Chuck Redd: Real Good Vibes

Interview with the drummer and vibraphonist on the eve of the release of his album Groove City

Chuck Redd (photo by Robert Severi)
Chuck Redd (photo by Robert Severi)

The term “journeyman” often gets used in a pejorative way to describe veteran jazz musicians of a certain age, like they’re perennial sidemen or sidewomen and not capable of headlining concerts or festivals. However, in the case of drummer/vibist Chuck Redd, the term well describes his life in music, in part because he still journeys around the world as a performer and in part because he’s had a truly incredible journey through the jazz world—recording and performing with the likes of Charlie Byrd, Barney Kessel, Monty Alexander, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Tormé, and other jazz greats. Redd estimates that he’s been on close to 100 albums.

Born and bred in Silver Spring, Maryland, Redd started out as a drummer and soon picked up the vibraphone which became his primary instrument, though he still plays drums on his own gigs as well as on other artists’ sets. As Redd points out, the vibraphone is an instrument that is not in demand as much, as say, saxophone or guitar, but in turn has fewer artists who’ve mastered it.

His newest album Groove City, his sixth as a leader, features fellow jazz vets John DiMartino (piano), Nicki Parrott (bass), Lewis Nash (drums), and Jerry Weldon (saxophone). The self-released disc showcases Redd’s unique sound on the vibes as well as his stylistic range, with a combination of jazz standards such as “All or Nothing at All,” “Evidence,” and “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” and originals, as well as two compositions from one of his mentors, Monty Alexander.

He spoke with JazzTimes about the challenges of doubling on two instruments and how his career and music were shaped by his fortuitous experiences with a succession of jazz legends, starting with guitarist Charlie Byrd, with whom he played for 19 years.  

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Lee Mergner: Growing up in the Maryland suburbs of DC, did you go through the typical music education?

Chuck Redd: Yes, I was in the band in high school. I started playing drums when I was about 10. I studied with a great guy named John Richardson at Dale Music. I just studied snare drum, the real basics with John. Then when I was about 16 or 17 at Montgomery Blair High School, a wonderful teacher named Deborah Lowry played a Milt Jackson recording in class. It was like a social studies class. I had a visceral reaction. I needed to go to the band room and play the vibes. I had heard other vibes players. I had heard Gary Burton and Hamp when I was growing up. But when I heard Bags, that was it. It changed my life.

Then I went to Montgomery College for just a short time and studied with Bill Potts, and he became my mentor. In fact, he introduced me to Ira Sabin [founder of JazzTimes] and the entire jazz community of Washington, then took me to New York. Bill recommended me to Charlie Byrd, who was based here. He lived in Annapolis, but he was playing in Silver Spring at a place called the New Showboat. It was in the bottom of the Villa Rosa restaurant and it was there for two years, and that just dropped into my backyard. Everybody played there—McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, the Count Basie band, the Woody Herman band, Joao Gilberto. I got to see Milt Jackson and Monty Alexander there for the first time.

I had just gotten my driver’s license, but I could have walked. Buddy Rich opened the club, I bought the first ticket—001. That was part of my jazz education. The owners were really nice. They let me in and they’d save me a front little table with orange soda. That was a huge thing. Then Charlie, on Bill Potts’ recommendation, started asking me to sit in with him occasionally. I grew up listening to his music because my parents had a family connection with Charlie. Charlie was born and raised in a little tiny town in Virginia where a bunch of my father’s cousins lived, so my family knew Charlie and my father is from Virginia as well, so is my mother. There was this kind of synergy or whatever. Charlie’s music was always around the house, so I already knew his arrangements just from hearing them my whole life. I sat in and I think he was impressed.

You sat in with him as a drummer?

Yes, I sat in on drums with him on the Showboat. About a year and a half after that, he asked me to sub for a night at the Maryland Inn in Annapolis. And then three or four months after that, he asked me to join his trio, his other drummer left. We went to New Orleans—that was the first place I ever went on the road—I was 21, going to New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Wow. Then we went to Australia and through Charlie I met Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis and started playing with them, and kind of everything led from that break.

So many older musicians shaped you.

Absolutely. Charlie was a central one, Barney Kessel after that. Barney hired me to play at the White House for Jimmy Carter. Carter was just going out, it was early 1980, right before Reagan. This was an East Room state dinner and we were just part of the entertainment. Ethel Ennis was on the same bill. Barney took me to Japan later on, then I got to know Ken Peplowski because I actually had heard Ken’s recordings and Charlie wanted somebody to re-record some bossa nova stuff with a horn. He hadn’t done that since the Stan Getz thing. I said, “There’s this young guy on Concord named Ken Peplowski.” We got to know each other through Charlie. I recommended him to Charlie and Charlie loved him of course. He did the recording, then Ken started hiring me to play with his groups, and later recommended me for Mel Tormé I started working with Mel. Everything just kind of led from that break with Charlie Byrd.

