Transcending Jazz

April 26, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Saxophonist Joshua Redman and his band smoked at the Virgin Megastore in San Francisco as they played music from their new album, “Beyond.” (Playing saxophone) Redman is one of the shining stars in the jazz firmament now.

His discs routinely sell in numbers more common to rock than jazz. The “New York Times” last year called him one of the rare musicians who have both critical acclaim and cross-over appeal. And the Associated Press has named him the crown prince of the tenor saxophone. (Playing saxophone)

He almost stole the show in Robert Altman’s 1996 film “Kansas City,” playing jazz great Lester Young. (Playing saxophone) This year Redman is spending a lot of time in San Francisco as artistic director of the spring season of San Francisco Jazz, a nonprofit group that produces and promotes jazz in the bay area.

JOSHUA REDMAN: Come on, right there. What’s your name?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He grew up in Berkeley, where he played in the Berkeley high jazz band, graduated from Harvard summa cum laude, and was accepted into Yale Law School; but he became a professional musician instead. We spoke to him on the stage of the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You told “Downbeat” Magazine, “jazz is a calling. It isn’t a rational decision, but something that is spiritual and emotional.” When did you know it had called you?

JOSHUA REDMAN: I realized it had called me when I sat down to inform Yale Law School of my decision whether to attend or not to attend. And at that time, at the time that I thought it was… It was supposed to be a decision, I realized I couldn’t do anything else. I was having the opportunity to play with some of the greatest jazz musicians on the planet, both young and old. And the way the music inspired me, the feeling I got from playing the music, I felt like I had to do it.


JOSHUA REDMAN: I learned by listening and by doing. I’m not… I’m not really a trained musician. I’m not an academically trained musician. I think that there’s a great place for academic training in music, but ultimately the real lessons you learn are through the sounds that you hear and the way you interpret those sounds.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So Berkeley High, for example, where you were in a jazz band that won… Constantly would win the first prize in jazz band competitions, was it important? Was it an important part of it all?

JOSHUA REDMAN: What the Berkeley High jazz band taught me was the fun that you can have playing music, and the importance of strong social bonds and camaraderie and community with music. I mean, music isn’t just the notes that you play. Music is a set of relationships. You know, music is personality. Music is communication. And what Berkeley High taught me is that you have to have that kind of rapport with your fellow musicians, off the bandstand as well as on.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Redman’s mother raised her son alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley. His father is Dewey Redman, also a highly acclaimed jazz saxophonist. Occasionally, he and his son perform together. (Playing saxophone) (cheers)

JOSHUA REDMAN: I did not grow up with my father. And so I grew up listening to his music and loving his music, but I also grew up listening to the music of John Coltrain and Sonny Rollins and Stevie Wonder and the Beatles and Aretha Franklin, whom I never met. My mother exposed me to music. She exposed me to the entire spectrum of the creative arts, and she exposed me to life and gave me kind of a creative instinct and passion for life.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Redman has been composing and performing almost nonstop since winning a major New York Jazz competition in 1991. Here he is last year with his band– Aaron Goldberg on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Gregory Hutchinson on drums playing Redman’s 1993 composition “Alone in the Morning.” (Playing “Alone in the Morning”)

JOSHUA REDMAN: There’re some compositions that I wrote a long time ago that I would never think about playing now, and there are some that still have stood the test of time for me. And it’s a very, very simple melody and actually, you know, a simple set of harmony. You know, it’s a simple tune, but there’s something about the feeling of it that still feels relevant to me and to the band. And it allows us to communicate a certain type of peace and lyricism and even romanticism, but at the same time, we can be adventurous within that and searching within that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve said that there’s almost telepathic communication between you and the other musicians when it’s working.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you mean by that?

JOSHUA REDMAN: What I mean by that is that anything can happen at any moment. That’s the ideal in jazz is to express the moment spontaneously, to capture that moment and to express it and to express it in terms of the group. You know? I mean, there is structure and form to jazz, and there’s a vocabulary to jazz, and all those things are very, very important. But ultimately what we’re trying to do, I think, is to transcend all those things. You know? So no matter where we are in the form or the structure of the music, there needs to be a feeling that all of us together are creating something which transcends that form and which is based in the feeling of the moment. (Music playing)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve said about jazz that it’s high art, that it’s America’s classical music. What do you mean by that?

JOSHUA REDMAN: Well, I’ve said that it’s high art, but that we shouldn’t see it only as high art. I mean, it’s high art in the sense that it’s one of the most advanced, sophisticated, demanding musics out there. And I think it’s worthy…

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let me just interrupt, what do you mean, “advanced, sophisticated, demanding”?

JOSHUA REDMAN: It’s really, really hard to play.


JOSHUA REDMAN: It’s really… It’s really hard to play. And on a certain level, it can be hard to appreciate. I mean, the harmonic and rhythmic language of jazz is very, very complex, you know — more complex than maybe any other form of western music except for classical, European classical music. So I think we need to respect jazz and appreciate it as a high art, but also understand that it’s… that it’s music of the heart– not just the art, but the heart and the soul. (Music playing)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’re very inclusive in the kinds of music that you would consider jazz, or that you yourself use. You used a Bob Dylan song in one of your CD’s, for example.

JOSHUA REDMAN: Mm-hmm. I want my music, as a jazz musician, to be expressive of all my experiences and all my influences. So I felt that, you know, if there’s a Bob Dylan or a Joni Mitchell or a Stevie Wonder song that I love and that I can… that I feel I can interpret honestly and creatively as a jazz musician, why not try it?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The SF Jazz evening concerts programmed by Redman this spring, like this one featuring guitarist Jim Hall, have sold out. Redman says he feels a strong sense of commitment to this new role.

JOSHUA REDMAN: I feel a responsibility to do the best I can, you know, and to present the best music that I can present. And that’s the same responsibility that I feel with all areas of my life. You know, just do the best job I can. I feel like I’m… I feel like an army commercial, you know, “be all you can be.” (Laughter) but you know, really that’s all I would ask of anyone, and that’s all I ask of myself. But that’s a whole lot. (Music playing)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Joshua Redman and his band are touring the U.S. and Europe this spring.

JOSHUA REDMAN: Aaron Goldberg at the piano. (Applause)