In 2001, while working at a Borders bookstore, I discovered a book by Lewis MacAdams called Birth of the Cool. In the book, MacAdams wrote about the Living Theatre production of a play called The Connection and told of its composer/thespian, pianist Freddie Redd. I had never heard of Freddie Redd, but as a young alto saxophonist, I was eager to find more early-1960s recordings of Jackie McLean. I wrote to Blue Note Records, imploring them to re-release the soundtrack (they eventually did in 2005). In the meantime, I found a well-worn VHS copy of Shirley Clarke’s movie version at a shuttering VisArt rental store in Carrboro, N.C., and immediately dug the scene. (Side note: Freddie lived and played in Carrboro in the mid-’90s, just around the time I was discovering jazz.)
I moved to Washington, D.C. in 2005 for graduate school and began teaching undergraduate combos and directing my own repertory ensemble focused on bebop and chamber jazz. I often performed “Time to Smile” from The Connection with my band. Jazz researcher Bertrand Uberall heard it and revealed to me that Freddie was living on the West Coast and periodically performing.
In March 2009, after receiving his phone number from Michael Cuscuna, I invited Freddie from Hollywood for a run of gigs at Twins Jazz in D.C. and Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village. After that, Freddie moved to the East Coast and we began playing together regularly in D.C. and Baltimore, as well as performances at Birdland, Dizzy’s, and return engagements at Smalls with Chris Byars’ groups. If left to his own volition, Freddie would play the standards of 52nd Street and the blues. I had some sway in getting him to revisit his book of tunes from his Blue Note recordings, and even though he requested lead sheets, during the course of the evening his creations would seep from his mind into his fingertips and he would begin orchestrating the harmonies with left and right independence, small blocked chords, and freewheeling introductions and endings.
In 2010, we partnered Freddie with bassist Butch Warren and did a series of performances—the two had never played together, despite their common associations. We played standards and slyly slipped in Monk tunes over well-known progressions. These musical adventures culminated in a recording session of Freddie’s tunes and a live album of Butch’s music with drummer Matt Wilson in 2013. Shortly after these sessions and a handful of gigs in Baltimore, Freddie disappeared. He later turned up back in New York City, where he remained active at clubs like Fat Cat and Smalls.
Freddie was a direct line to bop lineage for me. During our travels and hangs, he told of living across the hall from Charlie Parker in the West Village, parties with Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk when the cops would show up, or the time Charlie Mingus tried to strand him in the desert while heading west. He surprised us with memories of playing tenor saxophone with Sonny Rollins on the side of a mountain and reminded me that he would ride around Manhattan in John Ore’s station wagon, offering to play at any venue with a piano. This is how the Five Spot performances began in the late 1950s.
His music is so full of joy and originality, tension and surprise, qualities that were shared by the composer. He was always composing at the piano, reworking melodies with every possible harmonic framework until he was satisfied. Every chance he had to play the piano, he did, sitting there before the gig started, well into intermission, and after the show.
I will always remember his superb comping: thoughtful, tasteful, and swinging. Whenever I would finish improvising, Freddie would wait to catch my eye and grin, giving me some form of approbation before beginning his solo. Working with Freddie Redd was definitely a time to smile.