You have a great affinity and feel for Brazilian music.

When I joined Charlie’s group, I said, “Wow, Charlie I really want to learn how to play bossa nova. I’m going to buy all of your recordings.” He said, “Don’t listen to my recordings, listen to these.” He came in the next night and handed me a stack of Brazilian records that he had brought back from Brazil, and I listened to all of those. In those days I put them all on cassette tapes so I could listen to them all the time. And they were fantastic. By people like Hermeto Pascoal, Airto, Tania Maria and others. Shortly after that, I started working with Monty Alexander a little bit. I was playing at the Blue Note with Monty, opposite Duduka da Fonseca, and Duduka and I became immediate friends and we’ve been friends for all these years. I’ve learned so much from him about Brazilian music. I’ve learned a lot from his wife Maucha [Adnet, a noted Brazilian singer].

Other than the fact that Charlie led you to all these opportunities professionally, what did you learn from him?

I learned so much from Charlie. He was so even-keeled and consistent in his performance and in his comportment on the road and the way he treated people. He was a gentleman through and through, and I assumed everyone was going to be like that! Because that was my first gig. And not everybody is like that. A lot of people are either insecure or uptight and a couple of people are not very nice. Everybody loved him. I know no one who had a bad word about Charlie Byrd. That was a great lesson. Every night he brought it. We had nights where we were going on three hours of sleep, the things you do on the road, you have train trips and bad flights, and airports, and bad hotels—as soon as he hit the stage, boom, he turned a switch on. I learned that from him. I talked to Barney Kessel a lot about that, too. Barney was the same way, and Herb Ellis. These guys were so much older than me, but yet they were always ready to play.

Though when you first met them, they were probably our age now!

I’ve done the math, and they were five years younger than I am now. And if you had asked me in those days, “How old is Charlie Byrd?” I would’ve said 117. Seriously, he was wonderful that way. Once I remember during the first tour of Australia, I said, “Charlie, you never seem nervous or upset about anything.” And he said, “Well, it’s my job not to let you know if I am.” I learned a lot about life and about music from him. He played very accessible, inside kind of harmonies.

Barney and Charlie were very different players.

Very different. Barney was very influenced by Charlie Parker, and very influenced by Bill Evans, and listened to a lot of impressionistic classical music. His harmonies were very dense, very extended and very beautiful. Charlie wasn’t interested in that. I think part of Charlie’s appeal was the fact that he played in such an accessible kind of way. He really did appeal to audiences. The sound of the guitar had something to do with it too, the nylon string. There’s something inherently intimate about that sound. He just had a way of presenting himself as if he was just sitting around in the living room for some friends. And that could be in a club or that could be on the stage at Carnegie Hall. That was the way he presented himself. A very sincere person.

Chuck with Charlie, Herb and Barney here:

 

When did you play with Monty Alexander?

There was a summer in 1986 where he hired me to play two concerts with him and Ray Brown and Herb Ellis, and that was just amazing. That was a life-changing experience. I was 27 years old and I’ll never forget it. I learned so much in just those two days. Then Monty had me with him at the Blue Note for a week. I’ve never been his regular drummer, he’s brought me in and out occasionally. Now he hires me sometimes to play vibes with him. It’s been wonderful because he did all that work with Milt Jackson and he knows how much I loved Milt. We did a Milt tribute with him at his festival three years ago and I’m going to be playing with him this fall at the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival [in Easton, Md.), playing vibes with them. He’s become a great friend. How can you not learn a lot about rhythm, swing, groove and intensity from a guy like Monty Alexander? Just from being around him. And being on the bandstand with him, it’s even more intense. He’s just a bundle of energy, and he’s just a beautiful guy. I love Monty.

He’s a hero to a lot of great musicians like John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton and Diana Krall.

Yeah, he’s their hero. He’s one of mine, too. And Monty’s still doing that, he’s still looking for young guys. He’s got a wonderful young drummer, Jason Brown, with him now. He’s great, it’s amazing. I learned so much from Monty. He’s like Dizzy with whom I played a handful of times on various concerts and got to know him really well.

How did that come about?

Herb Ellis introduced me to Dizzy. Dizzy loved drummers, and he loved young musicians. He was a natural teacher, and he just started teaching me right away. I met him in Geneva, Switzerland. We were all staying at this hotel and he showed me how to play “Salt Peanuts.” He showed me how to do this thing with his hands, he wrote out rhythms. He was amazing. Then he hired me to play with his group in Africa when I think Ignacio Berroa’s wife was having a baby or something so he needed a sub drummer. I subbed with his quintet, went to Africa with him, and he was beautiful.

