Joshua Redman: Contributing to the Collaborative Art Form

September 5, 2007

Joshua Redman

Since he emerged on the scene in the early ’90s, Joshua Redman has been one of the world’s most celebrated jazz musicians, releasing a number of acclaimed recordings and performing to sell-out crowds across the globe.

The son of tenor great Dewey Redman, Joshua could be said to have been genetically predisposed towards musical achievement. But his own career path and life choices speak to an independent, creative spirit that would have certainly inspired and defined many successes, regardless of lineage.

After extensive music study as a youngster within the Berkeley, California public school system, Redman attended Harvard University, where he earned a B.A. in Social Studies. Afterwards, however, he deferred studying law at Yale in order to immerse himself in New York City’s jazz culture. It was during this time that Joshua, coming from relative obscurity, was awarded top honors at the Thelonious Monk competition.

Since that time, Redman has collaborated with some of the most significant artists of our time – Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Branford Marsalis, Yo Yo Ma, John Scofield, McCoy Tyner, Stevie Wonder, Joe Lovano, Jack DeJohnette, Bill Frisell, and Herbie Hancock, to name but a very few – and has done his part to help move jazz forward as a relevant, compelling art form. Joshua recently spoke with JAZZed about his past, present, and future as a jazz artist and scholar.

JAZZed: First off, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
Joshua Redman: Not a problem at all – I’m looking forward to this.

JAZZed: From my understanding, you’ve been playing music pretty much since day one. When did you pick up the saxophone?
JR: You’re right; I’ve been around music my whole life, in some way. I started playing sax in the fifth grade.

JAZZed: Was your father’s legacy a big catalyst in your choosing the sax?
JR: Yes and no. My father was a huge influence, but kind of from afar. He was an influence on me in the same way that a lot of great saxophonists who I never met were influences on me – people like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, and so on. But I didn’t grow up with him [Joshua was raised by his mother, Renee Shedroff, after she and Dewey separated], so my father wasn’t a direct parental influence on me.

At least on a conscious level I never felt like I was choosing to play the saxophone because I wanted to carry on some sort of paternal legacy or because I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my father. Who knows what goes on on the subconscious or unconscious levels? I just loved the sound of the saxophone and had grown up listening to saxophone music – I had my father’s records in the house and Ornette’s records and I always appreciated the sounds of the saxophone. It wasn’t the first instrument that I played, however. It was the first that really learned to play with any degree of competence, but I had had an interest in music from a very early age.

JAZZed: Talk to me a little bit about your other early musical pursuits?
JR: Sure. Working backwards: In fourth grade I had started on the clarinet and I took some piano lessons around that time as well. I also taught myself some rudimentary guitar even before that. Additionally, I took some lessons on the recorder when I was seven or eight. Before that my mom took me to this place, The Center for World Music, where I received a basic introduction to some non-Western instruments and music like South Indian drumming and Indonesian gamelan. So I had been interested in dabbling in music for some time, but I think I always had it in my head that I wanted to at least try the saxophone.

JAZZed: Could you expand on what attracted you to the instrument?
JR: I certainly had an affinity for the saxophone and I did feel comfortable with it. I think I felt comfortable because I really loved the sound and I also really enjoyed improvisation. Jazz is the music that allows you to improvise the most and the sax is obviously such an improvising instrument in jazz. For all those reasons I liked the saxophone.

Some things came naturally for me and some things didn’t. I don’t want to say that I was naturally born to play the saxophone. Some things I’ve struggled with throughout my life as a saxophonist and some things have come easier to me.

Joshua RedmanJAZZed: Let’s talk about some of your early mentors and teachers.
JR: Well, I feel like my biggest teachers were probably the musicians who I listened to on record or whose performances I’d go to see.

Speaking of specific mentors, there was a man who was in large part responsible for the jazz programs in the Berkeley (Calif.) Public Schools: Phil Hardymon. He was the director of the Berkeley High Jazz Band [] at the time and he really helped establish a tradition of quality an excellence at the high school level. A lot of great musicians have come out of Berkeley High.

JAZZed: What, specifically, do you recall Phil having done to foster such a strong program?
JR: Well, for one thing, he developed great feeder programs through the elementary and intermediate schools, so that he would have these jazz bands that younger students could play in and then when kids got to the high school level they already had that foundation. I was able to be playing in decent jazz groups by the end of elementary school.

JAZZed: You were already playing in jazz ensembles in sixth grade?
JR: Yes, and in addition to his work at the high school, Phil Hardymon was the director of the jazz ensembles at my elementary school, so he was a really key figure in my development.

Another significant mentor was my clarinet teacher, Larry Nobori.

