When I called Chuck Redd a couple of Monday mornings ago, he’d been up late the night before, but not because he had been out on a gig.
“I watched that Ken Burns documentary about World War II,” he said. “When I finished it, it was so disturbing and powerful that I had to watch something else to calm down.”
Redd, who joins the John Toomey Trio for a concert at ODU’s Chandler Recital Hall next Tuesday, is one of the best vibraphonists in jazz. But he originally made his mark as a drummer.
“I honestly can never remember a time when I didn’t want to play drums,” he told me. “I’d get toy drums and break them, and then a week after Christmas I’d be back to playing on pots and pans. When I was ten years old, my father got me a real snare drum and some drum lessons. He was an engineer for Voice of America and he’d bring home recordings. One notable recording was a 30-minute interview with Gene Krupa. My father said this is one of the great drummers and you should listen to this. So I must’ve listened to it 500 times and played along with it.”
Though he grew up in the classic rock era of the ‘60s and ‘70s, he preferred jazz, even as a teenager.
“There were always Charlie Byrd records going in my house,” he said. “My parents knew Charlie. My father’s cousin and aunt were raised in Chuckatuck, so there was that family connection.
“I dabbled in rock when I was in high school—I was in a couple of little bands and I was eventually in a wedding band and played frat parties at the University of Maryland. But I honestly can say I was always doing it for that first set when we would play ‘Satin Doll’ and ‘Take the A Train and ‘Girl from Ipanema.’ I really loved R&B and funk and I loved The Beatles. But I’ve always played jazz; that’s been my focus.”
Redd was only 21 when he joined the Charlie Byrd Trio in 1980.
“My big break came when I was going to Montgomery College here in Maryland,” he recalled. “There was a great musician and arranger named Bill Potts who became my mentor. He took me to New York and had me sit in with people there, and he’d bring people like Phil Woods and Clark Terry to town and I got to play with them.
“Bill told Charlie Byrd about me and Charlie let me start sitting in with him. I knew all of his arrangements because I’d been listening to his music since I was a toddler. He asked me to sub with him once in Annapolis and he pulled me aside and said, ‘If my drummer was ever leaving, I wouldn’t hesitate to hire you.’ I didn’t realize it but he was getting ready to get rid of his drummer! Six months later I get a call from Charlie and he said, ‘Would you like to go to Australia with me, and do two weeks in New Orleans?’ I knew that was gonna be my ticket out of town.”
He was a member of Byrd’s band for the rest of the guitarist’s life, switching from drums to vibes in the ‘90s. But his interest in the instrument dated back to his high school band days.
“There was a vibraphone at school that I’d fool around with a little,” he said, “but it didn’t mean much until I was in a music appreciation class and the teacher played Milt Jackson, an MJQ record, and it changed me completely. I don’t remember many moments from high school, but that moment I remember. All I wanted to do was go down to the bandroom and play the vibes.
“But still I knew I was a drummer. My father bought me a vibraphone when I was in college and I’d fool around some. Then Keeter Betts called me for a gig on the vibes when I was in my mid-20s and I realized I didn’t know half the tunes they were playing. At that point I started taking the vibes seriously and started practicing hard. And Charlie would ask me to bring the vibes and play one or two tunes at the end of the night; eventually I transitioned into being his vibes player instead of his drummer for the last eight years of his career.”
Redd also worked with Mel Torme:
“I got a call in the early ‘90s to play vibes with Mel Torme. I had to go to Michael’s Pub on a Saturday night, a packed house, no rehearsals, no run-through. The only thing I did was go up to the dressing room and shake hands with Mel and say hello. Then, there I was, standing literally right next to him on this tight little stage—I had gotten the music ahead of time and I had learned those parts so well that I could’ve played them with one hand in my sleeve!
“He liked it and he asked me at the end of the night if I’d be able to do Carnegie Hall with him with the New York Pops. I said, ‘Let me check my book!’ Then I went on to tour with him, but I never recorded with him.”
I asked how difficult it is to be a full-time jazz musician these days.
“The way I make my living has become very interesting,” he replied. “This past year has been the best of my career, and it’s boiled down to playing a lot of what are called ‘jazz parties.’ They’re really self-contained mini-jazz festivals. A promoter will rent out a hotel and sell a package to several hundred patrons to attend a weekend-long jazz event. There are afternoon shows, evening shows, a jazz brunch. And the patrons love it because not only can they hear the music they love, but they can talk to us, have lunch with us. It’s a nice thing. It’s like a land version of a jazz cruise.
“You have this patchwork of events that come together and make a career.”
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.