Another influence I picked up from the album is the way that singers have made an impact on you. Who are some of those singers?

Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Shirley Horn, Ella, probably Sarah. I used to go see Sarah all the time at Blues Alley and got to meet her a little bit through Harold Jones and got to hang out with her a little bit which she loved to do. Those are the big ones right there I would say. I was listening to Nat King Cole when I was a teenager, especially the Live at the Sands recording. The Frank Sinatra Live at the Sands with Basie was huge. There are a couple of Frank Sinatra recordings that I remember hearing on the radio and it’s just seared in my memory the moment where I was when I heard it. One was his recording of “All or Nothing at All,” which is on the new recording. I kind of based it off the Sinatra-Nelson Riddle version because it’s such an incredible arrangement and the way Frank sings it, I even tried to phrase it like him. Those are big.

The opening tune, “The Great City”– I love Shirley’s original recording of that. It’s such a groovy thing, and Shirley had this beautiful, nonchalant and effortless way of doing everything. Even when she sang something that had a groove to it, she could just sit right there on that groove, effortlessly. I think a lot of young singers could learn from that. So many vocalists seem to try so hard. It’s not about that.

The one shining star, the young singer that I really love is Veronica Swift. Also, one of my very favorite singers in the world is my good friend Maucha Adnet. She’s one of the most soulful singers I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. It’s a different thing, because she’s not a jazz singer but a Brazilian singer, yet she can sing a standard beautifully, too.

I love great singers. I share this with a lot of others—I know Monty felt that way, Ken Peplowski too. Charlie Byrd used to say, “I love great singing, and nothing less.” There are lots of good singers, and that’s kind of fine. I can listen to a good piano player and be like, “Hey, that’s kind of good.” But for me, a singer has to be great.

Speaking of great singers, did you ever work with Shirley Horn?

No, I never worked with her, but I got to know her. I first met her when I was on one of my European tours and was in Holland and she was over there, and we ran into her. She and Charlie knew each other from way back. I remember hanging out with her, though I was just kind of a fly on the wall. She and Charlie were hanging late into the evening. It was fantastic, just hanging with them.

How do you handle the doubling on vibes and drums? Are there a lot of other people who do it?  I know Warren Wolf does it.

Well, Warren is a great drummer, but he can also play great piano and bass. But Warren was a prodigy – he was great when he was apparently five years old or something. He’s brilliant, I love Warren. There are a handful of us that double, there’s Christian Tambour who plays vibes and piano. For myself, I didn’t set out to do that because I wanted to be a double or make more money or anything. It was just that I had heard that Milt Jackson record and I wanted to express myself melodically. I’ve worked very hard. I’ve practiced a lot on both instruments, and I still practice a lot. It’s high maintenance to keep two instruments going.

What does drumming bring to your vibes?

The rhythmic aspect of it, the physical aspect of just playing with two sticks, it all helps. When I was in my early 30s, I struggled with this because I hadn’t been playing vibes as long and I’d been a drummer since I was ten years old. I was really struggling and almost quit playing vibes a number of times because I felt I’d never be even just excellent. And Charlie Byrd in his infinite wisdom said very casually, “Just keep playing, just keep getting better. One day, both instruments will help each other.” And that’s exactly what happened.

When did that happen?

I think when I was about 40. It took a while. You work your ass off your whole life and then suddenly you’re doing alright. But it was worth hanging in there for because I remember thinking, “Oh wow, I can rhythmically do some things on the vibes that I do on drums and melodically do some things on drums that I do on vibes.” And it felt so good, and that’s kind of what happens now. Even on some gigs like this gig I did last week at Snug Harbor in New Orleans, I had the great Steve Masakowski on guitar, James Singleton on bass, and the drummer Steven Gordon. In the middle of the gig, for the second set, I really felt like playing some drums and I asked Steven if it would be okay and he said, “Yeah.” So I sat down and played some drums. It was fantastic. Sometimes I just have a visceral need to play drums.

Does being labeled as a mainstream jazz player get constrictive in that people only assume you can play certain things?

Yes, it does feel constrictive sometimes. Whenever somebody wants to do a Benny Goodman tribute, they call Ken Peplowski and he just keeps charging people more and more money, and he keeps getting it! We have to make a living and if you can do it well, great. But that’s one of the reasons I did this recording like I did. I put an Ornette Coleman tune [“Lonely Woman”] on there, I put a couple of funky tunes on there. I like funk music, though this is not heavy funk. Lewis Nash is on drums and we swing on both of those tunes eventually, too. I put on two originals, too. It’s certainly not an outside album but I wanted to show that I can go in some different directions.

