the hoses into a can! We knew if we could make ten gas stations a day we could get a full can!

“Then I came back to New York and worked around a lot of places, especially at amateur night things. They’d have a thousand guys playing and a thousand guys sitting in! There was such a big desire to play, and sometimes the musi­cians would sit around for hours waiting for all the singers to come off so they could blow.

“There were little places everywhere; everybody was blowing. Connie Kay, Randy Weston, Idrees Sulieman, bass player Earl Mayes, and Kenny Dorham were around too. Kenny’s got a nice group now with a cat named John Davis who plays baritone and a crazy little bassist named Boots Jenkins, who looks like he’s about seven feet tall!

‘Sonny’s got an odd place he goes to practise – up on Brooklyn Bridge. It was just him at first, but then Jackie and some others used to go up there, too. But Sonny isn’t concerned with com­petition’

“I used to play a lot of Monday nights at Birdland, and there was Lou Donald­son, Ritchie Powell and Sonny Rollins used to come around all the time. Sonny is a great musician; he’s a way of doing everything, and he’ll never be side-tracked. He knows what direction he’s going in and he’ll get there.

“I saw him about three or four nights before I left the States. He had his horn and I asked him what was happening. He told me he’d been working on some different fingerings for the saxophone, and he confessed that he’d done a gig and could hardly keep a good medium tempo going because of practising his new stuff.

“Sonny’s got an odd place he goes to practise – up on Brooklyn Bridge. It was just him at first, but then Jackie and some others used to go up there, too. But Sonny isn’t concerned with com­petition; that doesn’t worry him at all. People say ‘Man, wait till Sonny comes back on the scene’ – they like to have their little fantasies, but really he’s not interested; he doesn’t care at all.

“In 1951 I met Cootie Williams through my cousin, Gene Redd, who used to play vibes with Earl Bostic. Gene was Cootie’s road manager and told me they needed a pianist. I went along for an audition and toured all over with him for about two years. It was a great experience working with him because he’s a great player. Big Red Prysock was in the band at that time, and Gerry Potter, a really fantastic dancer, was on drums – great big-band drummer.

‘Cootie [Williams] was beautiful, as a per­son and as a musician. He has done so well financially because he’s a great gambler, too. Probably if he hadn’t been a musician, he’d have been the world’s best gambler. Now he’s bought himself a nice house’

“But Cootie was beautiful, as a per­son and as a musician. He has done so well financially because he’s a great gambler, too. Probably if he hadn’t been a musician, he’d have been the world’s best gambler. Now he’s bought himself a nice house, and though he only does one or two club dates now, I think that’s what he really likes.

“I remember I came back into town once and ran into a friend of mine who asked me if I wanted to work with a group of entertainers called the Jive Bombers. I had sort of prepared myself for everything, and knew it was all a part of it, and so I joined them. I used to have to play the piano standing up, you know! Actually, I got me a bad wrist because of that, leaping up after each number and leaning down again on the piano, but I really had a ball. We used to sing, too, four-part harmony stuff, and I dug it!

“We had Earl Johnson on tenor, Pee Wee Tenney who played guitar and danced, and on bass the funniest man in the world, Clarence Palmer, a great fat man about three feet high. As a matter of fact he used to be with the Palmer Brothers, you know, before the Mills Brothers ever got going. Well, I was with them for almost two years, making a living, but this must have been around ’52 or ’53 and by this time I wanted to play strictly instrumental jazz. The en­tertaining was all right, but I wanted to move on.

“There used to be a lot of sessions going on around town and we got paid for them, so I worked innumerable dances, different clubs, socials and all that. Then I started working with a vibes player named Joe Roland, and we made some records with Oscar Pettiford – he and Joe were good friends. I wrote a tune for the session called Stephanie’s Dance after my little girl. I travelled around with Joe for a while and went to the Town Tavern in Toronto: I had Ron Jefferson, who’s now with Les McCann, on drums.

‘I met Art Blakey and he asked me would I come with the group. This was the first Messengers, with Gigi Gryce, Joe Gordon, Bernard Briggs, and Sabu on conga. People seem to like the conga a lot now – I guess it stirs those innermost feelings!’

“After that I met Art Blakey and he asked me would I come with the group. This was the first Messengers, with Gigi Gryce, Joe Gordon, Bernard Briggs, and Sabu on conga. People seem to like the conga a lot now – I guess it stirs those innermost feelings! Purely from a musician’s point of view, it was really something, because Sabu’s a great player. What with Art and Sabu, that was a lot of drums!

“It was a great experience working with Art, because he always maintained a certain level – he never stopped swing­ing. But after Art I wasn’t doing any­thing much, just generally working around town, with some singers, small groups and so on. I continued to work ‘Monday Night at Birdland’, and as a result I worked with everybody from A to Z, including some concerts with J.J. and Bags at a little dance-hall down­town.

“Around this time I did something else for Prestige with Art Farmer and Gigi Gryce, and then one of my own, an LP with my own trio: Ron Jeffer­son on drums and John Orr on bass, who is someone you’ll probably hear a lot about. This was an album of originals, apart from Things We Did Last Summer – and I remember the num­ber, too; it was Prestige 190! I liked it. But after a while I realised that, let’s face it, I couldn’t do any more at the time. But I know I’ve grown since then and now I’m anxious to do another album under my own name.