JAZZed: This was before you started on the sax, yes?
JR: Yeah, but I continued on clarinet even after I began playing saxophone – through about seventh grade, or so. In the end I stopped because it was too hard! [laughs]

JAZZed: What were your experiences at Berkeley HS?
JR: Well, by the time I got to Berkeley High, Phil was actually no longer the band director. He had some health issues that had become serious. He actually ended up passing away in 1994 at a very, very young age.

The band director at Berkeley High when I was a student, Charles Hamilton, is still there now and he certainly was a mentor of mine, as well. My time at Berkeley was unquestionably significant.

JAZZed: What was it about the culture of the school that contributed to such a strong jazz curriculum?
JR: I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that there was any sort of “jazz curriculum” in place, actually. Basically being in the jazz program in the Berkeley schools meant playing in thejazz band. But the mere fact that there were jazz bands in the school system – and not only at the high school level – that was a major feat for a public school at the time. Also, having a great educator like Phil Hardymon – he had a system that obviously worked and, once a standard of excellence is established within a community, I think that can easily be self-perpetuating.

JAZZed: Agreed. Do you care to expand on that thought?
JR: Sure. If a high school has a great football team for a few years, all of a sudden there’s a tradition that’s established and a lot of times that will continue on its own momentum. I think the same thing applies to the Berkeley system’s approach to music education.

For me as a kid coming up through the school system, I could look to guys that had come out of the high school before me – people like Peter Apfelbaum, Steve Bernstein, Benny Green, and Craig Handy – and see them as immediate role models. I think that had a very big impact.

Also, Berkeley is a very progressive community and there’s a real appreciation and respect for the arts and a real creative energy – sometimes a kind of wild creative energy – which was reflected in the student music ensembles. The Berkeley High Jazz Band was known for having really good players, and playing with a lot of passion and energy, but we weren’t known for being great sight-readers or being a really tight-knit ensemble. So I think there are things about the community that spilled over into the character of the Jazz Band as well. Finally, it’s a community that supported music in the public schools. The kind of people who lived in Berkeley obviously saw the importance of it, so it was funded.

JAZZed: After high school you attended Harvard University – although, interestingly, not to study music. You did continue to perform jazz, though, correct?
JR: The Harvard music program for undergraduates is basically extracurricular. There was a jazz band at Harvard under the direction of Tom Everett, who’s still there now. I played in that band for two and a half years and it was great. During the school year I didn’t spend that much time playing, but I was part of the Harvard Jazz Band and that kept me sharp. Also, there was a great department – the Office of the Arts – and they would sponsor arts-related activities on campus. They’d bring in great artists from many different fields for short residencies. When I was in the Harvard Jazz Band we had some really great jazz musicians who came to work with the band via the Office of the Arts: Illinois Jaquet, Benny Carter, Joe Henderson, Jane Ira Bloom.

My experience at Harvard was primarily not musically oriented, however. During the school years, I really focused on academics. It was during the summers that I played more with musicians from the Boston area.

JAZZed: What were some of the Boston venues you’d play at?
JR: Oh, The Willow in Somerville, The Regattabar, Wally’s, and a bunch of little cafes in the area where students would have gigs.

JAZZed: It was after your time at Harvard that things really began to get interesting for you professionally – talk about that time a little bit?
JR: When I graduated from Harvard I had already applied and been accepted to Yale Law School and it was my intention to go, but I asked for a year deferment because I thought I just needed a break, you know? It was kind of a last-minute decision to move to New York.

JAZZed: What was the motivation behind that last-minute decision?
JR: Some friends of mine – musicians who I’d met in Boston – were living in Brooklyn and they needed another roommate to help share the costs, so I moved in and slept on the living room floor and paid my rent and it was the first time that I was in a music-intensive environment 24/7. All of these musicians were committed to a life in music and they were really on the New York scene. So I started playing all the time, also – jamming with other musicians and I guess things kind of snowballed. I then entered The Thelonious Monk Competition and I ended up getting first place.

JAZZed: That’s a big deal.
JR: Yeah, it was a huge surprise. It wasn’t really a big deal to me, though. I mean, I don’t like the idea of competition in music, especially in jazz. So it wasn’t a big deal to me in terms of my own perception of my self-worth as a musician. It wasn’t like I won it and said, “Hey! Look at me!” In fact, I won and was like, “I shouldn’t have won.” [laughs] But it certainly did help get my name out there and within a few months I was getting opportunities to go on the road with some of my heroes – some great jazz musicians.

JAZZed: Tell me about those collaborations?
JR: I want to stress that initially I didn’t feel like it was collaboration as much as education. I wasn’t “collaborating” with Charlie Hayden when I went and played with him – I was getting my ass kicked; I was learning. The same is true with Elvin Jones or Jack DeJohnette, or Paul Motian. They were nice enough and kind enough to treat the people who played with them as peers, but I didn’t see it in that sense. For me it was just an incredible opportunity to learn at the side of great master musicians. It was the same with my father – I had a chance to play with him quite a bit for the first two years I was in New York.

