Composer’s Spotlight: Don Redman

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Whenever one is asked to define jazz, it is tempting to cite great jazz improvisers, such as Bird, Trane, Hawk, Brecker, and countless others, yet such a view would seem to be shortsighted. Developing out of Western harmony and African rhythms, jazz reached the peak of its popularity in the 1920s and ‘30s with the advent of the jazz orchestra, known know as the big band. In this genre, many great arrangers and composers (borrowing from the classical tradition) ushered in a tradition of extended forms, orchestration, and solo sections that helped to shape the sound of jazz. One of the earliest fathers of modern jazz composition and arranging is Don Redman


The grandfather of jazz composition and arranging, Don Redman was born in Piedmont, West Virginia, on July 29, 1900, the son of a music teacher and a singer. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Redman was well-educated in music, having studied theory at Storer College and the Boston Conservatory. After a short stint with Billy Page’s Broadway Syncopators in New York City, Redman joined the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1923, playing saxophone and clarinet.

Soon afterwards, Redman became Henderson’s first-call arranger, and wrote most of the band’s arrangements until 1927, when Redman left Henderson’s Orchestra for a job playing and writing for McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, based out of Detroit. Along with fellow arranger Josh Nesbitt, Redman was largely responsible for the enormous success of the band.  While with the Cotton Pickers, Redman composed several tunes, including “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” which remains a standard to this day.

In 1931, Redman left the Cotton Pickers to start his own orchestra. Redman’s orchestra saw a fair amount of success, but Redman ultimately disbanded the group in 1934 to focus on writing arrangements for others, which he did until his death in 1965. During the last thirty years of his life, Redman arranged for artists such as Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Dorsey, Count Basie, Harry James, and many others.

Compositional Influence

While Redman was not the first jazz arranger on the scene, his arranging techniques helped to define the style of jazz arranging that was popular during the ‘20s and ‘30s. Redman became the first major arranger to compose using mixed orchestration, meaning that he would harmonize melodies using combinations of brass and woodwinds. Furthermore, Redman was one of the first arrangers to develop huge spread voicings that made the band sound larger than it actually was. Redman was also one of the pioneers of the soli section, and was known for his brilliant ensemble passages, introductions, and codas.

Listening Examples

In this first example, “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” recorded by William McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in 1929, a number of Redman’s arranging techniques are showcased. First, he writes the melody as an independent lead in the saxophone section, while the brass play harmony underneath. Redman shifts the melody around among the brass and the saxophones, creating a call-and-response effect. The listener hears a mixed orchestration soli passage before being greeted by Redman’s voice (2:04).

The second example, “Chant of the Weed,” recorded by Redman’s orchestra in 1931, is light-years ahead of its time from a harmonic perspective. In this piece, Redman uses a number of techniques that would become commonplace years later, including the whole-tone scale (which was popularized by arranger/composer Gil Evans) and pedal point. We also hear some excellent background lines underneath the soloists, featuring outstanding contrast between percussive and sustained lines. The piece showcases Redman’s identity as one of the first innovators of jazz composition, illustrating the importance of his contributions to the jazz idiom.



          February 10, 2018