How High the Moon: Don Redman's Jazz Legacy in 7 Recordings

Get to know Don Redman's influence

News | Jul, 17th 2017

By Loren Schoenberg

Just because Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb and Steve Jobs conceived of the iPhone doesn’t stop anyone from appreciating the other miraculous contributions they made throughout the course of their lives. For some reason, composer/arranger/saxophonist Don Redman’s reputation lies almost solely on the pioneering music he wrote for Fletcher Henderson’s New York-based band in the mid-1920s, rarely taking into account his steady growth as an artist in subsequent decades.

Jazz was a predominant flavor in the popular music of the 1920s, and West Virginia native Redman found creative ways of integrating it artistically into the dance music that Henderson’s outfit played nightly. When Louis Armstrong joined the band in 1924, it didn't take long for Redman to adapt the trumpeter’s thrillingly new ways of phrasing into his own arrangements. Within just a few years, Redman’s innovations spread their influence far and wide, and he continued to grow exponentially as an orchestrator of great skill.

This is his "Whiteman Stomp"—commissioned and recorded by Paul Whiteman for his large jazz orchestra in 1927—played here by the Henderson band. Listen for the incredible amount of instrumental combinations Redman creates. No wonder Duke Ellington was such an admirer of his! And let’s not overlook the virtuosity of the ensemble, including young tenor titan Coleman Hawkins.

Redman left Henderson to become the musical director of the legendary McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, a Detroit unit that was one of the best outfits of the late 1920s. He then formed his own big band in 1931. These were the years before white America woke up to what has became known as the “Swing Era,” but Redman’s band made many brilliant recordings and played all the major venues available to African-American entertainment. Radio broadcasts played a large role in spreading a band’s reputation across the county, and theme songs were the signature sound that let listeners know which band was playing. Redman’s "Chant of the Weed," with its mysterious harmonies and moody vibrations, fulfilled that purpose to a T. Unlike the majority of their peers, however, Redman’s ensemble also appeared on film. The following 1933 Vitaphone “band short,” as they were known, was shown in movie theaters before the feature film. It’s the equivalent of what we know today as music videos.

After the opening strains of “Chant of the Weed,” you can see Redman lead the band, sing in his engagingly intimate style, and sample his star soloists (trombonist Dicky Wells, clarinetist Ed Inge, and trumpeter Sidney De Paris), as well as a dance team, the band’s ballad vocalist, and others. Above all, listen to his superb orchestrations and the virtuosity of the band.

Another barometer of the band’s popularity was its appearance in the Betty Boop cartoon series, which was incredibly popular in the early 30s. Although the band is only visible for a moment, they play all of the music, including Redman’s songs.

Given his legendary status, other bands wanted to play Redman’s music. This is Count Basie in 1940 playing a brilliant arrangement of "The Five O’Clock Whistle," with Lester Young front and center.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Europeans and Scandinavians, already huge fans of American jazz for over a decade, hungered to see and hear their favorite bands in person. The group that Redman brought over in 1946 introduced the new sounds of Parker and Gillespie as well as the band’s more traditional fare to great acclaim. The star soloist was tenor saxophonist Don Byas; other outstanding players included pianist Billy Taylor, trumpeter "Peanuts" Holland, and trombonist and vibraphonist Tyree Glenn. Here are two Byas features from that tour: "How High The Moon" and "Laura."

After his great success overseas, Redman settled down to a comfortable life of commercial arranging and served as Pearl Bailey’s musical director through much of the 1950s. He died in New York City in 1964 at the age of 64.

Redman's last notable recording date was made in 1957, with a top-notch New York band that was very likely backing Bailey on one of her appearances. Coleman Hawkins, Redman’s old buddy from the Henderson days, was brought in as a featured soloist. These recordings have remained unjustly neglected, making it all the more important to share them now as Redman joins Jazz at Lincoln Center's Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame.

Loren Schoenberg is Founding Director and Senior Scholar of The National Jazz Museum in Harlem. He has been a faculty member at The Juilliard School, the New School, the Manhattan School of Music, William Paterson University, Long Island University and The Hartt School. Mr. Schoenberg has been published widely (including the New York Times), and his book, The NPR Guide to Jazz , was released in 2003.

Image courtesy Detroit Public Library.

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Learn more about the 2017 Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame class, which features two pioneering bandleaders and one of the greatest pianists to ever tickle the ivories.


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