Those experiences have been invaluable to me. They’re definitive, life-changing experiences and it’s because of those opportunities that I not only started to learn how to play, but also decided that I wanted to learn how to play, that I wanted to play and pursue a life in music.

JAZZed: How does the experience of being a leader differ from working as a sideman?
JR: My band-leading philosophy is to “lead” as little as possible. I really try to make the experience as similar as possible between playing in someone else’s band and leading my own. What I mean by that is, as a bandleader, I see myself creating more opportunities for myself to learn by playing with great musicians. Almost always they’re musicians who are either of my generation or a younger generation, but still I’ve tried to surround myself with the best musicians I can.

With one of my first bands – which featured Christian McBride, Brian Blade, and Brad Meldhau – I felt like these guys were light-years ahead of me, musically. In a context like that, what does it mean to be a “bandleader?” Well, I write some of the music, I count off the tunes, I write the checks [laughs]. For me, jazz is a collaborative art form and I think the best jazz is made by groups and not by individuals. It can be about individual achievement and ability, sure, but in the context of the collective. So I strive to create a situation where everyone has a voice and everyone is an equal contributor and there’s a real musical respect and empathy and dialogue happening.

One of the ironies or paradoxes of jazz is that jazz is one of the most collaborative, truly group-oriented forms of music, yet the jazz business has always presented projects as one person’s group. In the history of jazz, there are very few “bands” that aren’t “so-and-so’s trio” or “so-and-so’s quartet” – it’s almost always attached to one individual even though it’s one of the most collaborative art-forms.

JAZZed: Can you tell me about your own experiences as a music educator? Do you teach master-classes, for example?
JR: I’ve done master-classes. I have to admit that I’m usually a little bit hesitant – not because I don’t enjoy them or don’t get anything out of the process, but simply because I don’t really feel like I’m qualified to do them yet. The reality is that many performance opportunities come with a request for a master-class, so I have done many. My approach is very… I don’t come with a syllabus or a lesson-plan – put it that way. I don’t come with a clear sense of, “This is the way to play the saxophone” or “this is the way to play jazz.” I try to be available as someone who’s had certain experiences and who can maybe be a resource. I’ve had great experiences doing master-classes, but I think a lot of times the best teachers aren’t necessarily the best or most accomplished players. Teaching is an art and a discipline unto itself and, because of that, I’ve never taken money for a private lesson. I’ve never officially taught privately before and I kind of told myself I wasn’t going to do it until I felt ready. Recently I realized, “Well, maybe I’ll never feel ready.”

JAZZed: It does seem hard to reconcile your abilities and your success with the notion that you’re not “ready” to share some of your knowledge. What do you think would have to happen for you to feel it’s time to teach more?
JR: I think I would have to feel like, “OK, if a student at any level comes to me and sits down with me for an hour or two hours, I can really give some valuable information and guidance that’s#133; that’s worth the price of admission” [laughs]. I know that I can play and that there are some things that I can do musically that have value, but just because you can play and you’ve had a lot of experience doesn’t mean that you can necessarily impart something of value to a student. As I gain more experience and work on certain things, myself, I think I’m starting maybe to develop more of that sense. So maybe by the time I’m 40 – which is only a year and a half away – I’ll think about teaching classes.

JAZZed: In whatever context – master-classes, one-on-one, or anything else – what is the most rewarding thing you’ve gotten out of teaching, thus far?
JR: For me, on a selfish level, the most rewarding element is getting to hear great, enthusiastic musicians. To be around young musicians who have a lot of enthusiasm and a great desire to play the music and are hungry to learn about it is inspiring as well.

JAZZed: Any thoughts or advice to share with jazz educators?
JR: I really don’t think I have advice; I have great appreciation for what they’re doing. It’s great that they’ve committed themselves to helping perpetuate the music and helping to teach future generations. I think that’s amazing and I have the utmost respect for those individuals.

There are thousands and thousands of musicians out there who have equaled and surpassed my level of ability. As far as recognition, I’ve been very fortunate, but the one thing that I am satisfied with, or the one thing that I’ve done “right,” is I’ve never allowed any of that recognition or lack of recognition to impact how I view my own music and how I view the musical opportunities that are presented to me. I always see myself as just a young musician – now getting older, sure – but a young musician who loves the music, loves to play, and loves to learn. I’ve tried, and continue to try, to put myself in situations where I can play with the best musicians possible and learn from them and grow with them. That would be my advice to anybody.

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