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Freddie Redd 1928–2021

The pianist and composer best known for The Connection has died at 92

Freddie Redd
Freddie Redd in 2013 (photo: Oecue)

Freddie Redd, a hard-bop pianist and composer who alternated over a 70-year career between periods of high profile, obscurity, and locally based resurgences, died early on the morning of March 17 in New York City. He was 92.

His death was announced on his Facebook page in a post by his grandson, Leslie Clarke. Cause of death was not disclosed.

An autodidact, Redd had a lithe, lyrical, bluesy touch on the piano and a distinctly personal harmonic conception. Though he drew from Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, he sounded like neither. Redd opted for a rhythmically playful style with well-crafted improvised lines.

As a composer, Redd both adapted and subverted the conventions of bebop, writing both catchy, singable tunes and labyrinthine, Parker-esque lines, all of which he would set in unusual structures (albeit usually within the 32-bar parameter). His best-known work as both a composer and a player is undoubtedly The Connection, Redd’s original score for both Jack Gelber’s 1959 play and Shirley Clarke’s 1961 film adaptation thereof. It was released as a 1960 album (also featuring saxophonist Jackie McLean) on Blue Note Records.

The soundtrack album was also the peak of Redd’s commercial success as a jazz musician. Shortly after a successful tour of Europe with the production of The Connection, Redd relocated there, issuing no recordings for a decade. He returned to the United States in the mid-’70s and worked on the West Coast until moving back east in the 1990s. This began another period of relative quiet, though Redd grew active again in the 2010s after moving to Baltimore. At that time he became a regular presence on bandstands in both the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. areas before returning to New York in retirement for the last years of his life.

Freddie Redd (his legal given name) was born May 29, 1928 in New York City to Freddie, a porter, and Helen (née Snipes), a homemaker. Redd’s father had also been a pianist, but he died before his son was two, leaving behind the keyboard with which young Freddie began teaching himself to play. However, he was more interested in the drums as a child, playing them in school.

Redd lived during his earliest years in Harlem, where he would skip school to go watch Count Basie and Earl Hines at the Apollo Theater. However, the family moved frequently, and Redd lived at various locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens before he was drafted into the Army in 1946. Redd served for three years in the then newly partitioned South Korea, during which time he first encountered Dizzy Gillespie’s 1945 recording “Shaw ’Nuff”: a key text for the new music of bebop. “That drove me wild,” Redd told writer Greg Burk in 2005. “Something happened. It must’ve, ’cause I’m still here. It took me right to this place.”

Discharged in 1949, Redd went directly home to New York and began working on the scene with the likes of trumpeters Cootie Williams and Art Farmer, guitarist Tiny Grimes (with whom he made his first recordings), vibraphonist Joe Roland, and saxophonist Gene Ammons, among others. He made his first recordings as a leader in 1955 for Prestige Records (released as Freddie Redd Trio).

Redd was both the composer for and an onstage presence in Gelber’s The Connection, a play about heroin-addicted jazz musicians trying to score their next fix. But although the production and subsequent films were minor successes, it did not translate to a major career boost for the pianist. The acclaim for his music led Blue Note to release a follow-up album, 1961’s Shades of Redd; a third session, however, was shelved until 1988 (when it was issued as Redd’s Blues). Redd instead moved to Europe, where he began building his career anew. He lived a somewhat nomadic life on the continent, including stints in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris, and London—where, in 1968, he played organ on singer/songwriter James Taylor’s debut single “Carolina in My Mind.” It was his only known appearance on record until 1971’s live date Under Paris Skies.

Redd moved back to the United States in 1974, settling in California, where he went back and forth for about 15 years between Los Angeles and San Francisco, becoming a stalwart member of both scenes and making occasional recordings. In the early ’90s he moved back across the country to Carrboro, North Carolina, where he cared for his aging mother until her 1995 death. He then spent some time in Pittsburgh before arriving in Baltimore in the late 2000s.

In Baltimore and nearby D.C., Redd once again became a favorite local fixture, performing with locally and nationally known musicians semi-regularly for several years. Then in mid-2013, he returned to New York, making two more albums (Music for You and With Due Respect, both on SteepleChase Records) before retiring from music in 2015 at the age of 87. However, two albums that Redd recorded in 2013, Reminiscing and Baltimore Jazz Loft (the latter a co-leadership session with Butch Warren), were issued last month, making them the final albums released in Redd’s lifetime.

Redd was predeceased by his wife, the former Valarie Lyons, and his children, Stephanie Redd and Freddie Redd Jr. In addition to grandson Clarke, he is survived by a stepdaughter, Susan Redd, of New York City.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.