Joshua Redman at Harvard

YAJP (Yet another jazz pun).
Joshua Redman came to Harvard this past weekend to perform with the jazz band for the spring concert, which was called "Playing It Forward" as a tribute to the very-recently retired director of bands, Tom Everett. I checked out an afternoon rehearsal on Friday with Josh and hung out at the obligatory guest artist meet-and-greet dinner event (last year's guest artists were Joe Lovano, and Greg Osby). Hearing him play some of his older tunes from the '90s was particularly ear-catching: "Home Fries" and "Hide and Seek" are certainly not staples of my generation, which might be predisposed to categorize some of these tunes as corny, easily-satirized throwbacks from the previous century. 

In middle school and high school, discussions about contemporary tenor players inevitably included Josh because of his prominence in the jazz sphere and his affiliation with numerous other big names of the past two decades. He's surprisingly more polarizing a figure than the generic media narrative of his life would suggest; considering the common positive depictions of him as the embodiment of the humble, hard-working jazz success story, I've heard peers variously describe him as the best tenor player alive or a gimmicky, corny, over-rated former young lion. 

Having interviewed him in the past and having heard him speak candidly on Friday about his own experiences coming up and entering a career in music, it seems to me that he's aware of these various opinions, but is otherwise pretty much unfazed by both praise and criticism. I think part of his humility comes from a self-awareness about how his career was partially due to his own fastidiousness and ingenuity (e.g., he was Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard), but also substantially due to his historical and personal circumstances, e.g., the brief resurgence of jazz in the wake of the '80s young lions, the easily reduced media-friendly narrative of his life, etc. One of the most telling moments of the post-rehearsal Q & A was a response he gave to a question about whether he knew in college that he wanted to become a musician. The answer he gave was pretty much the same one he gives in other interviews, which is that he had no intention on becoming a musician until he went to New York, found that he was gaining access to coveted opportunities, and won the Monk competition. His own acknowledged reluctance towards becoming a musician is something that I can identify with. 

At one point, he acknowledged that had he been in different circumstances, either personally or historically, there would have been no way to tell whether he would have become a musician; he did note, though, that he likely would have gone into another career if, say, the perfect storm of events in the '90s led to a future in music that he felt he couldn't pass up. This, to me, was the most revelatory moment of the conversation. It's a pretty generic point to make—that we can't cling onto the myth of the self-made person forever without deluding ourselves in some way—but hearing it from a person who has pretty much occupied a top spot in the jazz food chain for the past two decades was deeply reassuring to me. Of course, cynics might roll their eyes and complain that this is public persona humility on display, but cynics will be cynics.

To return to the over-rated criticisms, Josh alluded to this himself when he mentioned how he was aware of his luck to be getting opportunities while many players, who to his mind were as or more deserving, didn't. The criticism to be made, if any, would be about how Josh made use of his increased visibility, e.g., whether he made opportunities available to those whom he did acknowledge as being deserving of wider recognition (these would be the older, overlooked masters of the generations before his). 

The obligatory eager fan picture
On a lighter note, I was pleasantly surprised to hear about how some of his most intense music listening experiences occurred during his undergraduate years. He mentioned a period of listening to Coltrane's "Africa" on the way to early Chemistry 10 lectures during one semester, which of course ultimately became much more formative for him than the lectures themselves. He also mentioned that his "jazz geek" phase was during college, which he partly attributed as a response to what he termed "social music" happening around him. That is, because of his aversion to Guns N' Roses, which was popular at the time with friends and peers, he was pushed to listen even more exclusively and intensely to jazz than in high school, which contributed to his musical development. I can't tell you how much I identify with this (Swedish House Mafia, 2 Chainz, etc.), but it made me realize that there are some positive aspects to an extended musical alienation from your given social sphere. That's not to say that Josh doesn't appreciate Guns N' Roses now or that I don't appreciate the diversity of listening that goes on around me, but just a little footnote on the topic of negotiating social music in college.

Josh did have a few other thoughts about jazz and just making it as a professional musician. One about attitude: "The baddest cats were, in general, super cool," he said, mentioning how his experiences playing with and hanging with some of the older masters when he first broke into the scene in the '90s reinforced an appreciation for humility. Another about becoming a musician: "What pays off in the long run is being in it [music] for the right reasons," e.g., neither fame nor fortune, but love for the music. I can't say that I haven't heard both of these sentiments before, but as DFW pointed out, some of the most eye-roll-inducingly banal sayings end up being the truest and the wisest, somehow.