Red Holloway: A Bluesy Jazzman, A Jazzy Bluesman
Like many musicians who came up during the swing era and have since spent much of their life traveling the world, saxophonist Red Holloway has a trove of road stories to share. Yet none is more vivid or revealing than his childhood recollection of leaving the segregated South for the promised land of Chicago during the depths of the Depression.
A midwife brought James Holloway into the world on May 31, 1927, in Helena, Ark. His mother was 13 when he was born; his father, whom he wouldn’t meet until 21 years later, was 17. Though Holloway spent only the first five years of his life in Helena, he has no difficulty recalling the suffocating air of racial tension, the indignity of having “to step off the sidewalk and onto the hot asphalt when white folks passed by,” and the not unfounded fears that almost consumed his teenage mother.
“The racial thing in Arkansas was so bad that my mother, me being a male, didn’t want me to stay there, so we moved to Chicago,” says the veteran reedman and occasional vocalist, speaking from his home in California. “That was quite a trip, riding in the bus with a shoebox full of chicken. In Arkansas, on the black side of town, there were no electric street lights, so every place we’d get to, I’d see bright lights and say, ‘Mama, is this Chicago?’ ‘No, not yet.’
“They didn’t have toilets on the buses, of course,” Holloway continues. “And blacks couldn’t stop at every place on the normal route so we had to have a pickle jar to pee in and throw it out the window. We were in the back of the bus, of course, but we were lucky enough to get that long seat back there.”
Even as a child in Arkansas, Holloway was drawn to music. His mother played piano and pump organ. “They used to have a crank on some of those, and I’d pump it while she played in church,” he recalls. Piano lessons came early, but it wasn’t until years later, in Chicago, when Holloway heard the Count Basie Orchestra on the radio, that he caught a glimpse of his future. “When I heard Lester Young, that’s when I knew I wanted to play saxophone. I guess most of us wanted to be Lester.”
Enter Captain Walter Dyett, revered educator and bandleader at DuSable High School. An incubator for talented youth, the school was home to the likes of Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, Dinah Washington, Von Freeman and Redd Foxx, among many other budding musicians and entertainers.
Dyett was a notoriously strict taskmaster. “If you didn’t practice, he’d throw you off the band,” Holloway recalls. “He threw out Johnny Griffin all the time. Johnny was playing alto, and when I wasn’t practicing he’d throw me out, too. But he had his own band and he’d take the best players and give them work. It was real nice.”
By the time Holloway was 16 he had turned professional. Gone were the days of delivering 25-cent quarts of beer by bicycle. After joining Gene Wright’s big band, Holloway was making good money for a few years, until he joined the Army. After returning home, the saxophonist received a comprehensive education in the blues, courtesy of the great pianist Roosevelt Sykes.
“My mother went to school with him,” Holloway recalls. “He was visiting her one day and he saw my saxophone. ‘Boy, do you play that thing?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ So he sat down at the piano and started playing some blues and I played with him. ‘You want to go out on the road with me?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’”
And off they went. “Georgia, Arkansas, out west to Kansas City, everywhere,” Holloway recalls. “He taught me everything about the blues. And all those blues players knew each other. In fact, I got more gigs from blues players than jazz players back then.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Holloway was at the right place at the right time. He played with just about everyone who was anyone on the flourishing Chicago blues scene in the late ’40s and ’50s, in the studio or onstage, from Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim to his favorite vocalists: Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Witherspoon and Joe Turner.
“Wolf and Witherspoon I liked because they had a raspy, big voice, a real blues voice,” Holloway says with a laugh. “They had that ‘I’m hungry and it’s time for us to get some money so I can eat every day’ sound.”
At one point, Holloway was busy working in one capacity or another at the Chance, Chess, Checkers and Vee Jay labels. His professional association with Leonard and Phil Chess began shortly after the siblings purchased the Aristocrat label in 1949.
“I used to write lead sheets for Leonard,” Holloway says. “I was getting three dollars a lead sheet. I’d write up 10 of them and they’d send them down to get copyrighted. So when I asked for my 30 dollars, he’d say, ‘Every time I turn around, you’re asking for money. Why don’t you take one percent of this company?’ This was back when they were operating Aristocrat. I said, ‘No, I just want my 30 dollars,’ never knowing how big the company would get when they changed the name to Chess.”
Jazz, though, was always Holloway’s passion, and the advent of bop didn’t diminish his enthusiasm. While playing with Wright’s big band at the Persian Lounge, he got his first chance to hear Charlie Parker up close. “He was playing so much that I thought maybe I’d better go into the real estate business. I was still honking like Arnett Cobb!”
Holloway credits his memorable alliance with his late friend Sonny Stitt for heightening his appreciation of bop. The two met in 1944, but it wasn’t until the late ’70s that Stitt convinced Holloway to play alto as well tenor on tour, a dicey proposition as it turned out.
During one of their first road gigs, the two exchanged a few alto choruses on “Now’s the Time” before Stitt lowered the hammer: “He played 10 choruses and drove me right into the floor,” recalls Holloway. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, you MF. I didn’t want to bring this alto in the first place. You act like I’m the enemy.’ He said, ‘There ain’t no friendship on the bandstand.’”
As much as Holloway admired other reedmen, no one has inspired his robust tone and melodic conception more than Ben Webster. Holloway got a chance to play with the tenor titan for six months during the mid-’50s. He wasn’t prepared, however, to spend much time going toe-to-toe with the grandmaster: “I’d play maybe two tunes and get right off the stage. But I’d furnish the Teacher’s Scotch every night so I could get a lesson.”
You can still detect Webster’s influence on Holloway’s playing today. His recent release, Go Red Go! (Delmark), makes room for romantic ballads that showcase his big-toned lyricism, including “Stardust” and “Deep Purple,” as well as the kind of Hammond B3 organ grooves that recall Holloway’s influential recordings with Jack McDuff and George Benson.“I’ve always liked pretty music,” Holloway volunteers. “I remember what Ben Webster used to tell me: It’s like when you meet a pretty woman and you want to sing to her—make your horn sing.”
Mention of McDuff and Benson quickly triggers a laugh: “George was—and is—a helluva player,” Holloway says. “But I remember he’d say, ‘McDuff, please let me sing one.’ McDuff used to say, ‘If I wanted a singer, I’d hire one!’” Years later Holloway wouldn’t miss an opportunity to needle McDuff. “I’d say, ‘Don’t you wish you let that boy sing?’ And he’d say, ‘F you!’ We always laughed about it.”
Since the late ’60s, Holloway has been based on the West Coast. For 15 years he served as the talent coordinator for the luxe Parisian Room in Los Angeles, a job that he was well suited for given the similar positions he held at various clubs in Chicago.
When he’s not touring, the reedman enjoys the good life, surrounded by friends and musicians in Cambria, Calif., a sunny enclave with an ocean view. He shares his home now with a 120-pound malamute—“half wolf and half Alaskan husky.”
“Yes,” he adds, “it’s a beautiful place to live: no police, no jails and no fast food joints.”
Go Red Go! (Delmark, 2009)
Coast to Coast (Milestone, 2003)
Live With Harry “Sweets” Edison (Chiaroscuro, 1995)