Redman, Don(ald Matthew)

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Redman, Don(ald Matthew)

Redman, Don(ald Matthew) , groundbreaking swing-era composer, arranger, leader, alto and soprano saxophonist; b. Piedmont, W. Va., July 29, 1900; d. N.Y., Nov. 30, 1964. He was an important early jazz arranger, though certainly not, as often claimed, the first or the only of his era. However, he was writing for a band with great soloists and wisely left them room to improvise, mixing ensemble passages with solos, incorporating clever breaks, and call-and-response patterns between sections or individual players. Don’s brother, Lewis, led a band in Cumberland, Md., for many years, their father was a noted music-teacher. A prodigy, he began playing trumpet at the age of three, and before he was 12 could play proficiently on all wind instruments including oboe. As a high school senior he was already writing arrangements. After intensive musical studies at Harper’s Ferry and the Chicago and Boston conservatories, he graduated from Storer Coll. at 20 with a music degree. He worked in Piedmont for a year, then worked with Billy Paige’s Broadway Syncopators, a Pittsburgh band. He went to N.Y. with them in March 1923. Later that year he began recording with Fletcher Henderson and subsequently joined the band early in 1924. He was with Henderson on sax and worked as staff arranger until June 1927. He moved to Detroit to take an appointment as musical director for McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, a position he held until summer 1931. During this period he arranged and recorded with Louis Armstrong studio groups in Chicago. In October 1931 his first band was formed by combining a nucleus of ex-McKinney members with several musicians from Horace Henderson’s Band. The band began their first long residency at Connie’s Inn in 1932 and subsequently worked regularly throughout the 1930s until disbanding in January 1940. Nobody objected to the title of his instrumental theme, a whole-tone based theme called “Chant of the Weed,” though it was obviously a paean to marijuana. The band consolidated its considerable success by appearing on many important radio shows; he was the first black bandleader to have his own radio show. They also appeared in one short film made by National in 1935. Throughout the 1930s Redman also arranged for Paul Whiteman, Ben Pollack, Isham Jones, Nat Shilkret, and others., and also produced specially commissioned orchestrations for Bing Crosby. After his original band broke up in January 1940, he concentrated on freelance arranging, then re-formed again in December 1940. In February 1941 he toured briefly fronting the Snookum Russell Band, then returned to N.Y. to become staff arranger for Bobby Byrne. He returned to freelance arranging, scoring for many name bands; he provided Jimmy Dorsey with the arrangement of his big hit “Deep Purple.” He reformed a big band for residency at The Zanzibar, N.Y. (1943), then resumed full-time arranging for Count Basie, Harry James, NBC studio bands, and others. He formed a band for a European tour commencing September 1946, then remained in Europe after the band broke up; he returned to the U.S. in August 1947. He had his own series on CBS television in autumn 1949. From 1951 worked as musical director for singer Pearl Bailey. Redman rarely played in public during the last few years of his life, but recorded on alto, soprano, and piano in 1958–59. He played piano at Georgia Minstrels concert in June 1962 and soprano sax for the Sissle-Blake Grass Roots concert in September 1964. During his later life, he worked on several extended compositions, which, so far, have not been publicly performed.


Shakin’ the African (1931); Doin’ the New Low Down (1932); For Europeans Only (1946); Don Redman’s Park Ave. Patter (1957); Dixieland in High Society (1959).

—John Chilton, Who’s Who of Jazz/Lewis Porter