Joshua Redman never planned for a career in music. No, the Grammy-nominated saxophonist became an accomplished jazz musician while pursuing his lawyerly dreams. Then his music success happened nearly overnight.
It began for the Harvard grad in 1991, just before he enrolled at Yale Law School. He was doing some soul-searching in New York City and found himself playing with drummer Elvin Jones, bassist Charlie Haden, vibist Milt Jackson and vocalist Joe Williams. Suddenly a demand rose for him as a sideman. He won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition. By summer 1992, the 23-year-old Redman had a fat record deal with Warner Brothers.
It's a funny thing, fate.
"I thought that I was only going to spend a year in New York," Redman says.
Redman is a sophisticated tenor player full of fire and surprise. Lately, he's toured the world with his Elastic Band, and is currently the artistic director of the San Francisco Jazz Collective, an all-star jazz ensemble that includes vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, pianist Renee Rosnes and trumpeter Nicholas Payton. He's signed to Nonesuch Records and is a new dad. He has 11 solo albums under his belt.
Legal aspirations aside, Redman was destined to be a musician. He grew up in Berkeley, Calif., where his mother introduced him to all types of music. He picked up the sax at 10, and was a featured soloist in his high school band. His dad, with whom Redman had a long-distance relationship, is the legendary avant-garde tenor man Dewey Redman.
"I didn't grow up with my father," Redman says, "but he was instrumental in that he was a musician that I listened to. I had all his records, and all the stuff he'd done with Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman. He wasn't an influence in terms of being a day-to-day dad, and that was fine. I learned from him by listening to his music."
Redman played in a jazz band at Harvard, where he graduated summa cum laude. But his decision to forgo law school for music didn't sit well with his musician dad.
"I had to send a letter to Yale Law School that I wasn't going to matriculate in April of 1992. When he found out that I wasn't going to law school he thought I was crazy," Redman says. "He loved music and he always preserved his musical integrity, and at times he has paid the price for that. So I think he realized as well as anybody the struggles that jazz musicians have to go through. He was concerned that I was turning my back on some great opportunities outside of music; perhaps I was."
But Redman soon reconnected with his dad; they even gigged around New York. Redman played on dad's classic Choices album.
Redman's 1992 self-titled debut album earned him a Grammy nod, and, combined with his second album, 1993's Wish, the saxist sold an astonishing 200,000 albums a rare number for a new jazz artist.
Despite the successes, Redman has his share of self-doubts, and he has contemplated quitting music many times.
"For me it has never been about success as a touring artist or a recording artist; it has never been about press or publicity or any of that stuff. It has been about how I feel about music and how I feel about my own music.
Others view him differently. Journalist Paul Keegan wrote in a GQ profile that "Redman's artistry explosive, clever and nakedly emotional represents a heat wave of relief from the cool, detached music-school virtuosity that's dominated the jazz world."
Redman ultimately turned his self-loathing into a positive: "There nothing like self-criticism, or thinking badly about what you're playing, to make you want to get better as a player."
It seems like yesterday that Redman thought he'd have a fruitful law career, never dreaming of finding a life as a respected jazz musician. Now he can't imagine a life without music.
"Honestly I don't think it was until the time I turned 30 that it really kind of hit me that this is what I am doing. I'm not going anywhere. I'm not going back to school."
SFJazz Collective: A Tribute to Herbie Hancock is Friday, March 31, at 8 p.m. at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-764-2538.Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]