It’s a windy October day in Fort Worth, and Dewey Redman is talking about Elvis Presley’s boxer shorts. For hours, sitting among piles of boxes in his late mother’s south side home, the 68-year-old jazz dignitary has been telling stories and smoking every cigarette he can wrangle from his wife. “I mean, somebody paid five thousand dollars,” he says with a laugh, the can-you-believe-it look widening his face, “for a pair of Elvis’ underwear.”
With the conversation winding down, Dewey’s guard has lowered. Revved, he punches the air for emphasis. He’s on to Sting now — specifically, the rock star’s tardy discovery that one of his employees was an embezzler. “Nine. Million. Dollars.” He spills the words slowly enough to be spelling them. “If somebody stole nine million dollars from me, hey, I think I would know it. I mean, these cats make so much money. But more power to them.”
More power to them: a dated mantra tacked on to explain what is, to Dewey, the unexplainable. The tenor saxophonist has spent a storied career in the company of revered musicians, yet financial success has eluded him. He’s made more than a dozen modest-selling albums under his own name and has come to be best known as the father of his much more celebrated son. Now 31, Joshua Redman — also a tenor saxophonist — has been in the limelight since besting other new artists to win the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition in 1991; in contemporary jazz circles, he’s as close as it gets to a household name and earns a better living than Dewey ever has or will.
“I figured out a long time ago, before I left Texas, that I was never going to make a lot of money,” Dewey says. “If I just could survive those five years playing music, that would be great.” Five years was his self-imposed limit when he quit a secure teaching job to become a full-time performer. For much of his life, such restrictions have left him lingering on the cusp of fame. Even when he followed his heart, it was a heart not always certain of what it wanted.
Dewey Redman didn’t want to be a musician — at least not at first. He grew up in Fort Worth moderately poor, an only child who hardly knew his father. Segregation left its scar. He recalls the Colored Only signs in buses, separate lines for black and white Santa Clauses, the white thugs who tossed a cupful of urine on his mother.
His love of music grew from his surroundings. The juke joint across from the Redman family home was strictly off-limits, but strains from the R&B jukebox floated by, and he got to know every song. When he was older, he would sneak into dances where Louis Jordan, Amos Milburn, and others burned up the stage, but he was there only to watch and listen. “I would just sort of hang out after they got through playing,” he says. “Ten of them would get in one car, and they’d have to drive five hundred miles to the next town. It seemed this was not the life for me.”
All black students in Fort Worth attended the same high school, so Dewey played clarinet in a marching band alongside future jazz greats Charles Moffett and Ornette Coleman, who lived across town. Yet while his mates spent their off hours in bands honing their skills, Dewey was looking toward college and an eventual career. He enrolled at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to study electrical engineering, “not realizing,” he says, “how much math is in that. So I started hanging around the [school’s] band, and I forgot about calculus and all that, and at the end of the first trimester they sent my ass home.” He returned to Texas and signed on at Prairie View A&M College, graduating in 1953 with a degree in industrial arts (he minored in music) and a new specialty, the tenor sax. Two years in the Army followed, and when he returned to Texas, he took a job as a band director, first in Plainview and then in Bastrop. He spent his summers in Denton earning a master’s degree at North Texas State College, yet he never set foot in the respected music school’s band room. He gigged frequently in Austin, though, blowing his tenor at the Victory Grill.
In 1960 he decided it was time. “Five years in New York, to get it out of my system,” he says. “I could come back to Texas and teach school, but I could always say that I went to New York.” He took the long way there, venturing first to Los Angeles and then to San Francisco for what was supposed to be a two-week trip. He was unprepared for what he found in the Bay Area in the early sixties: “I was there at the beginning of the Vietnam War protests; there were flower children, smoke-ins, Haight-Ashbury, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane. I used to see Janis Joplin walking down the street. It was a great place to be, man.” Seduced, he would stay for seven years.
The close-knit jazz community nurtured Dewey. Locals like John Handy and Pharoah Sanders were joined by an array of touring talent. When the likes of Johnny Griffin or Sonny Rollins rolled into town, Dewey was there, watching their every move. He rented a piano to study chord changes, and he made the scene with his band at Bop City, the happening after-hours club. One night he looked out from the stage to see John Coltrane in the audience. When the hungry upstart asked the veteran for advice, he netted only two words: “Practice, man.” Dewey’s initial anger gave way to an epiphany. “Can’t nobody teach you how to play,” he realized. “You have to get it yourself.”
But it was a chance meeting with an old acquaintance that would change the course of his life. “I was in the Haight-Ashbury district, passing by a nightclub, and I heard music coming