“In 1956 I went to Sweden with Tommy Potter and Joe Harris in Rolf Ericson’s group. He had Lars Gullin, too, and we did some things with Ernes­tine Anderson. I stayed there for about four months I guess, touring all over from north to south – a beautiful country. When we got back to Stock­holm we made some records there for Metronome, and I did some with Benny Bailey. Now that’s a great trumpeter who hasn’t been around for years.

‘Mingus was always OK with me; he’s ex­plosive but he gets results. We did a TV show before we left, and I remember Wynton Kelly was going to make the gig, but he and Charlie didn’t get along and so we had to cut Wynton’s suit down to fit me!’

“When I got back, I ran into Charlie Mingus and he asked me would I come and rehearse with him. Well, I’d heard about Mingus and I didn’t know. I wasn’t going to be under anybody’s thumb. But I wanted to go to California and that’s where he was going, so I went and I was surprised that we got along. He was always OK with me; he’s ex­plosive but he gets results. We did a TV show before we left, and I remember Wynton Kelly was going to make the gig, but he and Charlie didn’t get along and so we had to cut Wynton’s suit down to fit me!

“At that time Charlie had a very fine alto player, Vernice Green, and a wonderful cat, Willie Dennis, on trom­bone. So we went out to Los Angeles first at a place called the Peacock and then did about three weeks at the Black Hawk in San Francisco. Then I left the band because I liked California so much, and I stayed out there for about six months or so. It was then that I came back and wrote San Francisco Suite, which was the title of my River­side album.

“That album was all originals apart from one tune I particularly like, By Myself. I’ve always written, ever since I first sat down at the piano. I’m anxious to set started again outside the show, because I feel I want to move on. I want to get a group together and really start playing.

“Around this time, though, when I was working with my trio around, I used to get a horn player to come in on weekends – cats like Benny Golson, John Coltrane and Cliff Jordan. As a matter of fact, I worked with John Coltrane in his group at the Continental in New York just after he left Miles. Louis Hayes was on drums and Wilbur Ware made it for a while on bass – now that really is my favourite bass player. We made some concerts down in Baltimore for the Interracial Jazz Society. As you know, Baltimore is very prejudiced, so I guess there were one or two rebels!

“All this time I never stopped writing. I carry a little book around with me and every time I get stuff I write it down. I’ve been playing tenor, too, for over a year now, but I feel like I’ve been play­ing it all my life. As a matter of fact, Alfred Lions, at Blue Note, asked me to let him know when I’m ready to record. It’s going OK, but not just yet!

‘You could say Bud influenced me most of all. I like him for his flowing lines and attack, and Thelonious I like for his beautiful harmonic things. And Horace Silver, too’

“As for influences, you could say Bud influenced me most of all, I guess. I heard all those flowing lines coming from there and knew that was what I wanted to do. He was with Parker at this time and doing the same things, on piano. I like him for his flowing lines and attack, and Thelonious I like for his beautiful harmonic things. And Horace Silver, too – he writes great stuff.

“But in the last five or six years I’ve really got to know Thelonious. Everything he does is music, you know, and he’s the most honest person you’ll ever find. They think he’s weird, but he never says anything unless he has some­thing to say. You’ll see him talking, and all of a sudden he’ll shut up, just like that, because it’s his time to stop!

“A friend of mine, Garry Goodrow, who’s in The Connection, used to play tenor sax, and it was through him that I got the part in the play. We used to go up to his house sometimes and have jam sessions, but I had no idea that he wanted to be an actor. Well, he asked would I come and see this guy, Jack Gelber.

“I always knew I could write for shows, so one day I finally got hold of his phone number and called him up. We had a few drinks and he told me what was happening and asked me would I like to do the music.

“So I agreed, and the play went into rehearsal. I got Jackie in for many reasons. He was the first person I thought of, because he was an excellent player and I knew he had some acting abilitv, and because, you know, we’re just friends. I got John Orr on bass and Al Levitt on drums, but during the course of rehearsal we had to change personnel a few times. Musicians get bored and disinterested for so many reasons, and so when the show opened on July 15th, 1960, we had Jimmy Corbett and a drummer named Clyde Harris.

“But when we recorded the music for Blue Note, we had Michael Mattos and Larry Ritchie. Actually, we’ve just made a movie of the play, too, with the same cast and one or two others.

“Some people think that the play gives jazz a black mark. I don’t think it’s indicative of anything. After all, we’re just acting, and someone else would have to do it. The whole situation itself is very probable, and obviously Jack chooses to use this type of thing as his vehicle because it just happens that this was the group he was familiar with and so he can express his point better.

The Connection: ‘I don’t think it harms jazz at all, not any more than it would harm medi­cine if it were about doctors. Junk is more easily accessible to doctors and so on, and there’s probably a lesser per­centage of addiction in the jazz world’

“I don’t think it harms jazz at all, not any more than it would harm medi­cine if it were about doctors. Junk is more easily accessible to doctors and so on, and there’s probably a lesser per­centage of addiction in the jazz world.

“People have asked me why I used my real name. As a matter of fact, I in­sisted on it, because I’m using it for publicity. I want people to know that I wrote the music, otherwise it wouldn’t serve my career at all, since I’m not an actor.

“But Jack really has written an astounding piece of work; it really is. People don’t realise that it’s the first time jazz and drama have actually been united on the stage, which means it could probably open up a new door for contemporary writers. A guy back home wanted me to do a jazz opera, and I think Thurber Carnival has some jazz in it (I believe Don Elliot was doing something). But The Connection was the first.

“It has given me the chance to play all the things I’ve written, and it’s in­spiring to me, amongst other things. Jackie feels the same way about it.”

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