For instance, when I just played in New Orleans with Masakowski and those guys, I said, “Play any way you want to play, don’t try to play a certain way. Play it your way, do your thing.” Don’t try to play like Charlie Byrd. I did that, we did that. Those guys were brilliant too, but they did their thing. I love to play lots of different kinds of music, but I also like to make a living and I’m doing alright doing that. I stay really busy and I’m on the road five months out of the year. I just kind of keep going around the United States in circles. We don’t want to be pigeon-holed. But you have to make a living. It’s wonderful to have a following.

Also, I do a lot of jazz parties and that’s not talked about much in the jazz media. I do many of them, and that’s been great. Then I play at clubs and concerts in New York a lot. Last week I walked in to play at Smalls with a very young group, the Anderson brothers [Pete and Will Anderson]. As I got to the door, Mitch [Borden, the co-owner of Smalls] looks at me and said, “I thought you needed to be 22 to play here.” I said, “Dirty little secret: I am 22.” I love playing at Smalls. I played at Mezzrow—in fact, I helped him buy a set of vibes for Mezzrow through Musser, the company I endorse. So I’m there a few times a year. I play at Dizzy’s with Ken. I’ve operated a lot of my career as if D.C. is a suburb of New York.

Has it been a challenge to have always been based in Maryland?

It’s been a very interesting and wonderful thing. This area has been great to me, and there’s a healthy music scene in D.C. and there always has been. But at the same time, I’ve just burned up the pavement between here and New York from the beginning of my career until right now, and I continue to. Because all the clubs in New York have drums, and now I’ve got a couple of set of vibes up there as well, I don’t have to take instruments as much as I used to.  I think maybe now there are more musicians based in D.C. that go to New York and do that thing, and from Baltimore too. Warren Wolf and Sean Jones live in Baltimore. There’s this kind of East Coast network that I think is closer than it’s ever been. I’ve been doing it my whole life and I probably should’ve moved to New York, but I didn’t. I made my way and I kind of have been established there and here. I feel very fortunate, it’s been great. I’ve gotten a lot of support from a lot of people in New York. I’ve probably recorded 90 albums as a sideman and as a leader, and I’ve done 90% of that in New York City. It’s worked out well for me.

The guitarist Nate Najar engineered the album. I wasn’t aware of his talents in the studio.

Nate is an excellent engineer, and he’s really kind of a geek about that stuff. He’s learned a lot about it and he’s a really bright guy, so I brought him in as a producer ostensibly and then he looked around at everything in a studio right outside New York, and made some gentle suggestions about mic placement and how to set the board. The engineer said, “Do you want to just engineer this thing?” He said, “Sure.” And Nate just took over – did the engineering and did my mixing. I’m really proud of the sound on here. You can ruin an album if the sound’s not right.

How the drums are recorded is sort of the litmus test for an album’s sound.

Yes, and the bass sound. That kind of establishes it. I’m very happy with the sound on this record. Also, Nate has played with me through the years, so he knows how I sound on vibes and he got it. It feels real, there’s space around it.

Cover of Chuck Redd's album "Groove City"
Cover of Chuck Redd’s album “Groove City”

Why aren’t there more vibes players?

The instrument is not as prevalent in jazz education or just education—you don’t see it around as much. There are lots of guitars, but a lot of schools don’t even own a vibraphone. I found a few schools in New Orleans – like Tulane, Loyola, and University of New Orleans – that own a vibraphone. But some of the instruments are not in great shape because they get beaten up in school.

There’s Warren Wolf, Joe Locke, Jason Marsalis, me, Christian Tambour, Mike Dillon, Tony Miceli, Behn Gillece, Steve Nelson, and there are a few that I’m probably forgetting. There are maybe 20 vibes players making a living playing vibes, as opposed to hundreds on guitars or drums. Here’s one of the things that I always say, and I tell students this: many bands need a drummer, many bands need a bass player or a piano player. Nobody needs a vibes player. They may want a vibes player, and they may want you to contribute something, but you have to figure out what to contribute.

Historically there have not been a ton of vibes players. So that probably works in our favor, those of us that are out there playing vibes. But I don’t think of it as “I’m a vibes player, I’m playing on this unique instrument.” I just want to communicate like a singer does, like Monty Alexander does, like anybody does. I think we all feel that way. We just want to express ourselves musically in a way that makes sense to an audience.

I feel like I’ve done that on my recording. I’m really happy with it. I feel like I’m playing better than I ever have. That’s what a recording is supposed to be about. When people would ask Charlie Byrd, “What’s your favorite recording?” he would say, “The one that I just put out” or “The next one.” And that’s how you feel as a musician—you’re always growing, you’re always refining. I feel like I like to think of myself as somebody who’s not necessarily growing wider musically, but growing deeper. I think you have to come to that place. When you’re young, you want to try this and that, but I kind of know what I’m about.

Redd will perform on June 12 at Blues Alley in his hometown of Washington, D.C. to celebrate the release of Groove City. Learn more here.