Saxophonist Joshua Redman on the issues that face jazz musicians


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Tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman has been a star since he burst onto the jazz scene in his early 20s, winning the Thelonious Monk competition in 1991 and launching his prolific recording career in 1993. At 45, he remains a charismatic musician with broad stylistic interests, but with a blues sensibility and a fundamental allegiance to mainstream values of swing.

Local audiences will get a big dose of Redman’s talents at the 35th annual Detroit Jazz Festival, which opens Friday and runs through Labor Day in downtown Detroit. As the festival’s artist-in-residence, Redman will perform three times — teaming with the power trio the Bad Plus on opening night, leading his own animated quartet and folded into an ambitious large ensemble program for big band and choir in repertoire inspired by the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

Redman — who only decided to become a musician after graduating summa cum laude from Harvard and deferring entrance to Yale Law School — is an especially thoughtful and articulate observer of the scene, and he spent 45 minutes last week talking about some of the issues facing contemporary jazz musicians. The conversation started from this premise: Where jazz was once far more connected to mainstream culture, the music has largely disappeared from television and general-interest media, losing its historical identity as a hip and even glamorous subculture.

Question: Is this a good or bad time to be a jazz musician?

Answer: It’s a good time if playing jazz is what you love to do, if it’s what you want to do. If it’s what you have to do. If it’s your calling, then anytime is a great time to be a jazz musician from a musical standpoint. To me, this music is a privilege and it’s a luxury. I don’t mean it’s like taking a vacation. It’s music that demands a tremendous amount of study and discipline and practice in order to just be proficient, let alone be creative and say something meaningful. But at the end of the day, we have a tremendous amount of freedom. We walk on the bandstand and it’s our responsibility but also our privilege to play what we feel like in the moment — that’s improvisation. That’s why people choose to be jazz musicians. Creatively, I think jazz is in a wonderful place. There are so many jazz musicians out there making interesting and original music.

From a business and economic standpoint, jazz is not in its heyday. I’m very fortunate. I came up in a time when jazz certainly wasn’t a popular music, but we were still slightly more connected to mainstream culture in terms of exposure. I also came up when there was an opportunity through recordings to build a career and receive promotion. All that has changed.

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