Don Redman: The Little Giant of Jazz

Born July 29, 1900, in Piedmont, West Virginia, to a music teacher and a vocalist, Donald Matthew Redman was destined to make music. Redman played the trumpet by the age of three and all wind instruments by the time he was twelve.

In 1916, Redman came to Storer College. During his four years here Don Redman was an involved and energetic student with talents that extended well beyond music. Along with being in the college band, chorus, and jazz orchestra, he was a member of the college debating society, and a regular participant in oratorical competitions. He also played on the college baseball, basketball teams and was the quarterback of the football team.

While at Storer, Don was under the musical tutelage of longtime band master, John Wesley McKinney as well as Charlotte May Nason and Carlotta Stevens Slater, both graduates of the New England Conservatory of Music. The music department was quite active and the students often performed in various locations throughout the community. During Don’s years here the music students made annual pilgrimages to the M.E. Church in Martinsburg and the Wainwright Baptist Church in Charlestown for concerts.

As a student, Don wrote and performed many original compositions including, “Lilly of the Valley” and “Victory”. In 1919, Don was one of two juniors to be awarded the Metcalf Scholarship for academic excellence. That year he also received an honorable mention in the Storer College newspaper for his oratorical offering entitled “The Power of Music”. His most lasting musical contribution was the composition of the “Storer College Alma Mater” that endured throughout the history of the college.

Redman graduated from Storer College in 1920, but he didn’t forget his Alma Mater. His love and affection for his college was evident through his actions. In the spring of 1921 Storer was engaged in a fundraising effort, the “Three Thousand Dollar Drive”. Don returned to Storer with former student Clarence Martin and presented a successful fundraising concert with all proceeds going to the college. During this concert, Don demonstrated his musical versatility by performing on the piano, clarinet, saxophone, and xylophone.

After Storer, Redman joined “Billy Paige’s Broadway Syncopators.” The talented young musician soon caught the ear of well-known band leader Fletcher Henderson. Redman soon joined Henderson’s orchestra, not only writing the band’s arrangements, but also playing the clarinet and saxophone. Because of Redman’s innovative arrangements the group quickly became the most prominent black jazz orchestra in the country.

In 1927 Don Redman became the music director for “McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.” Redman’s arrangements became more elaborate during this time, especially in harmony and rhythm. He formed his own band, the “Don Redman Orchestra,” in 1931. The group stayed together for ten years and became a fixture in Harlem at Connie’s Inn. In 1946 Redman formed an all-star band and they became the first American jazz orchestra to tour Europe after World War II. Following a brief run on television in 1949, Redman became music director for Pearl Bailey and acted with her in the play House of Flowers. In his later years this master jazz arranger and innovator rarely performed in public, preferring to work on several extended compositions that have never been publicly performed. Until his death in November of 1964, Don Redman never stopped making music.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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