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For the Love of Redd

Photo by Ted Soqui

Seems like Freddie Redd is always getting reintroduced. Sir, it’s a pleasure to remeet you.

Back in May, I hung out with the pianist at Catalina’s, the classy Hollywood jazz joint. Saxist Frank Morgan, a man of Redd’s generation, was on the stage. In case this is your first meeting: Redd is one of the last true beboppers. He’s also a fan, not too cool to comment on the beauty of the duet that pianist Gerald Clayton performed that night with his bassist father, John, or to shake our table with his foot-tapping during Delfeayo Marsalis’ trombone solo.

Between sets, Redd told me about his origins in jazz: “I was young when I heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy, and that drove me wild. Something happened. It must’ve, ’cause I’m still here. It took me right to this place.” He complained gently about the state of the music business: “Everything’s about money. They should look into some of the people who’re all about music, see what power that could have.” A man and wife came over and introduced themselves: “I said, ‘That’s Freddie Redd.’ She said, ‘No, it’s not.’” The guy marveled that he’d just been listening to a Redd record at home.

Redd was glad for the attention; in the world as it stands, his profile is ghostly. He told me about a gig not so long ago in Mississippi. “These two little black girls came up to me and said, ‘What kind of music do you play here?’ I said, ‘Jazz.’ And one looked at the other one and said, ‘I’ve heard of that.’”

A compact man with a hat and a smile, Freddie Redd is a bebop essence. A tree trunk of the music. Hey, he looks youthful for a tree. Sixty? Well, he’s 77. Still young.

Redd’s a writer, and he’s always played like one; his cheerful lines spin by in easy, folksy rhythm, leading the listener around like a puppy. He shades his sound with hands close together, balancing chord with melody, maybe ending a phrase with a neatly blurred pair of notes. And he swings — oh, yes.

Redd always knows where he is. If he seems to get lost for long stretches, that’s our fault. His history suggests that he enjoys the element of accident that travel provides; among other places, he’s lived in New York, England, Scandinavia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco — and L.A. He’s also spanned polar coordinates musically: Who else has played both with Charles Mingus’ Jazz Workshop and with James Taylor (Paul McCartney on bass)?

Inconsistent in continuity but consistent in quality, Redd has been recording since the ’50s. Though he’s known for his snappy early teamwork with alto twister Jackie McLean, he’s grown; a special ear-tweaker hails from 1991 — Everybody Loves a Winner, which mixes bop, Latin, Ellingtonian ooze, his beloved blues, crazed horn charts and a bunch of old friends (Teddy Edwards, Curtis Peagler, Phil Ranelin) for a bold goulash that could only have been spontaneous. Spontaneity, you know, is the essence of jazz.

Redd seemed to be in the midst of yet another disappearance earlier this year when journalist Fred Jung of All About Jazz heard he and his wife were in our area, splitting time between a pet-friendly Thousand Oaks Motel 6 and a mobile home. (Apartments don’t cut it for Redd; he’s got a big dog, and he likes that dog a lot.)

Jung started luring Redd out in public. As a consequence, I re-met the bopper in March at the Jazz Bakery. We’d talked a few times over the years, and the cream-colored fedora was the same, but the smile had a note of mystification in it, as if he wasn’t quite sure what he was doing here. Was he going to perform? Well, he thought so. When? He figured he’d get a nudge at some point.

When Redd finally climbed up onto the stage with drummer Bill Madison and bassist Wendell Williams, and settled a couple of cushions on the piano bench to situate him at the correct height, I didn’t know what to expect. Neither did the sound man: Unannounced, Redd started spreading around a few chords, quickly recognizable as “Smile” (“though your heart is aching” — music by Charlie Chaplin), and the bass and drums joined in, and the lights went down, and the delicate warmth of Redd’s touch filled the room. And I knew this man may have been absent, but he hadn’t gone away.

To this day, Redd is best known for the highly unusual play The Connection, a circa-1960 New York production of Jack Gelber’s Living Theater whose setup involved a bunch of junkies (including some musicians, Redd and McLean portraying two) waiting around a flophouse for their dealer. Redd wrote the tunes, which the boppers would break into now and then, providing relief from the cosmic hepcat absurdities of the dialogue. The groundbreaking documentarian Shirley Clarke turned the play into a film, the main attraction of which is seeing top jazz explorers of the era sail for real. The music’s damn good — Blue Note’s just reissued the contemporary studio version.

In the movie, Redd says just about nothing. There he is, hunched at the upright piano, his face perspiring a little, looking like a daydreaming kid while an intense McLean, dripping charisma, showboats coolly for the camera. It’s not that Redd dodges the lens; more than anyone else in the scene — perfect for the part, really — he just seems unaware of it.

I saw Redd at the Bakery again a couple of weeks after the Catalina’s hang. The Jazz Journalists Association was presenting awards in a concert setting, and he was reprising his fan role, standing in the side aisle, his eyes sparkling, while Dwight Trible took off on a dizzying vocal flight.

I buttonholed Redd, joshing that we should be grateful they were still giving jazz awards; it might not be long before jazz would be against the law.

Redd turned to me — still smiling, but he actually looked as if he half believed such a thing might come to pass.

“I don’t want anyone,” he said with a kind of wonder, “to rob me of my love.”

Freddie Redd has put together a great septet — trombonist Phil Ranelin, trumpeter Sal Marquez, alto saxist Zane Musa, tenor saxist Herman Riley, bassist Herb Mickman and drummer Clarence Johnston — to play the Gallery Theater at Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Fri., Aug. 5, 8 p.m., preceded by a 6 p.m. screening of The Connection. Free! Check www.roccoinla.com.