Don Redman

Listen to “Chant of the Weed”

Don Redman

1900-1964, Piedmont, Mineral County

The first great arranger in jazz history, Don Redman’s innovations as a writer essentially invented the jazz-oriented big band with tight, innovative arrangements that also left room for solo improvisations. Redman is considered one of the major composers and arrangers in jazz history. Also a fine alto sax player, and expressive singer, he was a child prodigy who learned to play most orchestral instruments. Redman graduated from Storer College, a black college in Harpers Ferry, with a music degree in 1920 at the age of 20, and studied further at Boston and Detroit conservatories.

After graduating, Redman played for a year with Billy Paige’s Broadway Syncopators before meeting up with bandleader Fletcher Henderson. At the time, Henderson was developing a style that earned him the reputation as a founder of the big band swing tradition. For the next three years, Redman was Henderson’s chief arranger (although Fletcher was often credited for the innovative charts) in addition to playing clarinet, alto, and (on at least one occasion) oboe. For the next three pivotal years, Redman was the band’s main arranger. He also played sax on recording sessions by Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters and many others.

Redman, whose largely spoken vocals were charming, recorded the first ever scat vocal on “My Papa Doesn’t Two Time” in early 1924, predating Louis Armstrong. His arrangements further evolved after Armstrong joined Henderson’s orchestra and included “Sugar Foot Stomp” and “The Stampede.” In 1928, Redman joined Armstrong’s “Savoy Ballroom Five” and played on a number of his classic recordings including the Armstrong-Redman vocal duet “Tight Like This.”

Around 1927 he became the musical director of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. Redman turned the regional group into a competitor of Henderson’s, composing such future standards as “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” and “Cherry.” Throughout the 1930s, Redman led his own big band. His theme song – “Chant of the Weed” – was another Redman composition that entered the jazz repertoire. Meanwhile, he was writing for top white bands such as Paul Whiteman, Ben Pollack and Isham Jones.

During the 1940s, Redman freelanced as a composer-arranger for many radio shows and for Count Basie, Cab Calloway and Jimmy Dorsey. After that, he freelanced as an arranger for the remainder of the swing era, led an all-star orchestra in 1946 that became the first band to visit postwar Europe, and eventually became Pearl Bailey’s musical director.